Tattoos are no longer considered socially unacceptable for most people. Over time, people just started to accept them. They became tasteful and normal. They are considered art. Some people still don't like them, but they are no longer associated with criminal behavior.
Fifteen years ago I would have voiced my complete disapproval of tattoos. Today, however, I must admit that I am rather neutral about them. I don't have any tattoos, and I've never even considered the possibility, but it is not at all surprising to learn that many of my contemporaries do have tattoos.
Tattoos have definitely become part of the mainstream culture. I remember begging my mother to allow me to have my ears pierced when I was young. At that time, she still viewed pierced ears as edgy, and possibly even a little trashy. She finally gave in when I turned sixteen. Many years later I was surprise to learn that she had gotten her own ears pierced. Such is the way that fashion changes from radical to ordinary.
I believe that tattoos are following the path of piercings...nearly everybody has them. It is possible to be conservative or edgy in the type and number of tattoos one chooses have, just like with piercings.
I think tattoo's have absolutely become a part of today's culture. Tattoos used to be limited to certain groups. They were gotten to define you as a member of that group, be it the military or a gang or biker group etc. Because many of the groups that used tattoos to identify themselves were not necessarily mainstream society, there was a certain taboo to them, or at least a certain judgement that went with having one. Having a tattoo said something about your lifestyle.
Today this is totally untrue. Tattoos have become so common that one cannot judge a person's lifestyle choices or group membership simply by the fact that they have one. In addition, instead of so often being the marker or being a part of a group, tattoos have come to symbolize individuality. They are chosen much in the same way we chose our clothes and home and cars: to represent us.
I do think there is still some limit on the acceptance of tattoos, but it has more to do with what it is and where it is and how big it is than the simple existence of having a tattoo.
Me personally? I don't have any. I have thought about getting one and I think SOME are cool. I do think too many people don't think about their permanence. We all change over time, do we want a mark of who we were at one point in life following us the rest of our lives as we become someone else? Don't know. That's why I haven't gotten one yet!
I don't really see them as gross or cool. I used to think they were pretty stupid, but more and more people who I respect started to get them and so I now feel that you can be a decent, intelligent person even if you have a tattoo. Now, I think that they are just another fashion choice, like having your ears piereced or wearing a certain style of clothing.
Now, really gaudy tattoos that can't be hidden very easily do seem like a bad choice to me. I think that they limit the sorts of jobs you can be considered for. In that way, I think that that sort of tattoo is a bad choice. Overall, though, I don't really care.
I will be very interested to hear what a community of teachers has to say about this topic, as we tend to be labeled (not altogether incorrectly) as among the more conservative of professions.
Though I would still be considered "young" compared to most of my colleagues, I personally do not like tattoos. I do not have one. I do not plan to get one. I will threaten my own children with the same threat my parents gave me and that is, "If you get a tattoo while living in my house, your life-funding will be cut off."
Honestly, I do not know many people any more without a single tattoo. Some are tasteful, but generally speaking, I think most people would look better without them. I'm not sure that 18 is old enough to make a decision on such a permanent change to your body. I personally know several people who got them in college (some younger, with parental consent) and now regret it because it is a permanent reflection of their maturity at the time.
On the other hand, I also know several people with full sleeves of tattoos who love to define themselves by this form of "art."
I cannot say exactly how they've become so popular in our culture, except perhaps to comment on the fact that they generally pretty widely accepted. Obviously the military is a huge arena for tattoos as an expression of inclusion, and I think this appeal is universal. I also think many people believe that a "unique" design or location for a tattoo defines a part of themselves as "original." The permanence of the decision provides a rush and denotes a risk taken.