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Ultimate Answers to Proximate Questions: The Evolutionary Motivations Behind Tattoos and Body Piercings in Popular Culture



Numerous studies have found that piercing and tattooing the body is an increasingly prevalent trend in modern popular culture; however, this is not only a modern practice. Evidence of various forms of body ornamentation has been found in human societies dating back thousands of years. Although prior research has focused on the potential relationships between various personality traits and the likelihood of piercing or tattooing the body, few have approached this topic from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, the general motivations for getting tattoos and piercings have tended to fall into the same three categories for hundreds of years: (a) a symbol of an important past event, love, or friendship, (b) group membership, and/or (c) a marker of individuality. We argue that these motivations are simply proximate behaviors for an ultimate evolutionary reason: the perpetuation of one's genes. In this article, we propose two new theories about the origins of body ornamentation. First, in our “human canvas” hypothesis, we propose a link between body ornamentation and the human species' historical use of symbolic thought. Second, in our “upping the ante” hypothesis, we suggest that the steady rise in popularity of tattooing and piercing in Western culture has come about due to larger population densities and advancements in healthcare, which has led individuals to seek new and unique displays of fitness (i.e., body ornamentation). We then conclude with proximate examples in popular culture to display the proposed ultimate evolutionary reasoning behind body ornamentation. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Ultimate Answers to Proximate Questions: The Evolutionary Motivations
Behind Tattoos and Body Piercings in Popular Culture
Rachael A. Carmen, Amanda E. Guitar, and Haley M. Dillon
State University of New York at New Paltz
Numerous studies have found that piercing and tattooing the body is an increasingly prevalent trend in
modern popular culture; however, this is not only a modern practice. Evidence of various forms of body
ornamentation has been found in human societies dating back thousands of years. Although prior research
has focused on the potential relationships between various personality traits and the likelihood of piercing
or tattooing the body, few have approached this topic from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, the
general motivations for getting tattoos and piercings have tended to fall into the same three categories for
hundreds of years: (a) a symbol of an important past event, love, or friendship, (b) group membership,
and/or (c) a marker of individuality. We argue that these motivations are simply proximate behaviors for
an ultimate evolutionary reason: the perpetuation of one’s genes. In this article, we propose two new
theories about the origins of body ornamentation. First, in our “human canvas” hypothesis, we propose
a link between body ornamentation and the human species’ historical use of symbolic thought. Second,
in our “upping the ante” hypothesis, we suggest that the steady rise in popularity of tattooing and piercing
in Western culture has come about due to larger population densities and advancements in healthcare,
which has led individuals to seek new and unique displays of fitness (i.e., body ornamentation). We then
conclude with proximate examples in popular culture to display the proposed ultimate evolutionary
reasoning behind body ornamentation.
Keywords: tattoo, evolution, human canvas hypothesis, upping the ante hypothesis, popular culture, body
ornamentation, body piercing
The practice of tattooing and piercing the body is found in almost
every subsection of Western popular culture (and arguably throughout
the world). In the entertainment industry, actors and actresses from
every genre of film from action adventure (e.g., Angelina Jolie,
Johnny Depp) to romantic comedy (e.g., Scarlet Johansen, Ben Af-
fleck), ignore the potential risk these permanent marks may have on
their ability to land future roles. Furthermore, musicians from every
genre imaginable (e.g., Pink, Britney Spears, David Bowie, Nas, and
yes, even Justin Bieber) don tattoos and body piercings. In other
realms of pop culture, athletes varying from “bad boys” (e.g., Mike
Tyson), to “heartthrobs” (e.g., David Beckham), to something that can
only be described as extreme (i.e., Dennis Rodman) have become
recognized for their body art. Once reserved for specific subgroups
within our culture (e.g., sailors, punks, bikers), body piercing and
tattooing have seen an exponential increase in popularity in the last 30
or so years (Sweetman, 1999; van der Meer, Weijmar Schultz, &
Nijman, 2008), which we propose is due to an increased pressure to
stand out within a group. Generally, the motivations for getting tattoos
and piercings tend to fall into three categories: (a) a symbol of an
important past event, love, or friendship, (b) group membership,
and/or (c) a marker of individuality (Antoszewski, Sitek, Fijalkowska,
Kasielska, & Kruk-Jeromin, 2010). We argue that these motivations
are simply proximate behaviors for an ultimate evolutionary reason:
the perpetuation of one’s genes. Most studies of modern motivations
for body ornamentation use proximate causation, which refers to the
immediate cause of a behavior (Alessi, 1992) for example, a person
gets a tattoo or piercing because he or she wants to be more unique.
Motivations for body ornamentation could in fact be understood using
ultimate causation, which explains the origin of the behavior (Alessi,
1992) for example, a person gets a tattoo or piercing to increase his or
her unique identity leading to a higher likelihood of reproductive
In this article, we present the general definitions behind various
types of body ornamentation. Then we discuss the evolutionary
origins of the human species, in which we explain our “human
canvas” hypothesis in relation to a proposed link between body
ornamentation and the human species’ use of symbolic thought.
We subsequently address the rise in popularity of tattooing and
piercing within the last 300 years, leading finally to our second
hypothesis—a term we refer to as upping the ante—in which we
propose that the combination of advancements in health care and
larger populations has led individuals to seek new and unique
displays of fitness (i.e., body ornamentation). We conclude with
proximate examples from popular culture to display the proposed
ultimate evolutionary reasoning behind body ornamentation.
What Is Body Ornamentation?
For our purpose, tattooing and piercing the body fall under the
umbrella term of body ornamentation. We have chosen to include
both of these acts under one term because both are forms of
(semi)permanent visual aesthetics (see Miller, 2001a, for a review
Rachael A. Carmen, Amanda E. Guitar, and Haley M. Dillon, Psychol-
ogy Department, State University of New York at New Paltz.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rachael
A. Carmen, The State University of New York at New Paltz, 1 Hawk
Drive, Humanities 2A (EP Lab), New Paltz, NY 12561. E-mail:
Review of General Psychology © 2012 American Psychological Association
2012, Vol. 16, No. 2, 134–143 1089-2680/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0027908
of the concept) that involve some type of physical risk, as well as
display some type of aesthetic quality.
Originating from the Tahitian term ta tatau, meaning “appro-
priate, balanced, and fitting” (Kaatz, Elsner, & Bauer, 2008, p. 35),
tattooing is defined as “the insertion into the skin of any coloring
materials designed to leave a semipermanent or permanent mark”
(Chalmers, 2009, p. 102). Body piercing is another form of skin
modification in which a section of the skin (and, in some cases,
underlying tissue) is pierced to create a hole for jewelry to be
inserted (Chalmers, 2009).
What is Popular Culture?
According to, popular culture is defined as:
“cultural activities or commercial products reflecting, suited to, or
aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people” (Popular
culture (n.d.), para. 1). This definition accurately encapsulates
body ornamentation for several reasons. First, body ornamentation
has become part of the mainstream media, as demonstrated by
several successful reality television shows (i.e., “commercial prod-
ucts”) that follow the happenings of tattoo studios (i.e., “cultural
activities”) such as Miami Ink, LA Ink, NY Ink, and even a British
version—London Ink. These series have had enormous success
over the last few years; for example, in August 2007, LA Ink was
the highest-rated series premiere in the history of the TLC network
among the demographic of adults 18–34 years (Claustro, 2007).
Second, the increase in popularity of tattoos and body piercings in
recent decades (Sweetman, 1999; van der Meer et al., 2008)
demonstrates body ornamentation’s growing popularity among
“the general masses.”
Sexual Selection
Several evolutionary themes emerge when looking at the history
and evolution of body ornamentation. Sexual selection is one
mechanism of evolution that some have argued has had the most
influential role in our most distinctly human behaviors (e.g., po-
etry, music, art; Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, & Miller, 2007;
Miller, 2001b). Sexual selection theorists suggest that due to the
disproportionate investment required by one sex in any given
species (i.e., energy required for gamete production and child
rearing), the sex that invests more is unable to reproduce as often,
resulting in differing reproductive strategies (Kaufman et al., 2007;
Miller, 2001b). In short, the greater the investment, the more
selective the mating strategy. Because one sex is more discriminate
than the other (generally females), the opposite sex is likely to go
to great lengths to attract the limited attention of potential mates
(Kaufman et al., 2007; Miller, 2001b).
Specific attraction techniques vary from species to species,
however, certain basic principles can be witnessed across males
and females throughout the animal kingdom. As we will show,
body ornamentation has been used throughout human history to
garner attention from a mate.
Extended Phenotype
Ornamentation in general is not specific to humans; in fact,
many species of birds display elaborate ornaments in the form of
feather structures, such as plumage and crests (Jones, Hunter, &
Fraser, 2000). The most well-known bird species to display elab-
orate plumage are peacocks. In this species, a male’s tail is
positively associated with aspects pertaining to health and herita-
ble fitness (Miller, 2001a). Another example of these ornaments,
and the benefits often associated with them, can be seen in the
Crested Auklets (Aethia cristatell), whose long crests are maxi-
mally preferred by females and grant a high dominance status
(Jones et al., 2000). Although these examples demonstrate biolog-
ical ornamentation, humans take this a step further by creating
external ornamentation, an act that can be considered a display
of their extended phenotype. An extended phenotype is the idea
that a phenotype (i.e., the physical outcome of gene expression)
is not simply limited to biological processes (e.g., a bird’s
plumage), but instead can be extended beyond genes, past the
confines of one’s own body, and into the environment itself
(Dawkins, 1999). Nonhuman examples of extended phenotypes
include beaver dams, bird’s nests, and the bowerbirds’ bower
(Dawkins, 1999). Human examples include items such as
clothes, cars, or houses, and we propose that tattooing and
piercing the body should be considered an extended phenotype
as well. By ornamenting one’s own body either temporarily
(e.g., clothing), permanently (e.g., tattooing), or somewhere in
between (e.g., piercing), that individual is using an extension of
her or his genes (via behavior) to increase that person’s ability
to stand out in a sea of possible mates.
In concordance with the extended phenotype, it seems that all
forms of body ornamentation are used to display genetic quality to
potential mates or rivals (Koziel, Kretschmer, & Pawlowski,
2010). These signals of fitness are used when individuals compete
in intrasexual selection—the competition between same-sex indi-
viduals for the attention of the opposite sex (Boyd & Silk, 2006;
Rhodes, 2006). Intrasexual competition consists of same-sex rivals
using various techniques such as “driving away, intimidating,
derogating, or killing” a same-sex adversary (Kaufman et al.,
2007, p. 231), ultimately resulting in the individual demonstrating
fitness to potential mates. Individuality is a particularly relevant
point in the discussion of body ornamentation. Many individuals
use intrasexual competition through tattooing and piercing in an
attempt to portray an image of “something special.” This idea is
exemplified by Antoszewski et al.’s (2010) study, which found
that 67% of pierced individuals and 43% of tattooed individuals
reported the motivation behind their body ornamentation was to
mark their individuality.
Given the reproductive advantage body ornamentation may
provide, intersexual selection (the process of selecting mates
based on traits that are found attractive; Boyd & Silk, 2006)
may explain how body art has achieved the status of a fitness
indicator. We ask then, what makes a trait attractive? Generally,
traits that convey some form of genetic quality are considered
attractive and consequently increase in prevalence (Kaufman et
al., 2007). Body piercings and tattoos expose the individual to
disease and infection that only healthy individuals would be
able to fight off (Bengualid, Singh, Singh, & Berger, 2008;
Koenig & Carnes, 1999); thus, they represent markers of ge-
netic quality. Furthermore, body ornamentation can be seen as
a marker of social quality because it is often used as a social
identifier (Koziel et al., 2010).
Group Membership
Some have argued that body ornamentation is used in terms of
group membership (and we agree), but this explanation only ad-
dresses the issue at a proximate level. Bingham and Souza (2009)
explained that humans evolved because of their unique ability to
throw projectiles, resulting in large-scale group cooperation. For
humans to get their individual needs met, they formed groups to
regulate various social behaviors, and used their ability to throw
projectiles to enforce this regulation (Bingham & Souza, 2009).
Coercive management is the idea that humans, like all other
animals, are self-interested and, in most cases, will use coercion to
benefit their individual needs (Bingham & Souza, 2009). On an
individual level, our behavior is due to our very basic need for
survival, so we argue that tattooing and piercing the body can do
two things: increase ones phenotypic fitness or signify group
membership. The first possibility leads to a direct ultimate answer:
successful reproduction. The second possibility, though seemingly
different, is virtually the same in light of Bingham and Souza’s
(2009) hypothesis: body ornamentation does convey group mem-
bership—but group membership is just a consequence of our drive
for survival. All biological creatures have conflicts of interest
(including us), and these conflicts are what drive individuals to
compete for various resources, ultimately resulting in inter- and
intrasexual competition (Bingham & Souza, 2009). Bingham and
Souza (2009) explained that group advantage almost never deter-
mines an evolutionary outcome—and what may seem like a group
advantage (i.e., symbolic ornamentation to convey group member-
ship or ideals) is merely the result of coercive group suppression of
individual conflicts (i.e., conspecific competition for resources—
which can include mates). Thus, natural selection favors self-
interested behaviors, and what may seem to be group mentality is
actually beneficial at the individual level. This leads us to explain
body ornamentation that conveys various group identities as a way
to increase one’s fitness, ultimately leading to reproductive suc-
Although prior studies have focused on the potential relation-
ships between various personality traits and the likelihood of body
ornamentation (Caliendo, Armstrong, & Roberts, 2005; Skegg,
Nada-Raja, Paul, & Skegg, 2007), few have approached this topic
from an evolutionary perspective. We believe that as the medical
realm of Western society (i.e., science, delivery, and access) has
become more advanced and as populations across countries have
become generally healthier, costly signaling— or handicapping—
must also increase to be seen as a cue of fitness; thus, the recent
increase in tattoos and body piercings may be displays of fitness
(i.e., the risk involved in the process of obtaining body ornamen-
tation) and resources (e.g., jewelry, the expense associated with
large tattoos). Ancestrally, these fitness displays would have been
conveyed differently (e.g., skills at trapping game, farming abil-
ity); however, we are currently living in a time when those who
aim to attract the opposite sex through use of costly signals may
have to implicitly amplify their displays (i.e., “up the ante”).
Costly Signaling
One of the most salient themes found in mate attraction is costly
signaling. Costly signaling refers to the idea that individuals who
possess some form of high-quality trait will benefit from adver-
tising their genetic quality in various ways that are too costly for
inferior individuals to display (Zahavi, 2003). This can best be
illustrated with a classic example from another species: the gazelle.
When a gazelle is presented with a potential predator, a select
number of gazelles begins to repeatedly leap into the air with all of
their legs held stiff—an act termed stotting (FitzGibbon & Fan-
shawe, 1988). Research has indicated that gazelles who display
this seemingly careless act of energy consumption when faced
with a threat are actually more likely to outrun predators; therefore,
stotting may serve as an honest indicator of fitness in this species,
something that predators take into account as witnessed by the
likelihood of predators avoiding chasing stotting gazelles (FitzGib-
bon & Fanshawe, 1988). Costly signaling not only refers to in-
vestments involving energy, risk, or material, but it also refers to
investment in the form of information or social status (Zahavi &
Zahavi, 1997; Zahavi, 2003). This point will be especially impor-
tant when we discuss the social ramifications that have oftentimes
historically coincided with many practices of body ornamentation.
One of the most fundamental, and simple, aspects of the concept
of costly signaling is the idea that there must be some reasonable
relationship between a signal and its intended message (Zahavi,
1977; Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997; Zahavi, 2003). For instance, the
gazelles’ stotting would not be an effective indicator of parental
investment or fertility, so it can be assumed that this is not the
purpose behind the signal. Furthermore, a gazelle that is not
physically able to outrun a predator after stotting would not use
this behavior because it is not an honest signal and could easily be
disproved by a predator’s attention. In much the same way, tem-
porary tattoos and piercings are often looked down on by those
with permanent body art, because the process for getting semiper-
manent adornments does not involve the same commitment and
risk that is associated with a real tattoo. This attitude is encom-
passed in remarks on a webpage devoted to band tattoos: “though
tats and rock have taken on a tamer tone since their inception
several decades ago (Avril Lavigne even sports some, though
we’re pretty sure they come off with water), the two remain joined
at the hip” (Lohnes, n.d.). The website’s author has illustrated the
negative perception that many individuals with tattoos or body
piercings hold for those who “pretend” to have body ornamenta-
tion but have not gone through the actual process involved (i.e., a
dishonest signal).
Risks Associated With Tattoos and Piercings: A Costly
Signaling Lens
Adverse reactions to materials (i.e., needles, ink, and jewelry)
used for body ornamentation and blood-borne diseases are now
generally avoided because of the increase in general knowledge
about sterile procedures (in industrialized countries); however,
there are still instances of life-threatening issues among individu-
als whose attempts at body ornamentation have gone horribly awry
(Koenig & Carnes, 1999; Stirn, 2003). Botched, or self-inflicted,
piercings and tattoos have a high likelihood of leaving the body
open to infection (Koenig & Carnes, 1999). Bacterial infection, if
not addressed properly, can lead to soft tissue infections, perichon-
dritis (cartilage infection), sepsis, and even toxic shock syndrome
(Koenig & Carnes, 1999). Once infection begins to spread beyond
the localized site, an individual’s life is at risk if he or she does not
seek immediate medical attention. Additionally, people with any
immunodeficiency issues are predisposed to acquiring life-
threatening infections from piercing or tattooing (Koenig & Car-
nes, 1999). In this case, it does not simply mean there is discomfort
and swelling of the infected area; the wound is severe enough to
warrant hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics (Koenig & Car-
nes, 1999). In addition to infectious risks, there are also risks of
tattoo ink reactions, metal allergies, and hypertrophic scars and
keloids (i.e., raised scar tissue around the infected site; Koenig &
Carnes, 1999).
Despite the aforementioned health hazards, piercing and tattoo-
ing are particularly interesting in light of evolution: physical cues
of infection could decrease one’s attractiveness, possibly resulting
in the cessation of one’s genetic material. The possibility of dying
from complications of a tattoo or piercing before passing on one’s
genes seems like a cost that greatly outweighs the benefits.
Granted, some people will have had children before they receive a
tattoo or piercing; however, body ornamentation is well entrenched
in young adult culture (Mayers & Chiffriller, 2008; Suris, Jeannin,
Chosis, & Michaud, 2007). Thus, if young adults are threatening
their lives through body ornamentation before they reach repro-
ductive age, they are decreasing the likelihood of passing on their
own genes. This is relevant in light of a somewhat new conception
of the developmental period between adolescence and adulthood:
emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). According to Arnett (2000),
people in industrialized urban areas between the ages of 1825 are
distinctly different from people who are considered adolescents or
adults. The unifying feature for this developmental period is that,
during this time, individuals test out various possibilities in love
and work and renegotiate their worldviews (Arnett, 2000). Unpro-
tected sex, substance use (i.e., drugs and alcohol), and reckless
driving behaviors are most prevalent during this time—and it
seems that the tendency to ornament one’s body through tattoos
and piercings are as well. Mayers and Chiffriller (2008) found that,
in a sample of 661 undergraduate students, 51% of students were
pierced and 21.8% were tattooed. This difference makes sense in
light of removal—many piercings, once removed, typically close
up with a minor scar—tattoos, on the other hand, take significantly
more effort to remove (i.e., laser removal). In essence, there is a
difference between commitment to tattoos and piercings, and this
difference seems to be reflected by the percentages given by
Mayers and Chiffriller (2008). Regardless of the percentage dif-
ference, it still seems as if there is an increased prevalence of body
ornamentation. This is interesting, for the following reason: de-
spite obvious health concerns (and the possibility of a reproductive
dead end) piercing and tattooing are increasing in popularity in our
society, especially among young adults. Emerging adulthood (Ar-
nett, 2000) is typified by an increase in experimental behaviors
(including, possibly, piercing and tattooing), which are risky and
could lead to death. More people who go through emerging adult-
hood put off having children in their early 20s due to increased
demands for higher diploma attainment (Arnett, 2000). Evolution-
arily speaking, the cultural phenomenon of emerging adulthood
could be pushing reproduction into the early 30s, expanding the
number of years during which individuals experiment with tattoo-
ing and piercing while figuring out their adult identity. Because the
costs (i.e., death before reproduction) seem to outweigh the ben-
efits (i.e., increasing one’s attractiveness in the mating market), it
compels us to ask why humans risk possible death to ornament
their bodies, and why this propensity to do so has become increas-
ingly popular in Western culture. As is the case with most ques-
tions, it seems that there is an evolutionary answer.
The Human Revolution
Symbolic thought has always been part of the battery of con-
cepts that makes us human (Boyd & Silk, 2006; Mcbrearty &
Brooks, 2000). Here we argue that body ornamentation (specifi-
cally tattooing and piercing the body) is related to the birth of
symbolic thought due to its appearance early on in our cultural
history (Pabst et al., 2009). We propose that body ornamentation is
an extension of the human species’ ability for symbolic thought.
After individuals began painting symbols on the walls of caves, it
was only a matter of time before early humans looked to a new
medium to display their inner most thoughts. And it was not long
before the projections of human thought turned to our own bodies,
resulting in the use of our skin as a canvas. It is thought that by
about 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern Homo sapiens were
roaming much of the Old World, but signs of modern human
behavior did not arise until approximately 150,000 years later,
during the human revolution (Mcbrearty & Brooks, 2000). Most
reconstructions of human evolution claim that there was a brief,
yet extraordinary shift about 40,000 –50,000 years ago that marked
the beginning of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens (Mcbrearty &
Brooks, 2000). Being able to effectively plan, acquire and use
resources, and symbolize one’s inner thoughts was found in the
form of bone tools and objects used for art (Mcbrearty & Brooks,
2000). However, there is much debate about when and where the
first examples of these materials were found in the fossil record.
Proponents of the human revolution model claim that modern
human behaviors came about abruptly (approximately 40,000
years ago), while opponents believe that modern human behaviors
actually came about much earlier and slower, beginning between
250,000 and 300,000 years ago (Mcbrearty & Brooks, 2000).
Regardless of when these behaviors emerged, behavioral instances
of symbolic thought dates back to at least 40,000 years ago.
Mcbrearty and Brooks (2000) explained that the human revolution
most likely arose as a consequence of existing hominids using the
cognitive abilities of generations before them and transmitting
them through cultural, not genetic processes. But ultimately, cul-
ture is an extension of our genes. Along with the birth of behav-
ioral modernity (whether it was 40,000 or 200,000 years ago), we
also see this driving need to express ourselves through various
means. Our self-expression was first displayed on cave walls and
transferred through the generations via culture, proximately ending
in various types of body ornamentation to increase one’s fitness.
Humans have always turned to some medium to express ourselves,
but when did this need to express oneself through art turn inward
and ultimately lead to using our body as a canvas?
Early Body Modification
Evidence for the earliest known individual with signs of body
modification dates back to approximately 5,300 years ago, to a
mummy that was found between Italy and Austria (Pabst et al.,
2009). Ötzi, also referred to as “the iceman,” is the only well
preserved mummy to be found in Europe dating to the Neolithic or
New Stone Age (Pabst et al., 2009). Ötzi showed unmistakable
evidence of tattoos along his spine, suggesting that body ornamen-
tation may have already been a common practice 5,300 years ago
(Cronin, 2001; Pabst et al., 2009). However, the tattoos were in
nonobvious places (the spine), which leads to the possibility that
these tattoos might have originated as acupuncture as opposed to
ornamentation. This idea was supported by a recent analysis that
proposed that the markings found on O
tzi were medicinal in origin
due to the similarities between the markings’ locations and Chi-
nese acupuncture points (Pabst et al., 2009). In light of these
findings, is it possible that our ancestors initially discovered body
ornamentation through medicinal use?
A more concrete example of body ornamentation dates to a
mummy that lived 4,300 years after Ötzi. The remains were found
in Peru and showed more extensive tattooing than Ötzi; she/he had
birds and reptiles tattooed on their hands, arms, and lower leg,
along with other symbols (Pabst et al., 2009). Due to the combi-
nation of the showy placement of these tattoos and the symbolic
nature of the subject matter, this individual seems more likely to be
the first true candidate to display body ornamentation in our
evolutionary history.
Ritualistic Tribal Origins
Aside from the earliest evolutionary origins of body ornamen-
tation, tattooing and piercing has its modern-day roots in various
subcultures, beginning with tribal societies. With regard to body
piercing, piercing the ears, mouth and nose seem to be the oldest
practiced tradition (Stirn, 2003). This raises the question: Why
have these areas been selected time and time again by independent
societies? Could this have something to do with the high visibility
of these areas? There are many proximate motivations behind why
different tribal societies have adopted body ornamentation; how-
ever, we believe that all of these examples still speak to increased
individuality, leading to a higher likelihood of reproductive suc-
In many historical (and contemporary) tribal societies, tattooing
and piercing the body has been a common practice. The ability to
withstand the pain of body tattooing and piercing is often linked to
a passage into adulthood (Stirn, 2003)—something that could be
seen as a fitness indicator because it demonstrates both strength
and reproductive viability. Genital piercings are more rare in tribal
societies (most likely due to the risks associated with piercing that
area; Edlin et al., 2010), yet there are instances of some tribes in
Borneo wearing bone implants in the glans (Stirn, 2003). In
ancient Mesoamerica, body ornamentation was used as a sex-
specific adulthood ritual: as boys became men, and girls became
women, their body art began to tell a story of gender and adulthood
(Joyce, 2000), another example of signaling one’s reproductive
age. Similarly, many African cultures use scarring to display
important life events: for girls, scarring occurs for life develop-
ments such as first menstruation and marriage, and for boys
scarring occurs for their first kill in battle (Cultural Research
Services, 2000). In New Guinea, the Roro people are extensively
tattooed, so much so that those who are lacking in tattoos are
referred to as “raw” (Elbin, 1979). A tattooed man is considered
“cooked meat,” meaning that he had been transformed by life
experience, resulting in a new social identity (Elbin, 1979). “Ta
moko” or taking moko is a form of tattooing in the Maori culture
of New Zealand in which pigment is inserted by chiseling the skin
(Nikora, Rua, & Awekotuku, 2007). Moko can often include large
sections of an individual’s body, including the face, leading to an
increase in uniqueness. The Maori strongly identify with autonomy
and self-determination, which was expressed through their version
of tattooing: “moko was perceived as an aesthetic and individual
self-presentation; it embodied the self” (Nikora et al., 2007, p.
479). This (often) extensive form of tattooing is a symbol of life
experience, and is considered a great honor.
Piercings can also often have a religious or otherworldly con-
notation, which some argue is a ritualistic behavior meant to
encourage group bonding. Royalty in ancient Mayan civilizations
(700 A.D.) pierced their tongues and genitals as part of religious
rituals, while Native American populations like the Mandan and
the Lakota underwent ritual suspensions from chest piercings to
reach an altered state of consciousness (Stirn, 2003). Thus, at a
very basic level, a ritual in which one pierces or tattoos the body
is in fact a physical display of life experience. Additionally, with
the lack of access to modern health care, these behaviors seem
particularly risky when thinking about healing after the ritual;
therefore, body ornamentation in tribal societies can be thought of
as costly signaling. Piercing, tattooing, encumberments (e.g.,
wearing heavy bracelets, neck ornamentation, penile rings), or
binding the limbs (Stirn, 2003) are all forms of signaling ones
genetic fitness. Thus, the ability to successfully display (i.e., no
infection) potentially harmful body ornamentation is a signal to
genetic fitness and behavioral identity.
The Spread of a New Culture
In the 17th and 18th centuries, tattooing spread through the
Royal Navy as a result of colonization of the tattooed and pierced
people of the Pacific (DeMello, 2000). Though the earlier origins
of body ornamentation hinted to possible roots thousands of years
ago, the integration of tattoos into mainstream society did not
begin until the exploration of Borneo, the Philippines, New Zea-
land, and New Guinea (DeMello, 2000). When the Royal Navy
began colonizing these lands they were met by individuals whose
bodies were often (at least partially) covered in ornate black ink
tattoos (DeMello, 2000). Surprisingly, during the 1600s, members
of the Royal Navy noted that the most common subjects of tattoo
designs were stylized lines that often symbolized various life
events (“tribal designs”), stars, animals, and humans (portraits)—
which is not very far from what we tend to see most in our society
today (DeMello, 2000). Why would these images have remained
prevalent throughout the evolution of body art? As previously
discussed, signifying life events can be seen as a fitness indicator
because it displays experience, which can be an attractive mate
quality. Furthermore, images such as stars and animals might
demonstrate an awareness of the environment, which could also be
found attractive because it relates to survival skills. Finally, por-
traits of humans might be a social identifier because they symbol-
ize a connection to another individual. Although these are merely
our own speculations for the evolutionary motivations behind
selecting these images, one thing is known: by 1784, crewmen on
naval ships began receiving tattoos in Polynesia and subsequently
spread the acceptance and popularity of tattoos throughout Europe
(DeMello, 2000).
Though the popularity of tattooing was on the rise, many mem-
bers of English society were still reluctant to receive a tattoo
because tattooing was a slow, painful process that was done by
manually piercing the skin multiple times with a needle. The
technological advancements of the industrial revolution made it
possible for Samuel O’Reilly to create the first tattoo machine in
1890, reducing the time and pain associated with more traditional
tattooing techniques (McCabe, 1995). It was nearly the 20th cen-
tury before humans finally received a modern tool to express
symbolic thought:
Early mechanical tattooing dove-tailed smoothly with the principles
of the emerging pop culture dynamic in the age of the ma-
chine...Patrons who were engaged in the most ancient of corporeal
rituals were seduced by the mechanical aura of modernity to physi-
cally interact with the visual elements of their changing society.
(McCabe, 1995, p. 50)
The increased prevalence of tattooing and piercing seemed to
coincide with the increase in modernity (i.e., the tattoo machine
and sterile environments and needles). On a very basic level, we
see body ornamentation, and its subsequent integration into pop-
ular culture, as a result of our symbolic thought.
The Impact of War on Body Ornamentation Culture
The period between the First and Second World Wars was
coined the “Golden Age of Tattooing” because of the increase in
tattoo popularity among servicemen (DeMello, 2000). Soon, the
focus turned from simply having a tattoo to the content of the
tattoo itself. Military personnel began getting the signature “sailor”
tattoos that had two common themes: patriotism and/or a loved
one’s name (e.g., mom, girlfriend) (DeMello, 2000). From an
evolutionary perspective, a patriotic tattoo is a permanent insignia
of group membership, while a loved one’s name could signify kin
or sexual selection. By getting a “mom” tattoo, sailors were trying
to make a statement that they appreciated women, especially their
mothers. By getting a tattoo of a girlfriend or wife’s name, a man
was showing an outward permanent display to other women that
he was in a committed, monogamous relationship (a possible
testament to his sticking around to raise potential offspring).
The simple act of receiving a tattoo seemed to whisper tones of
group membership because it became increasingly social: the
older, retired sailors would reminisce about their younger years,
and young servicemen would compete with each other to see who
could get the biggest, most ornate tattoos (DeMello, 2000). Here,
we can see more evolutionary themes being expressed through
body ornamentation culture. First, older ex-servicemen were get-
ting tattooed as an ornate display of their experience and wisdom,
seemingly to signal their status. Second, younger servicemen were
using an interesting mixture of inter- and intrasexual competition
through their tattoos: intersexual because each individual was
getting tattooed to increase his attractiveness and status in the eyes
of possible sexual partners, and intrasexual because each individ-
ual was competing with other members of his sex to get the most
ornate display (in a nonviolent way). Today, competition to get
various tattoos or piercings could still exist within groups, but this
behavior seemed more prevalent when tattooing was novel.
Early Integration Into Pop Culture
The 1960s marked the beginning of the modern resurgence in
popularity of body ornamentation. We can see that the rise of
tattooing and piercing in postmodern society seems to map on to
sociocultural movements. We first saw this trend among sailors,
then military servicemen in general, and, interestingly enough, a
subculture that seemed to be the military’s antithesis: the hippie
generation of the 1960s (DeMello, 2000). Though hippies are
credited mostly for their strong connection with music, peaceful
nature, drug usage, and antiwar sentiment, they also helped bring
body ornamentation to popularity. Typical hippie tattoos consisted
of symbols from the aforementioned sentence: favored bands,
peace signs, and various drugs (psychedelic mushrooms and mar-
ijuana leaves were common). During the 1960s, another subculture
began transforming the cultural conception of who got tattoos and
piercings. The stereotype of the patriotic tattooed sailor faded as
the biker subculture became infamous for its new genre of antiso-
cial tattoos (DeMello, 2000). The contrast seen here between the
image of the peaceful hippy and the intimidating biker are a
reminder of how these forms of ornamentation appeal to such a
widespread and varying demographic. Bikers used body ornamen-
tation as an outward statement about society, often donning tattoos
of Harley-Davidson emblems, skulls, marijuana leaves, and text
(DeMello, 2000). In this case, the text was almost always a
negative statement, like “Born to Lose,” yet we see this negative
statement as having an underlying evolutionary theme. Here, it
seems that physically tattooing a negative statement on oneself
would decrease one’s chances in the mating market, but that is not
the case. This form of costly signaling is particularly interesting
because it is not only a permanent symbol; it is a permanent
statement about a supposed genetic and social disadvantage. In a
way, this statement is saying, “Despite my uncontrollable short-
comings, I’m still no one to mess with” (which could be inter-
preted as an attempt to convey fitness as a mate through strength).
Furthermore, the typical biker tattoos were insignias of group
The 1970s Lasting Effects on Body Ornamentation
The 1970s were filled with cultural movements, namely,
second-wave feminism, the gay movement, and punk culture. Each
of these subcultures was responsible for helping body ornamenta-
tion eventually integrate into mainstream society.
Though some women practiced piercing and tattooing previous
to the 1970s, it was not until the second-wave feminism movement
that body ornamentation became more integrated into popular
culture (DeMello, 2000). Due to the cultural advancements of
second-wave feminism, society finally started to accept the indi-
viduality of females and to appreciate them as separate entities
from their (usually male) counterparts. Though the 1960s helped to
warm the public up to the idea of body ornamentation in women,
it was rare to find a woman outside the subculture (e.g., hippies,
and later, punks) that had tattoos or piercings (DeMello, 2000). In
fact, in the 1950s, many tattoo artists refused to tattoo women
because it would lead to irate lovers or parents (DeMello, 2000).
Some artists did work on women, but there were rules put in to
place that a women had to be over 21, married (with documented
proof), and she would have to have her husband present at the time
of tattooing (DeMello, 2000). Granted, lesbians were seemingly
excused from the “bring your husband” part of the rule, but they
were generally met with fear from servicemen because queer
individuals were still stigmatized in American society. Because
servicemen were the number one clients of tattoo shops at that
time, lesbians were often refused service (DeMello, 2000). By the
1970s, many lesbians who were part of both the second-wave
feminism movement and the gay rights movement began using
body ornamentation as a display of liberation (Pitts, 2003). Around
the same time as second-wave feminism, the gay rights movement
and punk culture were also contributing to the increased popularity
of body ornamentation.
Midway through the 1970s, the punk movement was born
(DeMello, 2000). In this culture, tattoos and piercings were often-
times self-inflicted: safety pins and needles were used for piercing
various body parts and giving stick-and-poke tattoos (i.e., manual
tattoos in which a sharp object is dipped in ink and inserted into the
skin; DeMello, 2000). Here we see costly signaling in a more
extreme form—a visible signal of self-mutilation. Unlike previous
subcultures that intended to make statements through symbols or
text, punks took tattooing and piercing one step further and at-
tempted to display their ideals through self-inflicted physical harm
displays, we believe, due to the adaptive benefits of displaying
biological quality. A person would have to have a good immune
system to withstand an infection from an open wound, especially
if proper sanitary precautions were not taken at the time of the
piercing or tattoo. Though “scarification” (scarring one’s own
body for decorative purposes) had its origins much earlier, punk
culture popularized this practice in Western society (Gay & Whit-
tington, 2002). Some iconic punk artists even went as far as public
self-mutilation: Iggy Pop cut himself on stage with drumsticks and
broken glass at a 1969 concert (Gay & Whittington, 2002). We see
this act as an outward display of biological quality (i.e., “healthy”
immune system), ultimately increasing Iggy Pop’s bid in the
mating market (in addition to other qualities, of course, the fact
that he was a famous musician was helpful too).
But by the mid 1980s, the cultural artifacts (e.g., tattooing or
piercing the body a certain way, wearing leather studded jackets)
that had typified punk culture began to become more and more
popularized, ultimately integrating into mainstream ideals. While
originally attempting to defy the establishment with “shocking”
displays of body ornamentation in candid places (e.g., the knuckles
and hands, and overtly obvious piercings like septum rings, and
gauged ears), these looks melted into the mainstream, against all
original ideals of the punk rocker (Clark, 2003). Punk’s piercings,
tattoos, and studded leather jackets were then considered a point of
“uberstyle” (which is defined as the outrageousness that punks
were generally known for; Clark, 2003). Because of body orna-
mentations’ integration into mainstream society, it would seem
that having a tattoo or piercing would decrease one’s individuality,
but we argue that the increased acceptance only levels the playing
field in the mating market. More and more individuals can turn to
tattooing or piercing the body to display aspects of their symbolic
thought via a proposed increase in their aesthetic fitness.
Body Ornamentation’s Integration Into the Status Quo
By the 1990s, second-wave feminism, the gay rights movement,
and punk culture became mainstream. The movements of the
1970s and 1980s became interwoven into mainstream culture in
the 1990s and 2000s, becoming (what we argue) prominent arti-
facts of our popular culture today (Pitts, 2003). What was once
something solely practiced within various subcultures began to
emerge as a status symbol in popular culture. The trend of main-
stream body ornamentation increased well into the 1990s; evi-
dence for this can be seen in the acceptance of a contestant in the
1997 Miss America contest donning a navel ring (Koenig &
Carnes, 1999). “Pop” icons such as Britney Spears showcased
navel piercings in her 1998 debut video “Hit Me Baby One More
Time” and popular boy bands (e.g., ’N Sync, Backstreet Boys)
displayed ear and facial piercings and various tattoos. As acts
marketed as “family friendly” began to move into the realm of
body ornamentation, the hard-edged stigma previously associated
with piercings and tattoos began to fade. These pop-icons, whose
images were broadcast in all forms of media from music videos to
magazine covers, softened the image of body ornamentation and
encouraged droves of fans to follow in their signaling footsteps.
Tattoos were also given a nicer image when the children’s toy and
cultural icon Barbie released Butterfly Art Barbie in 1999, a
version of the doll with a permanent tattoo on her stomach (JR,
2009). Barbie continues to explore body ornamentation, as wit-
nessed by the release of Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie in 2009 to
better-than-expected sales (JR, 2009). The increased typicality of
body ornamentation has even been documented in research articles
such as Mayers and Chiffriler’s (2008), whose finding was that
“piercing and tattooing were ‘mainstream’ among the 18 –23-year-
old population” (p. 202).
The Popularization of Navel Piercings
Navel piercing, a piercing located at a traditionally concealed
location on the human body, became so common in the 1990s that
bare-midriff shirts, or shirts that exposed the stomach and waist
area, became popular in order to better display the adornment.
Furthermore, Mayers and Chiffriller (2008) found that of the 381
female students surveyed, the body site with the highest number of
reported piercings was the navel (35%), beating out the ears
(30%). This popularity was not seen in the male sample, where
only 1.5% of male students reported a navel piercing. So why
would this gender discrepancy exist? Drawing attention to the
abdomen may serve as an adaptive benefit for women because it
displays several aspects of reproductive availability. First, piercing
this area may draw attention to an individual’s waist-to-hip ratio,
an indicator of reproductive viability (Gallup & Frederick, 2010;
Singh, 1993). Second, attracting attention to the abdominal area
may display that the signaler is not currently pregnant and is
available for mating. Third, the stomach is also an important
display of past reproductive activity because stretch marks and
other characteristics of pregnancy often remain after childbirth and
can signal age, another marker of fertility (or lack thereof). Fourth,
and most important, displaying a noticeable navel piercing can
often be interpreted as a display of sexuality meant to excite the
opposite sex and garner attention from potential mates, a form of
intersexual competition. Given these predictions, one would ex-
pect to see some type of sex difference in tattoo locations—as we
do (Koziel et al., 2010).
In a recent study of Poles recruited from two tattoo salons in two
cities (Wroclaw and Leszno), the most common locations for
women to display tattoos were the back (50%) and stomach (76%),
while for men it was the upper (46.5%) and lower (44.2%) ex-
tremities; furthermore, piercings were most often located on the
abdomen (45.8%) of women and the face (76%) of men (Koziel et
al., 2010). Although these results lack cross-cultural reliability, it
is still interesting to note that women tended to draw attention to
their abdomens, as previously discussed, and men applied orna-
mentation to highly visible areas, much in the same way that the
peacock displays his plumage. But why do these sex differences in
body ornamentation exist? We speculate that this trend might be
explained because mates tend to assess females based on their
waist-to-hip ratio while male attractiveness is often judged by
shoulder-to-hip ratio (Gallup & Frederick, 2010; Singh, 1993);
thus, females tend to draw attention to their abdomens and males
tend to accentuate their arms. More sex differences were revealed
in another recent study conducted in Poland, where it was found
that of the nearly 500 individuals surveyed, only 36.8% of females
had tattoos as opposed to 63.2% males, while 78.8% of females
had piercings and only 21.2% of males did (Antoszewski et al.,
These sex-related body modification trends can also be seen in
television shows from pop culture in the last 20 years. One episode
of Friends, a popular television show from the 1990s, centered on
the character, Rachel, who was getting a tattoo of a heart on her
abdomen (Borns, 1996). Similarly, a more recent 2007 episode of
the popular television show How I Met Your Mother featured an
episode in which the main character, Ted, finds himself with a
tattoo of a butterfly on his lower back after a night of heavy
drinking (a location often referred to as a “tramp stamp” on
females because of its sexually suggestive location) (Bays &
Thomas, 2007). The episode openly mocks the location of the
tattoo because the character is male, and he eventually has it
removed. These examples reinforce the idea that the location of
body ornamentation is used by members of the opposite sex
according to their particular mating strategy.
Body Ornamentation in the Entertainment Industry
A growing trend in recent popular culture is body ornamentation
displayed by professional sports players. Sports Illustrated noted
that “Tattoos have become the sport’s world most flaunted form of
self-expression. Ten years ago, only boxers or wrestlers had visible
tattoos; today, they are everywhere, in every sport” (as cited in
Lohnes, n.d.). This trend initially gained momentum in the 1990s,
with 35.1% of NBA players reporting having tattoos in a preseason
survey that was conducted in 1997 (Lohnes, n.d.). Furthermore,
tattoos could be interpreted as displays of social status in athletes
who use body ornamentation as a form of intimidation. For in-
stance, Mike Tyson, a famous American boxer has a signature
tattoo on his face that has increased his unique identity in popular
culture: one of the most memorable moments in the movie The
Hangover 2 takes place when one of the main characters gets a
similar facial tattoo right before his wedding (Mazin, Armstrong &
Phillips, 2011). Piercing and tattooing is possibly more interesting
in actors and actresses whose primary goal is to portray a versatile
range of characters, some of whom may not opt for body orna-
mentation. Thus, when an Academy award-winning actress such as
Angelina Jolie presents numerous visible tattoos, she is displaying
her social status in the form of her importance in the acting
community because it can be costly and time consuming to conceal
tattoos with makeup when a character does not require that specific
The motivations for getting tattoos and piercings seem to fall
into three broad, and, at first glance, inclusive categories: individ-
uality, group membership, or a symbol of an important past event,
love, or friendship (Antoszewski et al., 2010). We proposed two
hypotheses to explain these trends in pop culture based on an
evolutionary perspective: the human canvas hypothesis and
upping-the-ante hypothesis. First, the human canvas hypothesis
proposes that body ornamentation is an example of an extended
phenotype intended to demonstrate symbolic thought, which can
be a marker of individuality or a group identifier. Second, the
upping-the-ante hypothesis states that because of modern factors,
such as increases in population density and better health care,
individuals are increasing their individuality by increasing their
costly displays. Furthermore, we have demonstrated that the act of
getting a tattoo or piercing can be seen as an honest indicator of
fitness, because both processes expose the individual to health
risks (Koenig & Carnes, 1999; Stirn, 2003). These proximate
explanations for why body ornamentation exists in popular culture
hint at the more ultimate explanation that humans are driven to
pass on our genes through reproduction. Our lives are not only
about reproduction; but because we are animals who face the
challenges of sexual selection, most aspects of our existence en-
capsulate searching for solutions to problems faced in maximizing
reproductive effort. Individuality makes us unique, and separate
from others, and, ultimately, increases the likelihood of getting
noticed as someone special. Group membership, on the other hand,
can still be beneficial, even though the individual is not necessarily
standing out. In some environments, it is best to be accepted into
a group to receive all the possible benefits, such as safety and a
sense of importance or self-worth. For instance, in groups which
are hierarchical in nature (e.g., gangs, soldiers), body ornamenta-
tion serves as a cultural indicator of one’s own status in that group
(Koziel et al., 2010). Symbolizing one’s love for an individual
through a tattoo could either be a sign of kinship (e.g., mom) or a
sign of monogamy—both of which may indicate the ultimate
factor of mate quality through proximate signs (i.e., social status or
dedication). Finally, a symbol to commemorate an important life
event—be it good or bad— can indicate experience and, in a way,
bolster one’s status in the eyes of others (ultimately increasing
one’s value in the mating market).
Even within the various motivations, it still seems that there
must be a deeper drive that causes us to ornament our bodies when
there are many potential costs. To risk one’s own life seems
counterintuitive in evolutionary terms, yet we see tattooing and
piercing becoming more and more popular (Sweetman, 1999; van
der Meer et al., 2008). According to Koziel et al. (2010), tattoos
and piercings can serve as indicators of underlying fitness. They
have argued that tattoos and piercings (and probably all forms of
body modifications) take a toll on the body, and thus, if the
individual can successfully get a tattoo or piercing without an
infection, it signals that person’s underlying genetic quality. More
fit individuals can afford to modify their bodies with holes and art
because their systems are able to put up with the additional strain,
whereas those who are not in a position to deal with extra strain
demonstrate this through visible infection, indicating a lack of
genetic fitness.
Koziel et al. (2010) also noted that, in men, having tattoos can
potentially heighten their perceived masculinity, ultimately in-
creasing their likelihood of finding a mate. Additionally, piercings
and tattoos are expensive. According to, the average
cost of a tattoo artist’s time is $80$100 per hour. Intricate and
large tattoos in particular take many sessions and can cost thou-
sands of dollars. Because we see men getting more tattoos (63% in
one study; Antoszewski et al., 2010), this seems to be a testament
to the fact that they had enough money to spend on big, ornate
displays. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to get pierc-
ings (78% in one study; Antoszewski et al., 2010), which could be
due to the eye-catching nature of body jewelry. Piercings in
various places can draw attention to sensual areas like the mouth,
ears, and stomach. In both cases, it seems that body ornamentation
is used to speak to some aspect of reproduction.
Because of the reproductive benefits one could potentially re-
ceive, extreme versions of body ornamentation seem like an ex-
treme version of costly signaling. In the last decade, we have seen
very old piercing and tattoo traditions resurface in modern-day
society. Specifically, there has been a resurgence of gauging
(stretching), hanging, and full body tattoos (as demonstrated by the
countless number of websites devoted to this practice). The size of
the gauge is a cultural indicator of the determination and pain
tolerance of the individual. At tattoo conventions, there are pre-
sentations of body suspension using temporary deep tissue pierc-
ing, similar to what was initially practiced by the Native Ameri-
cans, the Mandan and Lakota (DeMello, 2000). And just like the
peoples of the Pacific, we see more and more people with large
areas of their bodies covered in tattoos. We propose that because
of the increase in population size and overall health of various
societies, some people have taken this a step further and gone to
the extreme end of body ornamentation. For example, people like
the “Lizardman” are covered head to toe in elaborate tattoos and
piercings, an act that pushes society’s limits of what is acceptable,
and that seems to speak to our evolutionary need to stand out to
potential mates.
The cave paintings recovered in Le Chauvet 31,000 years ago
transmitted ancient narratives of our need to express our uniquely
human psyche. Symbolic thought drove our need to come up with
increasingly novel ways to express ourselves, ultimately ending in
the human species using our own skin as a means to represent our
innermost thoughts and desires. Since its inception, body orna-
mentation has evolved along with humans for thousands of years
(Pabst et al., 2009). Interestingly enough, the subject matter of the
earliest tattoos is still top ranking in modern society— lists tribal designs, stars, and birds as the top
10 most-popular tattoo designs. Piercing and tattooing the body is
a universal phenomenon that can be found in virtually all cultures
(Stirn, 2003) despite the fact that doing so can lead to infection and
other potentially life-threatening conditions (Kaatz et al., 2008;
Koziel et al., 2010). Though the associated costs seem to greatly
outweigh the benefits, piercings and tattoos have become wide-
spread among popular icons. We see these trends across various
genres of music (e.g., Travis Barker, Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga), films
(e.g., The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and fashion (e.g., Ed
Hardy). There is even a piercing modeled after the sex symbol of
the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe, whose signature beauty mark became
an iconic piercing in recent popular culture.
Though it may not appear so at first glance, it seems that the
drive to get one’s body ornamented is piloted by our most basic
evolutionary need for perpetuation of one’s genes, via sexual
reproduction. This is not a conscious process, but it seems that we
are all driven to increase our individuality through cultural gate-
ways to our evolutionary core. Some people become musicians or
athletes, some become doctors or artists, but at the end of the day,
they could all have a tattoo or piercing. Tattooing and piercing
have deep ancestral roots that are expressed through our popular
culture. The need to express oneself through body ornamentation
transcends all cultural and social barriers. We are all children of
symbolic thought; the only difference between us is how we
choose to express our deepest evolutionary need.
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Received February 7, 2012
Revision received February 7, 2012
Accepted February 22, 2012
... Getting a tattoo can be a spiritual experience, a psychological experience, or a way to cope with the difficulties of life (Pagliarini 2015;Rush 2005). Tattoos and scarification can serve as rites of passage, signifying a transition in life and marking an individual as different from the population that have not undergone these visible modifications (Carmen et al. 2012; Davis and Arnocky 2020;Krutak 2015). Tattoos can also be an art form or decorative body modification (Stevenson and Rubin 1989). ...
... Because they involve biological risk of pathogenic infection, tattoos might show that certain individuals are healthier or more reproductively successful than others (Davis and Arnocky 2020). Therefore, tattoos could be a signifier of biological quality; successfully tattooed individuals, i.e., those who do not die from a pathogenic infection in the wound, may have a higher biological resistance to pathogens and an overall more robust immune system to pass to their descendants (Carmen et al. 2012;Koziel et al. 2010). Tattoos and scarification, both forms of painful and permanent body modification, can also signal an individual's resistance to pain or trauma, showing them to be a better leader or more important member of society (Koziel et al. 2010). ...
... Until the advent of the electrical tattoo machine in the twentieth century, most tattoos were hand-poked or hand-tooled line or dot work patterns made with a single needle or a bundle of needles (Atkinson 2003;Dye 1989). Common motifs included symbols of love, friendship, or memory, group membership, or personal identity (Carmen et al. 2012). Sailors' tattoos in the Euro-American style generally tended to be black and red line work, designed from flash patterns (standardized, replicable designs) or simple sketches. ...
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Sailors have commonly been identified as a heavily tattooed community, even since the eighteenth century. Euro-American sailors left some of the most detailed records we have on maritime tattoos. Yet their non-Western counterparts have often been neglected in analysis of how and why sailors tattooed themselves. This article compares tattoos of the Kru or Krumen from Sierra Leone and Liberia to that of Euro-American sailors. Both groups of mariners had difficult lives with physically demanding jobs that separated them from landed communities. In both cases, tattoos reflected the colonial world; for Euro-American sailors, tattoos signaled their time spent in exotic locations, and for Kru sailors, tattoos helped them avoid colonial exploitation and the slave trade. In both cases, tattoos were a way for sailors to differentiate themselves in a world where their bodies were exploited as disposable labor sources. They helped the wearer avoid becoming embodied property of another person, through enslavement, indenture, or conscription. And indeed, both forms of tattoos were successful in marking the wearer apart from other populations who were exploited in those ways. Ultimately, the story of how and why sailors from many different cultures acquired tattoos is intricately entangled with the larger stories of imperialism and labor in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.
... These patients, who in many ways feel and act like their peers, wish to live a "normal" life. As part of that, body modification might become an issue for individuals with CHD (2)(3)(4). ...
... Tattoos still serve as marks of status and rank, symbols of religious or spiritual devotion, indicators of an important event like a deep love or friendship, and in those days as stamps of slaves and prisoners. Today tattoos are mostly done for cosmetic or religious reasons, to symbolize the belonging to a particular group or as a marker of individuality (2). ...
... In the 1970s and 1980s social movements utilized body art as markers of rebellion or group identity (4). Since the 1990s piercings are excepted and the popularity is increasing (2). Due to the media representation the number of pierced individuals increase across all social classes and socioeconomic groups. ...
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Objective: Tattoos and piercings are types of body art, which are gaining popularity over the last decades. An increasing number of adolescents and adults with congenital heart disease (CHD) have piercings or tattoos. This review will provide prudent information on the subject for affected patients and health care professionals caring for them. Background: Amongst others, local infections are a common complication in up to 20% of all piercings and isolated cases of systemic infections like endocarditis have been reported. Individuals with congenital heart disease are especially susceptible to endocarditis and prone to suffer severe health consequences from it. In terms of tattooing endocarditis is less common but the localization must be well considered as it might interfere with cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging (CMR), which constitutes an important part of follow up investigations in these patients. Methods: This article is written as a commentary narrative review and will provide an update on the current literature and available data on common forms of body modification and the potential risks for patients with CHD. Conclusions: In order to best advise patients and their families, health care professionals must be aware of potential risks accompanying the implementation of body art. Neither the European nor the American guidelines for endocarditis prophylaxis address piercings and tattoos. To our knowledge, there are no clear recommendations concerning piercings and tattoos for adolescents and adults with CHD.
... Examples of human extended phenotypes are plentiful, including makeup, purchasing extravagant clothing, cars, and houses, as well as tattoos and piercings (Borau & Bonnefon, 2019a;Carmen, Guitar, & Dillon, 2012;Etcoff, Stock, Haley, Vickery, & House, 2011;Luoto, 2019). These can function to facilitate mate competition, by honestly or dishonestly signaling phenotypic quality to the receiver, by taking advantage of preexisting sensory biases (sensory exploitation), through a genetic trait-preference correlation (Fisherian selection), or through exaggerating stimuli for which there is already an evolved response (supernormal stimuli). ...
... In regard to tattooing (i.e., permanently inscribing exogenous pigmented inks into the dermis), the oldest archeological evidence suggests that the mummified remains of Ӧtzi (3300 BCE) found in present day Italy shows the earliest concrete evidence of ancient tattoo artwork. Researchers have become increasingly interested in the psychology of tattoos, particularly because of their rising popularity across modern society (Carmen et al., 2012;discussed by Salmon, 2018). For example, a 2015 survey of 1669 British people showed that about 30% of those between the ages of 25-39 had been tattooed (Statista, 2015). ...
... Anthropologists and sociologists have highlighted that among indigenous cultures tattoos have served the purpose of signaling entry into adulthood, individuality, social status, familial and group identity, and spiritual connection (Krutak, 2015). One dilemma that has surfaced in this literature has been some confusion over proximate and ultimate levels of causation (discussed in Carmen et al., 2012). Ludvico and Kurland (1995) argued that their data supported that tattooing is best described as a "rite of passage" rather than the result of sexual selection (i.e., an ultimate mechanism). ...
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Researchers have highlighted numerous sociocultural factors that have been shown to underpin human appearance enhancement practices, including the influence of peers, family, the media, and sexual objectification. Fewer scholars have approached appearance enhancement from an evolutionary perspective or considered how sociocultural factors interact with evolved psychology to produce appearance enhancement behavior. Following others, we argue that evidence from the field of evolutionary psychology can complement existing sociocultural models by yielding unique insight into the historical and cross-cultural ubiquity of competition over aspects of physical appearance to embody what is desired by potential mates. An evolutionary lens can help to make sense of reliable sex and individual differences that impact appearance enhancement, as well as the context-dependent nature of putative adaptations that function to increase physical attractiveness. In the current review, appearance enhancement is described as a self-promotion strategy used to enhance reproductive success by rendering oneself more attractive than rivals to mates, thereby increasing one’s mate value. The varied ways in which humans enhance their appearance are described, as well as the divergent tactics used by women and men to augment their appearance, which correspond to the preferences of opposite-sex mates in a heterosexual context. Evolutionarily relevant individual differences and contextual factors that vary predictably with appearance enhancement behavior are also discussed. The complementarity of sociocultural and evolutionary perspectives is emphasized and recommended avenues for future interdisciplinary research are provided for scholars interested in studying appearance enhancement behavior.
... Tattoos represent personal expression, individuality and creativity (Handwerk, 2002;Wohlrab et al., 2007). They can also signify biological quality, implying those who acquire tattoos are genetically strong and resilient to health risks, which can be seen as a desirable trait (Carmen et al., 2012). Furthermore, Wohlrab et al. (2007) reviewed existing literature and established ten motivational categories, some of which are discussed below. ...
... A lack of narrative or meaning can reduce the significance of a tattoo when they are solely for the purpose of aesthetics and a lack of deep semantic meaning for its wearer can lead to regret (Madfis and Arford, 2013). Regardless whether a meaning is present or not, evidence has shown that male physical attractiveness can be a measure of biological quality (Carmen et al., 2012). ...
... The evolutionary importance of social inclusion and group membership can be seen in young children's inclination to become members of and readily identify with social groups ( Wen et al., 2016 ), crossculturally diverse forms of body ornamentation that signal group identity (e.g., tattoos; Carmen et al., 2012 ), religious practices ( Sosis, 2004 ), and coming-of-age rituals ( Gorelik, 2016 ). Challenges associated with the complexities of group living, such as avoiding social exclusion by participating in culturally relevant social activities, have likely been recurrent adaptive problems over human evolutionary history ( Baumeister and Tice, 1990 ;Buss, 1990 ;Gilbert, 2001 ). ...
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With the surge of social media use in contemporary society, scholars have focused on how feelings of apprehension that one is missing out on important social activities (i.e., fear of missing out [FoMO]) might influence mental health. However, worry surrounding social inclusion is not a contemporary problem, and successfully participating in social events is an important aspect of human evolutionary history. To our knowledge, researchers have yet to frame the phenomenon of FoMO in an evolutionary perspective. In a sample of N = 327 heterosexual American adults (Mage = 36.94, SD = 10.24), we found that FoMO correlated positively with status-striving and intrasexual competitiveness, as well as unrestricted sociosexual behavior and desires. Among females, but not males, FoMO was negatively linked to received social support. Results highlight how adults higher in FoMO express a greater inclination to compete for evolutionarily salient social and reproductive resources and devote more effort toward short-term mating. FoMO may also alert females to the absence of desired social support. Findings provide insight into the utility of an evolutionary approach to studying individual differences in the experience of FoMO, which can aid in gathering a more comprehensive understanding of the construct.
... While examining numerous articles surrounding meaning and identity within tattoos (including Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005;Carmen et al., 2012;Sundberg & Kjellman, 2018) I noted the tendency for simplification of findings and the implication of meaning as fixed, or as cultural studies scholar Nikki Sullivan terms it, 'dermal diagnosis ' (2001, p. 17); as if a tattoo received at the age of eighteen means the same thing to the wearer as it does at the age of forty. The straight-forward presentation of meaning of tattoos in academic literature fails to recognise layers of nuance that exist as a motivation for tattoo acquisition. ...
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This article sets out to enrich understanding of the complexity of ‘meaning’ when discussing tattooing, utilising an autoethnographic account of my experiences of obtaining a tattoo after the loss of my dad. Contributing themes to tattoo meaning are proposed to include shifting personal relationships (with both the figure referenced in the tattoo outcome and tattooist producing it), significant changes in personal and professional circumstances, and the presence of existing tattoos. The musings leading to the production of this article were initiated through my professional experience as a tattooist in North-East England, in which I have tattooed hundreds of individuals with a variety of subject matter. Through the evocative presentation of the variable factors that contribute to meaning, substantiated by professional tattooing experience, the aim is to dispel the notion of the ‘tattoo meaning’ being deducible to something stagnant and possible to examine in the straight-forward manner that it has repeatedly been subject to, and present it as contingent, variable, and resistant of formal classification. available at:
... The percentage of tattooed people in these age categories ranges from 1 to 24%, whereas the prevalence of body piercing ranges from 4.3% to 51%. 5 The rising demand for body alterations worldwide has given rise to many unprofessional body art practitioners. Such practitioners lack the knowledge required to carry out procedures following health and hygiene standards. ...
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Background: Tattoos and piercings, which were once considered taboo, are now widespread like an epidemic, among people of all ages and gender. The rising demand for such body alterations has given rise to a large number of infective complications. This study was, therefore, designed to assess the infection control knowledge, attitudes, and practices of body modification artists in Ethiopia, 2021. Methods: An anonymous observational cross-sectional study was conducted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from May 25 to June 22, 2021. The data collection instrument was a structured questionnaire that covered the participants' socio-demographic characteristics, knowledge, attitudes, and practices related to infection control. On the whole, 172 tattoo and body piercing artists participated in the study. SPSS v.20 software was used for data entry and analysis. Pearson's correlation test, t-test, Tukey's test, and multiple linear regression analysis were conducted during the data analysis. Results: Male participants constituted well over three-fourths (96.5%, n = 166) of the sample considered in the study. According to the result, the participants' knowledge of infection control received the lowest score (7.1 ± 1.22). Participants' scores of knowledge of infection control increased with an increase in their experience in the multiple linear regression. Experience and training time were also associated with knowledge. Infection control practice was positively associated with the respondents' attitudes. After controlling other variables, it was found that a one-unit increase in respondents' attitude scores increased their practice level by 86%. Conclusion: This is the first study in Ethiopia to examine tattooists' and body piercers' infection control knowledge, attitude, and practice. Minimum standards for infection control in inking and piercing establishments are necessary. It is therefore important that local authorities and public health professionals work towards laying down the minimum code of practice for infection control in inking and piercing establishments.
... Traditionally, body piercings are mainly found in the soft part of the earlobes, predominantly in women (Elzweig and Peeples, 2011). The preference for, and popularity of, other body parts for piercings varies according to gender, with the navel being the most common site for women and the face being most common for men (Carmen et al., 2012). Van Hoover et al. (2017) argues that virtually no part of the human body is excluded from ornamental piercing. ...
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Purpose This study draws on social stigma and prejudice to examine the perceptions and beliefs of managers and employees regarding visible tattoos and body piercings, as well as the impact they have on potential employment and human resource management in the global South, using Nigeria as the research context. Design/methodology/approach The study uses a qualitative research approach, drawing on data from 43 semi-structured interviews with employees and managers in Nigeria. Findings Contrary to the popular opinion that tattoos and body piercings are becoming more accepted and mainstream in society, this study finds that some Nigerian employers and employees may stigmatise and discriminate against people with visible tattoos and body piercings. The findings of this study suggest that beliefs about tattoos are predicated on ideologies as well as religious and sociocultural values, which then influence corporate values. Research limitations/implications The extent to which the findings of this research can be generalised is constrained by the limited sample and scope of the research. Practical implications Religious and sociocultural preconceptions about people with visible tattoos and body piercings have negative implications for the recruitment and employment of such people and could prevent organisations from hiring and keeping talented employees. This implies that talented employees might experience prejudice at job interviews, preventing them from gaining employment. Furthermore, stigmatising and discriminating against people with visible tattoos and body piercings may lead to the termination of employment of talented employees, which could negatively affect organisational productivity and growth. Originality/value This study provides an insight into the employment relations regarding tattoos and body piercing in Nigeria. The study highlights the need for mild beliefs and positive perceptions about people with visible tattoos and unconventional body piercings. There should be a general tolerance of the individual preference for body art and physical appearance, and this tolerance should be incorporated in organisational policies, which are enactments of corporate culture.
Individuals with invisible disabilities continually undergo decision-making processes regarding whether or not, and if so, how to disclose their disability to others. While a great deal of theorization exists regarding disclosure processes, less work has considered how and why individuals with invisible disabilities forgo the disclosure process by making the invisible visible. This study examines motivations for using tattoos as a mechanism for invisible disability disclosure among the single-sided deaf (SSD) community. Interviews with 41 individuals with SSD across the U.S. reveal a complex set of motivations for permanently and visibly disclosing invisible disability through the use of tattoos. Motivations ranged from being (1) functionally driven, such as normalizing and naturalizing disability disclosures in mixed interactions (2) identity driven, such as showing pride in their condition with the goal of de-stigmatizing SSD (3) community driven, such as educating others about SSD and increasing camaraderie within the hard-of-hearing community to (4) personally driven, such as memorializing a loss, marking the legitimacy of deafness to the self and to others, and increasing disability identification. This study contributes to existing disclosure models by considering how this emerging form of disclosure bypasses and complicates some of the foundational assumptions of disclosure decision-making processes regarding whether, to whom, and how individuals with disabilities disclose. This provides important insights regarding how disclosure decisions can be predetermined and made independent of context, situation, and relationship(s), which has several theoretical and practical implications.
Evidence is presented showing that body fat distribution as measured by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is correlated with youthfulness, reproductive endocrinologic status, and long-term health risk in women. Three studies show that men judge women with low WHR as attractive. Study 1 documents that minor changes in WHRs of Miss America winners and Playboy playmates have occurred over the past 30-60 years. Study 2 shows that college-age men find female figures with low WHR more attractive, healthier, and of greater reproductive value than figures with a higher WHR. In Study 3, 25- to 85-year-old men were found to prefer female figures with lower WHR and assign them higher ratings of attractiveness and reproductive potential. It is suggested that WHR represents an important bodily feature associated with physical attractiveness as well as with health and reproductive potential. A hypothesis is proposed to explain how WHR influences female attractiveness and its role in mate selection.
Since the 1980s, tattooing has emerged anew in the United States as a widely appealing cultural, artistic, and social form. In Bodies of Inscription Margo DeMello explains how elite tattooists, magazine editors, and leaders of tattoo organizations have downplayed the working-class roots of tattooing in order to make it more palatable for middle-class consumption. She shows how a completely new set of meanings derived primarily from non-Western cultures has been created to give tattoos an exotic, primitive flavor. Community publications, tattoo conventions, articles in popular magazines, and DeMello's numerous interviews illustrate the interplay between class, culture, and history that orchestrated a shift from traditional Americana and biker tattoos to new forms using Celtic, tribal, and Japanese images. DeMello's extensive interviews reveal the divergent yet overlapping communities formed by this class-based, American-style repackaging of the tattoo. After describing how the tattoo has moved from a mark of patriotism or rebellion to a symbol of exploration and status, the author returns to the predominantly middle-class movement that celebrates its skin art as spiritual, poetic, and self-empowering. Recognizing that the term “community” cannot capture the variations and class conflict that continue to thrive within the larger tattoo culture, DeMello finds in the discourse of tattooed people and their artists a new and particular sense of community and explores the unexpected relationship between this discourse and that of other social movements. This ethnography of tattooing in America makes a substantive contribution to the history of tattooing in addition to relating how communities form around particular traditions and how the traditions themselves change with the introduction of new participants. Bodies of Inscription will have broad appeal and will be enjoyed by readers interested in cultural studies, American studies, sociology, popular culture, and body art.
Tattoos and non-conventional piercings are used in many societies. There are several social reasons for which people use these forms of body decorations (e.g., marking social status or signaling membership within a subculture). However, it is interesting why only some people within a group that uses body decoration as a badge of membership decide upon such decorations. Since both tattoos and piercings can present health risks (e.g., due to blood-borne disease transmission risk), we postulate that people who decide to have such a body decoration might have relatively higher biological quality and that tattoos/piercings can be an honest signal of genetic quality. The possible opposite hypothesis is the “attractiveness increase hypothesis,” according to which people use body decorations to increase their own physical attractiveness or to hide some shortcomings in their appearance (e.g., low body symmetry). To test these hypotheses, we compared body fluctuating asymmetry, which is considered a good measure of developmental stability, between individuals wearing tattoos and/or non-conventional piercings (n=116) and a control group (without such body decorations) (n=86). We found that majority of the absolute and relative fluctuating asymmetry indices had significantly lower values in individuals with tattoos/piercings than in the control group. This effect was strongly driven by males. Higher body symmetry of the men having tattoo or piercing indicates that this type of body decoration in the western society can be related to the honest signal of biological quality only for men. We did not find support for the “attractiveness increase hypothesis” for either sex.
Because leisure activities are often viewed as optional, their value to people with disabilities may not be recognized. This study explored the benefits of leisure activities for eight young people who are blind. These activities provided them with supportive relationships, a desirable identity, experiences of power and control, and experiences of social justice. They enabled the young people we studied to thrive despite adversity.