We’ve all heard the negative stereotypes associated with tattoos – that the tattooed are criminals, gang members, freaks, or low-class. Everyone with a tattoo has likely encountered this attitude at one time or another. But is there any truth to it? This question has apparently played on the minds of several sociologists and researchers, leading to some very interesting studies.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Jerome Koch and his Body Art Team, who have spent years collecting data about the tattooed. Their findings surprised many – more and more, tattoos have become the domain of academics and artists. High-achieving students made up a significant portion of younger tattooees, and the number of tattooed women rises every year. Several other studies have confirmed these stats, discovering that the negative stereotypes are not only inaccurate, but statistically insignificant – such a tiny number of people fit that idea, it’s a wonder it still exists at all. Of course, that leaves many people wondering, if tattoos are not actually the domain of criminals and gangs, who is getting them, and why?
Through several surveys of American youths (under 25, in this case), one major trend has emerged: while many reasons for getting tattooed were offered, most agreed that “control over one’s body and image” was a factor. Students particularly reported a feeling of frustration with the societal expectations that had been imposed on them – that they were not encouraged to express themselves as individuals, and that getting tattooed gave them a sense of autonomy. Even when faced with the reality that tattoos have become very common, they still felt their tattoos made them unique, as theyhad chosen their pieces – they had, often for the first time in their lives, taken complete control of some aspect of themselves. Interestingly, the second most common reason was in opposition to the first: many reported getting tattooed in groups, to solidify friendships and memorialize achievements. Common examples include a group of university students all getting their school’s logo tattooed on them in their final year of studies, and females in particular bonding through matching tattoos. Rather than using tattoos to express their individuality, these youths chose to express a sense of belonging.
Of course, it’s not just young people getting tattooed. Almost one quarter of North American tattoos belong to someone over 40, and a good portion of them were done fairly recently. Not surprisingly, adults offered slightly different reasons for their ink, but not as different as one may think. The most common reason given was familial pride – parents getting their children’s names, or a related image, as well as memorial tattoos for passed-on parents, was by far the most popular answer. But there’s also a startling similarity between the younger and the older – a significant portion of tattooed adults reported a feeling of boredom with societal standards, and a desire to separate themselves from their peers. No longer content with the stuffiness of business attire and a clean-cut appearance, many have opted to buck the norm. Women especially expressed discontent with the expectations put on them regarding appearance, and saw tattoos as a reclamation of their bodies.
What all of these studies have told us is that, while there are countless reasons people get tattooed, the most significant seems to be autonomy. More and more, people are growing tired of having standards imposed on them, of being anonymous, faceless beings, of looking like everyone else. We are taking back control of our bodies and our images, and blatantly ignoring common stereotypes. Business-people, doctors, high achievers, and academics have all embraced tattoos as a way to rise above the tiny boxes they’ve been stuffed into, and in the process, have completely altered the tattoo landscape and rendered stereotypes meaningless. Ironically, this desire for uniqueness and individuality has made body-modification a very normal thing, but that doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily on anyone’s mind. To each tattooee, their body is their own, their art unique, and their message loud and clear: I belong to me.