Tattoo You

I took a Psychology class a couple of semesters ago.  Cultural Diversity.  Thought it would be amusing to see the official take on my life.

For our final project we had to select a cultural phenomenon with which we were unfamiliar to research, have an experience of then write a paper and give a presentation.

I chose tattooing.

Tats, as I’m told the insiders call them, seem to be everywhere these days. I wanted to see if there had been any real change in the acceptance of tattooing in the mainstream.

Growing up in the 60’ and 70’s nice people just didn’t get tattoos, at least nice people who lived in white bread, middle class suburbia and hadn’t served in the military didn’t.

No, tattoos were for the hard core military, convicts, bikers and ladies of the night.

To this day, despite or maybe in addition to the fact that several of her grandchildren now have tattoos (including my own daughter), my Mom refers to them as trashy – the tattoos, not the grandchildren.

Trashy Babs

When the kids in my neighborhood played, the ones with the lick and stick tattoos were the bad guys, the ones who had guns and smoked.  Told you, middle class America in the 60’s.

As I grew up and gained a little worldly experience and knowledge, I found cultures outside my own that used skin marking as a means of artistic expression and to scare the wits out of their enemies.  (Check out the movie, The Piano there’s some good Maori tattooing going on there.)

But with my upbringing, these really didn’t have any real impact on my life – tattoos still remained other world.

I truly wondered why it was that any modern person in their right mind would submit to a torturous procedure that I viewed as coming from rather seedy depths.  Nuts.

For my research, I read various and sundry dry research articles that mostly found that tattooing was gaining some ground of acceptance in society as a whole, but this was still dependent on what types of tattooing was done – cute or not so cute.

One little tidbit from a large, southeastern university survey done in 2007 found that while many women may find visible tattoos on men attractive (as the ‘bad boy’), almost half of the men said that they seldom found a tattoo attractive on a woman.


Kinda speaks for itself, doesn't it?

I interviewed a couple of tattoo artists for my paper.  They were both very amenable to my clumsy questions.  I did find it interesting that the artist that had been in the business for all his life didn’t have any visible tattoos and the younger one said that he though his tattoos would restrict him in some of his career hopes. (Found out later that artist one actually has beaucoup tats, but just not down his arms.)

I also interviewed some folks I know who have tattoos.  That was interesting, too.  There was a common theme between them as well.

All three people got tattoos for the personal and permanent expression of feelings, relationships or circumstances.  None said they regretted it or would change them, but each said that they’ve either received flack or covered up to prevent commotion.

It was all the same familiar stuff I had read in the research papers.  It was a ‘yes, but’ kind of thing going on.

I wrangled my way into observing a tattoo being done.

My niece said I could come and watch hers being created if I didn’t ask stupid questions, such as “Does it hurt?”  Turns out that’s a stupid question because its obvious that it hurts like hell in certain areas.


The conclusion of my paper research was pretty much summed up by a phrase from one of the papers I read:

“people still view tattoos as a badge of dislocated, ostracized & disenfranchised community – a signifying practice that purposely embraced and promulgated images of other-ness”  – (Atkinson, Michael. “Tattooing and Civilizing Processes: Body Modification as Self-Control” Canadian Review of Sociology & Anthropology  41.2 (2004):125-146.Print.)

In other words, tattooing was still seen as coming from the wrong side of the tracks and done so on purpose.

There was some shift in the mainstream outlook and there is a new subculture of diverse ages, genders, races and socioeconomic levels that finds it completely acceptable as a means of self expression, but the tolerance shown was more or less dependent upon in what company one keeps, where the tattoo is located and what type it is. (Wow, that’s a pompous quote pretty much straight from my paper.)

My own conclusion was a bit p.c.  I said that I had learned that people will tattoo just about anything on themselves (and they do) for a myriad of reasons.  I also said that I had developed a broader ability to look beyond my own cultural upbringing and not judge those who have tattoos.  But in reality, it is still very difficult even with my own kid. I was raised to be a tattoo snob.

My last question to the class was and now you is – what are our nursing homes going to look like in 50 years with all this tattooing going on?  Think about it; it ain’t pretty.

Public Domain, artisit/subject unknown


  1. Really thought provoking.

    I don’t have any tattoos, and I’ll never get any. Like you, I was raised to be anti-tattoo. I have; however, always admired the art. Secretly as a child, boldly as an adult.

    I believe your summation in your paper is totally accurate for many tattoo clients today but of course not all. I still think (presumption only) that there is a larger population, than probably most might believe, that gets tattoos for reasons other than to be nonconformist. I hope to research that myself in the future.

    Overall; as a lifelong visual artist, I do see tattooing and receiving a tattoo as a very special experience. It is clearly a collaboration between the artist and the client who will wear the image on their body for all or just themselves to see; depending on where it’s placed on their anatomy. Both the artist and the client have a say on how the image consists of because of what it’s supposed to represent. As with any art collector, the wearer typically has the last word on where the art is finally placed for display. It really is quite a remarkable situation.

    As for the nusing homes? I think that popular aesthetics of the future will dictate whether of not the people of that time view the many seniors as horrid or not. Horror of being and looking old, without tattoos, is already the common perception in today’s society.

    1. I once thought to be daring and stepping out of my suburban comfort zone to get a tattoo, but this was quickly quelled when I observed one being done. Upbringing and fear won out (and I’m glad for it now).

      As an artist I can appreciate the difficulty of the medium. I can only imagine the degree of difficulty in creating an image on such a moveable canvas and with such a cumbersome utensil.

      It is an outsider art form that has become popularized by certain segments of society. Many of the people I interviewed said that they got their tattoos because it gave them a permanent reminder of themselves and their feelings at just that moment.

      I agree that in some circumstances, the tattooing process is a special relationship between artist and client; however during my research I found an inordinate number of people who really didn’t care who did the artwork – he/she just wanted a tattoo. I believe these are the people who will populate our dotage with with their once “cool” tats, now drooping to parts unknown.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Much luck with your research. It is a fascinating subject and much more than skin deep!

  2. The nursing home question has often occurred to me too. And, related, I wonder if in another twenty-thirty years the new crop of young adults will see tattoos as something old-fashioned and parental??

    I was raised to find tattoos disgusting too – now that I know a number of people who have them, they don’t bother me. My husband still hates them, though, so I wouldn’t get one myself!

    1. My apologies! I’ve been very neglectful of my blog lately and missed your visit and comment. Your wonderings are the same as mine about the trends of this new form of expression and its acceptance as “cool”. Who knows? When I was a kid, one could get thrown out of public places for wearing a flag on your clothing! Now, it’s nothing.

  3. i was hoping right to the end you’d put yourself in the chair! :0)

    certainly there is a huge difference between the individual whose tattoo is a genuine expression of self and the design will inevitably be a work of collaboration with the artist (sometimes over many months or even years), and the individual who simply picks a tat from a book…

    for my part, i wear mine (one of which is clearly visible) with pride. perhaps even more so now i have a professional job. it pleases me
    to break the negative assumptions.

    as for the nursing home issue, even i accept that my tattoos are unlikely to be attracrive when i’m old and saggy (despite best efforts to place them sensibly), but for me that’s not the point. they will still chart a history and reflect
    my story.

    1. I just may have to do a follow-up article on this blog! I find it utterly fascinating that so many people are using this art form to express and define themselves now. (And no, I won’t be putting myself in that chair to do it 😉 ) Thanks for stopping by and showing there is still interest in this one.

  4. I think nursing homes will be all the more lovely with their colorful residents. A tattoo done well is a thing of beauty and meaning. Like any thing aesthetic there are differences in taste and execution. My tattoos are now more than a decade old.They are still lovely to me and meaningful. In thirty years I will have the sagging body of a person in their sixties. So will everyone else my age. Tattooed or not. Mine, however will have lovely artwork on it.

    1. Thanks for commenting Annie. I have many friends (and relatives) who have decorated their bodies with images that mean something special to them. Many have overcome the stereotypes and biases that come with their chosen means of expression and I admire them for that conviction – they, as you, literally wear their art. I champion anyone’s right to personal expression (with the usual ‘if it does not harm anyone else’ caveat), getting a tattoo, however, is still not for me. 🙂

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