Surveying Strangers About Tattoos
A scientific answer to “What your tattoo says about you”
I’ve always wanted to be the type of person who has a tattoo. That person rides a Harley, plays drums in a band, and leads a more badass life than the one I have now.
However, I’ve always been too afraid to get a tattoo. I have a hard time committing to a magazine subscription for a year, let alone artwork that will stay on my body for the rest of my life.
Consequently, people with tattoos fascinate me. Who are these magical beings that confidently mark themselves for life? Even though I believe people should do whatever they want with their bodies, I won’t lie and say I don’t instantly judge someone based off their tattoo choices and tattoo placement The guy at the bar with a sleeve of tattoos seems like a badass and the girl with a shoulder tattoo appears just a bit edgier than her non-tatted friends.
But where do my judgments come from? Why do I see some tattoos as tastefully edgy and others as tacky? I decided to dive into the world of tattoos and tattoo meanings. I read articles, surveyed random people on the internet, talked to some friends with ink — all to answer the important question of what your tattoo says about you — or at least why I judge that girl for getting a butterfly tattoo on her lower back. Along the way I discovered that people with tattoos may be braver than I will ever be.
History of Tattoos in 30 Seconds
Tattoos are not new.
Aside from having a nickname fit for the WWE, Ötzi the “Iceman” is a 5,300 year-old mummy and the oldest intact human body ever found. On his body are 61 tattoos made from charcoal being rubbed into purposely made cuts. However, these tattoos were more likely used as a treatment for pain than for decorative purposes.
Since then, tattoos have ranged in use and meaning. Christian crusaders got cross tattoos to signal the need for a Christian burial if they died in battle. Samoans got tattoos across their body as an initiation rite into manhood. Sailors marked their travels with tattoos, each with a specific meaning. If you crossed the Atlantic, you got an anchor, and if you were a ship deckhand, you got ropes on your wrist.
The term “tattoo” was actually popularized during Captain James Cook’s voyage to the Tahitian islands in 1768 where he met the heavily tattooed Tahitians. “Tattoo” is derived from the Tahitian/Polynesian word “tatau” meaning “to mark,” but was also an English military term to describe a drumbeat.
Cook likely substituted the Tahitian word for the English word in his writings through the expeditions of other explorers to the South Pacific, several of whom brought back tattooed Natives, “tattoo” became broadly accepted in the common vocabulary.
Although the concept of tattoos is not new, the rise of tattoos is. Prior to the 80’s, tattoos were mostly reserved for gangs and sailors. It was only after several prominent celebrities got inked and TV shows such as Miami Ink climbed in popularity, that tattoos really entered the mainstream.
Google Trends reflects this. Starting in 2005, the year Miami Ink aired, the search term “tattoo” has increased in popularity, peaking in 2012, and remaining steady since. Today, it’s estimated that around 4 in 10 people in the US have at least one tattoo.
So how do we REALLY view people with tattoos?
If tattoos are common, do we perceive people with tattoos just like everyone else? Two researchers tested just that by asking 2,500 Polish men and women to rate pictures of men with and without tattoos.
They found that both men and women rated tattooed guys as more masculine, dominant and aggressive. But while women did rate men with tattoos as more healthy, only guys rated men with tattoos as more attractive. Women actually rated men with tattoos as worse long-term partners and fathers.
A similar study was done for women where people were shown a woman with and without a dragon tattoo and asked to rate her on 13 dimensions. Of the 13 characteristics, people rated the woman as less athletic, less attractive, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent, and less artistic when she had a tattoo.
So if people with tattoos are negatively viewed on so many dimensions, then why are tattooed individuals always glorified in culture as sex symbols? I’ve watched enough bad television to know that if someone with a ton of tattoos appears in a show, they’re either a super hot “bad boy” (if it’s a guy) or a super hot femme fatale (if it’s a girl).
The answer lies in what tattoos mean. In another experiment, researchers hired a woman to lie on her stomach at a beach. They then observed the number of men that approached her depending on whether she had a temporary tattoo placed on her lower back or not.
Not only did more men approach the woman when she had the lower back tattoo, but nearby men also rated the chances that she would go on a date with them and have sex with them on their first date as higher when she had the tattoo.
Thus, perceiving tattooed individuals as sex symbols could just be a self-fulfilling stereotype. Because men and women with tattoos are seen as more promiscuous, they get approached more often. Because they get approached more often, they are more likely to have more sexual partners. This then reinforces the stereotype and perpetuates the cycle.
After reading these studies, I examined my own biases around tattoos. Rationally, I believe people are free to do whatever they want with their bodies. Yet despite trying to keep an open mind, I still make snap judgements about people based off their ink. When I meet someone with a world map tattoo, I assume they did a study abroad trip during college that just “changed their life.” And when I see someone with a tribal tattoo at the gym, I assume there is a higher likelihood that they’ll be getting a tan and doing laundry afterwards.
To understand where my preconceived notions come from, I did some observational research — a.k.a watch a ton of episodes of Miami Ink. I noticed that once I learned the stories behind people’s tattoos, my judgements about their tattoos changed. For example, I initially wrote off a woman’s flower tattoo in an episode as just another cliché. But when I listened to Jenette talk about how the tattoo honors her grandfather — who raised and watched her blossom — I reversed my opinion and suddenly found the tattoo unique.
I realized that tattoos are an investment. Not only do you invest money, but you make a “body investment” as well because the tattoo marks you forever. The bigger and more visible the tattoo, the greater that investment is. And even though I know you don’t need a reason to get a tattoo, I couldn’t help but judge tattoos based on whether I felt the tattoo meaning matched the level of body investment. Get a small ankle tattoo to celebrate your senior-year trip to Argentina and it’s cute. Get a massive phoenix on your back to celebrate the same trip and I may question your decision making.
But this was based on my personal feelings. Do other people judge tattoos the same way?
To answer this question, I asked random people on the internet to judge a fictional character’s decision to get a lion tattoo. I randomly assigned participants to one of four scenarios. What differed in the scenarios was the visibility of “Mike’s” tattoo — aka the degree of Mike’s “body investment” — as well as Mike’s reason for getting the tattoo. In half the scenarios, Mike was getting a large tattoo on his forearm (“high body investment”); in the other half, Mike was getting a small tattoo on his shoulder (“low body investment”). Also in half of the scenarios, Mike was getting the tattoo because he wanted to look good; in the other half of scenarios, Mike was getting the tattoo to honor his deceased grandfather.
If other people judged tattoos the same way I did, then Mike’s tattoo should be more acceptable if it had meaning or the body investment was low.
Is Mike’s Tattoo a Good Decision?
First, who was filling out my survey? I got 410 US respondents, 58% of whom were female, 40% were male, and the remaining 2% “Other”. Knowing that roughly 40% of the US population is inked up, my survey participants were somewhat representative with 38% claiming to have at least one tattoo.
So how did people judge Mike? As predicted, when Mike had meaning behind his tattoo, more people believed the tattoo was a good decision. 72% of people supported Mike’s decision to get a tattoo for his grandfather as opposed to only 53% of people who supported Mike’s decision to get a tattoo to look good.
Drilling down, only 41% of people thought Mike getting a large lion tattoo on his forearm with no meaning was a good idea. By adding in meaning, Mike’ tattoo’s acceptance significantly rose to 66%. Without changing the actual tattoo itself, the tattoo meaning affected how people judged it.
My next question was whether body investment or tattoo meaning would have a larger impact on how Mike’s tattoo was perceived. Were respondents more accepting of a small tattoo with no meaning or a large tattoo with meaning? It turns out the impact of each was about the same. 66% of people believed Mike’s decision to get a large lion tattoo honoring grandfather was a good decision while 65% believed Mike’s decision to get a small lion tattoo for aesthetic reasons was a good decision. Overall, people thought that Mike getting a small tattoo with meaning was the best decision with 79% support.
Out of curiosity I looked at how people with tattoos compared with people without tattoos in their judgement of Mike. People with tattoos were overwhelmingly more accepting of Mike’s decision, regardless of Mike’s reasons. 85% of tattooed individuals supported Mike’s decision to get a tattoo versus the 49% of non-tattooed individuals.
But why did Mike get a tattoo?
Clearly I wasn’t alone in judging tattoos by their deeper meanings. However, are all meanings created equal? In Mike’s case, honoring a loved one is one of many possible reasons to get a tattoo. Would people have judged Mike’s tattoo as positively if he got the tattoo to celebrate a trip or with a bunch of friends?
I created another survey where I assigned survey takers to one of six different scenarios. In each scenario, Mike was planning on getting the same large lion tattoo as before, but each scenario had a different reason. I wanted to find out what the most acceptable tattoo meanings were. The six meanings I tested were:
- Mike wants the tattoo because he likes the design and believes it will look good on him.
- Mike wants the tattoo because he sees it as a piece of artwork and self-expression.
- Mike is with a group of friends who have all decided to get matching tattoos to symbolize their friendship.
- Mike wants the tattoo because it is a symbol that reminds him to be confident and to believe in himself.
- Mike wants the tattoo to symbolize a backpacking trip through Africa where he learned to be confident and to believe in himself.
- Mike wants the tattoo because it honors his recently deceased grandfather who inspired him to be confident and believe in himself.
In this second survey, I got 480 participants with 61% Female, 37% Male and 2% “Other”/”Prefer Not to Say”. 42% of the people filling out my survey were tattooed, still roughly in line with overall US demographics.
Looking at the results of the second survey, the most socially acceptable meaning for Mike’s tattoo is to memorialize his trip to Africa. The least acceptable reason is getting the tattoo with friends. Just like you shouldn’t jump off a bridge because all your friends are doing it, you also shouldn’t get a tattoo for the same reason (at least if you don’t want to be judged).
Separating the responses of tattooed and non-tattooed individuals revealed some interesting info as well. Similar to the first survey, people with tattoos are generally more accepting of Mike’s tattoo across all scenarios. And for both tattooed and non-tattooed respondents, getting a tattoo because your friends are doing it is the least compelling reason. However, the persuasiveness of the other tattoo meanings change. For tattooed individuals, in order of most acceptable to least acceptable tattoo meanings are:
- Trip to Africa
- Artwork & Self-Expression
- Honor Grandfather
- Symbol & Reminder / Looks Good (Tie)
For non-tattooed individuals, the order is:
- Honor Grandfather
- Trip to Africa/Symbol & Reminder (Tie)
- Self-Expression/Look Good (Tie)
The biggest difference between the two groups is whether self-expression and artwork is an acceptable reason to get a tattoo. For people without tattoos, only 37% of people thought Mike getting a tattoo for artistic/self-expression reasons was a good idea, while that number is 84% for people with tattoos.
As someone who doesn’t have a tattoo, I can understand where the gap comes from. Whereas memorializing a trip or loved one are universal emotions that anyone can understand, I don’t know what it means to express yourself through a tattoo because I’ve never had one. But I imagine that for people with tattoos, they see their tattoo as part of who they are. Hence expressing yourself through a tattoo makes much more sense for people with tattoos than for those of us who have never experienced it.
To answer my original questions — we judge tattoos not only based on what they look like but also for what they represent. And yes, there are some reasons to get a tattoo that are more convincing than others, at least from an outside perspective.
Give it to me straight: should I get a tattoo?
But this doesn’t explain why people get tattoos, only how we perceive them. So why does someone decide to permanently mark their body with ink? And as someone who has secretly always wanted a tattoo, what allows so many people to go under the needle yet I seem incapable of doing so?
I chatted with a friend with tattoos. I didn’t expect his experiences to generalize to every tattooed individual, but I thought talking to him would at least highlight what allowed him to get inked.
My friend has three tattoos. In order of when he got them, he has:
1. “Regret nothing, life is yours to lose” written in sanskrit across his ribs. He got this tattoo freshman year out of college. It was around when his father left his family as well as when some of his friends got into tattoos.
2. A single black band on his wrist. He got this tattoo when he was 23 after having a near-death accident on a solo hike. The tattoo reminds him to keep going.
3. A Calvin & Hobbes tattoo on his left buttcheek. He got this tattoo when he was 25 with a bunch of friends. Over time, more friends in his friend group have gotten a similar tattoo.
After reflecting on my biggest holdbacks to getting a tattoo, my main question to my friend was about regret. Not because tattoos look worse with age — let’s be honest, we look worse with age — but because people change. If I were to get a tattoo, I would want it to mean something. But how can I be so confident that what I find meaningful now will be equally impactful 20 years later? Once I’ve experienced the ups and downs of life, such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, won’t that college study abroad trip and corresponding leg tattoo feel a lot less important?
My friend’s point-of-view was that people don’t regret their tattoos, they regret what their tattoos represent. He gave an example of a friend who got a generic tattoo on her lower back — a “tramp stamp”. His friend regrets her tattoo not because of what it is, but because it represents a time of her life she no longer believes represents who she is today.
At first I thought his example proved that nobody knows themselves well enough to get a tattoo. But my friend explained that the way he sees it, you only regret a tattoo if you don’t accept and forgive who you were in the past. Even though my friend doesn’t see some of his tattoos as meaningful today as when he first got them, he doesn’t regret his tattoos because they still represent part of his past. As long as you accept who you were when you got the tattoo, tattoos are just markers of different points of your life.
In essence, it’s not that my friend got a tattoo because he knew himself better than I knew myself. It’s that he was more forgiving of the fact that he will change. I saw tattoos as capturing some permanent truth about myself, my friend saw tattoos as snapshots of different moments in his life.
Reflecting on how we judge tattoos, maybe the question shouldn’t be whether a tattoo has enough meaning. Maybe the question is whether the person getting the tattoo is brave enough to embrace who they are.