Beauty Beat: Your Skin Is Your Canvas

Tattoos and piercings are more mainstream than we think.

By Matthew Hutson, published on March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Tattoos and piercings send social signals. In some cultures, you're saying, "I'm healthy"—suffering the pain and health risks of body modification demonstrates biological fitness. In ours, the message is more like, "I'm down for anything."

A team of anthropologists at the University of Goettingen in Germany found that men and women with tattoos or piercings beyond earlobes are more sensation-seeking and promiscuous than the unadorned—as well as less friendly. Message received: A study reported in Body Image found that women with tattoos are seen by college students as more sexually active and more heavily drinking (and less attractive) than their peers. In fact, these students assume women with three tattoos (on the arm, hip, and ankle) chug eight drinks in a night out, versus only four for women with no ink.

But now that body art has crossed from punk rock to soccer mom, it doesn't mean all that it used to. The Germans found that the ornamented are no more extroverted, neurotic, careless, or open to new experiences. And they score no differently on measures of sexual orientation, masculinity, femininity, body image, or association with subcultures. Further, a team of sociologists at Texas Tech found no link among Southern college students between religiousness and number of piercings or tattoos. So, now how are you supposed to let your freak flag fly? May I suggest scarification? —Matthew Hutson

Rebel Without a Commitment

Want to stand out without perforating your skin? PT's news editor tried three alternatives:

  • Original Henna Body Painting Kit, $23, earthhenna.com

    Contained everything I needed to draw a prison-style tat of a dagger sticking into my chest.

  • Dye Hard, temporary hair color styling gel, $8, manicpanic.com

    My vampire-red fauxhawk freaked the squares at the supermarket, then came out in one wash.

  • Neurotransmitter Earrings, $40, madewithmolecules.com

    They match my geekiness (and my tongue stud), but dangly earrings work better on women.