Why People Get Tattoos
Recent research deepens our understanding of how tattoos are perceived.
Posted Sep 03, 2019
When tattoos first emerged in the 1800s, they were considered a sign of being a criminal or deviant. Today, they are increasingly commonplace. According to one estimate, 38 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo.
What makes some people choose to get tattoos? This question was investigated in a recent study led by psychologist Luzelle Naudé of the University of the Free State in South Africa. More specifically, she and her collaborators sought to understand why college students would choose to get or not get a tattoo, as well as their perceptions surrounding the practice.
In order to investigate these questions, Naudé and her team began by recruiting participants who were college seniors and enrolled in a psychology research methods course. Participants completed questionnaires that inquired about their experiences pertaining to tattoos, including whether or not they had one or more tattoos, how many of their friends had one or more, their reasons for having one or not, and their opinions about tattooed individuals. Naudé and her collaborators also invited the participants back for a follow-up interview that probed more deeply into their perceptions about tattoos.
The results were striking. Most of the participants (78%) did not have tattoos, and most of their parents (92%) did not have tattoos. However, most of the participants’ friends (74%) had tattoos — and almost half (47%) were considering getting a tattoo or another tattoo.
Participants’ reasons for getting or not getting a tattoo were roughly equal, with 47% responding positively and 50% responding negatively. The primary motivation for those who got a tattoo (25%) had to do with its personal meaning (such as to mark a significant experience or struggle). Participants reported reasons such as “to keep my mother’s memory,” “a way of honoring my first child,” and “presented what I was going through at a certain time of my life.” Some participants (12%) also felt that their tattoos were an extension or expression of who they were. As one respondent remarked, “My body is a book, my tattoos is [sic] my story.” Some participants also reported that they found tattoos to be an appealing form of art.
For the participants who opted not to get a tattoo, the main reasons revolved around social and cultural factors, primarily religion (11%). One participant reflected, “I am a religious person so my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I'd like to keep clean.” Another expressed, "I am a Christian, it is conflicting as in the Christian religion to treat and respect one's body as a temple.”
Other reasons for forgoing a tattoo included disapproval from family and friends and incurring negative views at work. Some participants (10%) shared concerns about the permanency of tattoos and their sense that it looks unattractive on older people. Participants also referred to medical reasons or fear of needles and pain (10%). Moreover, some participants viewed tattoos as unappealing. One participant opined: “I wouldn't get one. Would you put a bumper sticker on a Ferrari?”
As for the participants’ views about their tattoos and those of others, the participants themselves were for the most part non-judgmental. When asked, “What is your opinion about tattoos and people with tattoos?” the majority of participants (54%) had positive opinions, 18% had mixed feelings, 13% had negative opinions, and 15% either had no opinion or were indifferent. Most respondents respected the preferences of tattooed individuals. A respondent stated, “They’re cool and all, just not for me.”
Of note, when responding to the question “What do you think are people’s opinions of tattoos?”, most participants (39%) felt that people have mixed feelings or negative feelings (35%), by contrast to the 17% of the participants who believed that people felt positively about tattoos. Four percent of the participants did not share an opinion.
Among those who harbored negative views, they stated that tattoos were (in their own words), ugly, trashy, messy, cheap and filthy. Similarly, they saw tattooed individuals as evil, satanic, dangerous, rebellious, ungodly, stupid, reckless, unprofessional, weird, not-Christian, associated with criminality, cruel, showoffs, outcasts, anti-social, bereft of morals, and defiant of society. A respondent remarked: “They just got a tattoo because they were rebelling or they are bad*ss.” Another expressed, “They want to feel a sense of belonging, attention and want to be feared.”
Among those with positive views about tattoos persons, they saw tattoos as attractive and those who sport them as cool, trendy, fashionable, interesting, spontaneous, creative, artistic, free-spirited, more open/accepting, liberal, adventurous, brave, strong, courageous, and unafraid of commitment and pain. As one participant put things, “People with tattoos are the realest people [you] ever will meet.”
Some participants had “conditional perceptions.” That is, they could be accepting of tattoos under certain conditions. The majority felt comfortable with tattoos, so long as the tattoo had personal meaning or was a means of expression. They were, however, more negative about tattoos when it came to professionalism at work or age. One participant reflected, “For young people, it is stylish and cool, but when they grow old and they have tattoos it looks disgusting and inappropriate as if they are getting old but do not want to accept by still liking things. In the workplace, tattoos are not appropriate and the person may seem unprofessional, or not serious about his/her career.”
Moreover, participants felt strongly about the number, size and placement of tattoos. For instance, a respondent shared: “I must admit, I tend to be skeptical of someone who has an arm/leg/back full of tattoos (usually patterns) – in my opinion, there is something as too many tattoos. However, if someone had tattoos which meant something to them (e.g., a name of a person who has passed on or a logo symbolizing an important event in their lives) that's perfectly fine – something I might consider getting myself in the future.”
And among those with a tattoo, the majority hadn’t experienced negative consequences because of having one and did not regret getting one. The regrets they did have were getting one from a poorly trained tattoo artist, or one that was too big or unattractive. There were also references to pain, permanency, some judgment, or acquiring the wrong tattoos (e.g., an ex-partner’s name).
Most participants with tattoos saw the prejudice they did experience as insignificant. As one participant stated, “So I feel like I would be like ‘ah so you don’t like it ... so what?’ I have to wake up in this body in the morning, not you.” Another respondent said, “They should get over their prejudices. There are plenty of highly educated and intelligent people with tattoos.”
The author Michael Biondi once wrote, “Our bodies were printed as blank pages to be filled with the ink of our hearts.” He likely didn’t have social science research on his mind at the time, but for those who embrace tattoos, this study lends support for his sentiment.
Luzelle Naudé, Jacques Jordaan, and Luna Bergh. “My Body is My Journal, and My Tattoos are My Story”: South African Psychology Students’ Reflections on Tattoo Practices. Current Psychology. February 2019, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 177–186.
USA Today, September 20, 2017