Do Tattoos Make a Man Appear Healthier and More Attractive?

Researchers from Poland have tested whether ink signals a strong immune system.

Do tattoos make a man seem healthier and hotter? Defence Images/Flickr

There was a time when tattoos were considered taboo, but that time is long behind us. In the UK, an estimated 20 million people sport at least one tattoo: almost one of every three of the inhabitants of my mother country (perhaps not surprising given that the name “Britain” comes from the ancient Celtic for “the tattooed folk”).

In America it’s not much different. A decade ago, a Pew report found that 40% of Millennials had a tattoo, and I suspect that number may well have crept up over the intervening years.

My own sister is a tattoo artist, inked up from head to toe (literally), but I’ve never gone under the needle myself and find it difficult to understand why anyone would bother. As far as I can tell, about 95% of tattoos look rubbish, plus they’re permanent — unless you want to put yourself through multiple sessions of laser treatment, which are more expensive and painful than getting the tattoo in the first place.

But perhaps the pain is part of the point of a tattoo…

A signal of strength?

Evolutionary biologists have theorized that tattoos are a way of signalling how tough we are. In preindustrial societies, tattooing is more painful and more dangerous than it is in modern societies. Piercing the skin exposes the recipient of a tattoo to infection, and only those with the strongest immune systems can come through the process with their health intact.

So, tattoos may be the human equivalent to a peacock’s showy tail: a drain on bodily resources that reduces survival chances but advertises to potential mates (and rivals) that you are tough enough to withstand the handicap.

Peacocks don’t have to go under the needle to receive their “tattoos” but perhaps they serve the same purpose as human ink? John Clouston/Flickr

In a research paper published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, scientists from Poland sought to test this theory. Are humans with tattoos seen as more attractive, healthy, and dominant?

Andrzej Galbarczyk and Anna Ziomkiewicz photographed nine shirtless men, none of whom had a tattoo. Then, they had a professional photographer add an abstract tattoo design to each man’s arm.

Several hundred male and female volunteers were shown these images, and asked to rated them for attractiveness, health, masculinity, dominance, and aggression. The volunteers also judged how good a partner and father they thought each man would make.

Results

Women thought the men looked healthier with a tattoo, which supports the biologists’ theory. However, tattoos didn’t make a man look more or less attractive. Women thought tattooed men would be worse partners and fathers than men without tattoos, perhaps because tattoos signal impulsiveness and a propensity for taking risks — hardly characteristics most women look for in a long-term partner.

Both men and women agreed that a man with a tattoo looked more masculine, dominant, and aggressive.

The researchers conclude that:

tattoos may have a dual function: they influence female preference, but also are likely to be important in male-male competition.

However, I wonder if their results could partly be explained by the type of men they photographed. The example image that appeared in their research paper showed an athletic young man. If the other models that were photographed were similarly buff, this could be a problem. Tattoos are so culturally loaded with information, that it is possible that the same tattoo could communicate different messages depending on its bearer’s age, physical condition, and other variables the researchers didn’t investigate.

An example image from the paper: the same man with and without a tattoo (the original image was shown with the model’s head included).

What’s more, anyone who has visited a tattoo parlor knows that the number of available tattoo designs is virtually limitless. This means it is very difficult to conclude from one study whether tattoos, as a whole, have a predictable effect on how a person is perceived.

But for now, at least, it seems like I may have been right to forgo the tattoo needle. I don’t really want to be seen as more aggressive or a bad bet for a relationship partner, and if I want to appear more healthy I’ll make sure to eat my 5-a-day.


Galbarczyk, A., & Ziomkiewicz, A. (2017). Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 106. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 14 February 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Support Rob at patreon.com/psychology and receive bonus podcasts and blogs.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Dr. Robert Burriss’s story.