There’s no denying that tattoos are becoming more commonplace in Western society. According to a 2015 Harris poll, one in three Americans (29 percent) have a tattoo—and most people who have a tattoo have more than one. Tattoos were introduced to the West by Captain Cook when he returned from the South Seas in 1769. Some of the sailors who accompanied him on this voyage were so taken by the tattoos adorned by the Polynesian women they encountered that they opted to get their own. After Cook and his mates made their way back, tattoos became an emblem of sorts among intrepid mariners. Their appeal subsequently widened. People of all stripes, from criminals to European nobility, began to engage in this form of body ornamentation. At this point, it seems only a matter of time before tattoos become completely mainstream.
Given their rising popularity, tattoos are receiving increasing attention from social scientists. Some research efforts have focused on the motivations behind why people get them, while others have looked at how they are perceived by others. One growing area of inquiry is whether people who decide to sport one or more tattoos show different personality factors than their un-tattooed counterparts. Take a study led by Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University. He and his research team recruited tattooed and non-tattooed individuals to participate in a study in which they completed various personality questionnaires. They found that of the myriad of personality factors under investigation, tattooed individuals were significantly different on three intriguing traits. Here’s what your tattoos might be saying about you, according to their results:
You're extroverted. Extroverted individuals are energized by social activities. On personality measures, extroverts are more likely to endorse items like “I am someone who is talkative,” and “I am someone who is full of energy.” They tend to be more sociable, fun-loving, affectionate, friendly, and talkative. Consider the actor Jamie Campbell Bower of the Twilight Saga, whose tattoos include a rose, a skull, and a bird. He once said, “I'm an extrovert, I like to gesticulate and talk loud and stuff, and theater is easy for me.”
You seek experiences. People who are, to put it technically, experience seeking, prefer experiences through the mind and senses, a non-conforming lifestyle, and low-risk, novel experiences. This is in contrast to the other dimensions of sensation seeking, which include thrill and adventure seeking, disinhibition, and boredom susceptibility. Take the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who in her book Big Magic reflected on a friend who has many tattoos and is enormously free spirited. Gilbert wrote “I myself am not covered with tattoos. (Although I do have two of them. Before I went traveling for "Eat, Pray, Love," I had two words written into my forearms in white ink: COURAGE and COMPASSION.) But I do want to live the most vividly decorated, temporary life I can. I don't just mean physically. I mean emotionally, spiritual, intellectually. I don't want to be afraid of bright colors, or big love, or major decisions, or new experiences, or risky creative endeavors, or sudden changes, or even great failure.”
You are unique. The greater a person’s need for uniqueness, the more dissimilar they want to be from others. The authors of this study point out that this finding (i.e., that tattooed individuals have a stronger need to be unique), which in keeping with previous research, suggests that tattoos are a mode of self-expression or construction of identity. This may be especially true in societies where the body is “commodified,” and thus a tattoo may be a way to present or communicate one’s differences and/or uniqueness. Colin Kaepernick, who has tattoos of Polynesian tribal symbols (among others), once told Sports Illustrated of his inky art, “To me it’s just another way to be different and try to separate myself as my own man. If I get judged for something like my tattoos, so be it.”
Personality differences between tattooed and non-tattooed individuals. Swami V, Pietschnig J, Bertl B, Nader IW, Stieger S, Voracek M. Psychological Reports, 2012 August;111(1):97-106.