In the late 1970s gay men embraced what became known as the "clone" look, which featured a flannel shirt, mustache and a hanky in a rear pocket (one's sexual proclivities were communicated by the color of the hanky and in which pocket it was displayed). Painter's pants and a Lacoste shirt with an upturned collar were de riguer in the early eighties. Then the look transformed into that of the AIDS activist, which was characterized by a Silence=Death t-shirt and Doc Martens. Come the mid-nineties and the "Chelsea Boy" look emerged, characterized by earrings, piercings, soul patch, a shaved chest and a gym body to show it all off. And now in the 21st century tattoos and beards predominate. But while you can take off a flannel shirt or remove piercings, that's not so easy with a tattoo. Like a mole or birthmark, it's more or less permanent (and will likely clash with whatever new fads come along.)
What compels someone to adorn themselves with these irreversible markings? Narcissism easily comes to mind, or an extreme need for attention (especially true for those sporting expansive/intrusive tats). Probably more people observe such body art with puzzlement as in admiration. As I see it, getting a prominent tattoo would be akin to me being so enchanted with a necktie that I never want to take it off, no matter the occasion. I'd wear it with a suit, at the gym, on the beach, in the shower, etc.
Don't get me wrong, some of the more complex tattoos are works of art, and they're further enhanced when displayed on a beautiful body. But why would someone want to look like they should be hanging on a wall of an art gallery? (If Michelangelo were alive today perhaps he might have chosen to etch his masterpiece on his boyfriend's muscled back rather than on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!) I admit that some tattoos enhance sex appeal, especially if they're found at the nape of the neck, on the lower back or the buttocks (as pictured). Understated, sparse and concealed adds to the appeal. However, when I'm in bed with a man I prefer my mind not be distracted by an expansive tattoo covering pecs, stomach, back, neck, etc. If I want to see a work of art I'll visit MOMA.
Of course, tattoos aren't a gay-only adornment. In fact, they've been handed down to us by generations of dockworkers, sailors, boxers, Maori tribesmen and other hyper-masculine archetypes - which may be why some gay men are drawn to them (similar to the appeal of "bears" and the '70s clone look). But is worshipping at this altar of virility worth the price? (The same question can be asked about steroids.)
The gay tattoo fad seems to have lasted longer than most, probably because so many "trendsetters" themselves have tattoos. Stuck with them, they're likely loathe to admit to wearing a tired look. However, when a new generation of ink-less fashionistas annoints the next must-have look, it may be traumatic for those saddled with tattoos. A new support group may be on the horizon.