Theodore Dalrymple M.D.

Psychiatric Disorder

Tattoos: Rebellion or Conformity?

Why Have so Many People Chosen to Have Themselves Tattooed?

Posted May 16, 2015

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine,[1] the percentage of adults in America with tattoos rose from 14 to 21 per cent between 2008 and 2012. This enormous increase (which started well before 2008, of course) is international, at least in the western world. In Britain, the percentage of the population with a tattoo is even higher than in America; even the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Cameron, has one. And, according to the French newspaper Libération, there were only 400 professional tattooists in France ten years ago, but now there are 4000

Why do people adorn, or mutilate, themselves in this way? And why the dramatic increase in the numbers choosing to do so? When I first noticed the trend about twenty years ago, tattoos were largely confined to certain groups more or less marginalised: sailors and criminals. The association in our societies between crime and tattoos has been long recognised: the Italian doctor, anthropologist, and criminologist, Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) wrote about it. When I started to work in a prison I noticed that upwards of 90 per cent of white British prisoners were tattooed, far more than in the general population or even in that part of the population from which they came. In my childhood, a man only lightly more tattooed that David Beckham, the famous soccer player, used to exhibit himself a freak to astonished and amused passers-by in Hyde Park in London.

When I first noticed the ascent of tattoos into the middle classes, which was gradual at first, I assumed that it was a political statement, a kind if identification with the marginalised. If criminals, for example, were really victims of society, then to imitate them was a kind of demonstration of solidarity with them. A tattoo was therefore a sign of political virtue and generosity of spirit. And it was an act of rebellion against a generation of parents who had once rebelled themselves.

Before long, however, the numbers having tattoos were so large that this explanation no longer satisfied me – and might never have been wholly true. Not only were more people getting tattooed, but the tattoos themselves were become larger, more elaborate, multiple and multicoloured. The criminals in the prison when I started working there were often self-tattooed, with crude designs the most elaborate of which was a policeman hanging from a lamp-post. Now professional tattooists exercise their trade with considerable skill, though everything they do strikes me as kitsch. So-called body-art (in my opinion) is body-kitsch: and something that is not worth doing is not worth doing well. Skilled bad taste is to me worse than bad taste alone.

Whatever the aesthetic evaluation of tattoos, however, their rapid spread in the population still requires explanation. Why have so many people suddenly acquired tattoos?

I cannot pretend to have the answer. Shortly after the vogue had started, I read a book by an American academic about tattooing in western societies who described herself as one of the ‘tattooed community,’ as she might have spoken of ‘we philatelists’ or the ‘Bahai community.’ There was a sense of them and us in the book, almost of a group under siege by the unrighteous or unenlightened.

She spoke also of the need of the tattooed to express themselves and their individuality. It was as if they believed I the following pseudo-syllogism:

   Every tattoo is unique.

   I have a tattoo.

   Therefore I am unique.

This seemed to me to indicate a problem that some people had in individuating themselves in a mass society: a problem all the more pressing in a society fixated on celebrity culture. In such a society, you have to be someone; you must not only be an individual, but be seen to be an individual. Being was no longer enough, then. And a dragon on your arm, a butterfly on the small of your back, or an abstract on your shoulder, proved to all and sundry that you were different, truly – an only - yourself.

The academic said that tattoos were a form of self-expression: but if so, it could only be in the sense that everything we do is a form of self-expression. Among other things that tattoos express, however, is a herd mentality. But tattoos still have a lingering connotation of rebellion and marginalisation – in this case self-inflicted, or at least self-chosen, marginalisation.

In present circumstances, then, a tattoo differentiates and individuates, while at the same time allowing identification with masses of others. A tattoo allows you to rebel and conform at the same time, eat your cake and have it too. The names of tattoo parlours – Evil in the Needle, for example, or Revolution Ink – often reveal a kind of antinomianism which does not quite have the courage of its lack of convictions.              

[1] LeBlanc P.M.Hollinger K.A.Klontz K.C., N Engl J Med 2012; 367:985-987

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