Who here thinks about the 1981 Rolling Stones album “Tattoo You” upon hearing the word “Tattoo” 28 years later? Probably not many. Probably not even the members of the Rolling Stones who released that album nearly three decades ago. Back in the ‘80s, my association with “Tattoo” was that album. Since then, society has undergone a rapid transformation from a time when tattoos were the exclusive body design of felons, Hell’s Angels, and seriously rebellious teens. Nowadays, you don’t even have to look carefully to see how mainstream tattoos have become and how many people you would never expect to have them, have them. Men in Armani suits, middle-age women, professionals, salespeople, appellate lawyers, real young, real old, real educated, real uneducated, the list goes on and on and on.
A study in The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology showed that about 24% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo, and that 36% of those between 18 and 29 have a tattoo.
So what exactly does having a tattoo mean? Is it purely symbolic? Why do people decide to permanently burn a display onto their skin? And of those, how many regret doing it later in life (or 20 minutes later)? Is there significance to where on someone’s body it is? Surely where and what it is means something. Answers to these questions get at the overarching question of what do tattoos communicate? Since communication is a two-way street, we have to look at what the person with the tattoo wants to convey, or more accurately what he or she is conveying, and what the person looking at it interprets the tattoo to mean.
My psychologist friend thinks that those with tattoos covering their entire body have a fear of forming and sustaining attachments to others. Many people will shun someone full of tattoos, so tattoos all over someone’s face and body typically serve as a barrier to anything deeper than superficial personal interaction. However, those who can look past the shell of tattoos are less likely to turn away from that person once they penetrate through the wall of tattoos.
One quick note, I personally agree with NY Times columnist David Brooks who feels that, while there are exceptions, most people who have tattoos thought they were unique and doing something only few others were doing. However, now, they are realizing all they have done is something incredibly mainstream, non-rebellious and non-individualistic. Since many people initially got tattoos thinking they would be making a statement and were being rebellious, it is ironic that now only the truest of non-conformists seem not to have tattoos.
So I decided to give it a shot and ask people their thoughts. Here are some of the consistent thematic responses my question generated. Remember, I just asked what people think of tattoos and what they think of people who have them.
- Tattoos are fine if they are tactful.
- People are trying to satisfy some internal desire to take a walk on the wild side/be naughty while being able to keep it hidden when desired.
- If you get one, I hear you want another.
- If you get one, people regret getting them.
- They make people feel special, unique, powerful.
- It is a 'tramp stamp' for women and for men they want to impress people (i.e., with the “look at my biceps burst through barbed wire” tattoo).
- It is a statement. Not sure what. Depends on tattoo.
Alan Tuerkheimer, M.A., J.D. utilizes his background in psychology and law as a litigation consultant for ZMF. His experience conducting jury research has given him an in-depth understanding of people’s attitudes, biases and decision-making processes. He is highly sought-after due to his ability to deliver solutions that bridge the communication gap between trial team and jury. Alan earned his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School and completed his graduate and undergraduate work in Psychology from Connecticut College and University of Wisconsin, respectively.