Cyborgian veins by way of Y2K tribal tatts and HR Giger, post-human tattoos have become a means of coping with collective doom
Grimes is the queen of post-human aesthetics, from her experiments in bio-hacking to her (as yet unrealised) plans to get matching brain chips with Lil Uzi Vert. Her futuristic beauty looks have inspired an entire generation of terminally online alt-girls and emo faeries, who fuse tech and fantasy elements in their quest to better resemble video-game characters.
Earlier this year, the Canadian auteur took the next step in her “long slow effort to have a full alien body” with a second white ink tattoo. The first, a sprawling backpiece from 2021, was a collaboration between tattoo artist Tweakt and artist Nusi Quero. Described as “beautiful alien scars”, both tattoos resemble tribal tattoos from a martian technocracy; their white lines giving the appearance of intricately patterned scars.
Grimes’ tattoos speak to a wider trend taking over social media – what I refer to as post-human or nu-tribal. These skeletal tattoos are fine-lined and greyscale, looking like cyborgian veins by way of Y2K tribal tatts and HR Giger. Sprawling and shadowy, they snake down the body in fluid lines that appear as if they’ve been drawn freehand (which they sometimes are). The artists, though not geographically close to one another, are part of the same online communities of tattoo artists drawing on imagery of fantasy, sci-fi, and nature to create otherworldly creations.
“The tribal images that feature in so-called post-humanist tattoos are variations of the older traditional tribal genre that have evolved and changed to fit the contemporary era,” says South Korean tattoo artist GyeHoo Bolsu. “During Y2K in Korea, ridiculously radical and futuristic fashion and apocalyptic interior designs were in trend. It seems that the current generation has accepted the crude trends of the era in a positive way. While people’s interests in traditional elements continue to wane today, Y2K trends are reinterpreted from the current era’s perspective and endlessly reproduced,” they explain.
Anna Orm, a Ukrainian tattoo artist, describes her tattoos as “skin patterns” and “alien letters” that are inspired by the natural curves of the human body. “I like how tattoos can become an element of the body visually: somewhere it appears a little brighter, somewhere a little darker, disappears in some places and fades away,” she says. “I think [tribal tattoos] became more relevant in recent years due to the fact that tattoos are more accepted by the younger generations as an accessory. Such tattoos look fresh, and sometimes unexpected on the body. The post-human style is, to some extent, the transformation of the same sharp, winding organic shapes that capture the rhythm of modern life and the mood of the time.”
After years of pandemic, the increased popularity of nu-tribal tattoos suggests a need to escape the real world through fantastical insertions. “People are bored. With themselves, with the world, with everything and anything,” says tattoo artist Super Dope Tattoo. “I suppose there’s been a higher demand recently, because everything is being manufactured so perfectly, people are looking for something unique.” We see this mirrored in our fashion, as young people experiment with internet-born fashion trends influenced by videogames and a penchant for escapism. Whether it’s fairycore or goblincore, mod-evil chain metal or the RAWRing 20s, the desire to escape from our skin prisons, into bold and unfamiliar territories, cannot be ignored. Daniel, a Denver-based tattoo artist known as Sinkhole, agrees: “It’s almost like IRL character customisation.”
“It makes sense to me that people are returning to techno-futurist fantasies to cope with collective doom. I think people are turning more and more to fantasy to cope with climate anxiety. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of environmental collapse – and this helplessness carries a loss of bodily autonomy,” he adds. “Getting a giant set of wings tattooed on your back won’t make you able to fly, but projecting fantasy on your own body has a lot of potential for reclaiming agency.”
A major part of the current Y2K trend is irony. Past trends are rehashed and recontextualised for a contemporary audience. Diamantes and Juicy Couture tracksuits become ways of questioning mainstream narratives by bringing to the fore opposing (and therefore subversive) narratives, which in turn, get recontextualised as ‘edgy’ – and the cycle continues. What we consider as gauche today can become tomorrow’s hottest trends. “Irony allowed us to continue life under late capitalism while psychologically sheltering ourselves from the demoralising reality,” writes artist and cultural researcher Joshua Citarella.
But Daniel warns, “I think it’s important to be critical of the trendy revival and reinterpretation of ‘tribal’ tattoos. It seems to be riding a strange line between irony and white people trying to distance ourselves from our whiteness.”
While Grimes’ alien ink is reflective of a collective interest in the weird and extraterrestrial, trends will no doubt change as a new generation of young people begin experimenting with tattoos. “An emerging trend of ASCII tattoos seems very post-human, transferring a sequence of numbers and characters generated by the computer onto the skin,” suggests Aleksandra, a London-based artist. Perhaps we’ll see cyborgian renditions of indie sleaze. Or, maybe our nostalgia towards early web aesthetics will spur on a wave of Microsoft Paint and Flash art-inspired works. Watch this space.