The art of not so unique body art

A quarter of Americans and Europeans are now tattooed.

To understand why so many people from America and Europe are getting inked we spoke with Viren Swami from the Department of Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, UK.

Swami’s research has focused on the personality traits of people with tattoos. His latest article found that tattooed and non-tattooed people are actually more similar than different. People with tattoos are only slightly more impulsive and willing to take risks than those without.

ResearchGate: Can you explain the rapid growth in the number of tattooed people?

Viren Swami: In most postindustrial societies, tattoos are now seen as a way of reclaiming the body – saying this body is mine rather than ours or yours. From a sociological perspective tattoos are a way of reclaiming some agency over the body. From a practical perspective tattoos have become much more visible in popular culture, celebrities have tattoos, and you generally see them much more. The tattoo industry is growing rapidly with many more tattoo artists, tattoos are also cheaper and safer, so there are a lot of practical reasons that explain the growth. But most importantly, tattoos are increasingly becoming commodified as a fashion accessory that can help you describe yourself, enabling people to set themselves apart from everyone else in a very simple way.

RG: Are the personality traits of people who have historically always liked tattoos become more ubiquitous?

Swami: I think the function of tattoos has changed. So previously tattoos were an important signifier of in-group associations. For example, tattoos were typically associated with bikers, with people who have been in prison or other subcultural groups. Scholars have suggested that this might have something to do with the personality traits of particular groups, so for example you might argue that punk rockers were more extraverted or had higher sensation seeking. However, evidence in the last 5 or 6 years suggests that any differences between people choosing to get tattoos and people choosing not to get tattoos has eroded. The only differences you might find are small differences regarding sensation seeking and attitudes towards uniqueness.

RG: What do you think, will it ever be considered more unique to be tattoo-free rather than to have a tattoo?

Swami: If you look at the trend at the moment, one of the key things that has changed is the demographic of the people who are getting tattoos. Previously, tattoos tended to be associated with men and particular outgroups. Whereas now there are very few demographic differences. Women are getting tattooed at the same rate as men. But it is still only about 25 percent of the population that have at least one tattoo and very few individuals are getting heavily tattooed. So while the number of people getting tattoos is increasing they are still only getting a few tattoos. Now whether or not that continues is difficult to say, I think it will probably plateau at some point and I doubt we will ever get to a point where the majority of the population have a tattoo.

RG: Could the dramatic growth in the number of people with tattoos mean that people who get them to feel unique might stop getting them?

Swami: Not necessarily. Because there are two aspects to this. One is getting a tattoo itself and as more and more people get tattoos that aspect of it might be a bit diminished. But tattoos have so much more meaning to them. Every tattoo is individual in some sense because it is personal to you. So I don’t think the importance of tattoos in terms of uniqueness will become less relevant.

We conducted a study a few years ago showing that getting a tattoo itself is associated with positive things. People who get tattooed, in the short term, tend to experience less dissatisfaction with their appearance, they tend to experience higher self-esteem, they are less anxious about themselves and they also feel more unique. So just getting a tattoo that’s unique to you will always have a benefit, you will always feel that sense of uniqueness.

RG: Global movements like “Project Semicolon” and “The Semicolon Tattoo Project” (read more here) are seeing people get a tattoo on mass in support of a cause. That almost seems counterintuitive to what you found with tattoos being a mark of uniqueness. Can you try to explain what’s happening here?

Swami: It is interesting because it began with a couple of individuals who were trying to raise awareness of mental health issues. There are a lot of people who experience mental health issues and if they want that sense of community, tattoos make sense. Tattoos have always served that purpose. They have always, at least for some individuals and groups, given a feeling of solidarity. I think the semicolon project is doing something very similar. It is saying “we have all had the same experiences we have all had the same issues and we want to be together”. The interesting thing about the semicolon project is that it’s using tattoos in a way that I don’t think has been done before. People are simultaneously able to identify with something that is both individual and group orientated. The reason each person gets a semicolon tattoo will be theirs alone, but at the same time it is a mark of a broader group of people who all share the same experience.

RG: Do tattoos still have a stigma?

Swami: I think even though tattoos have become much more popular there is still a lot of stigma associated with them. We have found that women in particular are much more likely to be stigmatized if they have a visible tattoo compared to men. People tend to perceive women who have visible tattoos as being more promiscuous and so on. There is a tradeoff between the positive aspects of feeling more unique, having higher self-esteem and being satisfied by your appearance with the stigma that you will experience in your everyday life.

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk.