Tattoo Psychology: Art or Self Destruction? Modern-Day Social Branding

Tattoos are a conversation starter. Either there's a story attached or a "skin"-showing session or an emotional response derived from the sight of ink art.
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Body art, body bling, self-graffiti, walking billboards, fashionable ink accessories... Each of these expressions depict the physical nature of the tattoo. What's often NOT discussed, however, is the emotional side of tattoos.

I vividly remember the first time I saw a "tramp stamp." A woman was reaching for something in the front row of a large auditorium and a few rows of men and women witnessed her walking artistry. Everyone had a reaction. And once she left the room, we all talked about it. It was like group therapy.

The responses ranged from "She's definitely a party girl, probably drinks a lot, has a lot of sex and a rough childhood," to "She's probably really creative, edgy, a leader and an independent thinker." Some liked her more, some liked her less and many guys were more interested in her because of the tattoo. Whatever the response, we were all intrigued, and each of us conjured up our own personal version of her story -- all from the sight of a well-placed tattoo.

In those days, tattoos were still controversial. Now, they're more accepted than ever. You could even call them "trendy." In the nightlife scene, tattoo artists are rapidly becoming a popular career choice. Sooner or later, we're going to see a leather-clad, tattoo-sleeved, multi-pierced guy named Rocko at our kid's career fair standing next to the "Be a DJ" booth. Although tattoos have been around for more than 5,000 years (Egyptians used tattoos to differentiate peasants from slaves and social branding has been around a long time), ink art has really exploded in the last 25 years. [1]

Is it social branding?

Tattoos are a conversation starter. Either there's a story attached or a "skin"-showing session or an emotional response derived from the sight of ink art. And the emotional response from the sight of tattoos leads to a modern-day version of social branding.

"He must be tough."

"She's probably easy."

"He'll never get a corporate job."

"She just wants to drink vodka tonics and dance on a speaker."

Of course there are variables. In my opinion, the older you are, the less chance you'll be forgiving of tattoos. Neck and face tattoos are usually not as well-received as other locations no matter what your age (sorry, Big Mike). Where you put the tattoo, how may tattoos you have, what the tattoos is and the size of the tattoos all help shape the emotional response of the viewer. And that observer could be anyone from a potential boss, a family member or a date.

You're incredibly naïve or in total denial if you think your tattoos aren't going to have a significant positive or negative influence on people who don't know you well.

Why Get Tattoos?

People get tattoos for many reasons: for attention, self-expression, artistic freedom, rebellion, a visual display of a personal narrative, reminders of spiritual/cultural traditions, sexual motivation, addiction, identification with a group or even drunken impulsiveness (which is why many tattoo parlors are open late).

And now, according to some research studies, 15-38 percent of Americans have some type of long-term body art. What was once considered self-mutilatory behavior and a psychiatric problem has now become almost normative behavior.

What Does Your Tattoo Mean?

Some people mark themselves for life to remind them of past family members or ancient sayings or religious scriptures or names of their current family/love interest. Other people use tattoos to enhance their sexual prowess or feed their exhibitionist side, and many people use tattoos to visually promote their identity and/or group affiliation. "I stand for..."

Johnny Depp said, "My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story." Tattoos can visually reveal more about you or distract people from getting to know the real you. Some people hide behind their tattoos.

Research on tattoos reveals some interesting findings:

  • People with tattoos have been shown to be more likely to engage in more higher risk behaviors.
  • Women who get tattoos are more than twice as likely to get them removed as men.
  • In studying first impressions of people that have tattoos, researchers have found that avatars (neutral) with tattoos and other body modifications were rated as more likely to be thrill and adventure seekers, to have a higher number of previous sexual partners, and to be less inhibited than non-tattooed avatars. This study looked at general stigma associated with people sporting tattoos.
  • And another study showed both men and women had higher body appreciation, higher self esteem and lower anxiety right after getting new tattoos. Surprisingly, three weeks later men continued to have less anxiety but women had a sharp increase in anxiety that may be associated with concerns about body image.
  • And I've personally seen tattoo markings used as an endorphin release and substitute for addictive behavior. An individual addicted to pills was able to stop popping pills but then subsequently became addicted to getting body ink.

    So what does this mean?

    Our current society craves individuality and self expression. And now many people wear their artistic expression. We are having more trouble communicating with each other than ever before, as electronic communication will never replace face-to-face human contact. So, it's not surprising that there's a growing trend toward communication via body ink. We don't have to talk, we just have to look.

    Our bodies have become the refrigerator magnets of quotes, sayings and reminders.

    Whether you like it or not, tattoos are growing in popularity. The long-term fear of being "marked for life" is being tempered by tattoo removal technology and people getting used to seeing tattoos.

    Personally, I chose not to have a tattoo (henna tattoos don't count) because the beauty of life is that it's unexpected and we change with our experiences. What we stand for and believe in at 18 is very different than 35 or 60. If we stood for one thing in life and it never changed, then we could all have "life script" tattoos (and face boredom on a regular basis).

    But we do grow and change. I appreciate the artistry of tattoos but also enjoy the mystery of learning about someone without being "visually influenced" to have a response. We all judge, and first impressions probably carry more weight than they should. Whatever your feelings are about tattoos, one thing is for sure: There's definitely more than meets the eye.


    1. Caplan J. (Ed). 2000. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European & American History; Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press

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