Even Barbie Has a Tattoo—So Why Do They Still Shock?

Body art has come full circle to the days when it signalled sophistication.

Posted Jan 29, 2013

Nowadays a tasteful tattoo doesn't mean you see yourself as a drunken sailor. Tattoos are pretty mainstream: As many as 24 percent of respondents in national surveys in North America and Europe say they wear at least one tattoo. We see tattoos on celebrities, in advertising campaigns, on action figures, and even Barbie.

Yet they still have the power to shock, which makes them an interesting example of evolving culture. 

Tattoos go back to the origins of humanity, showing up on the earliest mummies we've uncovered. The impulse to alter the body seems deeply tied into the impulse to make art.  

In recent European history, the story picks up again in 1769, when the British Captain James Cook noted in his ship log that he had seen “tattows” on the natives of the South Pacific. Tattoos became a badge of membership in tough cultures. Sailors, soldiers, prisoners and circus performers wore them proudly.

It's less well known that for a brief period in the late 1880s, upper class Americans and British wore tattoos to show that they were sophisticated--rich enough to travel and be aware of other cultures.

But that fad faded and for the next fifty years in the United States, tattoos meant that you were working-class.

In the 1980s, teenagers, punks and some in the gay movement got tattooed to shock and protest. Tattoos still prompt strong reactions. “People are disgusted, intrigued, or astonished, but rarely indifferent,” says one man in his twenties who has debated removing the tattoo. Some see body art as provocative, an intimacy made public. “Tattoos blur the line between public and private,” says Viren Swami, a British psychology researcher who boasts four tattoos himself, including a quote from an Indonesian poet on his left forearm. “The process of getting a tattoo is incredibly personal, whereas the act of wearing a tattoo can often be a very public affair."

Jesse Lee Denning, a public relations representative with a Masters degree in art history, has published a calendar with twelve photos of herself revealing a lot of skin covered in extensive tattoos. She’s also graced the cover of tattoo magazines. Her tattoos make her “feel more beautiful,” she says. “It’s 100 percent vanity—I’m not into pain.” She still keeps her tattoos in areas she can cover up and she kept them under wraps for her first meeting with her boyfriend’s parents. “People do judge you,” says Denning.

Women are as likely as men to get tattooed. However, like Denning they tend to pick private spots—for example, the small of the back, a rare location for a man’s tattoo, says Swami. That may be because women hear more criticism, especially from their fathers and doctors. When strangers compare a woman with a tattoo to one without, they’re more prone to guess that the one with tattoos sleeps around or drinks heavily, Swami has found.

The bad-girl image may not be all wrong, though it’s increasingly outdated. Full-time college students with four or more tattoos (or seven or more body piercings) are more likely to report smoking marijuana regularly, using other illegal drugs occasionally and a history of arrests. To a lesser degree, they admit to cheating on college work, drinking in binges and having more sex partners, according to a 2009 study of 1,753 students drawn from two major state universities and two expensive and selective religiously affiliated colleges. The authors of the same study, however, noted that 14 percent of the respondents, who were successful enough to be in college, had at least one tattoo.

The pleasure from a new tattoo lasts at least three weeks, Swami has discovered (he hasn't discovered how much longer it may continue.) But negative reactions get in the way. After her first tattoo, for example, Marnie Galloway’s usually supportive father said he was “disappointed in her,” a “harsh rebuke” for him,” she says. Galloway, a book artist, had to get off her bike a half block away from her part-time secretarial job to cover up her arm tattoo.

The stigma at work is probably unfair. In Swami's most recent research, he found that people who get tattoos are more extraverted and slightly less conscientious, but not more rebellious. Their strongest trait was a desire to feel unique.

Today, tattoos are form of self-expression more complex than the old badge of memberships in the lower classes and the rebelliousness of the 1980s. When celebrities show off their ink, they suggest the days more than a century ago when tattoos were a sign of sophistication. But as more and more people wear tattoos and take a keen interest in colors and design, tattoos also seem to be returning to their roots as one of our earliest forms of art.

 Portions of this article appeared previously in YouBeauty.com.

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