Needles & Pins – an exploration of the cultural significance of tattoos

Needles & Pins is a new Viceland production that aired in February this year and has since proven itself to be one of the few documentary series to explore the worldwide tattoo culture from tradition to cultural appropriation, hidden subcultures and new wave movements. It is hosted by Grace Neutral – a British hand- poke artist and activist, whose main focus of career are tattoos and body modifications and culture. She is known for being the presenter of I-D magazine’s 2016 documentary Beyond Beauty, which explores alternative beauty culture, changing identity perception around the globe and celebrates difference as empowerment.

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Grace Neutral (c) Viceland

Not only is Needles & Pins an extremely well- shot and high budget production series, as expected from Viceland, but it is also extremely intelligently thought and structured as it provides an unconventional look at tattoo culture on a local and worldwide level from eroticism, avant-garde and illegality in Japan’s tattoo scene, to gang tattoos in L.A and tradition and identity creation in New Zealand’s ancient Maori Ta Moko tattoo art. Every episode concentrates on exploring an indigenous tattoo environment and in 45 minutes it manages to narrow down the angle of perspective from the stereotypical idea of the tattoo scene at the specific place, to the unconventional hidden sub- cultures, movements and perceptions on a local scale and their connection to a wider search for freedom, difference and aesthetics. From this perspective, Needles & Pins is one of the few tattoo documentaries with a socio- cultural value as it places tattoos at the core of the sub- cultural movements and it explores their significance as a cultural anchor and manifesto of a generation that praises freedom of expression and identity creation with an almost religious devotion.

The first episode of the series – “Las Vegas’ Tattoo Economy” – as you can guess from the title, explores the tattoo economy in Las Vegas’ reign of mass produced, strongly appropriated and stereotyped tattoo scene. Naturally, it begins with the exploration of tattoos in their connection to mass culture and Las Vegas’ façade of superficiality, where tattoos have become a full- on mass industry, lacking emotional and symbolic dimension. It goes on to explore the dying tradition of tattoo apprenticeship with the creation of tattoo schools and tattoo parlours that look like shopping malls. However, it doesn’t stop there. It leaves the mainstream to submerge in the dark side of Vegas’ local scene, hidden from the tourists, and explores sexism and exploitation in the tattoo industry, the connection of tattoos to the illicit sex trade in Vegas with tattoos being used to “brand” women,  as well as the alternative underground tattoo scene, where concepts such as self- expression are still valid and where the hidden punk generation, or as Grace calls it

Vegas’ forgotten children, marginalized by the strip, existing in the shadows of the casinos

strives for something more than the neon flashing reality of the Vegas dream.

If you have a Viceland account you can find all the episodes uploaded on their website.

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2 thoughts on “Needles & Pins – an exploration of the cultural significance of tattoos

    1. It was surprising and impressive for me how the Las Vegas episode narrowed down the perspective from the mass- produced image of the tattoo industry to a punk culture that I didn’t know could flourish in an environment such as Las Vegas. I just thought it was a very good introduction to the series as it shows in a different light something that has been thought of as a cliche for a very long time..

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