How do we cope with an uncertain future? By embracing casual, meaningless and bad body art
“Bad tattoos are a trend,” Bijan, 22-year-old human sketchbook and TikToker, says thoughtfully, the black text inked into his eyelids flickering as he blinks. Dyed blue locks curl over the side of his trucker hat, and his cat darts up the window, clattering the blinds in his Jacksonville apartment. Bijan, kindhearted and soft-spoken, is tatted from head to toe. His legs, in particular, are filled with scraggly lines and pockets of colour. Untouched real estate is scarce, but he’s not worried about running out of room.
Unlike the detailed ink work of intricate sleeves you might find on bikers or pro-soccer players that require hours, if not days, in the tattoo parlour, Bijan will complete a tattoo session in the time it takes him to put up the TikTok video. His patchwork collection of nearly 400 tattoos (including a stick figure rendition of Fez from HBO’s Euphoria, grungy text reading “favourite tattoo” and the 100 per cent emoji) make it look like his extremities are collaged with the doodles from a stoner’s math notebook. It begs the question – why would anyone want a “bad” tattoo, let alone 400 of them?
Bijan was in rehab, had 20 followers on Instagram, and wasn’t on TikTok at all when he had the idea for “365 Days of Tattoos,” a series for which he would tattoo himself daily and document the journey on TikTok. The series gained attention immediately, pushing Bijan’s work to millions of people who would then engage in fiery debates about the quality, purpose and value of his tattoos.
Some looked at Bijan’s sketchbook skin – an informal hodgepodge of scribbles, text, line work and unshaded sketches – and found his style absent of artistry and craftsmanship. “The professional tattooers call it ’scratchers,’” Bijan says, with a laugh, “but that feels, like… low-key offensive.” The other names given to the emerging style are “sketch style,” “ignorant,” and “bad tattoos.”
Dr Lee Baron, lecturer in the School of Design at Northumbria University and author of Tattoo Culture, explains that generational shifts in tattoo style and what those tattoos represent is natural, even expected, and that “you can now see a split between Millennials and Gen Z.” The divide is palpable, especially on TikTok. Through the use of the video stitch feature, users are able to interact with – and more specifically, diss, roast and heckle – other content by splicing someone else’s video with their own commentary. Bijan stitches over a video in which the user is deciphering the meaning behind her leafy tattoo (spoiler alert: buds and flowers correlate with life chapters). The camera cuts to his feet: “These R My Toes,” the tattoo reads beneath jagged arrows. The message is clear: it’s no longer cool to take yourself too seriously. This can be seen in the lack of precision in this style that “has a punkish feel to it,” explains Barron, and a “DIY quality.”
Public criticism of tattoos on social media illuminates the generational attitudes at war with one another. Millennials find Gen Z’s informality to be sloppy and denigrating, hollow in meaning. Gen Z finds the Millennial obsession with allegorical symbols overearnest and played out. “I feel like the older people are getting upset,” Bijan says, smiling. “But nice tattoos get kind of boring.”
TikTok is a manic trend-setting machine capitalising on irony. Whether it’s this year’s Ketamine chic or 2020’s E-Girls and Boys, shock value, “bad” aesthetics and, more importantly, humour are used to mirror the precarious existence of young adulthood. But clothes can be taken off, septum rings removed and hair stripped of its bilious colour. Permanent ink pushes trend culture to its limits, inking a generation’s blasé view of life onto skin forever.
When Bijan posted his first video, he deleted it after 30 minutes, nervous about the public’s reaction. But within a week, he had over a thousand followers and what he calls “a tiny cult following” that acted both as hype-man and protector – checking in daily for the tattoo vlog and defending him from any haters. “Seeing people want to have my back gave me confidence in myself,” Bijan admits. @Bijan888 now has half a million followers on TikTok.
Bijan is the first to admit that the series is purposefully attention-grabbing. “Honestly, it was for the followers.” Even though he would have tattooed himself with or without an audience, the series was done with the intentional purpose of gaining followers and connecting with a larger community by utilising what he calls the “shock factor.” “It’s cool to do performance art. Like David Blaine type shit – I always thought that was cool,” Bijan says. For young people, the lines between production and reality are blurred, and visibility is a requisite of expression. In the same way that an Instagram post of the night out is as much a component of the experience as the event itself, the public performance of the tattoo is as elemental as the design of it, or, often, why they got it in the first place.
During the early days of Bijan’s sobriety, he says the simplicity of the daily ritual gave him a “weird purpose of accomplishing something and not feeling like a loser that day.” The practice of tattooing became a habit for both Bijan and his followers. “It distracts me from whatever I’m thinking about, and I just have to focus on that moment,” Bijan explains. “It’s very therapeutic.” TikTok creator Noah Brady AKA @pworddestroyer69 and an online pal of Bijan, is continuing the series in his friend’s stead. Over Instagram DMs, Bijan sent me eight other users that are doing the same.
Psychologist Dr Joseph Pierre explains that for young tattoo artists, “showing off their tattoos to a wide audience on social media is where skin art becomes performance art.” While there may be changing tattoo trends, the motivation for tattooing seems timeless – tattoos as a mode of self-expression, adornment and act of agency. “Tattoos are an expression of solidarity,” says Dr. Barron, citing subcultures that used tattoos as visual signals. For instance, the Hells Angels famous emblem, a skull wearing a winged-motorcycle helmet, is often branded in ink on its club members’ bodies.
Now, the amount of tatted-up Americans is at an all-time high at 35 per cent of the population. So, Barron asks, “How do you use a tattoo to be rebellious?” You can either follow Ozzy Osborne’s advice and not get one – or you can subvert the expectations for socially acceptable tattoos. You can tattoo your face, cover your body or get “bad tattoos.”
Our cavalier attitude toward risk-seeking behaviour is anything but accidental. The adoption of nihilistic tropes has helped an anxious generation embrace their uncertain futures, using bodily alterations to affect control and agency from the insurgent camps of their bedrooms. “Yeah, I’ve never thought a lot about the future,” Bijan says, shaking his head. Bad tattoos are proof that nothing really matters, a war cry against Millennial sincerity, and a tongue-in-cheek ode to youth culture. “I feel like I’ll always have room [on my skin]. There’s always gonna be room somewhere [to tattoo],” Bijan says, his brown eyes looking off into the distance. “I don’t really think about it that much.”