Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are People With Tattoos Stigmatized?

A study investigates why people hold negative views of tattooed individuals.

Source: FXQuadro/Shutterstock

Tattoos are becoming more commonplace in American society. The numbers tell a fascinating story: 47 percent of millennials have tattoos, in comparison to 36 percent of Generation Xers, and 13 percent of baby boomers. Overall, an estimated 21–29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, with roughly 15–20 percent having two or more tattoos. Yet despite their increasing popularity, are people who display body art stigmatized by society? This question was the focus of a study conducted by researchers Kristin Broussard and Helen Harton.

Stigma, according to a widely accepted view, is a socially constructed relationship between a socially undesirable characteristic and a stereotype. When a person is seen as deviating from the mainstream in terms of ability, physical appearance, behavior, and/or health, they may be subject to rejection or prejudice, resulting from preconceived notions that people often hold. Such treatment gets worse when the stigmatized individual is seen as “responsible” for their lot, as is the case with obesity, drug abuse, and lung cancer as a consequence of smoking. This is known as a “controllable stigma,” and it includes tattoos, because they arise as a matter of choice.

Broussard and Harton assert that despite the increasing popularity of tattoos over the last decade, people with tattoos are viewed negatively. Pejorative perceptions of tattooed people abound, including having negative personality characteristics, lower levels of inhibition, competence, and sociability, and higher levels of promiscuity. Studies focusing exclusively on tattooed women have found that they are judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Research reveals that women with this form of body art are perceived as more promiscuous, as being heavy drinkers, less attractive, less caring, less intelligent, and less honest. Moreover, tattooed individuals are particularly vulnerable to workplace discrimination, as it is legal to discriminate for being in violation of company policies concerning appearance. Remarkably, one study found that hiring managers would not hire a person with a visible tattoo, because it would taint the company’s image — and they don’t like them. This finding comports with interviews with tattooed individuals, who report that they have had difficulty finding work, because they have visible body art.

How can we explain the prejudice against those with tattoos? Broussard and Harton offer two accounts. According to a system-justification perspective, stereotypes serve to justify the denigration of certain groups. They also legitimize differences in social status and explain why social discrepancies between groups exist. In the case of tattooed people, they are often stereotyped to be criminals, dangers, or drug addicts. The “kernel of truth” hypothesis maintains that stereotypes about a certain group contain a degree of truth that is based on observation.

Building on previous research, the authors put forth several hypotheses and a research question:

  1. Tattooed individuals would be rated more negatively on character attributes than those without tattoos.
  2. Tattooed women would be viewed more harshly than tattooed men.
  3. Participants with tattoos would rate tattooed individuals more positively on character attributes than participants without tattoos, as tattooed participants may demonstrate favoritism towards people who are like them.
  4. Are tattooed individuals really different from non-tattooed individuals in certain stereotypical ways? That is, are they actually heavier drinkers, have more negative personality characteristics, and less intelligent?

In order to investigate these hypotheses, here’s what Broussard and Harton did. They recruited participants and had half of them view images of men and women with arm tattoos. The other half viewed the very same images — but with the arm tattoos digitally erased. They then had the participants rate the individuals in these images for their character, personality traits, drinking behavior, and cognitive ability using various questionnaires. Of note, some participants had tattoos themselves, so the researchers could compare the views which tattooed individuals have of other tattooed individuals.

What did the researchers find? Participants rated the images of individuals with an arm tattoo more negatively than the very same image of these individuals with the tattoos digitally erased. There was one notable exception: Participants viewed tattooed people, and especially women with tattoos, as stronger and more independent than their counterparts without tattoos. These findings are in keeping with previous work demonstrating that people see tatted women as less passive than their non-tattooed counterparts.

Remarkably, the participants who had tattoos themselves held equally negative views of tattooed individuals. This was not in line with the authors’ expectations. Broussard and Harton maintain that this finding might signal “a dissociation between the self and others,” in which people judge others more harshly than they do themselves. They also contend that the tattooed participants in this study might have internalized a tattoo stigma, in which they support the negative stereotypes about them.

Finally, Broussard and Harton looked at whether there were differences between tattooed and non-tattooed participants along stereotypical lines. They found that college-aged participants showed higher levels of dominance and alcohol consumption. Yet when the investigators controlled for age, the finding for greater alcohol intake was weaker.

Broussard and Harton contend that these findings challenge existing stereotypes about tattooed individuals, particularly that they are less intelligent, more rebellious, and take more risks. All told, the authors state, these views may not have a basis in fact — and are indeed just stereotypes.


Tattoo or taboo? Tattoo stigma and negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals. Kristin A Broussard, Helen C Harton. The Journal of Social Psychology, September 2017

More from Psychology Today

More from Vinita Mehta Ph.D., Ed.M.

More from Psychology Today