Why Do We Get Tattoos?
Tattoos may be a symbol of belonging and commitment.
Posted Jan 15, 2020
Of all the changes in fashion endemic to youth, the rise in tattoos over the last 30-odd years may be the most striking. In this post, based on theory and observation, I put forward a few possible explanations.
Tattoos center around the notion of commitment, which, according to Michaels and Pacherie (2014), refers to a psychological decision that makes an individual’s behavior predictable despite changes in their desires and interests. Commitment is important because it facilitates future planning and coordination of joint actions involving multiple agents.
A recent piece in the New York Review of Books by Roberto Saviano, about the cultural practices and rituals of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia clan in Calabria, clarifies the function and purpose of tattoos in this light. Saviano writes, “Symbols and codes serve to create a sense of belonging and to hand down an identity"; this was especially important for secret societies where the gestures and markings reveal the underlying loyalties of the individual. For example, according to Saviano, whereas the ‘Ndrangheta used to sport bullu tattoos with three dots between the thumb and index finger, young members of the Camorra organization in Naples mark themselves with the initials of their family and clan boss. This is not a simple labeling; the tattoo is given in code. Instead of letters, they use numbers, and the numbers then refer to letters through a complicated set of significations known mostly to insiders. Similar to how members of gangs in urban spaces mark out their territory with esoteric symbols in tags that are only readable for those in the know, these tattoos mark turf.
This obscurity in significations is a key to why tattoos have become a flexible set of meaningful symbols that can be used to mark individuality in the context of group belonging. The value of symbols used in body markings, from tattoos to ornamentation, lies in their interpretability: if you understand what the symbols mean, you are part of the same cultural sphere. If you are part of the same cultural sphere, then you are likely to have similar commitments.
Tattoos solve a commitment problem for urban and suburban youth; like most consumer choices, they indicate the social roots and aspirations of the individual. As I discussed in Why I Buy (2013), America has an individualist culture, and a person may express that individuality in the objects he purchases. Many advertisements and goods that are not high luxury or inexpensive utilitarian products are geared to selling to the self, of buying as an act of self-expression. In a capitalist society, the goods one consumes help others to situate the individual in a range of categories, including class and social position. Visually-identifiable markings facilitate social navigation in anonymous spaces by providing meaningful symbols to locate ourselves and others.
Using the flexible system of meaning available through the symbology of tattoos one can display their social and cultural allegiances. These marks, like those of the Camorristi, establish group belonging. How an individual navigates the obscure relation between symbols and meanings to create the tattoo indicates her creative individuality, which further ingratiates her into the group. This process demonstrates mastery of the group’s cultural semiology.
Being part of a group indicates you share norms, customs, and values. It provides you with a safety structure which can achieve more together than apart. Commitment for an individual agent requires considering whether it is worth joining a social group, whether others will join if you join, and how long the group might last. The commitment problem being solved by permanently marking the body is an answer to the question any social group must ask of its members: “Are you in for good? Should we commit to you as well, and how will you prove your dedication to this group, or in some cases, this subculture, this way of being in the world. Are you one of us? Prove it by making your body an affirmation of this commitment.”
In some cases, the individual with the most tattoos has the most to gain by becoming a member of a new group, precisely because he has the most to lose from remaining in the group he came from. Due to the (more or less) permanent nature of tattoos, the more bodily markings a person takes on, the more committed to the social group he appears. The individual’s motivation for making a strong commitment through bodily marks could be a gross failure of trust in a recent social or familial relationship within a previous social group. The individual is then motivated to find a new group — it is no coincidence that the types of tattoos that individuals within a group of friends have look similar. It is also revealing that the largest proportion of tattoos are inked during adolescence, that is, during a time in life when individuals are actively sculpting their self-identity and are intent on finding a sense of belonging in groups beyond their inherited family structures.
According to philosopher Kim Sterelny, the problems of deception and defection in the social niche of large, anonymous societies are quite threatening because our ties to one another are usually of shorter duration and less embedded in long-standing familial and guild relationships. In other words, agents are highly mobile now, changing domicile often, and thus defection, or ‘ghosting,’ is a far more common social strategy. If a group member defects, the group has not only wasted resources but may now need to stem further defections sparked by the event.
The earliest examples of tattoos we know in Pharaonic Egypt are generally thought to indicate status and group belonging, or serve as amulets for protection or as therapeutic markings. In the Maori of New Zealand we find highly unique tattoos that express information about status, rank, abilities, and ancestry. For warriors, the process of receiving the tattoo is considered a rite of passage; the pain experienced during the ceremony reveals the ritual is sacred. We know that some of the earliest examples of body tattooing are observed in tribal associations, which indicate belonging to a particularly vulnerable, nomadic guild. Consider, for example, sailor tattoos which indicate the trials and tribulations the individual has fought through, and his status on the ship within the hierarchy of rank and responsibility, as well as difference from people who are not sailors.
We have not discussed the vast topic of the aesthetics of tattoos themselves, including individuals who view the body as a surface for the elaboration of artful application of ink—in the future, this may become its own branch of art history. Clearly, such individuals are making their commitment to the art form impossible to ignore. For the majority, tattoos can be understood as public statements of social affiliation in the context of consumer notions of individual expression.
Gabriel, Rami. 2013. Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America. Bristol, UK: Intellect Press.
Lineberry, Cate. 2007. Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History. Smithsonian magazine January 1.
Saviano, Roberto. 2019. Meaning and Mayhem. New York Review of Books.
Sterelny Kim. 2007. Social intelligence, human intelligence and niche construction 362 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 719-730.