Barbed wire is back: Why ’90s and 2000s tattoos are in vogue again

From Pamela Anderson’s iconic barbed wire armband to tribal designs, cartoon characters, ‘tramp stamp’ lower back tattoos, flowers, butterflies, roses, dolphins, suns, Yin and Yang and old English lettering, some of the most popular tattoo designs of the ’90s and ’00s are back and there are no regrets about it.

Just like low-rise jeans, UGG boots, butterfly clips and the “going-out top” that are taking over fashion once again (and making many of us cringe along with it), tattoo design styles that were synonymous with these decades have also become in demand over the past year.

Rani Garton shows off her barbed wire tattoo.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“There’s definitely been a resurgence of ’90s tattoo trends… just as there has been with fashion and music. Like all trends, I think things become ‘retro’ after about 30 years and become cool again,” says Hot Copper Studio tattoo artist, Clare Clarity.

Fellow Melbourne tattoo artist, Jack Douglas agrees.

“There has been a sprinkling of the 90s imagery making its way through the tattooed masses. You’ll see the odd Pammy barbed wire or small pieces of spiky tribal meshed in with modern designs,” he says.

Just like the older fashion, throwback tattoo styles are very popular among Gen-Z, says Xia, owner of Xia Tattoo studio in Melbourne. Her assistant, 22-year-old Rani Garton, has had various ’90s and ’00s-inspired pop culture character designs tattooed onto her arm by Xia over the past two years.

“I decided to bring back my ’90s and ’00s nostalgia by integrating characters into a fine-line sleeve,” Garton says.

“Characters like SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and The Simpsons characters. These characters hold such a memory for me. My fine line sleeve is a cluster of nostalgic elements … including characters’ names from the [1994] film Natural Born Killers.”

For Gorton, the design choice was a way for her to relate to a simpler time in her life – childhood.

Pamela Anderson and her barbed wire tattoo.Credit:Getty

“I feel a connection to these characters, especially the SpongeBob characters. As for the Bart Simpson tattoo … as children, The Simpsons was definitely a must-watch for me and I related to the family dynamic,” she says.

Nostalgia underpins much of the general resurgence in the popularity of these tattoo designs, Douglas says.

“Prompting these throwback pieces would most likely have come from an idealisation of that time period as things were so colourful and vibrant in the ’90s. I [also] think it’s a mindset being changed or people getting distance from things that were seen as tacky due to over-saturation.”

While some ink designs are nearly identical replicas from the ’90s and ’00s, others take on a modern twist, Clarity says.

“Some of the trends I have seen a resurgence of include Old English lettering and tribal designs. However, the tribal is now more often incorporated into other designs as a background or as a decorative flourish, and less often as a standalone design. I’m happy to see them return in new and interesting ways.”

Xia shares this sentiment.

“People seem to be tweaking old styles by using fine-line, creating a new wave of ’90s and 2000s tattoos, resulting in styles like neo-tribal for example. There are so many topics used back in the 90s like flames or barbed wire, just done in a very different way,” she says.

Xia tattooing Garton.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“I have also seen a few artists combining 90s and 2000s designs with more modern styles and that is quite special, it creates something new that will definitely inspire whatever comes next.”

But despite the modern take, will there come a time when the resurgence of love for barbed wire and cartoon character tattoos, along with fashion items like double denim and skelts, be considered “uncool” once more?

The answer is probably yes.

“It is definitely a trend and it’s mostly the younger generation getting them because it’s cool,” Xia says.

Garton’s tattoos of Patrick Star and SpongeBob, characters from the TV show SpongeBob SquarePants.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“I am old enough and have been in the industry and art community long enough to know this is just a trend that will look odd or outdated in a few years…. Most tattoo regrets are trends that have passed, and people wish they have space for different things later on in life.”

Xia’s advice? Remember that, unlike trends, tattoos are forever.

“Get tattoos that are as atemporal as possible and that you like, not what you are seen on TikTok or your friend has, and always done by an artist that specialises in a style that will not change when the trend has passed.”

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