A sun shines on Dan Yu’s back, alongside a swimming koi fish. A tree soon may grow on his arm.
“Your body’s an empty canvas, so you almost want to continue to add to it,” said Mr. Yu, 28, as he showed off his tattoos.
A generation or two ago, Mr. Yu’s tattoos — to say nothing of his pierced nose — probably would have placed him in a select company of soldiers, sailors, bikers and carnival workers. But no longer: The American University employee is among about 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 with at least one tattoo, according to a survey.
The study, scheduled to appear Monday on the Web site of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, provides perhaps the most in-depth look at tattoos since their popularity exploded in the early 1990s.
The results suggest that 24 percent of Americans between 18 and 50 are tattooed. Two surveys from 2003 suggested that just 15 percent to 16 percent of U.S. adults had a tattoo.
“Really, nowadays, the people who don’t have them are becoming the unique ones,” said Chris Keaton, a tattoo artist and president of the Baltimore Tattoo Museum.
But body art is more than just tattoos.
About one in seven persons surveyed reported having a piercing anywhere other than in the soft lobe of the ear, according to the study. That total rises to nearly one in three for those 18 to 29 years old. Just about half — 48 percent — in that age category had either a tattoo or a piercing.
Given their youth, that suggests the percentage of people with body art will continue to grow, said study co-author Dr. Anne Laumann, a Northwestern University dermatologist.
“They haven’t had time to get their body piercing. They haven’t had time to get their tattoo. They are just beginning to get into it, and the number is already big,” Dr. Laumann said.
So why has body art become so popular?
Dr. Laumann and others think that body art allows people to broadcast to the world what they are all about. Others call it a sign of rebellion or a rite of passage. The survey found that nearly three-fourths of the pierced and nearly two-thirds of the tattooed made the leap before 24.
“It’s a very easy way to express something that you think represents part of your identity — that you don’t have to tell someone, but you can just have seen,” said Chelsea Farrell, 21, an American University senior from Albany, N.Y. Miss Farrell has a tattooed fish on each hip and a Celtic knot on the small of her back.
The survey also found that what your mother may have told you about who has tattoos is true: People who drink, do drugs, have been jailed or forgo religion are more likely to be tattooed. The same holds true for piercings, though rates do not appear to vary with education, income or job category.
One obvious difference is that piercings can be removed easily, unlike tattoos.
“I guess I liked the way they looked and the rush of getting them pierced, as well as them not being permanent. I can take them out, and the holes will close up,” said Simah Waddell, 21, of Rochester, N.Y.