‘That girl has a beautiful tattoo,” I overheard a Summer Shakespeare audience member say. That girl, as it happened, was one of my kids, and as a parent, I often wonder about how things like tattoos help or hinder young folk. I’m also just plain nosy.
If you don’t have a tattoo you might have wondered why anybody does. Tattoos seem more common now than they have been in the past and I am starting to feel seriously under-tattooed compared with my first-year students. I’m not sure about New Zealand, but in other parts of the Western world about 15% of people born around 1950 have one. Among people born post-1980, the figure rises to about 30%.
It is not just walrus-moustached sailors who have tattoos these days; they’re increasingly common among women and other groups. At the same time, men are more likely to choose their arms for decoration, whereas women favour ankles and lower backs. Men are also twice as likely to choose sites for tattoos that are easily visible to others.
Not surprisingly, there is a range of reasons that people get inked. Probably most common is a desire to express something about oneself on one’s body, something about who we are.
In fact, most of us do this all the time in various ways. Why did you buy that red sports car? Maybe you see something about yourself in that?
Under this broad heading, people also talk about tattoos signalling to others things they may have lived through – for example, names of children, events, dates of important deaths.
At the same time, sociologists have noted that although we might have particular things we’re trying to express, we can’t control the meanings others attribute to our tattoos. That’s to say your tattoo might have deep spiritual and personal symbolism, but some people may think it’s just a “tramp stamp” (to use just one derogatory label).
So, does having a tattoo change how people see you? Occasionally, to teach about experiments, I’ve turned up to the first classes of the year both to introduce myself and to collect some data to use in the next lecture. Based on what’s literally a minute of introduction, I invite students to give their impression of me on a brief personality survey.
A couple of lectures later I present the results – now why did the people in the afternoon class (compared with the morning) think I was grubbier, dimmer, but … more rugged? One of the joys of teaching the same class twice is messing around, and in this case the afternoon crowd got to see me with sleeves rolled up and sporting tattoos (fake, as it happened).
All else being equal, any differences should be a result of the experimental manipulation (tattooed or not tattooed). I’ve tried this a few times, using as the manipulation a pink mohawk, facial piercings, etc, but the tattoo effect was the strongest I’ve seen – if those personality surveys meant anything, it was that students did see me less positively with the tattoos. Yet students are the people most likely to have them!
A tattooed woman is more likely to have an image problem than a tattooed man. A study by UK-based researcher Viren Swami reported that women with tattoos are more likely to be perceived as promiscuous and prone to drink, and the more tattoos, the more powerful the perceived association.
At the same time, research shows tattoos are not shortcuts to working out that someone’s a gang-member drug-user. Among adolescents, tattoos are just as common among high achievers as under achievers.
Research among my students (not particularly representative) shows the only thing their tattoos said about them was that they were slightly more sociable and outgoing than their non-tattooed peers. So, books and people can both bear ink and you can’t judge either by the cover.