Creating a Digital Knowledge Commons: The Evolution of the Modern Body Modification Culture and Impact of Social Media


 This paper studies the evolution of the tattooing and body modification subculture from the internet boom until now, with a focus on the impact Instagram has had in the last ten years. Exploring the beginnings of modern tattooing and the depths it has come from to gain some social acceptance, we can engage with the drastic and sudden social change social networking caused to both the presentation of portfolios and marketing of artists to clients, as well as the interpersonal relationships developed between professionals. By understanding the tattoo as a document that can be archived like any other article or object in an archive or museum, the body is seen as a living collector or container for the documents. Thus, Instagram and other social media platforms have established an open access, digital archive that documents the human experience through body modification and simultaneously functions as a learning common for members of the community. 

Keywords: body modification, information communication technologies, tattooing, social media, Instagram, learning common, digital divide, living archive

Creating a Digital Knowledge Commons: The Evolution of Modern Body Modification Culture And Impact of Social Media

The internet boom of the 1990’s paved the way for the digital, technological world we live in. With an increase in the legitimate need for an individual to be plugged in to the internet and social media, it is no surprise these platforms have changed the way we interact with information and each other. The quick shift from a paper world to a digital one has caused a degree of separation between those comfortable using tech and those who are not, often referred to as the Digital Divide.

Coined in the mid-90’s, the Digital Divide describes the split between the “information haves” and the “information have-nots” with information and communication technologies (ICTs) access. It is partitioned into two levels: access being the first and usage the second. These levels apply to specific divisions between industrialized and developing countries, between socioeconomic groups, and between users’ engagement on the internet. (Schweitzer, 2015). A contributor to the existence and continuation of the divide is the specific audience technology is created and developed for: “Computers, software and internet architecture are designed for financial people and for business people, for professionals, she said. ‘But where are the mothers,’ she asked, ‘or people who work and struggle to stay afloat? The homeless?’ ‘Technology for people’ would be different from universal access to existing computer systems….” (Eubanks, 2007). Essentially, the context in which these technologies are developed and then utilized affects the impact they can and will have within a society. Social informatics requires a contextual analysis when trying to understand sociotechnical networks; this lends well when applied to the usage of Instagram by the body modification community as of late (Kling, 2000).

Body modification has, for years, led to individuals being “othered” and perceived as criminals or otherwise unsavory characters. Over time, visible tattoos, piercings, and other forms of modification have become more socially acceptable among the general public, leading to more individuals into the modified community. The implementation of social media, and specifically Instagram, changed the way tattooists and piercers network with each other for guest spots or conferences and led to online portfolios being the expectation for potential clients. This platform has established a sort of digital learning commons for the modified and soon-to-be modified; collections of photography and videography depicting the professional’s skill intersect not only with disseminating professional learning opportunities and certifications, but safety information and protocols to professionals and laymen alike. Understanding just how the body modification community evolved over time before the inclusion of technology provides context for the quick development social media has caused in the subculture in the last twenty years.

A Brief History of Modern Tattooing

Tattooing, piercing, and other forms of body modification have been present in various cultures throughout human history for thousands of years. Methodology has developed and evolved with the prevalence of visible body modification throughout the globe and in western societies; modern tattooing utilizes an electric tattooing machine with interchangeable needle heads and speeds, while traditional tattooing methodology often involves hand-tapping ink into the skin with two tools, one to impart the ink into the skin and the second to tap the first tool with force to push the “needle” into the skin. This style is popular in indigenous cultures all over the world, including Indonesia, Polynesia, and is known as tebori in Japanese (Sparks, 1965; Yamada, 2016).

Modern American tattooing developed from sailors in the 1700’s and their experiences with peoples throughout Polynesia. The word tattoo stems from the Polynesian noun ‘tatau’ or ‘tatu’ meaning “pigment design in skin.” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). Captain James Cook first mentions the use of “tattow machines” in publication of his own journals from voyages to greater Polynesia (Cook, 1825; Sinclair, 1908; Sparks, 1965).  Sailors, soldiers, and sinners alike lined up at ports to get inked. The Civil War saw the first widespread use of tattooing in the United States consisting of names, flags, and eagles, often with the goal of individual identification in the event of death. After the Civil War, tattoo shops began to pop up in the 1880’s and 1890’s in the backs of restaurants, barbershops, and even underneath staircases. Later on, traveling circuses and “freak shows” trotted tattooed ladies as oddities and exhibitions to be gawked at for entertainment. The “tattooed lady” was an avenue for female independence; these women often made one to two hundred dollars a week (Govenar, 1982; DeMello and Rubin, 2012). The 1920’s saw the rise of cosmetic tattooing (also known as permanent makeup) among women, though this was still taboo and thus not spoken of. Throughout this time, artistic tattoos were still markers of a criminal or otherwise lesser class person, but tattoos with a functional purpose were simultaneously gaining in popularity (Govenar, 1982). Acceptable tattoos served a purpose; the introduction of the social security number in 1936 led tomen and women alike rushing to get theirs permanently etched onto their skin—for safekeeping, of course, as this was considered easier than keeping the paper card or remembering a string of 9 random numbers (Nazionale, 2017).

The American “Tattoo Renaissance” of the 1960’s through 1980’s began the artification and commodification of tattooing, impacting the general acceptance within society; however,  psychological and criminological studies through the 1990’s seemed to confirm a relationship between tattoos and deviancy. This isn’t to say tattooing has been rid of this association with mischief; hand, face, and neck tattoos carry those connotations and are commonly called “job ruiners” by artists and clients alike. However, this period saw an increase in tattoos for the sake of tattoo—the rise of “body art collectors”, or individuals adorned in large numbers of  modifications, served as visible icons of the subculture (Force, 2020; DeMello and Rubin, 2012; Kosut, 2006; Kosut, 2014; Patterson and Schroeder, 2010).

Bodies as Living Archives

What Makes a Document?

Scholars in the field of library and information science have long discussed just what exactly can be considered a “document”. Paul Otlet, in 1934, suggested that objects themselves were documents if observing them provides information in some way (Buckland, 1997).  Later on in the 1950’s Suzanne Briet, a librarian and ‘documentalist’, expanded on this; she suggested that “any physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon” is a document (Briet, 2006; Buckland, 1997). In the 1960’s and later, some theorists have narrowed the definition of a document, such as S.R. Ranganthan and his pointed exclusion of audiovisual records (items like television and radio materials) as documents (Ranganathan, 1963).

Stepping back from the field for a moment; anthropology works to document the human experience with each other and with the environments we live in. As an interdisciplinary and holistic field, anthropological and archaeological materials “can pass as materials for history, geography, political science, or sociology.” (Akuffo, 1997). In this sense, documents are a part of the material culture of society; they are something that represents a lived experience. Of those mentioned before, it was Paul Otlet who included archaeological materials and items in museums in his definition of documents:

“Collections of objects brought together for purposes of preservation, science, and education are essentially documentary in character… these collections are created from items occurring in nature rather than being delineated or described in words; they are three dimensional documents… efforts will be made on the basis of a master plan to reproduce photographically the specific models used for natural history descriptions as well as works of art and historically valuable objects reserved in museums. These photographs, as well as others having a documentary character, will form part of a Universal Iconography.” (Otlet and Rayward, 1990).

The idea of a three dimensional document isn’t unheard of—many ancient letters and written documents are on thick stone tablets; a large cry from the flat sheets of paper we’re used to handling today. Even so, documents don’t need to contain words or information in the traditional sense; the information they provide comes from being observed and interpreted (Buckland, 1997). For the purposes of this paper studying the body modification community’s evolution with the adoption of social media, tattoos and body modifications as a whole are considered documents. 

Documenting the Human Experience

Across cultures, tattoos and body art have often been used as a way to identify an individual, their lineage, their beliefs, and tell their stories. In Japan, yakuza—or, crime organizations—had members tattooed as a way to show “their commitment, loyalty, and faithfulness….”; on the other hand, indigenous Japanese Ainu women were tattooed to indicate sexual maturity, represent religious beliefs, or simply, just as body adornment (Yamada, 2009).

As mentioned during the history overview, Civil War soldiers inked up as a way to identify their bodies, in whole or in part, in the event of maiming or death. Sailors have collected tattoos as souvenirs of their travels for hundreds of years. In all of these cases, the body serves as a container of documents (tattoos) that “function as an archive of evidence of actions and events as well as memories of those actions and events… [transforming] the individual body into a biography of events… in the real life of the person carrying them… Since the documents, i.e., the tattoos, are bound to the individual body, the body can be seen as a personal archive, a biography of sorts, or like a personal diary.” (Sundberg and Kjellman, 2018). Tattoos are twofold as far as the information they contain; a tattoo is the product of both societal values and personal ideology of the person whose skin they’re in. Tattoos are a different, nontraditional example of information-as-thing, where objects are regarded as informative when they share or communicate information (Buckland, 1991). Nontraditional or not, as information professionals bias must be set aside in order to accurately archive and disseminate information and knowledge to the patrons being served—this means including tattoos as living, archival data.

As Otlet described, in museum and archival collections, three-dimensional documents are reproduced as photographs to be recorded and referenced later (Otlet and Rayward, 1990). It comes as no surprise, then, that there are already multiple databases dedicated to photographically cataloging tattoos found in prisons and various gangs around the world; these function as digital photographic archives that organize living archives (Sundberg and Kjellman, 2018). 

Commodification of Body Modification

Tattooed bodies have been allowed with caveats and strings attached; they exist in a space both inside and outside the restraints of modern cultural expectations. Skin, by hosting inked artwork, serves three functions within consumerist tattoo culture: first as a container, second as a projection surface, and finally as a cover to be modified (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010). The nature of skin has blurred the lines between ownership and authorship when it comes to tattoos. For the sake of copyrights, who owns the tattoo? The bearer or the tattooist? The law is murky here; no tattoo ownership of copyright lawsuits have gone to trial—rather, they have all been settled before getting to that point. Applying the Copyright Act of 1976, a tattoo can be solely authored or possibly collaboratively or jointly authored; however, most often, the copyright will belong to the tattoo artist inking and designing the work onto the body (King, 2014; King, 2016). 

With the inherent interconnected nature of information and ideas, tattoos communicate at several levels of depth; this paves the way for trouble in a world trying to control and profit. Lawsuit Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. originated from S. Victor Whitmill, the tattoo artist behind Mike Tyson’s infamous face tattoo. He claimed that Warner Bros. infringed on his copyright in The Hangover Part II in reproducing the tattoo on Ed Helms’ face. The entertainment company argued their work (the tattoo on Ed Helms, shown in Figure 1) was a parody of the tattoo (Mike Tyson’s original ink), and thus was an acceptable use of the copyrighted material (King, 2016).

“The effectiveness of the parody hinged upon the audience’s recognition of the meaning of Tyson’s tattoo as part of Tyson’s personality—aggression, masculinity, and strength— and the juxtaposition of that meaning with the tattoo on the face of Ed Helms’s character… the tattoo now conveyed qualities associated with Mike Tyson’s likeness…therefore, the tattoo has become a part of his persona. Thus, the copyrighted work of S. Victor Whitmill has been transformed into a protectable part of Mike Tyson’s identity.” (King, 2016).

Building upon the idea of information-as-thing, where objects are informative when they disseminate information, it is no surprise that the object of Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo has evolved from the negative connotations facial tattoos typically carry and now represents Mike Tyson and his qualities. This one tattoo, this specific artwork, has developed another meaning and another layer of information that has spread throughout popular culture. It is not a sign of deviance, or criminality; rather, Tyson’s tattoo represents masculinity and strength, qualities valued in modern society. The gimmick in this film is only humorous if we recognize the tattoo as Tyson’s and compare him to Ed Helms—the tattoo, in this instance, is doing some heavy lifting for the film’s subtext.

Figure 1: A side by side comparison of Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo and Warner Bros. Entertainment’s  reproduction on actor Ed Helms in “The Hangover Part II”. Hemingson, n.d.

Skin and the scars it carries actively document “our passage through life through its wrinkles and creases. In this way skin represents an important component of embodied capital in the West, given our fetishization of youth and beauty.” (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010).   The very nature of this permanent body modification marks the individual for the rest of their life; there is no transfer of ownership or hiding of the work as life progresses and the individual grows and develops. There is no separating the information from the body, the document, in this living archive in the same way book burnings have destroyed and resulted in the loss of information (Sundberg and Kjellman, 2018). Tattoos and their increased acceptance and prevalence among the general public and across socioeconomic classes serve as markers depicting a moment or idea the body experienced. 

Community Expansion Through Social Media

Introducing Individual Instant Photographic Archives

As we’ve seen, popular culture and mainstream media have impacted the perceptions of the modified and modifiers. With the introduction of Instagram (IG) as a social media platform in 2010, photos could be quickly shared and disseminated among users as its main function. While older social media platforms such as MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook (who purchased IG in 2012) rely on user input statuses and updates, IG keeps it simple with the sharing of digital photos as the main mode of communication.  With over 1 billion active users as of 2018, IG encourages social networking to the extreme (Clement, 2020).

Tattooing isn’t the only activity that has had a drastic culture impact from IG’s photographic network—Michael Borer, in his 2019 book Vegas Brews: Craft Beer and the Birth of a Local Scene takes a deep dive into the intersection between craft beer culture in real life and online and the impact Instagram specifically had. Engagement on platforms such as IG is different from the physical engagement one expects from human participation; individuals are interacting with the culture by showing off ownership and carving out a space for the individual within the larger group as a whole. Through the sharing of photographs of tattoos and other body modifications on platforms like IG, “skin [of the individual] validates its conceptualization as a fragile and permeable border between self and world… identities are intertextual inasmuch as they are penetrated by the work, looks and discourses of others.” (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010). This applies to both the body the tattoo is on and the artist who inked the body to begin with. Both body art collectors and artists alike have flocked to share their documentation of their work on skin. 

Traditionally artist portfolios have been books and photo albums housed in the tattoo shop or private studio the artist works out of. Interested clients could walk in to view portfolios of various artists, but were limited to the artists in the shop and the individual’s ability to travel to each shop or artist. In an increasingly global world that has commodified tattoos, mass tourism and consumerism transformed the culture to reflect more capital ideals (Yamada, 2009). Nowadays, if someone wants to check out the local tattoo scene in a new city or upcoming vacation destination or find an artist who specializes in a specific style of tattooing, they should head to Instagram. For the potential client, searching the hashtags associated with their geographic area or preferred style leads to cultural engagement (Force, 2020). Digging deeper, IG’s minimal grid layout serves as a quick visual reference to an artist’s portfolio; a customizable finding aid controlled by the creator. IG has increased the audience for the tattoo and modification scene; it is not uncommon for artists to have tens of thousands of followers. Yet, this digital, global audience, while intaking the information put out by these artists in sharing photos of their tattoo work, is unable to fully engage—“physically anchored social spaces and embodiment remain key: you cannot get a tattoo online.” (Force, 2020).

Instagram: A Digital Learning Common  

 In a library setting, Mirtz (2010) suggests that “…ultimately the learning commons is a place to learn but also a place that teaches.” I argue that social media, particularly Instagram,  functions in this duality; it is a place for the individual to explore and learn from the photos of others, but it also encourages and actively teaches its users about global human problems. IG is a digitization of the group study space—an environment where learning occurs in tandem with socializing. This intersection of friendly socializing and professional service has put the onus on the artist to forge a connection between themself and soon-to-be modified; “…a salient issue for tattoo artists who must use social media to not only publicize the style of work they do but must also convey themselves as the sort of person… others want to seek out for a tattoo.” (Force, 2020). 

Social interactions resulting from the creation of a tattoo include the artist taking photographs and or video of the fresh ink, the newly tattooed sharing images of the work fresh and healed, the work being shared on the shop or studio’s page, and even engagement from professional associations and vendors, such as the Alliance of Professional Tattooists and Association of Professional Piercers. Instagram is a platform for all levels of people in the body modification subculture. Not only can an individual find portfolios and work they are interested in, but through this engagement with tattoos online, the individual is actively learning the goods and bads of tattooing. Tattooists engage with each other and network or find artist’s they would like to be tattooed by; Sociology professor Dr. Ryan Force (2020) details an interview with several IG “famous” tattoo artists where one commented on his own tattoos. This tattooer “could attribute [Force’s tattoos] to their respective artists, some of whom he knew personally but many of which he could identify from having followed and seen their work on IG”. 

For all the learning and interaction that occurs online, it is important to note that full immersion in the subculture requires putting the learning into practice: actually going into the studio and getting the tattoo from the artist in the flesh. Tattoo conventions and shows act “as the grounded manifestation of a scene largely facilitated online.” (Force, 2020). These gatherings allow for individuals among the community who have socialized and engaged with information virtually, to finally meet in person and interact physically. 

Information Dissemination and the Digital Divide

I argue that Instagram functions as a “an interface across levels of social stratification”, connecting low-income and other ICT “have-not” communities to new sociocultural networks (Eubanks, 2007). IG is not a bridge connecting the gap of the Digital Divide, but rather an access point structured and designed for the people to connect individuals with the knowledge they seek. This mobile platform is free to download—you simply have to have a smartphone to sign up. In an increasingly technical world, a little more than half of the world’s mobile phone owners utilize smartphones, or about 3.8 billion people (O’Dea, 2020).

Working to evolve from the deviant and criminal connotations it has carried, tattoo artists and those who collect their work have paved the way for the artification and mainstream acceptance of the aesthetic style (Kosut, 2006; Yamada, 2009). Socially, our identity and appearance within that larger fabric of community matters—when “skin is taken to be a signifier of depth; appearance becomes shorthand for the moral character deep within.” (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010). However it is only after acknowledging the tattooed body as a collection of documents that we can begin to separate individual instances of information dissemination from the whole. Through working to understand the stories and layers of information carried in each tattoo, to understand the information in these living archives, we gain “insight into the failures and shortcomings of modern society.” (Sundberg and Kjellman, 2017).


Culture and society, like people, are fluid and constantly developing and changing. Sometimes change occurs quickly; Instagram has done more for the acceptance of tattoos and body modifications in the last ten years than Social Security did over thirty. However, individual access to information communication technologies is far from consistent across geographic regions; rural internet access, costs, and usage knowledge are all barriers to information in an increasingly online world. Smartphones and social media platforms have begun to become widespread enough to serve as new access points for othered communities to get through the Digital Divide and obtain the information and knowledge needed. These access points also allow individuals to virtually engage with new communities in novel ways: modifiers and collectors gain knowledge on individual artists and styles, methods, and best practices. By acknowledging the tattoo as a document and the body as a collection of documents, we can treat IG and the sharing of information and photos on social media as a digital archive reflecting the lived-in human experience.                                                 


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