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The unemployment rate is at 9.2%. The household unemployment rate which is considered to be a more accurate measure of employment and includes those who have given up looking for jobs out of frustration and those with part-time jobs, but seek full-time work, is even higher at a staggering 16.2%. In the month of June only 18,000 jobs were created. This is far below the 125,000 that was needed to keep up with our growing population. And with the U.S. Department of Education estimating 1.7 million college graduates in 2011, the picture is even more grim.

These are the cold hard statistics, but you don’t need to look at these metrics to know that these are some hard economic times. It’s been gut-wrenchingly depressing these days looking at the neighborhood scenery. I look up and I see empty billboards. Businesses aren’t advertising because they have no hope of business from ads. Empty storefronts dot the commercial streets. On some streets, there are so many vacant stores, it has the veritable feel of a ghost town. And the types of businesses that are sprouting up does not bode well: tattoo parlors and pawn shops! The only tattoo parlors and pawn shops I had seen until recently were the ones on reality TV…

Miami Ink, Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, American Pickers, and Auction Hunters

“Miami Ink” on TLC was the first reality TV show on the daily business of a tattoo parlor. It instantly gained popularity with viewers and even spawned another tattoo reality show “LA Ink.” It was a sign that tattoos were becoming less taboo and more mainstream.

“Pawn Stars” and “Hardcore Pawn” are both about the day-to-day ongoings in pawn shops. Pawn Stars on the History Channel deals with unique high end items with the owner Rick Harrison giving viewers a historical education on each piece that is brought in by a customer to his Las Vegas shop. “Hardcore Pawn” on truTV is a much grittier, low brow version of Pawn Stars. Usually the people that come into Les Gold’s shop are in dire straits and need to pawn everyday possessions to meet financial obligations.

Do you ever fantasize about finding a treasure trove in a mound of junk? “American Pickers” and “Auction Hunters” bring that fantasy to real life. Two men in “American Pickers” (History Channel) roam in the Midwest in their pickup truck trying to strike gold with antique bicycles, motorcyles, and engines. “Auction Hunters” on truTV captures the sad reality of today’s recession: people abandoning their storage units and hunters make a gamble in the hopes of finding a Tiffany among mostly worthless items.

In my case, life imitated art. One day I was watching a reality TV show about a tattoo parlor, the next day, lo and behold there was a tattoo parlor in my neighborhood. Next to the local public library no less! But, I was a bit perplexed by this growing trend. Tattoos are not cheap. The cheapest tattoo could be is about $45 and an intricate large tattoo could be easily in the hundreds of dollars, so why?

In effort to gain some answers I tweeted the following:

I got a reply of similar puzzlement from one tweeter:

I received a humorous, but true response from another tweeter:

So what is the allure of tattoos, especially during a recession? Why are they recession resistant?

Tattoo artist Phuc Tran Tsunami Tattoos in Portland, Maine has seen some customers come in right after losing a job to get a tattoo:

Of course, I asked them, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to postpone until you find another job?’ And both of their responses have been, ‘No. I’ll find another job eventually but I want my tattoo today.’ No one feels like a tattoo that they get will be foreclosed on or repossessed. I think that our clients feel like tattoos make them feel better, especially when many other things in the economy and news cycle can be bleak.

Kit Yarrow, a business psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco thinks that sporting a tattoo is a backlash against consumerism and is a sign of permanence to people who get one:

Tattoos are a way of signaling nonconformity, sometimes more to yourself than to others. They’re a way of rejecting the wild consumption values of the past decade. For about a decade, the US has been pushing rampant consumerism. When you constantly have a stream of products flowing through your life, it’s sampling; there’s no real commitment. A handbag can be replaced every season. A tattoo cannot, and therefore it is a much more significant accessory.

My aerobics instructor and her tattoo

Joe Summers Jr., a psychiatric evaluator with Cape Cod Hospital who has two arms covered with tattoos, finds them helpful in his line of work:

I deal with a lot of adolescents. When they hear an evaluator is coming, I think they expect they’re going to see a pompous stuffed shirt. Instead, they see me coming around the corner. It’s a definite icebreaker. The kids open up to me more when they see the tattoos.

The pawn shops in my neighborhood have been more of an eyesore than the tattoo shops because it’s a sign of desperation. I used to think pawn shops were for areas in decline, but I no longer think that way; it’s the recession that’s been making them prevalent these days.

People who’ve held onto precious items that were passed down to them from their grandparents and parents are being forced to pawn them in or sell them to make ends meet. We’ve been watching the reality shows for entertainment, but the brutal reality is sinking in.

What kind of debt would you have to be in before you part with something that was in the family for years and years? What would you have to be faced with to make that difficult decision?

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