This week, a friend of mine tweeted, “Why do so many celebrity women date men who look like a pub toilet wall?” He was responding to a paparazzi photo of Kourtney Kardashian and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Kardashian grasping Barker’s tattooed hand, attached to Barker’s very tattooed arm, neck, chest, and face.
I bristled and went on the defense, not just because Blink-182 was a formative musical influence for me. It was because I came to the reluctant decision that I support this odd coupling of the celebrated punk musician and a member of one of the most famous and reviled families on the planet.
At first, the pairing was easy enough to brush off as another Kardashian attention-seeking stunt, a way to distract us from the fact that Kourtney’s 38-year-old ex-husband Scott Disick is busy shacking up with a woman who just turned 20. Maybe it still is. But several things can be true at once: The Kardashians know how to get people talking, Barker loves a glamour girl, social media is as highly manufactured as celebrity couplings, and...and... Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker are an oddly endearing couple.
“She likes riding with the top down,” reads one Instagram post by Barker, accompanied by a set of photos of him and the eldest Kardashian sister. They posed with a black car that indeed had the top down, both their all-black-everything outfits finishing off a portrait of edgy, alternative bliss. This was what won me over.
But while I may have thought the “pub toilet wall” slight was rude, my cynical friend had a point: The Tattooed Dude and pretty celebrity girlfriend coupling is having a moment. Just take a look at Barker’s emo-rap buddy Machine Gun Kelly, who has been dating actor Megan Fox. They were a prime example of this dynamic before Barker and Kardashian hit the scene and they’re already reaching iconic couple status, from their red carpet hijinx and rooftop escapades to their Instagram photos that elicit a deluge of heart and flame emojis from fans.
As tattoos become increasingly mainstream, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between a Tattoo Boyfriend and a boyfriend who has tattoos. For the Tattoo Boyfriend, the tattoos are part of his overall persona and he’s inseparable from them. He’s not necessarily a stereotypical bad boy, nor a dirtbag, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Meanwhile, the Pretty Girlfriend is, well, classically pretty, maybe even a sex symbol or bombshell in her own right. It’s common for her to be more famous than her Tattoo Boyfriend as well, and she delights being seen on his arm, eliciting some comments of “Wait, him?” along the way.
Justin Bieber is a boyfriend—or rather, husband—who has tattoos, but he is not a Tattoo Boyfriend; sorry, Hailey. Same with Ben Affleck. Pete Davidson, meanwhile, is a Tattoo Boyfriend, and he once dated Pretty Girlfriend, Ariana Grande.
Another example of this trope can be seen in rappers Lil Uzi Vert and JT of City Girls. At first, the two were a bit of an odd couple: The small-statured Uzi, defined by his plethora of tattoos and the $24 million diamond that was implanted in his forehead alongside a rising queen in hip hop, an undeniable beauty who was absolutely right when she rapped, “All these n***as wanna fuck JT.” And the two appear to be absolutely smitten with each other, with JT casually talking about the pleasant mundanities of life with Uzi while Uzi is photographed while nuzzling on JT like a newborn.
This dynamic has ebbed and flowed in the celebrity world for the last 30 years. In the 2000s, Disney Channel starlets Hilary Duff and Brenda Song dated Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden and Metro Station’s Trace Cyrus respectively. Neither couple lasted—Song and Cyrus’s coupling ending on a particularly chaotic tenor of passive-aggressive social media messages and fake pregnancy rumors—but their legacy retains a strong grip, particularly as aughts nostalgia hits a fever pitch.
I reached out to Matt James of Pop Culture Died In 2009 for some added context to this phenomenon.
“For girls like [Duff and Song] it’s the perfect amount of danger, in that it’s not really dangerous at all, but looks it,” James told Jezebel.
He continued: “And looks are all that matter. For a well-off, Texas-born Disney Channel star like Hilary Duff, the tattooed pop-rocker from Maryland probably seemed like a walk on the wild side. She delighted in telling Elle magazine at the time that Madden’s hometown was ‘pretty ghetto’—and then backtracked as fast as it hit Perez [Hilton].”
James believes Duff and Song may have easily been swept up in the idea that they were dating tortured artists, and that their pairings gave them an illusion of depth.
But maybe it’s simpler than that.
Christina Ramos, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist, said that she believes the appeal of the Tattooed Boyfriend is pretty clear cut.
“Objectively speaking, opposites attract don’t they?” Ramos said. “Polarity in whatever form seems to bring people together, whether it is character or appearance. But that is just a human thing.”
But there’d be no Tattoo Boyfriend/Pretty Girlfriend dynamic without Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, arguably one of the predecessors of this dynamic in the celebrity space. The former actress and model and Motley Crue drummer are on the verge of their own moment of nostalgia now that Lily James and Sebastian Stan are filming a movie about the couple, and they’re routinely compared to Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox.
When pop culture nostalgia Instagram account, @velvetcoke, posted a photo of Anderson and Lee a few weeks ago, one of the top comments read “I feel like this is Megan and MGK vibes.” Others fawned over how hot they were, or reminisced about their legendarily invasive sex tape. But many also noted that their dynamic was deeply toxic and abusive—Lee spent six months in jail on a spousal abuse charge after allegedly kicking Anderson while she was holding their son. She was left bruised and fearful, and while they briefly reunited after his release from jail, they broke up for good in 2001 after a six-year relationship.
But the aesthetics alone—Lee with his tattoos and nipple piercing, blonde bombshell Anderson—were enough to elicit comparison.
“The proliferation of nostalgia accounts on platforms like Instagram and Twitter is a silent factor in this, bizarrely enough, and has spawned a generation of celebrity cosplayers,” noted James. “Now, the couples we’re talking about here are a bit too old to necessarily be taking their cues from Twitter—Kardashian and her worsening case of arrested development aside—but their fans are definitely young enough to be influenced.”
“You look at some of these couplings now—Kourtney and Travis, Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly—it’s pretty much people who are too old to play dress-up, playing dress-up, living out some sort of diet Tawny Kitaen fantasy at red carpet events where they’re sandwiched between TikTok teens and a Jonas brother,” said James, referring to Kitaen’s career as a heavy metal video vixen in the ‘80s. “It’s embarrassing from afar, but cool under the narrow and easily manipulated lens of Instagram.”
(Kitaen was charged with domestic violence in 2002 after she attacked her then-husband Chuck Finley, a reminder that this legacy, as with Anderson and Lee, can have uglier undertones.)
The allure of the stereotypical bad boy and the good girl has a hold, and there’s something endearing—so Danny and Sandy, so “Leader of the Pack,” and so glaringly gendered—about seeing a put-together woman alongside a dude who looks like he just crawled out of a sweaty, beer-soaked mosh pit at the scuzziest metal venue in town. Kardashian and Barker, as well as their other contemporaries, evoke a kind of sappy universal fantasy of the good girl who wants a bad boy. It’s a baddie Cinderella story for those who don’t want the clean-cut prince with perfectly coifed hair, for those who kind of wished Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” had an alternate ending. He was a punk, she did ballet, and now they’re taking mirror selfies together and posting them on Instagram.