It's possible I just don't see the tattoos on people. It has been winter since I moved here, so people are pretty covered up. Personally, I have a number of tattoos which cannot be seen in street clothes, unless you have a real eye for detail. In my previous homes of Chicago and California (San Francisco & Los Angeles) there were a lot more tattoos on display, no matter the time of year. On necks, hands and even faces - creeping out from the cuffs of business shirts and on the tops of elegantly heeled feet, all sorts of people could be seen sporting tattoos. American men and women of a certain age (say 25-40 but don't hold me to that, it is a purely colloquial observation) all seem to have at least one tattoo, if not many more. On the contrary, not a single one of my Turkish friends (all falling within that age range) has one.
For a number of reasons, it is not exactly a surprise that there are less tattoos here. For instance, here in Turkey (as well as in many Asian and European countries) one is more likely to live with their parents well into adulthood and many parents are not fond of tattoos. The idea of not biting (or pissing off) the hand that feeds seems to be a pretty good deterrent. Some of my Turkish friends seem to think this is the biggest things holding young people back from getting inked. The difference being that many Americans don't live at home past the age of 18. Another possible deterrent is Islam. Islam is not exactly pro tattoo - a nice little article on that, here. Of course, not all Turks are Muslim, but the country is culturally Muslim - as discussed more here.* However, this same argument could be made for Christianity.
"Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am LORD." Leviticus 19:28, often cited by Christians as a verse prohibiting tattoos
I think the argument could be made in both countries that kids are less so culturally any religion, but living on one's own, or with peers for roommates pretty much eliminates the parental deterrent.
Many (if not all) of these tattoo shops also advertise piercing. Besides earrings and the occasional nose piercing (on women), I have yet to see a single piercing on anyone not working at a tattoo shop. Again, not to say they aren't out there, I just have yet to come across it.
Today tattooing is not driven by long standing cultural traditions for the majority of people living in either Turkey or the United States.* Rather, it has come into fashion and has become a movement in self expression. This movement (fad) hit the U.S. hard, as evidenced on the streets of any major American city. I do not claim to know why people tattoo themselves. As the brilliant Ed Hardy said inTattoo Your Dreams, (paraphrasing)...
Asking 'why people get tattooed?' is like asking 'why do people make art?'. It's not a very interesting question and there are innumerable answers.
But I do wonder, "How these shops stay in business?"
One answer is that while tattoo prices here (admittedly from only one data point) are about what they are in the U.S. That equates to a little more that double the price one would expect after adjusting for cost of living, income and the general going rate of things here.
Another answer is that the tattoo shops I see here in my neighborhood represent the majority of tattoo shops in all of Istanbul, a city of over 15 million people.
The Golden Arrow was small, well designed and immaculate. The latter being the most important thing I look for in a tattoo parlor. My artist, Mesut (find him on Instagram here http://instagram.com/hitchhikeink) speaks many languages, including English, and has worked as an artist in many capacities, including as a fine art painter and doing photography for Italian Vogue. That certainly explains this awesome picture he took of my just-finished work.
Getting a tattoo here in Istanbul was really no different than any of my many experiences Stateside. In fact, I am so comfortable in the chair that I fell asleep. As I woke up when Mesut was finished I could hear the call to prayer and thought, "Ok, well, that is something unique to my experience here!"
Perhaps, I will be writing a follow up as the weather gets warmer and I start to see the hidden works of art being inked into skin everyday near Taksim Square, I'll keep you posted. Now if I could just get a decent job, I can go back and get few more :)
A note on language: the Turkish word for tattoo is "dövme" but all of the signs read "tattoo" - this is not because the shops cater to tourists. Rather, it is an example of an English word moving its way into the local lexicon and language. No surprise considering the strong influence of American pop culture here and America's love of tattooing.
*Of course, some cultures in Turkey have a long (pro) tattoo history, like that of the Kurdish Yazidi women, and to a lesser degree Yazidi men (SO much more on this later, stay tuned).