There was a time when tattoos were considered taboo, but that time is long past. In the UK, an estimated 20 million people sport at least one tattoo, almost one of every three inhabitants of my mother country — perhaps not surprising given that the name “Britain” comes from the ancient Celtic for “the tattooed folk."
In America, it’s not much different. A decade ago, a Pew report found that 40 percent of millennials in he U.S. had a tattoo, and I suspect that number may have crept higher since then.
My own sister is a tattoo artist, inked up from head to toe (literally), but I’ve never gone under the needle myself and find it difficult to understand why anyone would. To my eyes, about 95 percent of tattoos look rubbish, plus they’re permanent — unless you want to put yourself through multiple sessions of laser treatment, which are more expensive and painful than getting a tattoo in the first place.
But perhaps the pain is part of the point …
A signal of strength?
Evolutionary biologists have theorized that tattoos are a way of signaling how tough we are. In preindustrial societies, tattooing is more painful and more dangerous than in modern societies. Piercing the skin exposes the recipient of a tattoo to infection, and only those with the strongest immune systems can come through the process with their health intact.
So tattoos may be the human equivalent to a peacock’s showy tail — a drain on bodily resources that reduces survival chances, but advertises to potential mates (and rivals) that you are tough enough to withstand the handicap.
In a research paper published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, scientists from Poland sought to test this theory: Are humans with tattoos seen as more attractive, healthy, and dominant?
Andrzej Galbarczyk and Anna Ziomkiewicz photographed nine shirtless men, none of whom had a tattoo. Then they had a professional add an abstract tattoo design to the image of each man’s arm.
Several hundred male and female volunteers were shown these images, and asked to rate them for attractiveness, health, masculinity, dominance, and aggression. The volunteers also judged how good a partner and father they thought each man would make.
Women thought that the men looked healthier with a tattoo, which supports the biologists’ theory. However, tattoos didn’t make a man look more or less attractive. Women thought tattooed men would be worse partners and fathers than men without tattoos, perhaps because tattoos signal impulsiveness and a propensity for risk-taking — hardly the characteristics most women prioritize in a long-term partner. Both men and women agreed that a man with a tattoo looked more masculine, dominant, and aggressive.
The researchers concluded that "tattoos may have a dual function: They influence female preference, but also are likely to be important in male-male competition."
However, I wonder if the results could partly be explained by the type of men they photographed. The sample image that appeared in their research paper showed an athletic young man. If the other models that were photographed were similarly buff, this could be a problem. Tattoos are so culturally loaded with information that it is possible that the same tattoo could communicate different messages, depending on the bearer’s age, physical condition, or other variables the researchers didn’t investigate.
What’s more, anyone who has visited a tattoo parlor knows that the number of available tattoo designs is virtually limitless. This means it is very difficult to conclude from one study whether tattoos, as a whole, have a predictable effect on how a person is perceived.
But for now, at least, it seems like I may have been right to forgo the needle. I don’t really want to be seen as more aggressive or a bad bet for a long-term partner, and if I want to appear more healthy I’ll make sure to eat my 5-a-day...
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Galbarczyk, A., & Ziomkiewicz, A. (2017). Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 106.