Tattoos as a Form of Branding?

Excerpt from Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed the Way We Look by Mark Tungate 

…Tattoos Come Out of the Parlour

By Mark Tungate, Special for US Daily Review.

In 2011, luxury brand Louis Vuitton launched an online video featuring tattoo artist Scott Campbell. The three-part ‘day in the life of’ video was essentially a lengthy advertisement for a collaboration between Campbell and Louis Vuitton menswear designer Paul Helbers, who’d invited the ink maestro to work on prints for scarves, shirts, pants and even bags. Campbell – who is also a contemporary artist – was happy to oblige.

Scott Campbell is often held responsible for the ascension of the tattoo from a symbol of rebellion to one of status. He opened his first studio, Saved Tattoo, in Brooklyn in 2004. He has since tattooed models Helena Christensen and Lily Cole, the late actor Heath Ledger and fashion designer Vera Wang, among others. Marc Jacobs – who designs women’s wear for Vuitton – is a regular client: Campbell has inked him with such idiosyncratic adornments as the cartoon character Sponge Bob and a Simpson’s caricature of the designer himself. By 2009, when Campbell briefly moved his operation to the basement of The Smile café, he was charging US$300 an hour for his services (‘Manhattan ink: tat master Scott Campbell needles the stars’, New York Observer, 17 March 2009).

Inevitably, Campbell is described as a ‘celebrity tattoo artist’ – something that doesn’t seem to irk him. ‘All of a sudden, fashion is appropriating something that’s been near and dear to me for so many years,’ he told Papermag.

A lot of tattoo artists get defensive about it because tattooing is one of those things that you really have to commit to and devote yourself to completely… To have it appropriated by fashion and the mainstream media, there is a part of me that wants to say, ‘wait a minute, this is MY world,’ but at the end of the day, it’s not mine. With more exposure only comes greater understanding and appreciation, and I don’t think that could ever be a bad thing.

Campbell must also be given credit for seeing beyond the backroom clichés of the tattoo parlour.

Once I opened my own space and created this environment that was a little more forward-thinking and creative, a lot of these people who always wanted to get tattooed but didn’t want to deal with the sweaty biker shops responded to it. If there’s one tattoo shop in town that stands out for being different or a little more innovative, people gravitate toward that, especially people in a creative industry.

In fact, another name may have had even more impact on the adoption of tattoos by the mainstream. In 2004, the French fashion entrepreneur Christian Audigier licensed the rights to produce the Ed Hardy clothing line, inspired by the imagery of a famous San Francisco tattoo artist. Thanks to Audigier’s knack for marketing – opening stores in fashionable districts and sending free product to celebrities – tattoo T-shirts were soon cropping up on everyone from Madonna to Paris Hilton.

Don Ed Hardy is a fascinating character in his own right. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1960s, where he became skilled at intaglio etching – a printmaking technique that involves engraving images into a metal plate. But he’d been fascinated by tattooing since his childhood in the beach town of Corona del Mar in Orange County, California. ‘By ten he was drawing cars and eagles on kids’ arms with wet coloured pencils and Maybelline eyeliner’, reports the San Francisco Chronicle (‘Don Ed Hardy’s tattoos are high art and big business’, 30 September 2006). He borrowed ideas from tattoo catalogues advertised on the back of Popular Mechanics and the tattoos he saw on guys in wanted posters on post office walls.

As an adult he learned the trade at an Oakland tattoo shop run by Phil Sparrow, a former literature teacher who’d become a devotee of skin art. It was thanks to Sparrow that Hardy discovered Japanese ‘full body’ tattoos. In 1973 he became the first Westerner to apprentice with the Japanese master Horihide, where he ‘painted and pierced the skins of a number of the Japanese gangsters known as Yakuza’. Hardy also admires the late tattoo artist Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, who earned his nickname conducting tours of the Hawaiian islands in a three-mast schooner. Born in 1911, ‘Jerry first tried tattooing as a teenager by hand-poking designs on willing customers with whatever supplies he came across while hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across America. He landed in Chicago in the 1920s and connected with his first formal teacher, the legendary Gib “Tatts” Thomas, who taught Jerry how to use a tattoo machine’ (

Who taught ‘Tatts’ I don’t know – possibly a pirate. He left his home in New Orleans at the age of 14 to travel the world. There is something about a tattoo that evokes voyage: mariners and drifters, shore leave in the South Pacific. The very word comes from the Polynesian ‘tatau’. As Hardy says, ‘the oral history of tattoos is fantastic’; he has published a number of books on the subject. He believes the urge to get a tattoo is ‘primal’: ‘Based on the evidence, the frozen mummies, the oldest members of our species had tattoos.’

Tattoos have been used as brands in the most literal sense: the tagging of slaves or convicts; the chill grey procession of Nazi concentration camp numerals. They have also been marks of courage, talismans against the evil eye, and declarations of love. And of course they are tribal, symbols of belonging, which is no doubt why they appeal to the fashion crowd.

Although Hardy still runs the Tattoo City shop in San Francisco, he retired from tattooing some time ago to concentrate on painting and printmaking. His ability to combine the worlds of high and low art, not to mention a savvy sense of branding, helped to bring the intricate craft of tattooing to a wider public.

The notional permanence of tattoos means that getting one is still a radical act. A tattoo hints at daring and creativity. As Scott Campbell implies, tattoos made it into the mainstream via creative professionals and people who wished to emulate them. It’s easy to imagine the frisson a doctor or a lawyer might get from the thought of the tattoo secreted beneath a conservative façade. But the ability of a tattoo to shock may be gone within a generation. In 2007, a Pew Research Center survey suggested that 40 per cent of Americans aged between 26 and 40 have a tattoo; and 36 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds have one. The figures indicate that, for some people, getting a tattoo may be an early manifestation of mid-life crisis.

For those who want to follow the trend without getting ink under their skin, temporary tattoos are everywhere. Even Chanel offers ‘exclusive, individual temporary tattoos, referencing iconic Chanel symbols and codes, hand drawn by global creative director of makeup Peter Philips’.

But what if you decide to go for it – to get the real thing? Lori Leven of New York Adorned has words of advice. ‘You probably won’t get just one, so plan ahead – think about what the end result might be and how you’re going to get there. This is not a casual decision; it’s going to affect your life, so treat it accordingly. Above all, never be trendy. Always get something tattooed on you that’s timeless.’

The above is an excerpt from chapter 19, “The Needle Artists,” in Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed the Way We Look by Mark Tungate, British journalist and branding expert. In Branded Beauty, Tungate explores the history of the beauty industry, dissecting the marketing tactics of icons and brands like Revlon, Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Max Factor, Dior and even Procter & Gamble. Tungate gets to the root of what originally made and still continues to make consumers buy into the idea of luxury. For more information about the book and author, visit

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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