Why do people get tattoos?
This question has been plaguing parents, sociologists, and everyday people for a very long time. Man-kind has been experimenting with body marking and body art for centuries. Egyptians, Romans, Native Americans and other ancient peoples have been using different forms of tattooing to symbolize or to bring awareness to something. It is my belief that people get tattoos for various reasons; but some common theories I have as to why people do this are for rebellious reasons, for self-expression, or to belong to a group. These are not the only reasons why people get tattoos but they are the reason I will be studying in this research question.
Editor Jane Caplan also supports this idea of multiple reasons for tattooing. In her book, Caplan discuses the history of tattooing in many different Empires and cultures throughout history, she also helps support the idea that tattoos were used to symbolize something more than just body marks. Other authors such as Carrie Reed and C.P. Jones have studied the historical use of tattooing in Chinese and Roman culture. They also have come up with similar finds that tattooing was used for more that just body art. It was used to tell who a slave was and to identify people easier.
In approximately the last twenty years, there has been a new trend of people getting tattoos. It is the sixth largest business in the United States, and the majority of people getting tattoos are suburban women. This means that a large number of soccer moms are the ones “rebelling” and getting tattoos.
Women started to become more interested in tattooing in the 1960’s. In the United States during this time women and men were experimenting with drugs, sex, and other forms of self-expression. Tattooing was just another way for women to rebel against society. Traditionally, society had viewed tattoos has symbols of rebellious nature, only bikers and prisoners would have them. In today’s society teachers, lawyers, and accountants have tattoos. They are respected members of the community and yet they still have tattoos. The stereotypical view of people with tattoos is so slowly disappearing. What has changed over time? Why are tattoos more accepted? Also, if they are in fact accepted does this mean that getting a tattoo is no longer a rebellious act?
In many cases we see that adolescents are trying to rebel against their parents and decide to get tattoos and body piercings. To them, this was the only way to gain some control in their lives and help their self-esteem. Lynne Carroll and Roxanne Anderson have done various research on the affect of tattooing and body piercing on young adolescent girls. In this study, they found that adolescent girls were trying to not only rebel against their parents for more control in their lives but also because of this act of rebellion their self-esteem was affected.
Tattooing is also about control for many people, for rebelling is usually based on the lack of control someone has in their life. People tend to rebel because they want control whether it’s over their body, their life, or their society. They need to have power over something and having a say of what goes on your body definitely helps them. Tattooing is one of those things that you have complete control over because it is on your body and you decide what goes on it and what does not. This is why many women started to get tattoos, whether they are unhappy with their lives or not, this gives many of them their first taste of freedom and control outside of the home.
This idea of needing control and rebellious behavior from women is supported by the work that Christine Braunberger has done about tattooing. In her study, she explains the perception women have about tattooing and the freedom that comes along with it. She describes tattooing for women as a rebirth into their natural beauty. Tattooing for women is more of an act of independents that helps them discovers themselves in all their glory. In addition, Braunberger also gives you the battle between the concepts of women with tattoos as beautiful or as a monster.
Then there is a whole other theory about tattooing, and it is a form of self-expression. This reason of self-expression is becoming a popular explanation for the increase in people getting tattoos. More and more people want to find outlets for their passions, religious beliefs, anger, sadness, happiness, etc. To them tattooing is a perfect way to express themselves. It is a great way to express many different emotions. It has become body art. There is a whole culture today that is all about tattooing. Many professional artists have tattoos and many tattooists are artist, their work is on peoples bodies and to them it is a living art. This culture is more than just tattoos and making money, to the tattooist and to the person getting the tattoo it is about so much more. It is about art, color, shape, emotion, remembering, honoring a loved one. They live and breathe tattoos. It is their way of life; however, whether it is an obsession or devotion is another question.
This notion of tattooing as a culture is actually true. Culture does not have to refer to a people of a specific place who speak the same language and have the same belief system. It can also be built on a common goal or desire; this is the case with the tattooing community. Margo Demello actually takes the time to examine the modern day tattoo world and how it came to be. In her book she decides the community from the ground up; the background stories of tattooing, tattoos in today’s media, and the new meaning of tattoos. Her work is a vast study on tattoos in the new age and future of tattooing in America. And tattooing has become its own world; there are magazines, books, movies, national and state competitions and conferences that are all based around tattooing.
Another writer who adds to this theory of self-expression is Terisa Green, she takes it one step further and creates an encyclopedia for tattoos. This lends a hand to stating that tattooing is about self-expression and art. In her book she is trying to help others figure out some common meanings of tattoos so they are getting a tattoo that best fits them. Margot Mifflin also looks at the meaning of tattoos in her book. She actually studies the history of tattooed women in circuses. She learns about the meaning of tattoos and freedom that the tattoos gave women in historical time periods where women weren’t allowed to be that expressive.
On the other side of self-expression some authors are studying tattooing in definitions of beauty. Robert Wicks looks into the affect that tattoos have on beauty and whether or not face tattoos are accepted as beautiful. He also tries to put limits and restrictions on tattoos so people can remain acceptable in society. Corinna Wu is another author who disagrees with this idea of self expression; her discussion is about the removal of tattoos due to regret and more. She is looking at tattoos in a different light, she looks at them as symbols of a rebellious youth and not as a well thought out plan. She believes adults will later come to understand the wildness of their younger years and see tattoos as a mistake.
A final explanation that I have come up with for why people get tattoos is to belong. In our simplest form we are human beings and as humans we need to socialize with others. It is a basic function that we have; we do not usually like to be alone. As children we are taught to play nicely with others, to share, and to work together. With these common lessons that are taught to us as children it is no wonder why we want to desperately belong to a group or to fit in. We see it all the time in high school and college, how kids want to be apart of “the in crowd” and popular. Many of them will go to extreme measures to do so, even permanently marking their bodies.
Many sport teams, braches of the military, and gangs have tattoos that are symbols of belonging. Many of these groups do not make it a requirement to be tattooed or to last receive a tattoo in order to get in but that does not stop people from feeling pressure to get a tattoo to show how tough they are or to show their loyalty. Because a tattoo is so permanent, when you get one you show that you are permanently apart of this group and chose not to leave it.
Other people get tattoos for groups because they feel that they need to for protection. In gangs if you flash a gang sign or a gang tattoo then most people will not hurt you because of fear of having whole gangs come after them. On the other side if you do not get a tattoo for a gang, many times this is telling the gang that you are not loyal and they will come after you themselves.
To sum up these theories, people get tattoos for different reasons. It is on case to case bases. But each theory is similar in the end, for it is up to an individual person to get a tattoo. Whether a person gets a tattoo for rebellious reason, to fit in with others, for control, or even for self-expression, it is all the same. I am writing this paper and doing this study in hopes of not only discovering the reasons behind tattooing but I also wanted to show society that not all tattoos are negative. I hope with this research that many negative thoughts and feelings toward tattoos can stop so people can continue living their lives and promote a more accepting society.
- Atkinson, Michael. Tattooed: The Sociogenesis of a body Art (University of Toronto Press)
- Caplan, Jane. Written on the body: The tattoo in European and American History (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey)
- Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community (Duke University press, Durham & London 200)
- Green, Terisa. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to choosing your tattoo (A Fireside book Published by Simon & Schuster New York, Toronto, Sydney)
- Kuwahara, Makiko. Tattoo: An anthropology (Berg Oxford-New York)
- Miller, Jean-Chris. The Body art book: A complete illustration guide to tattoos, piercing, and other body modification (Berkley Books, New York)
- Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: A secret History of Women and tattoo. New York City: Juno Books, 2007.
- Pitts, Victoria. In the Flesh: the Cultural Politics of Body Modification (Palgrave Macmillan)
- Armstrong, Myrna. "Vital Signs: When the Art is on a Body Part." The American Journal Of Nursing 99, no. 6 (1999)
- Braunberger, Christine. "Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women." NWSA 12, no. 2
- Carroll, Lynne, and Roxanne Anderson. "Body Piercing, Tattooing, Self-esteem, and body investment in adolescent girls." (n.d.)
- Demello, Margo. "Not just for bikers anymore: Popular representations of American tattooing."
- Demello, Margo. "The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners." Anthropology Today 9, no. 6 (1993)
- Jones, C.P. "Stigma: tattooing and branding in Greco-roman antiquity." the journal of roman studies 77 (1987)
- Kang, Mailiann, and Katherine Jones. "Why do People get tattoos?"
- Reed, Carrie. "Tattoo in Early China." Journal of the American Oriental Society 20 (n.d.)
- Wicks, Robert. "Can Tattooed faces be Beautiful? Limits on the Restriction of forms in Dependent Beauty." The journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57, no. 3 (1999)
- Wu, Corinna. "Disappearing Ink: Tattoo Technology for Modern Impermanence." Science News 172, no. 15
 Caplan, Jane. Written on the body, pgs. 17-45
 Reed Carrie. Tattoo in Early China
 Jones, C.P. Stigma: tattooing and branding in Greco-roman antiquity
 Demello, Margo. "Not just for bikers anymore: Popular representations of American tattooing."
 Carroll, Lynne, and Roxanne Anderson. "Body Piercing, Tattooing, Self-esteem, and body investment in adolescent girls.
 Braunberger, Christine. "Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women
 Demello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community
 Green, Terisa. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to choosing your tattoo
 Mifflin, Margot. Bodies of Subversion: A secret History of Women and tattoo.
 Wicks, Robert. "Can Tattooed faces be Beautiful: Limits on the Restriction of forms in Dependent Beauty"
 Wu, Corinna. "Disappearing Ink: Tattoo Technology for Modern Impermanence."
 Demello, Margo. "The Convict Body: Tattooing Among Male American Prisoners."