Getting inked: Sweden’s tattoo trend laid bare

As more and more Swedes roll up their sleeves and trouser legs to get tattoos, contributor Emy Gelb takes a look at what inspires Swedes to let their bodies become walking works of art.

Getting inked: Sweden's tattoo trend laid bare

The waiting room of the tattoo studio is classic and cool; old photographs cover the blood red walls and loud rock music thumps in the background. The couches are full.

A steady flow of people sweeps in and out of the waiting room as they make appointments or nervously step out for a cigarette. It is a busy and energetic scene.

However, the aspect that stands out the most is the dull, non-stop buzzing coming from behind the curtains in the backroom; a frightening sound reminiscent of a bad trip to the dentist.

However, this waiting room is far from the average doctor’s office.

It is East Street tattoo studio in Stockholm’s Södermalm neighborhood, where heavily inked and highly skilled artists deliver a delightful mix of pain and pleasure to their clients through a long session with needles and ink.

Tattoo studios like East Street are a regular feature of all major towns across Sweden. In fact Sweden hosts more studios per capita than almost any other country in the world.

What’s more, Sweden is recognised as being home to some of the world’s best artists, international conventions are commonly held here, and hundreds of artists from across the world come to work in the country.

While once looked down upon as a marker only fit for drunken sailors, criminals, and rock and roll stars, tattoo culture in Sweden is changing rapidly.

Across the country, tattoos are appearing everywhere, in unexpected places and on unexpected people.

“I am a Christian, and I always have God with me so I am getting a tattoo that says ‘Never Alone’ on my foot. It will always remind me of my faith. I think tattoos are pretty, and this is something that I can stand for the rest of my life,” explains Johanna, an 18-year-old visitor at East Street.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a year and a half, but I’m ready. A little bit nervous too,” she said as she prepared for her first tattoo.

Media coverage and pop culture have helped to make tattoos a mainstream trend.

However, according to Robin Sjöstrand, the shop manager at East Street, their increasing popularity does not take away from a tattoos “street credit” or alternative subculture vibe.

“No, I don’t think that tattoos have lost their meaning, even if they are more popular now. They still hurt; they take a lot of guts, whether the tattoo takes an hour or 40,” he says.

“I tip my hat off to everyone who gets one; I have to give them respect. It hurts everyone just the same. So to me, one tattoo is worth just as much as someone who is fully tattooed and works in the branch.”

The symbols and prejudices associated with those symbols are changing. For example, once upon a time, a two swallow tattoos meant that a sailor had traveled across the world.

Today, nearly every skinny hipster in Stockholm rocks a swallow tattoo on his or her inner arm or chest.

Sjöstrand explained while each of these hipsters might have the same swallow tattoo, the meaning is different to each of them.

Tattoos no longer mark a person and their status to the outside world, but instead, they have become intimate representation of an individual’s memories, dreams, or desires.

That being said, getting a tattoo is still a style choice that not everyone appreciates.

One of the guest artists visiting East Street half jokingly advised to “stay away from Östermalm, you still get a lot of looks there,” referring to the wealthy inner-city neighbourhood.

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Why do so many Swedes have tattoos?

Tattoos have become so commonplace in Sweden that Stockholm is now believed to be home to the world's most inked population outside of tribal societies. The Local takes a closer look at the trend.

Why do so many Swedes have tattoos?
Tattoo photo: Shutterstock