What Does Your Tattoo Say About You?


Look in the mirror: What you see might not be what someone else sees. People decide to get tattooed for a myriad of reasons (an appreciation of art, faith, or culture, to name a few) but there’s one motive most in the tattoo community agree on: You get inked to set yourself apart.

But while you see yourself as an iconoclast, employers, neighbors, people you encounter in public, and even family members might not see you as an individualist. Putting on a tattoo sends a message to the outside world about the person inside you, and in the modern day it can be perceived that you have negative characteristics—that you are a freak, a weirdo, an outlaw.

That wasn’t always true. Tattoos go back a long way, to at least 3300 B.C., the year O?tzi the Iceman, one of the oldest mummified bodies yet discovered, died. His body shows evidence of tattoos, which may have been widespread in ancient cultures. Was O?tzi a Fonzie? The cool tattooed cat of the Cooper Age—or did everybody have tattoos in his culture back then?

What we do know of ink and culture—at least in the Caucasian, Western world—began in the 18th century, with the South Pacific voyage of British Captain James Cook and his crew. During their travels, they met the tattooed residents of Tahiti and other islands, and in July 1769, Cook wrote in his ship’s log: “Both sexes paint their bodies, Tattow as it is called in their language.” Many of his sailors returned home with tattoos of their own, and by the mid-1800s, professional parlors had opened up in Boston and Liverpool, catering mainly to soldiers and sailors—the working class. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, criminals were sometimes branded with ink, and inmates often got tattooed by choice. The idea of body art was thought to be so outlandish that inked women during the Victorian era drew crowds at the circus.

Then something interesting happened: In the late 1880s, the fashionable elite in the United States and England adopted body art. Influenced by designs from faraway lands, including Japan, tattoos became a symbol of worldliness, declaring that you were rich enough to travel or appreciate other cultures. In 1891, an American, Samuel O’Reilly, adapted Thomas Edison’s electric pen to create the first electric tattoo machine, instantly making the process faster and less painful. O’Reilly also brought Japanese artists to the States to cater to the upper classes, giving them more designs to choose from, with more detail.

But by 1910, the fad had faded, most likely because tattoos had become more accessible to the working folk. And for the next 70 years or so, a tattoo declared that you had been imprisoned (justifiably or unjustifiably, as during the Holocaust) or that you’d served in the military. In the 1980s, punks, homosexuals, and rebellious teenagers began displaying tattoos, in part as a form of social protest. As the nuclear family blew up post-Reagan, the cool kids started to look less like Alex P. Keaton and more like the tattooed rockers on MTV.

From the first Unplugged to today (the decade that MTV no longer features music videos), the number of tattooed folks has exploded. In America, an estimated 1 out of 4 adults—a gigantic proportion—are inked. No longer are the tattooed a minority; in fact, currently there are more Americans with ink than there are African Americans or Hispanics.

But what does that mean? Has the trade sold out? Did tattoos go pop and lose the identification with rebellion? Viren Swami, Ph.D., a London psychologist who studies body image and attraction, went looking for an answer. Swami himself sports a tribal armband, roses and swallows on his right fore-arm, and cherry blossoms, a bird, and a quote from the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar on his left forearm. All his work is from Evil From the Needle in Camden Town, a shop run by Jeff Ortega that was opened by tattoo legend Bugs in the 1980s. So Swami, an associate editor for the journal Body Image and lecturer at the University of Westminster, is an insider in both the academic and tattooed communities.

whatsayIn 2011, he conducted a study of people contemplating a tattoo. He arranged for a receptionist at a tattoo shop in Camden Town to give psychological questionnaires to people who came in without tattoos. The group ranged in age from 18 to 50, with an average of 25. About 36 men and 26 women who answered the questionnaires went on to make an appointment for their first tattoo, and 42 men and 32 women decided not to. After reviewing the questionnaires, what he found was this: “As compared to individuals who did not subsequently obtain a tattoo, individuals that did were significantly less conscientious, more extroverted, more willing to engage in sexual relations in the absence of commitment, and had higher scores on sensation seeking, need for uniqueness, and distinctive appearance investment. The effect sizes of uncovered differences were small to moderate.”

In plain speak: Other than being less conscientious, the aforementioned characteristics were heightened but not extreme when compared to the majority of the population. That means that people wishing to join a community once thought to be audaciously anti-establishment and uncongenial don’t necessarily embody those traits. Be it from a large injection of normal folk entering the tattooed group or attitudes of the modern tattoo community shifting, empirical data shows that tattooed people are “mainstream.”

Before you become irate at the thought of being called mainstream, consider that the scientific definition of the word is slightly different from the straitlaced connotation you may have. What it means is that tattoos are “not restricted to any particular social class, gender, or ethnic group,” says Swami.

In 2012, Swami and his colleagues at the University of Vienna decided to study people who are already in the tattoo community. They surveyed 540 people, mostly Austrians, including 140 with an average of 2.7 tattoos. In the second study, the researchers identified several traits that set the inked apart. Compared with those without tattoos, the inked individuals scored higher on personality traits related to extroversion, experience-seeking, and need for uniqueness. The researchers concluded: “Tattoos may now be an important means through which individuals can develop unique identities.”

So back to the question that brought us here: “What does your tattoo say about you?” Your tattoo says that you are a part of a group that extroverted people want to join. To the scientific community, at least, you are not labeled a freak, weirdo, or troubled individual; you are an unguarded, unique, free spirit with a lust for life. In short, there is now scientific evidence that your tattoo says you are cool.

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