Tattoos: Badge or Brand?

Tattoos are everywhere these days. Some data1 suggests that as many as 38% of Americans have some type of permanent tattooing, and that number is growing rapidly. Love them or hate them, tattoos almost always elicit some type of strong response in viewers. They send a silent message to those around us. But the question is this: What message are they sending?

Tattoos communicate information on at least two levels. The basic level is the very nature of a personal, permanent modification. It’s an expression of personal identity which says, “This is me,” and it does so while conveying the importance that such a permanent modification would demand. The second level of communication is the nature of the tattoo itself – what it is, where it is, etc. Tattoos can express affiliation, intimidation, invitation, delicacy, or numerous other messages. But the original question remains: What message are they sending?

My personal response to tattoos is a complex mixture that involves past experiences, religious convictions, and personal preferences, and I respond differently to tattoos on different genders and ages. As a Christian, I have often debated other Christians concerning tattoos on the grounds of Biblical permission and acceptance, but almost never have I investigated – and never written about – my personal response to tattoos. I don’t like them. Especially on women. But it’s more than just not liking something such as the taste of coconut or the sound of a clarinet. It’s repulsive to me in a way I’ve never really been able to describe, so I recently decided to research tattoos from a psychological approach in an effort to understand my disdain. What I found was enlightening, especially when considered along with some of my other areas of human studies.

While tattooing is usually considered a ‘beautifying’ modification, much of the psychology surrounding the motivation to be tattooed is closely related to that of anxiety-based body mutilations such as piercing, burning, and cutting.2 Tattoos are yet another passively-aggressive means of reaching out to those around us.

Tattoos promise to make you attractive, as if you have a personal force akin to gravity. Notice me. The more attraction you command, the more attention you get, and the more life you have […]3

In such a way, tattoos send to others messages of insecurity, desperation, etc, which can make the tattooed individual more unattractive to others and create an image of lesser value. The growing trend of post-mastectomy patients tattooing their chests in an effort to remain “sexy” after the psychologically devastation of breast removal is evidence of this. Similar to the braggart who runs his friends away by his efforts to impress them, the tattooed individual seeks to gain attractiveness while actually causing the opposite effect.

I’ve often heard tattoo sympathizers (mostly women) comment with something similar to, ‘It’s just creative expression. Simple artistry.” True enough, artistry is a form of expression within us that isn’t easily put into words. But taking such an expression on to our personal image permanently changes the image of who we are, and that image may be nothing like what we intend. In a recent study,4 researchers made some interesting discoveries concerning how men respond to tattooed women. While the women were not seen as any more or less attractive, they were consistently seen as “easier,” or more likely sex partners. Regardless of what the tattoo image is, whether hearts, flowers, scripture, or whatever, tattoos in certain locations on a woman’s body have collectively come to be termed as “tramp stamps.” This is simply because women with tattoos are seen as cheap and easy.1 As a personal observation, it makes sense that women’s tattoos are viewed as a sexual advertisement due to the uncanny frequency of women tattooing themselves in (or in immediate proximity to) the complex map of erogenous zones all over her body. Keep in mind that female erogenous zones are not just the “girly parts.” Ankles, feet, thighs, wrists, lower back, underarm, and nape are all strong erogenous zones in women, and the extremely high frequency of women receiving tattoos in these areas cannot be coincidence (though it is most likely subconscious).
At this point, I would like to remind my readers that tattooed women do indeed get more attention from men, but male attention has no connection at all with a man’s attraction to her. Just like with cheap makeup, miniskirts, and thongs, men will flock to cheap sluts because they’re free sex. But cheap sluts have no true attractiveness to men (and certainly not other women).

Lastly, I’ve personally noticed among my tattooed friends that it seems like an unhealthy addiction. They haven’t even healed from one tattoo before they’re drawing a design and saving money for the next, and that process continues even to the point where they tattoo over other tattoos because they’re out of virgin skin. What they have is never enough. It’s an addiction. As a biochemist, I’ve often attributed that behavior to an endorphin addiction similar to cutting, which is somewhat supported.1 In the process of my research, I was also surprised at the number of times I encountered the term “religious” in descriptions of dedication within the tattoo community. Coming from secular psychologists, that term isn’t a good thing because it refers to an irrational dedication to something such as to a cult or a gang. Whether this is accurate or not, the fact remains that I’ve personally seen addiction behaviors when it comes to tattoos.

Considering what I found in my research, it’s clear why tattoos are repulsive to me. They are a brand that identifies an individual as weak, irrational, and desperate for attention, and, in the case of women, cheap. Now to be clear, I know that it’s human to have moments of weakness and desperation, and I know that in the case of women, sometimes women want to be seen as a sexual object. Just like the clothing, jewelry, and makeup I wear at various events to create an impression, I have no problem at all with temporary changes to appearances. If a woman wants to wear sexy makeup and miniskirt to express how she feels during an evening, that’s great. If she wants to paint designs on her arms, legs, breasts, face, or everything from head to toe with henna or India ink that lasts only a few days, that’d be awesome (and really sexy!). I believe it is the permanence of tattooing that is so repulsive to me. It’s like seeing someone chain them self to a feeling of insecurity. It’s like seeing someone in the gutter who, rather than making an effort to climb out, stakes a claim and becomes a permanent resident. But whether or not I can ever fully explain it, I find tattoos revolting.

1Karim, Reef D.O.; Tattoo Psycology: Art or Self Destruction? Modern Day Social Branding; Huffington
3Farrell, Kirby PhD.; If Tattoos Could Talk; Psychology Today
4Guéguen, Nicolas; Effects of a Tattoo on Men’s Behavior and Attitudes Towards Women: An Experimental Field Study; Springer

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