By the turn of the millennium, tattooing had never been more popular — and neither had laser tattoo removal.
It’s pretty easy to spot a 90s tattoo. The designs from this decade are some of the most recognisable of all time — although most not exactly in a good way. Barbed wire armbands, Chinese letters, Celtic symbols, teeny-tiny butterflies, stars and hearts; they all had their moments in the nineties. This is because, more than any other decade previously, 90s tattoo trends were driven by celebrities - and a few key celebs at that. This explains the popularity of a few specific designs - which millions of people went crazy for - which are now a tad cliché.
The most popular tattoos of the 90s were actually an evolution of the 80s’ New School and tribal designs — just updated to fit 90s pop culture and an increasingly female fan base. (Picture a homage to Mrs. Doubtfire, the X-Files, Spice Girls, Beavis and Butthead, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless and Seinfeld tattooed on your body in full-colour. Oh yes.) But why the sudden surge of interest in body art from women? For that, we can thank third-wave feminism.
After massive gains in the 70s, feminism had faltered by the late 80s and it wasn’t cool at all in very early 1990s. “Few pop cultural figures embraced the term “feminist.” The underground punk movement known as “Riot Grrrl” scared anyone outside of it (which was part of its point), while Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough single “You Oughta Know” scared everyone else even more. Then, in the middle of the decade, the Spice Girls took all of that fear and made feminism - popularised as Girl Power - "fun,” according to Billboard.
The 90s is also considered “the golden age of hip hop.” Tupac’s “Thug Life” tattoo is the most famous - and controversial - in hip hop history. It “created a moral panic back in the early ’90s when media outlets denounced the rap prodigy for inciting violence. Conversely to what was believed, THUG LIFE was a powerful statement against systemic racism.
Then there was the emergence of grunge. “The 90s would not be the 90s without grunge, and grunge would not be grunge without Nirvana,” according to the blog Tattoo. Kurt Cobain himself only had one small tattoo (the letter ‘K’) but his death in 1994 inspired die-hard Nirvana fans to get tattooed in his honour.
And who can forget Pamela Anderson’s barbed wire armband, which became one of the biggest tattoo trends of the decade? The tribal design and placement on the upper arm were classic 90s. Meanwhile Mel C (aka “Sporty Spice”) rocked Chinese letters and the tribal armband. Thanks to the Spice Girls, tattoos became symbols of female empowerment - better known as “girl power” - and they exploded in popularity around the world.
Elsewhere in the pop world, Justin Timberlake’s Celtic cross was bang-on trend for the 90s. He comes from a Christian background so it wasn’t just a fashion statement — it’s said to “openly symbolise his faith in Jesus Christ.” Mariah Carey, meanwhile, debuted her teeny-tiny, ultra-feminine butterfly tattoo and millions of women copied her. “Feminine tattoos - like butterflies, hearts, stars, dolphins, suns - enjoyed a boom during the 90s,” according to Inkbox.
More generally, New School tattoos in the 90s were a celebration of pop culture at the time: Mrs Doubtfire competed for skin with Seinfield, Friends, the X-Files and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — to name a few key trends. And while tattooing had never been more popular, laser tattoo removal was also becoming more common. This was thanks to a new type of laser entering the market which could remove tattoos with less pain and less scarring. Celebs like Cher famously started removing her 1970s tattoos in the 1990s.
Want to hear more?
Join the tattoo removal revolution – stories and offers to your inbox.