Tattoo artists muse on the placement’s cultural resurgence—an exercise in aesthetic time travel, particularly beloved by queer youth

When ASCII art was at the height of its popularity, the moon was footprint-less and the world wide web was unrealized. No AdBlock, no Reddit, no Metaverse. Text-based designs—painstakingly typed out character by character by curious nerd-types with too much time, or dilettante artists trying to make sense of this new medium—represented the creative, if awkward, circumvention of a digital universe otherwise void of images.

In the year of our lord 2023, ASCII has no real business still existing: Today, images on the internet outnumber the stars in our galaxy. Despite this nauseating fact, the antediluvian art form has a persistent draw for tattooist Orion Noiro. Using archived web pages from the early-aughts as source material, the LA-based artist has built a distinctive style incorporating and reworking ASCII designs. Of his aesthetic ethos, Noiro muses, “I see it as a triangle: The points are beauty, humor, and nostalgia. As long as two points of the triangle are touched on, I’m down to take the project.”

This aesthetic, flippant, and sentimental paradigm manifests in designs such as a pair of pink cheetah-print stars; eights, dollar signs, and commas forming the outline of a heart, then dissipating the way an error message swarms a computer screen; or ‘COMIC SANS’ rendered in its namesake font, left-aligned and spanning the width of a client’s back. The lattermost piece went viral after it was posted to Instagram this February, a popularity—or infamy, depending on which comments you read—that suggests a hunger for irony-fueled tattoos. The neo-nostalgic tramp stamp emerges to satiate this appetite—a reimagining by young queer and trans artists who infuse the long-maligned placement with a blend of cheekiness, temporal ambivalence, and reverence.

Where Noiro’s designs coalesce into a hallucinatory vision from a collective internet childhood, New York-based tattoo artist Noel Garcia’s references are more ancient. “I go out of my way to study amulets and talismans throughout cultures, as well as hieroglyphs, biogeometry,” she says. Her research interests translate to ethereal, organic designs: Over Zoom, she shows me the tattoo she made on her left hand, which she describes as “a little fairy, in an arachnid sort of way.” Some of Garcia’s other designs hybridize the shading and sinuous curves of grotesque ornaments with sigil spikes and cutesy hearts, or evoke mesozoic fossils and medieval daggers in the same delicate, symmetrical linework. It is Garcia’s reimagining of the lower-back tattoo that excites me most: Like alien calligraphy, black lines alternately converge into dense shapes and draw out into sinewy fringe. These cobweb-like ruptures of pigment are familiar (reader, they’re tramp stamps) yet revelatory iterations of a long-maligned tattoo spot.

“The neo-nostalgic tramp stamp is not a return or rerun. It’s an internet-fueled, ambivalent departure.”

Defying the thick strokes and bold colors that dominate mainstream American shops, Noiro and Garcia are among a growing group of young trans artists questioning prescribed taste and technique, reimagining the significance of the tramp stamp in the process. Garcia notes that, in her own work, she exclusively hand-pokes rather than using industry-standard tattoo guns. “If my work was done with a machine, it would look more artificial. With handpoke, the design looks like it could be in the future, it could be in the past, it could be both. It’s like something you could be born with in another dimension.”

For Noiro, tattooing is more than an aesthetic practice—it’s a necessary service. When he was tattooed for the first time as a teenager, he experienced a profound craving for somatic autonomy and identification. “It really had to do with being unsettled in my body, unsettled in my sexuality, unsettled in my gender,” he reflects. “I think tattooing was my first experience with, I am committing to my life, and to be able to live it, I need to feel in touch with my body.”

Echoing Noiro, Garcia describes getting tattoos as integral to her embodied experience of gender. Growing up in East Los Angeles in a predominantly first-generation and immigrant Latino community, she was always surrounded by tattoos. When she got her own, it was a kind of somatic homecoming. “Before my transition, [getting tattooed] was a way of reclaiming my body, making it mine. As a trans person, you always have some sort of anxiety going outside. Having tattoos makes me feel less exposed, even though I’m more visible. It’s armor, for sure.” Drawing on a visual lexicon of ancient talismans, it’s no wonder Garcia describes her tattoos as a kind of protective shield—she has centuries of magic-imbued imagery in her arsenal.

While Noiro views his lower-back portfolio as more of a novel placement than a consciously queer intervention in tradition, he takes clients’ connection to it seriously. “I think the tramp stamp is really funny. When people get them, I see it as equal parts, Haha, this is such a reference to the past, and also, Wow, this makes me feel excited about my body.” Garcia likens it to creating a digital avatar: “People love looking customized—like if we could be our own Sims.” To have played the game is to know the joy of building your character: in the pixelated dressing room of Create A Sim, the body is as malleable and infinitely iterable as play-dough. Tattooing, in Garcia’s experience, has allowed that experience of self-actualizing bodily customization. “I look in the mirror and I’m like, I need a tattoo here. It brings me a sort of gender euphoria.”

“I think tattooing was my first experience with, I am committing to my life, and to be able to live it, I need to feel in touch with my body.”

In their chapter of The Geographies of Digital Sexuality, academics Daniel Cockayne and Lizzie Richardson intertwine the anachronistic capacities of the digital with queer destabilization of time. The internet, in their words, is primed to facilitate temporal drag—that is, the persistence and preservation of “the improper object of the past as a way to disorientate the hegemonies of the present and future.” (Think: the incorporation of ASCII into a tramp stamp.) This writing is indebted to Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives—a landmark text positioning queerness and transness as subversive economically, spatially, and temporally. As he writes, “Queers use space and time in ways that challenge conventional logics of development, maturity, adulthood, and responsibility.” Halberstam reminds us that queerness squishes, stretches, distorts, and unravels: It is anything but straight.

The recycling of irrelevant, obsolete, or unfashionable images is a hallmark of the Gen Z internet experience. While the internet positions itself as a medium of innovation—existing on the cusp of now and the future—the web has started to look more like a smoldering haunted house than a portal to the Next Big Thing. (There’s been lots of good writing on how AI, the tech innovation du jour, is more a sophisticated Xerox machine, concealing human labor, than creative genius.) The internet can be “obsessively archival, referential, and inter-textual,” Cokcayne and Richardson write, as “digitisation of archival materials presents an osmotic membrane between past and present.” This temporal porousness has come to define the internet of the 2020s: Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” goes viral 30 years after its release; Von Dutch hats dominate Depop homepages; and the tramp stamp is back with a new, nostalgic, glitched-out look.

“Through cutting the functional, ethical practices of the present and pasting them into the future, an entirely new world is possible, both artistically and socially,” claims an article on queer time from the Studio Museum in Harlem. It is exactly the creative capacity of temporal drag—this anachronistic work of cutting and pasting across time—that animates this aesthetic. The tattoo artists designing neo-nostalgic tramp stamps use visual references from potent archives, whether from Web 1.0 or ancient hieroglyphs, to reimagine what might otherwise be irrelevant or forgotten.

The newfound popularity of tramp stamps represents a larger cultural inclination to draw on an array of frictional cultural references simultaneously. Aesthetic hallmarks of the early internet are co-opted, subverted, glitched out—a trespassing of time that owes itself, at least in part, to the internet’s always-open archives. Queer time makes sequences stretchy and simultaneous; temporal drag incorporates anachronisms into the playful exercise of camp. The neo-nostalgic tramp stamp is not a return or rerun. It’s an internet-fueled, ambivalent departure. It’s a timefuck experiment in borrowing, with an approach that is equal parts irony and veneration.

Queer time is a refusal (or inability) to abide by the timetable of adulthood prescribed by dominant culture: get a job, get married, get pregnant, get buried. Instead, trans artists developing the neo-nostalgic tramp stamp are opting for the generative potential in corroding and confusing time—creating a reality where corrupted files, medieval cartouches, and corporeal markings cross. In the sensitive space above one’s hips lies a tattoo real estate that is both intimate and visible, profound and playful. The neo-nostalgic tramp stamp isn’t just a callback—it’s a portal.