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decisions are tied to their self-concepts within the domain of tattoo removal...

Investigation of Identity Negotiation and Tattoo Removal - Discussions - Tattoo Art And Education Guide | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
Consumption choices affect how others view the individual consumer, which influences her decision-making. Less obvious, but no less important, is that consumption choices also affect how the consumer views herself (Shrauger and Schoeneman 1979), another factor that influences decision-making (e.g., Belk 1988; Schouten 1991; Solomon 1983). Recent research in consumer behavior has begun to explore the effect of product disposition on the consumer’s self-concept (e.g., Kates 2001; Price, Arnould, and Curasi 2000; Young 1991). McAlexander (1991), for example, found that during a divorce people will dispose of objects associated with their former partner as a method of “breaking free.” The present study explores how consumers’ disposition decisions are tied to their self-concepts within the domain of tattoo removal.
Tattoo removal provides a relevant context for exploring how identity negotiation motivates disposition. Because a tattoo is part of a person’s physical body, it may have a stronger influence on the self-concept when compared to the typical external possession (cf, McClelland 1951; Prelinger 1959). Furthermore, an originally designed tattoo represents a possession in which the consumer invests significant time and effort in creating the design. Such personal investments may translate into a deeper connection between the possession and the self-concept (cf. McClelland 1951; Prelinger 1959; Sartre 1943). In addition, the consumer may make an even greater personal investment (i.e., financially and psychologically) to remove a tattoo when compared to the disposal of a typical external possession because tattoo removal is expensive, painful, and may not be completely successful (i.e., scars). Finally, tattoo removal is a relatively permanent form of disposition because it involves intentional destruction compared to the more porous selling or giving away of a possession (e.g., Kates 2001; Lastovicka and Fernandez 2005; Price et al. 2000; Young 1991). Therefore, tattoo removal serves as fertile ground for examining the identity-related motivations for disposition.
The purpose of the present investigation is to examine disposition as a means of identity negotiation using Brewer’s (1991) optimal distinctiveness theory as the conceptual foundation. This study unpacks the relationship between disposition and the different aspects of the self-concept. After a brief review of research identifying the reasons consumers have for acquiring and removing tattoos, this paper discusses optimal distinctiveness theory, followed by an overview of the method, key findings, and a discussion of the study’s implications.


Motives for tattoo acquisition and removal. Historically in the United States tattooing is perceived as a mark of social deviance associated with bikers, sailors, convicts, gang members and prostitutes (DeMello 2000; Rubin 1988; Sanders 1989). Within the last two decades, however, the meaning of tattoos has begun to morph as the activity has spread into mainstream society. Tattooing now represents a legitimate art form, practiced by trained artists on members of middle-class society (DeMello 2000).
Research finds that mainstream consumers have a wide variety of reasons for being tattooed. Table 1 presents a summary of motives for tattoo acquisition that research has uncovered. Collectively, the reasons for tattoo acquisition seem to be methods of influencing the self-concept (Sanders 1989). Furthermore, these motivations appear consistent with those from research on defining the self via symbolic consumption (e.g., Belk 1988).
The most commonly reported reason to obtain a tattoo is to enhance one’s sense of individuality (DeMello 2000). For example, some people use their tattoo as a personal narrative to commemorate an event or significant period in their life (Velliquette, Murray, and Creyer 1998), such as celebrating an accomplishment of the bearer (Gritton 1988). Others use a tattoo as a symbol representing some aspect of their personal identity, such as a nickname, an animal, or a hobby (Sanders 1989; Velliquette et al. 1998). Furthermore, a person may choose to individuate herself as an act of rebellion.
According to DeMello (2000) tattoos also symbolize a personal connection to higher powers. For example, popular tribal tattoos are often self-designed by the consumer. The process of design, the tribal symbolism, and the acquisition process, come together to represent a personal ritual that in turn develops a deeper connection to the spiritual sense of self. Similarly, some consumers view their tattoo as an outward expression of the personal control they have over their body, while others cite empowerment and personal growth as chief motivations for obtaining tattoos. In these cases, the tattoo serves as a symbol of the person’s feeling of a heightened sense of control over the self and may even accompany positive changes in lifestyle (e.g., being drug free; DeMello 2000). A tattoo may also enhance a person’s body aesthetic. Besides cosmetic tattooing, which applies ink as a form of permanent makeup, tattoos themselves may be used to hide a scar or simply draw attention to a particular body part (Sanders 1989).
Tattoos may also communicate social aspects of a person’s identity. Tattoos can be a marker of group membership, such as a fraternity (Sanders 1989). In other cases the individual may acquire a tattoo as a prerequisite for group membership, as is the case of group initiation rituals. In fact, as the tattoo culture becomes more mainstream (DeMello 1995), a person may get a tattoo as an act of conformity. Finally, personal relationships also serve as a common reason to get a tattoo. These tattoos are usually the name of a person’s romantic partner and serve as a symbol of the wearer’s devotion to the relationship (Sanders 1989), and are more common among women (Watson 1998).
Despite the increasing ubiquity of tattooing, the acquisition process does contain risk. There is physiological risk because tattooing is somewhat painful and there is a slight risk of contracting a disease (e.g., Long and Rickman 1994). There is also psychological risk because the tattoo could result in negative social reactions or not be what the customer desired (e.g., low quality). Finally, there is financial risk because tattooing is rather expensive. Regardless of the risks, many consumers make impulsive decisions to be tattooed without much knowledge about the process or the ramifications of their decision (Sanders 1988). An impulsive decision could lead to buyer’s remorse. Although several researchers have investigated consumer’s reasons for acquiring a tattoo, little research explores consumer regret after obtaining an initial tattoo.
Sanders (1985) found approximately 33% of tattoo consumers (n = 163) experienced regret after their purchase. Only two stuthes have explored why some consumers ultimately had their tattoo removed. Armstrong et al. (1996) surveyed 105 participants and the most common reasons given were: to help me feel better about myself, tired of the tattoo; be more credible with friends; prevent people judging based on the tattoo; separate from previous life experiences; and remove a label associated with belonging to a bad group. A similar survey of 68 patients at a private clinic indicated that improvement of self-esteem; social reasons; family pressure; improving potential for employment; and change of partner were the most common reasons for tattoo removal (Varma and Lanigan 1999). Table 1 also summarizes reasons for tattoo removal. As with tattoo acquisition, consumers’ reasons for removal are tied to their self-concepts.
Optimal Distinctiveness Theory. The list of reasons for tattoo acquisition and removal can be dichotomized as attempts to influence a sense of differentiation from or assimilation to others. Enhancing a sense of individuality, commemorating a life event, expressing an aspect of one’s personality, rebelling, spirituality, a sense of control and improving body aesthetics are actions that further differentiate a person. These motivations are people’s attempts to further define who they are by distinguishing themselves from others. In contrast, marking a group membership, conforming to normative influence, and displaying romantic devotion to another are actions that further assimilate a person. These motivations represent attempts to integrate within a larger collective.
In her optimal distinctiveness theory, Brewer (1991) suggests that the need to be an individual (i.e., differentiation) and the need to belong to social groups (i.e., assimilation) are the two primary motivations that comprise a person’s self-concept. Brewer finds that an individual is constantly negotiating the need to individuate the self from others and integrate the self within social groups as she searches for and defines her identity over time. For example, students of the same university have a shared collective identity that satisfies an assimilation need, while at the same time they see themselves as distinct from another university’s students to satisfy a differentiation need. Sometimes, however, a group may become too large, creating a greater sense of assimilation in its members as just another face in the crowd. In response members may further subdivide into more distinct groups to enhance feelings of differentiation. Thus students at a large university can feel too assimilated and therefore further subdivide into more distinct groups, such as sororities or sports clubs.
Another important aspect of Brewer’s optimal distinctiveness theory is the distinction between group memberships and social identities. Brewer argues that a person’s social identities are not the same as his or her memberships in groups or social categories. Membership in social categories may not always be voluntary, as in the case of a person’s ethnicity, whereas an individual chooses her social identities. Although a person may belong to a variety of social categories, she chooses to identify with those groups and social categories that allow her to successfully negotiate a symbiosis between her needs for assimilation and differentiation.
In 1996, Brewer and Gardner extended optimal distinctiveness theory to include a tripartite representation of the self-concept. Specifically they find that the self is composed of individual, relational, and collective components. These components are “interactive” and “coexist” within the same individual (Sedikedes and Brewer 2001, p. 2). The individual component represents unique traits and characteristics a person possesses. Contrasting these traits and characteristics with those of others creates a sense of individual-self. An action that further differentiates a person from others will enhance a sense of individual-self (Sedikedes and Brewer 2001). The relational component represents the role a person plays in meaningful dyadic personal relationships with others (e.g., parent-child, friendships, and romantic involvements). Reflected appraisal from relationship partners creates a sense of relational-self. Actions that further assimilate a person with these significant others will enhance a sense of relational-self. The collective component represents larger social group memberships that do not require the same type of close relationships that comprise the relational-self (Sedikedes and Brewer 2001). Factors that separate in-group membership from out-group membership create a sense of collective-self. Any actions that further assimilate a person into these large social groups will enhance a sense of collective-self (Sedikedes and Brewer 2001).
Prior disposition research suggests that motivations for disposition potentially stem from the three components of the self. For example, Kates’ (2001) found that people dying of AIDS used the disposition of their possessions to enhance familial bonds via gift giving, or distance disliked family members via exclusion during disposition. These findings are indicative of consumers using disposition to influence the relational-self. The collective-self may also motivate disposition such as a person changing her hairstyle after joining a new social organization (McAlexander and Schouten 1989) or giving up an old car associated with partying to mark the transition from “young rebel” to “mature adult” (Young 1991, p. 36). Finally, the individual-self also seems to motivate disposition. For instance, the elderly will bequeath a favorite possession as a means of achieving symbolic immortality (Price, Arnould, and Curasi 2000).
The focus of the present study is to utilize the conceptual framework of optimal distinctiveness theory to better understand disposition as a means of identity negotiation. Prior literature in marketing primarily explores disposition within specific settings such as garage sales (Lastovicka and Fernandez 2005), death (Kates 2001) or divorce (McAlexander, Schouten, and Roberts 1993). Optimal distinctiveness theory should provide further insight into when people are likely to engage in disposition. Few of these prior works attempt to understand the factors that precipitate disposition at a broader theoretical level. To that end, this paper turns toward a discussion of the method.


Data collection followed the general approach of psychological phenomenological interviewing (Creswell 1998; Moustakas 1994; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989). Although the study was phenomenological in nature, the authors participated in several ethnographic activities prior to formally collecting the interview data. During a two-year period, the authors sought to develop a deeper understanding of the tattoo subculture, progressively narrowing their focus on removal. At first, the authors read books on the history of tattooing (e.g., Gilbert 2000; Mifflin 2001; Schiffmacher and Riemschneider 2001). Next, the authors purchased several tattoo magazines (Flash, Tattoo, and Skin Art) from a local bookstore and reviewed their contents. After realizing that these sources focused more on acquisition and thus provided little information on removal, the authors informally interviewed two tattoo artists while working in parlors; visited one web site that discussed tattoo removal; inquired with three offices housing plastic surgeons that conducted tattoo removal; and had two informal conversations with consumers who had tattoos and have considered removal. These activities provided a richer understanding of tattoo acquisition and its tie to removal.
The sampling procedure for the study was based on the criterion of wanting or having a tattoo removed (Miles and Huberman 1994). Informants for the study were recruited from three newspaper advertisements. One ad was placed in the primary newspaper in a large, southern city. Two similar ads were placed in a local newspaper and a college campus newspaper within a medium sized, southern city. All of the advertisements offered a small incentive for an interview with consumers who have had a tattoo removed or intended to have a tattoo removed.
The authors obtained twenty-two informants who ranged in age from nineteen to forty three. The sample consisted of both males and females (although more women than men responded to the ad) and represented a diverse set of educational backgrounds and occupations. For example, the sample varied from students, who held part time jobs, to highly educated professionals within the fields of health care, real estate, and services. Table 2 summarizes the demographic information of the respondents. It is important to note that several of the respondents felt that tattoo removal was a deeply personal topic, and they asked that they not be identified in the final report. Thus, to ensure confidentiality, all the names reported in this article are pseudonyms. Furthermore, the authors have intentionally omitted some detail to respect the privacy of the informants.
The sixty-minute, unstructured, depth interviews were audio taped and transcribed. The data were analyzed and interpreted according to the protocol for phenomenology suggested by Moustakas’ (1994). This protocol consists of four steps: “epoche, phenomenological reduction, imaginative variation, and synthesis” (Moustakas 1994, p. 84). Epoche involves setting aside “prejudgments and biases” in order to focus on the topic under investigation (p. 85). Phenomenological reduction involves “describing in textural language just what one sees … revealing the qualities of the experience” (p. 90). Imaginative variation is the act of using “varying frames of references, employing polarities and reversals, and approaching the phenomenon from divergent perspectives … to arrive at the underlying precipitating factors” that account for the experience (p. 98). Synthesis is the “integration of the fundamental textural and structural descriptions into a unified statement of the essences of the experience” (p. 100).
The authors sought to analyze and interpret the data in the spirit of Moustakas’ (2004) approach. First, the authors bracketed their biases and prejudgments. Next, turning to the interview data, the authors moved back and forth between the transcripts and the complete set of data to identify significant statements (i.e., textural language) from each of the informants’ reported experiences. Using various perspectives and constantly questioning the analysis, these significant statements were combined into “meaning units” (Creswell 1998, p. 150) that represent the experience (i.e., imaginative variation). Third, the authors developed a thick description and identified specific quotes to elaborate on the informants’ experiences (i.e., synthesis). In the final step, the authors developed an interpretive description of each meaning unit in light of existing theory, attempting to capture the essence of the tattoo removal experience as it relates to larger theoretical considerations.
Two methods of validation were used to ensure accurate representation and reliability of the data: respondent validation and the constant comparative method. To achieve respondent validation, the first author went back to several subjects with tentative results to refine and confirm the findings. In addition, using the constant comparative method (repeated to and fro between data parts), the investigators inspected and compared all the data fragments within the phenomenon under study. For reporting purposes, the authors chose to present several of the respondents’ experiences with an interpretation woven into each of the individual stories. In contrast to reporting respondents’ experiences in a piecemeal fashion via thematic categories, the authors believe that the individual story format most clearly illustrates the conceptual framework for understanding identity negotiation via tattoo removal. For completeness, table 3 reports both a summary of informants’ meaning statements for why they obtained the tattoo and wanted or had the tattoo removed, as well as how long they considered tattoo acquisition. Within table 3 informants are also grouped according to which aspect of the self the informant is attempting to influence by their tattoo removal.


The data were analyzed and interpreted in light of Brewer’s optimal distinctiveness theory. Optimal distinctiveness theory suggests that an individual is constantly negotiating the need to individuate the self from others and integrate the self within relational and collective social groups as she searches for and defines her identity over time. Thus, the authors sought to unpack the identity negotiation strategies of the informants as they relate to tattoo removal.
For many consumers the process of deciding to acquire and remove a tattoo is multi-layered and complex. A variety of factors in the consumer’s life, such as past events, others’ reactions to the tattoo, the wearer’s social identities, alterations of the social environment, and even possible future events may affect the tattoo’s identity ramifications for the consumer. A tattoo’s relationship to all of these personal factors makes the decision to acquire or remove a tattoo deeply embedded within the consumer’s life as a whole. Therefore, the authors chose to present cases that provided vivid detail regarding the consumer’s life situation at the time of acquisition and removal. Although the authors report interview data for only a subset of the sample, table 3 suggests that virtually all respondents, regardless of how simple or complex the life story, acquired and removed (or planned to) their tattoo while negotiating feelings of differentiation or assimilation.

Maggie-Trying to Be a Mature Individual with a Rebellious Tattoo

Maggie got her two tattoos when she was in high school. Her boyfriend, who had tattoos of his own, was part of a rather deviant group with which Maggie ended up spending a lot of time.

I had a boyfriend who was into heavy metal music and was a
rebellious outsider and he had tattoos. I thought it was cool, being
rebellious against my age and society. I was seventeen and I wasn’t
supposed to have them, legally. The tattoo was a demon holding a
crystal ball as if it was telling a fortune. It was something that
was just on the wall. It was kind of satanic. It ran through my mind
at the time, maybe I should get something more feminine or girly,
that tattoo is kind of evil. I guess I was kind of influenced by my
boyfriend being there and from what he had. That was kind of his
thing. I seriously don’t know what made me decide on that tattoo
other than the influence or pressure of getting something that went
with the type of people we hung out with, the clothes, and the music
we listened to. I felt that I was kind of leaning toward what they
thought was cool

Maggie was trying to conform to her group of friends when she decided which tattoo to acquire. This is a classic example of tattoo acquisition to influence the collective-self and be more accepted by a group. Thus, Maggie’s tattoo enhanced her feelings of affiliation with the group with which she interacted with regularly.
After Maggie finished college, however, her life started to change in a number of important ways.

I finished college and then decided I needed to get a real job. That
was a wake-up call, so to speak. I was maturing. I had my own place
and really had some time to myself thinking and really looking
inside myself and discovering this (the tattoo) is not me. I’m not
listening to the same music, not partying the amount that I was,
didn’t hang around with the same people. I had changed pretty much
everything: the way I wore makeup, the way I wore my hair, the way I
dressed, the way I carried myself, who I hung out with, everything.
I was just really discovering who I was, or who I wanted to be, and
what I wanted out of life. A lot of things were going through my
mind; that this (the tattoo) really does not fit my lifestyle or
what I want or choose to be. I got to thinking about that, and it
just was no longer appealing to me to see myself in another way.
When I got out of the shower and looking in the mirror and I see
that (the tattoo), it just reminded me that maybe I’m not what I’m
trying to be

When examining her story in light of optimal distinctiveness theory, the inconsistency between Maggie’s tattoos and her new lifestyle should make Maggie feel differentiated. In other words, she should feel very different from they type of person she wants to be in her own mind. This strong sense of differentiation should motivate Maggie to try and achieve a greater sense of assimilation with her new mature self-concept. Therefore, optimal distinctiveness theory predicts that Maggie will attempt to change her individual-self to feel more connected with how she conceptualizes her new self-concept by removing the tattoos. Indeed, after her tattoos were removed Maggie reported feeling much less conflicted about her sense of self.

I felt relieved, freedom. I am not worrying, and I’ve actually shed
that part of my rebellious life. I can live on. I carried this
baggage of my rebellious life around with me and having them [the
tattoos] removed, I’m just relieved


Amy–A Vow Tattoo Disrupts the Relational-Self

Ever since she was fifteen, Amy wanted to get a tattoo after seeing a temporary butterfly tattoo that she really liked. Once she reached age twenty, Amy’s parents considered her old enough to do as she wished, so Amy acquired a butterfly tattoo that she designed herself over a four month period. On her twenty-first birthday Amy acquired another tattoo of a dragon. That same year Amy began a dating relationship which would lead to her third tattoo.

I started dating a man who was actually quite older than I was. I
decided that relationship wasn’t going anywhere, but I still really
felt close to him. He was just scaring me to death because he was
talking about marriage after like two months. I was really attached
to him and cared for him a lot, but he freaked me out with the whole
marriage thing, so I decided to break it off. So I got the ankle
tattoo to remember him by. The tattoo is in Chinese and it means
‘always in my heart.’ It basically meant I would always have a place
in my heart for him

Obviously Amy’s vow tattoo affected her relational-self by emphasizing her feelings for her ex-boyfriend. Unfortunately, Amy’s tattoo would soon take on a new and unwanted significance.

[After breaking up] I told him we could still communicate and be
friends, but then he showed up at my house uninvited one night when
I had another male visitor over and he just demanded to be let in
and then he started stalking me. I contacted the police about it.
The guy that was over at my house at the time knew someone in the
police department and got his buddy to mention to this guy to leave
me alone or go to jail for harassment. It stopped after that

Although the stalking incident bothered Amy, it was not enough to warrant removal of her ankle tattoo. After all, the tattoo was in Chinese and did not actually feature the name of her ex-boyfriend, so Amy was able to put the tattoo out of her mind and avoid any disruptive effects the tattoo might have on her relational-self. Some time later Amy married another man and had a baby boy. Following the birth of her child, Amy started to seriously consider having the ankle tattoo removed.

I’m married now and it just feels funny–having that as a reminder
of a previous relationship. My husband just says, “Well you could
tell people it’s for the baby; that the baby will always be in your
heart. ” But I’ll know why I really got it. You can’t lie to
yourself. You know, kids are curious and will ask about anything. I
knew he (her child) would probably ask me about it. He would notice
it and I would tell him and he would ask why did you get it. I
wouldn’t want to lie to my child. That’s not something I would ever
want to do unless it’s for his own good. So I wouldn’t want to have
to tell him about this man I dated before your daddy

With the birth of her child Amy’s tattoo is now causing a problem for her relational-self. Specifically, Amy’s view of her tattoo as a symbol of deception towards her son is straining their relationship. In the language of optimal distinctiveness theory, the negative effect of Amy’s ankle tattoo is differentiating her relational-self to an uncomfortable degree. This causes Amy to feel a need for greater assimilation with her son. Amy feels the only way to fulfill this need is to have her ankle tattoo removed.

Lana-Trying to be Part of the Young Crowd Backfires

After being married for a few years, Lana decided to get a vow tattoo that featured a rainbow with her husband’s name on the bottom. Although the tattoo was a declaration of her relationship, it served more important functions for Lana.

It was something expressive to do and kind of a bonding thing with
my husband at the time. My husband was six years younger than me.
The age difference between us was weird, and he even seems younger
than his real age, so that added more to it. I think that might have
been part of it, just trying to stay younger. I always looked young
because most people thought we were the same age, but I just felt I
had to keep up in some ways to be young and not get in the way older
people think. I felt like even though I looked young I knew I
couldn’t change my age, so I was thinking this would be something to
sort of impress them [his friends] because they all had tattoos.
They were always hanging around and coming over. I think I was
trying to be part of his friends, and more of them were doing it
[getting tattoos] at the time. I guess I wanted to fit in with
younger people. It looked like a way to be different or expressive.
I felt like I was going through a sort of midlife crisis at the

In addition to affecting her relational-self, Lana’s tattoo enhanced feelings of assimilation to her husband’s group of young friends for her collective-self. Eventually, however, two things happened to alter how Lana viewed her tattoo. The first was that Lana’s relationship with her husband ended in divorce. At this point the tattoo of his name was obviously no longer a defining aspect of her relational-self, however, that was not the main reason she had acquired the tattoo. Therefore, Lana did not really consider removing her tattoo until she noticed a change in the tattooing trend.

At first it was more of a novelty, then as time went on, it just
seemed like everybody had one. So it wasn’t a big deal anymore and
it kind of lost that ability to make me feel young. My niece, who’s
in college now, got one and my mother didn’t really react to that at
all. She just shrugged it off. So I started realizing pretty soon it
[tattooing] was just going to become standard, like the way everyone
had their ears pierced. I think I just got sick of it, and I often
wondered how other people can stand to look at theirs all the time.
I remember thinking this is just old, it’s something I felt real
good about then, but it was something at the time that was new and
now it’s not. It has lost its interest and nobody else cares about
it anymore either

After Lana noticed everybody else getting tattooed, her tattoo became a liability for her collective-self. Originally Lana acquired the tattoo to feel more assimilated with a younger crowd. Now that everybody was getting tattoos, Lana’s tattoo no longer possessed its youth-restorative properties by being associated exclusively with a younger crowd. In terms of optimal distinctiveness theory, this change in the tattooing trend enormously increased the size of Lana’s “in-group” (i.e. people possessing tattoos), which resulted in feelings of extreme assimilation for Lana and made her uncomfortable.

I really didn’t like the fact that I was conforming to something
that everyone was doing because that’s not something I do. I just
wanted to do something different, like I did it more for myself
rather than to declare anything, but it had become more mainstream

Finally Lana decided to remove her tattoo. Lana’s reflection on her tattoo experience reveals how removing the tattoo allowed her to negotiate through her identity conflict by replacing her feelings of assimilation with a new sense of differentiation.
It’s weird because I’ve sort of felt all this is kind of silly, everything people do to their bbothes, like earrings or nose rings or whatever. It almost seems like such a waste of time. As I got into my forties I started to think things we do don’t really make any sense. I had my ears pierced when I was twelve and I’m not sure why I did that except just to go along with what was trendy or in fashion. I’ve started thinking maybe the body should just be pure and shouldn’t have all of these extra things pierced and tattooed. In some ways it kind of gives me a sick feeling. I was just trying to return to a time when my body was left alone in its natural state.


In addition to providing descriptive reasons for tattoo removal, this study’s findings illustrate that tattoo acquisition and removal are undertaken as a means of identity negotiation. The informants initially acquired a tattoo to either enhance feelings of affiliation (e.g., conform to a group, follow a trend, friend’s influence, relationship vow) or feelings of individuation (e.g., assert independence, rebellion, personal expression). Tattoos were typically acquired under the implicit assumption that factors influencing the tattoo’s identity ramifications would remain stable over time. For many consumers this assumption proved false as lifestyle transitions such as moving, changing friends, marriage, and divorce all changed the tattoo’s identity ramifications. In some cases these changes created an identity conflict between the tattooed aspect of the consumer’s identity and the identity associated with a new social role or group of friends. In other cases these changes made the tattoo obsolete or meaningless to the consumer. Regardless of which change occurred, when identity conflict arose, consumers sought tattoo removal services.
This study’s findings provide insight into the link between the self-concept and disposition. Respondents who felt overly individuated in a frequently activated social identity group (e.g., occupation), compensated for this conflict by enhancing feelings of affiliation in another frequently activated social identity (e.g., group of close friends). Even impending new social identities that had yet to be established (e.g., future occupation) conflicted with a currently existing social identity (e.g., friends). This finding illustrates that even repeated cognitive, as opposed to situational, activation is sufficient to create a new, albeit imagined, social identity. In this case, the new cognitively-based social identity was powerful enough to warrant tatt oo removal, further illustrating not all social identities are created equal and some have greater impact on disposition.

Although a rapidly growing literature, the research to date on disposition and its connection to the self tends to fall in one of three domains. One domain focuses on voluntary simplicity where disposition is practiced in an effort to cut the tie to, or separate from, an identity (Cherrier and Murray 2007; Craig-Lees and Hill 2002; Huneke 2005; Sharma 1985). A second domain involves the involuntary disposition of possessions due to uncontrollable, external circumstances, such as a natural disaster (Delorme, Zinkhan, and Hagen 2004). In this case, the consumer is fighting to maintain his/her self identity and “struggles to preserve his/her possessions and thus symbolic self’ (Delorme, Zinkhan, and Hagen 2004, p. 188). The third domain of disposition and the connection to the self consists of the context in which the consumer uses disposition as a bridge to transfer his/her identity to others, as in the case of the elderly or AIDS victims passing on possessions to achieve symbolic immortality (Kates 2001; Price, Arnould, and Curasi 2000).
The complexity of the identity negotiation found in the tattoo removal process extends the literature on disposition and the self-concept. This study’s findings show that tattoo removal does not fit neatly into one of the three domains associated with disposition and the self (i.e., separate from an identity; transfer an identity to others; maintain an identity). In fact, this study identified a complex, continuous identity reconstruction process whereby the consumer is continually negotiating the need to individuate the self from others and integrate the self with relational and collective social groups as she searches for and defines her self-concept over time. The informants who were undergoing tattoo removal were not simply committing a single, granular act of cutting ties to an identity, transferring an identity to others, or struggling to maintain their sense of self. The data show that the informants were experiencing a more elastic process involving the balancing and rebalancing of multiple (i.e., individual, relational and collective), conflicting, co-existing identities that composed the self-concept.
This study’s findings also complement and extend Schouten’s (1991) work on the role of consumption activities in shaping the maintenance and development of the self-concept. His work examines the consumption of plastic surgery during times of personal self-transition. Schouten (1991) argues that plastic surgery is part of a symbolic consumption process that relates to personal rites of passage and identity reconstruction. Arguably, tattoo and plastic surgery services are similar because they are often obtained while the self is in transition, and they represent relatively permanent surgical changes to the body with identity ramifications. However, our research demonstrates that altering the body via tattoo acquisition and removal is part of an identity negotiation, rather than a reconstruction, process. Furthermore, that negotiation process involves not just the reconstruction of a single social identity, but the negotiation of multiple conflicting needs (i.e., assimilation and differentiation) as they relate to various social identities that make up an individual’s self-concept.
Plastic surgery seems to be strongly tied to performance in key roles, lifestyle transitions, and a resulting change in self (Schouten 1991). This study found these factors are also important to acquiring and removing a tattoo; however, not all role transitions elicit tattoo consumption or disposition. This study’s findings indicate that a role transition causes a person to acquire or remove a tattoo under two primary conditions. When a consumer bases part of her self-concept on the group or category membership that is altered by a role transition then she may desire to acquire or remove a tattoo. In addition, a consumer may desire tattoo removal when she views the tattoo as inconsistent with her new social role. In this condition, the person must perceive an incompatibility between her new social role and her tattooed identity, such that the conflict sufficiently disrupts her sense of self.
This study also revealed factors other than key roles and lifestyle transitions that were part of the consumer story of tattoo removal. For example, the informants explained that interpersonal influence, broken relationships, negative perceptions, identity conflict, and a lack of (or negative associations with) product meaning, also warranted tattoo removal. More importantly, this study’s findings raise an even larger question when compared to Schouten’s (1991) research. Plastic surgery is a form of symbolic consumption used to seek a more stable, harmonious self-concept. This study found that some people also acquire tattoos to alter their identity, whereas, others acquire tattoos with less intention and more impulse. Regardless of a consumer’s reasons for obtaining a tattoo, the service often results in unintended, long-term consequences for the self-concept. This study’s findings suggest that many consumers, like Schouten’s (1991) informants, may initially seek harmony in the self-concept when they purchase a tattoo service; but over time the tattoo ultimately disrupts, instead of stabilizes, the consumer’s identity. Instead of finding harmony, this study’s informants indicated the tattoo eventually created further instability in their self-concepts.
One implication of this finding is that achieving a stable self-concept via consumption may not even be possible. The consumer may be involved in constant identity negotiation, which is fueled, resolved, and further fueled by consumption. A person may consume tattoo services to attain a stable self-concept, but later find the tattoo has unforeseen identity implications that disrupt her sense of self. Therefore, the consumer considers further consumption, via tattoo removal, to stabilize the sense of self. The result is a cyclical process of consumption to maintain the consumer’s identity beginning with tattoo acquisition, which eventually disrupts the identity; continuing with tattoo removal, to repair the disrupted identity; and possibly continuing with further tattoo acquisition still in search of harmony in the self-concept. The authors found evidence of this continuous cycle in one of the interviews, where the informant obtained the tattoo, removed the tattoo, and then had the removal scar covered with yet another tattoo.
This study’s findings are also applicable to identity negotiation via consumption and disposition in other domains of consumer behavior. For example McAlexander and Schouten’s (1989) study of college students’ hairstyles found that a student uses his/her hairstyle as a method of altering either feelings of individuation (e.g., independence from their parents, from an ex-boyfriend) or affiliation (e.g., to fit in with a new group). A person’s hairstyle is a salient characteristic and, particularly in adolescence, can mark the person’s membership in a particular group or individuate that person from others (i.e., a particularly outrageous hairstyle). Similar to tattoos, therefore, a hairstyle represents an effective consumption (and disposition) venue for making any social identity more salient as a means of offsetting disruptions in the self-concept. A similar cyclical pattern, for the purposes of identity negotiation, is also likely for other transition-related consumer behaviors such as cosmetics and clothing consumption.
Our results suggest several directions for future research on disposition and identity. One interesting question is the relative influence each component of the tripartite self has on a consumer’s consumption and disposition decisions. One possible answer is whichever aspect of the self is most currently salient will exert the most influence on a consumer’s self-concept. The constant identity negotiation efforts many of our respondents engaged in seem to support this interpretation. Alternatively, the conceptual overlap of the relational-self and collective-self suggests that either may chronically exert more influence over consumption and disposition decisions than the other. In fact, their relative influence may interact with gender such that women are more influenced by the relational-self and men are more influenced by the collective-self. This interpretation is consistent with how men and women traditionally define themselves (cf., Brewer and Gardner 1996; Gabriel and Gardner 1999). Future research may test this prediction in a disposition context.
At a more fundamental level, our results beg the question of the relative effects consumption and disposition have on stabilizing a consumer’s identity. For instance, future research may find that disposition behaviors are better able to stabilize a person’s identity because disposition is seen as more authentic compared to the materialism of consumption (cf., Kozinets 2002). Of course this assumes it is even possible for consumers to truly stabilize their identity via consumption and disposition. In light of the present results, there is certainly reason to doubt this assumption.

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(1) Derived from the literature. Arguably, these reasons are not mutually exclusive. For example, it could be argued that impression management could also drive acquisition.

(2) (D): Reason activating goal of differentiation. (A): Reason activating goal of assimilation.

Jeremy A. Shelton | Lamar University | Cara Peters | Winthrop University

Jeremy A. Shelton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Lamar University, Beaumont, TX 77710 (phone: 409-880-7839). Cara Peters is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC 29733 (phone: 803-323-4280). Correspondence may be addressed to either author.


Reasons to Acquire or Remove a Tattoo (1)

Reasons for tattoo acquisition (2)

(D) Commemorate life event
(D) Symbol of personal identity
(D) Statement of spirituality
(D) Control over the body
(D) Rebellion
(D) Body aesthetics
(A) Mark group affiliation
(A) Relationship vow
(A) Initiation rite
(A) Conformity

Reasons for tattoo removal

(D) Sever ties with previous life period
(D) Loss of art value or uniqueness
(D) Peer pressure in purchase decision
(D) Impression management
(A) Conformity
(A) Repair body aesthetics
(D) End group affiliation
(D) End of relationship
(A) Social rejection
(A) Family pressure

Informant Demographics

Pseudonym Age Number of Number have/want removed

Lana 43 1 1 Removed
Oscar 27 2 Wants 1 removed
Diane 23 3 Wants 1 removed
Chandra 23 2 Wants 2 removed
Teresa 19 1 Wants 1 removed
Barbara 23 1 Wants 1 removed
Donna 37 1 Wants 1 removed
Bob 41 4 1 Removed
Connie 23 1 1 Removed
Amy 23 3 Wants 1 removed
Carla 24 2 1 Removed
Janet 34 3 Wants 3 removed
Jill 27 1 1 Removed then covered
Kim 21 2 Wants 2 removed
Cindy 30 2 Had 1 covered
Maggie 29 2 2 Removed
Sandra 29 5 Wants 1 removed
Crystal 27 4 Wants 2 removed
George 24 2 Wants 1 removed
Susan 25 5 3 Removed
Robin 27 2 Wants 1 removed
Karen 24 2 Wants 1 removed

Tattoo Decision Information

Concept Pseu-
Chance (l) donym Reasons to obtain

Individual Lana Trendy; relationship vow; conform to
group; art value/uniqueness

Individual Oscar Drinking; spontaneous; friends’

Individual Diane Spontaneous; depression

Individual Chandra Friend’s influence; addictive; trendy;
beauty enhancement

Individual Teresa Drinking; spontaneous; friend’s

Individual Barbara Assert independence

Individual Donna Trendy; friends’ influence

Relational Bob Assert independence; art value/

Relational Connie Assert independence; friend’s influence

Relational Amy Vow tattoo

Relational/ Carla Spontaneous; boredom

Relational/ Janet Personal expression, addictive

Relational/ Jill Spontaneous; conform to group

Collective Kim Trendy; conform to group; friendship
vow; friends’ influence

Collective Cindy Trendy

Collective Maggie Conform to group; rebellion;
boyfriend’s influence

Collective Sandra Personal expression

Collective Susan Rebellion; alter identity; conform to

Collective George Drinking; conform to group

Collective Crystal Husband’s influence; friends’
influence; relationship vow; beauty

Collective Robin Friend’s influence; rebellion; conform
to group

Collective Karen Trendy; beauty enhancement

Self- Time
Concept conside-
Chance (l) red (2) Reasons for removal

Individual 2 Years Relationship ended; loss of unique-
ness; identity conflict

Individual None Negative reminder; identity conflict;

Individual 30 Minutes Not desired design; negative re-
minder; lacks meaning

Individual 1-2 Years Lack of uniqueness; lacks meaning;
fears negative reactions

Individual None Does not fit with character; fears
negative reactions; negative remind-
er; lacks meaning

Individual 6 Months Mistake; poor quality

Individual 3 Months Mistake; poor quality

Relational 1 Year Show of love for wife

Relational 1 Year Parents’ negative reaction; lifestyle

Relational 1 Month Negative reminder; fears negative
reactions; mistake

Relational/ None Parents’ negative reaction; lifestyle
Collective transition

Relational/ A few More responsible; show of love for
Collective years kids and friends; fears negative

Relational/ None Lacks meaning; mother’s negative
Collective reaction; change in group

Collective 1 Week Lacks meaning; change in group

Collective None Lifestyle transition; lacks meaning

Collective 2.5 Years More responsible; fears negative

Collective None Does not fit with image; lacks

Collective 1-2 Days Change in group; committed to job;
show of love for kids

Collective 5 Minutes Lifestyle transition; change in
fears negative reactions; not me

Collective 1 Week-2 Divorced; fears negative reactions;
Months not desired design; poor quality

Collective None More confident; in new roles; fears
negative reactions

Collective 4 Months Lifestyle transition; does not fit her

(1) Level of self-concept at which act of disposition changed feelings
of differentiation and assimilation

(2) Amount of time the individual contemplated getting their tattoo



using tattooing to introduce biological concepts...

Biology And Tattooing- Tattoo Art And Education Guide  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
Television shows like A&E’s Inked and TLC’s Miami Ink and LA Ink reflect the increasing popularity of tattoos in today’s culture. One of the most recent fascinations with tattooing is exhibited in Carl Zimmer’s (2011) book Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. Yet tattooing has a long history around the world. Ancient and tribal cultures have used them in a variety of ways for centuries: medicinal, spiritual/ religious, status, and decoration (Table 1). In 1991, on the Italian-Austrian border, the oldest example of tattooing was announced; an “Iceman” mummy was discovered with tattoos that carbon dated back to 5300 years ago (Green, 2003). Today, many people, from sailors to professionals, exhibit skin art for reasons similar to those of ancient peoples. Tattoos are becoming more accepted every day, and at least 80 million in the Western world are tattooed (Vasold et al., 2004). In 1936, only 6% of Americans had a tattoo, but in 2006 it was estimated that 36% of people between the ages of 18 and 25, and 40% between 26 and 40, had at least one tattoo (Kimelberg, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2007).
Interestingly, the science of tattooing provides several avenues for highlighting complicated biological phenomena to students. Furthermore, tattooing within a historical context opens up the potential for complementary discussions in physics and anthropology. We have utilized the popularity of tattooing to simultaneously reveal connections with the biological world during a cell biology course and a physics course for life science majors. This nontraditional yet popular topic served as a tool to reach a subset of undergraduate students who would not necessarily relate to the traditional biology or physics curriculum. Students, even those not tattooed, are intrigued, and therefore this research may apply nicely to high school curricula, too. Our experience with connecting concepts and applications is that student engagement is raised. Here, we present some of the facets of these applications and connections.

Using Tattooing for Biological Applications

Tattooing was used to teach cell biology through traditional topics like cell signaling, anatomy, microbiology, and immunology across several cell biology lectures. The following sections describe how these topics were introduced.

Skin Anatomy

Because tattoos are applied to the skin, the process turns skin anatomy into a teaching moment. Two mutually dependent layers make up the skin: the epidermis and the dermis. There are four anatomical layers (called strata) of epidermis on the human body; they are derived from the ectoderm. From the most superficial to the deepest, those layers are called the stratum corneum (20-30 cell layers thick), stratum granulosum (3-5 cell layers thick), stratum spinosum (5-10 cell layers thick), and stratum basale (1 cell layer thick). Cells at the surface are dead, whereas the deeper layers closer to the dermis are living cells. At areas of high friction (feet and palms of the hands), an extra layer called the stratum lucidum is between the stratum granulosum and the stratum spinosum (Jenkins et al., 2007). Dermis rests on the subcutaneous fatty layer called the panniculus adiposus. The area that adheres the epidermis to the dermis is referred to as the dermoepidermal junction and has two layers; the lamina lucida connects to the epidermis, and the lamina densa connects to the dermis. Dermis is derived from the mesoderm, and its main function is to sustain and support the epidermis.

The Impact of Tattooing on Skin

To apply a tattoo, the artist pulls the skin tight and adjusts the rate at which the needle delivers ink to ensure that a sufficient force is supplied to the needle, which is a function of the client’s body fat ratio and the chosen area for the tattoo application (professional tatto artist Michael Adkins, pers. comm.). A solid needle injects ink pigments as a suspension into the skin dermis approximately 1-4 mm deep (Engel et al., 2008). The process destroys the four layers of epidermis, the layer between the epidermis and dermis, and the first layer of dermis as the needle penetrates the skin to deliver the ink. Skin can vary, depending on its anatomic location and the sex and age of the individual. Skin thickness depends on dermal, not epidermal, thickness. Because epidermis does not contain blood vessels, bleeding occurs only when the artist has punctured down into the dermal region (at least) with the needle.
After ink delivery, granulation tissue forms, trapping the dye in fibroblasts in the superficial dermis. The ability to properly apply a tattoo is related to the experience of the artist. If the ink is not applied to the correct skin layer, the body will shed the tattoo as the epidermis is naturally shed. The initial vibrancy of a tattoo fades quickly because only a portion of the ink stays in the dermis; an unknown fraction of pigment is moved by the lymphatic system (Engel et al., 2010). When tattoos are applied to hands and feet, color or vibrancy fades faster because the tattoo is applied below one more skin layer. Because tattooing involves both the homogenization of the epidermal surface and the implantation of foreign ink in the dermal layer, cellular death occurs and results in a scabbing process.
Allergic reactions occur in many tattooed patients, especially those sensitive to red mercuric-based inks. Dermatologists have also seen an increase in numbers of patients who visit their offices with complaints about allergies, lesions, infections (mainly Staphylococcus aureus), tumors (benign and malignant), hypersensitivity reactions to pigments, and various dermatoses near their tattoos (Long & Rickman, 1994; Jacob, 2002; Kluger, 2010). More serious and systemic infections have also been noted.
Which process of cell death is at work during the tattooing process? Necrosis is the disorganized death that results in inflammation because the immune system is not involved and cell cleanup is not accomplished; clients should not exhibit this type of cell death beyond the initial scabbing process if a tattoo is applied correctly. On the other hand, apoptosis (programmed cell death) is highly ordered and controlled, involves the immune system, and results in phagocytosis by macrophages (Becker et al., 2009).
Once ink is delivered into the dermis region, the body immediately begins to recognize that the ink is foreign and the immune system starts to react. Immune cells move over other cells in the body to determine what cells need to be killed off. The apoptosis signaling pathway is triggered; other proteins move through the cytoplasm to make more physical connections with other proteins, resulting in further protein activation. Enzymatic reactions are plentiful, and these reactions should be introduced at an appropriate level for the class discussion. The cytoskeleton collapses and the nuclear envelope disassembles. DNA breaks down into fragments and the dying cell is phagocytosed. This process stops cellular content from being released and allows all cellular parts to be recycled. Cells that are located within a tattooed region (that were not burst during application) are eliminated in this fashion.

Bloodborne Pathogens & Other Disease Risks

Teachers should emphasize that with the process of tattooing comes health risks. Epidermal puncturing provides an avenue for bacteria and viruses to enter the body. Unsanitary tattooing conditions have been responsible for spreading hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, tentanus, tuberculosis, and serious bacterial infections like pseudomonas, infectious endocarditis, and toxic shock (Long & Rickman, 1994; O’Malley et al., 1998; Hayes & Harkness, 2001; Mayers et al., 2002). Therefore, the tattoo process could be incorporated into a microbiology or immunology course rather easily, especially as an avenue to introduce these bacterial and viral concerns.

Sterilization: How to Kill the Microbe

Tattoo artists use autoclaves and ultrasonic baths to ensure that tattoo machine parts (Figure 2), ink tubes, needles, and other tools are free from all microorganisms and other debris. Many tools are disposable, especially needles, but all equipment must be sterilized for every use because of the dangers of bacteria and bloodborne pathogens.
Autoclaves are the equipment used to create sterility. Hospitals and many laboratories have one, so biology students tend to be at least aware of them. The autoclave uses extreme pressures (15-30 psi) and temperatures (121[degrees]C) applied simultaneously for 15 minutes to kill microorganisms. If a good seal were not used to establish the extreme pressures, it would take at least 2 hours at 160[degrees]C to kill bacteria. The death of the microorganism results because its membrane-bound proteins denature and are no longer functional.

UV Damage

Research has established that pigments break down in dermis when exposed to natural sunlight and to UVB radiation, that high levels of ink are found in the lymph system of tattooed individuals, and that breakdown intermediates can be carcinogenic (Cui et al., 2004; Vasold et al., 2004; Engel et al., 2007, 2008, 2010). Beyond the inks’ risks, neighboring skin cells are damaged by UV radiation during sun exposure. Sunburned skin activates inflammasomes (macromolecular complexes necessary for receptor recognition; Faustin & Reed, 2008). Sunburn activates the immune system, triggering cell-protection mechanisms that push ink farther into the dermal layer where it is taken up into the lymphatic system (Moehrle et al., 2001; Friedman et al., 2003; Mangas et al., 2007), resulting in faded tattoos and dangerous movement of ink deeper into the body.

Ink Safety, FDA Approval, & Chemistry

Inks are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can be made of anything. For example, azo pigments manufactured for printing, painting cars, and staining various products have been used in U.S. tattoos (Vasold et al., 2004; Engel et al., 2010); these same inks have been outlawed in European cosmetics because they may yield carcinogenic amines (European Commission, 1999). Teachers could use tattoo ink as a topic for conversations about government regulation of products and foodstuffs and the need for consumer education. The chemistry of tattoo ink is very easily brought into a classroom. Metals in most pigments (cadmium, cobalt, iron oxide, mercury, and chromium) could also be chemically analyzed.

MRI Issues

Urban legend has it that tattooed patients undergoing an MRI have experienced the ink being ripped from their skin; therefore, this topic always comes up during a question-and-answer session. Even though the presence of metal is common in pigments, there are no documented reports of tattoos being “ripped out” during a routine MRI. But some patients exhibit swelling and burning in an affected area (Kreidstein et al., 1997; Armstrong & Elkins, 2005). There have also been reports of pigments causing problems with the MRI results, perhaps because of the metals in the inks (FDA, 2011). Therefore, when a tattooed patient needs an MRI, doctors and technicians should have concerns because the metal could be attracted to the powerful magnets found within the machine (American Society of Anesthesiologists, 2009; FDA, 2011).

Physics: Physical Mechanisms & Tattooing

Undergraduates interested in going to graduate or professional schools are encouraged to take physics, yet many of them are less than engaged. A second-semester undergraduate course typically covers wave motion (oscillatory) and electromagnetism, so tattooing is a comprehensive application in that the traditional (coil-type) tattoo machine combines many concepts while utilizing fairly simple components. Direct current is supplied to the electromagnetic coils, which produces a magnetic force (Figure 2). The attractive magnetic force between the armature bar (Figure 2) and the electromagnetic inductors causes the bar (connected to the needle) to displace downward. As the armature bar depresses and moves toward the electromagnets, the original circuit is broken, which returns the arm with the needle to its original position. When the bar returns to its original position via the springs that are also connected to the needle and ink well, the circuit closes again, causing the attractive magnetic force to be restored, and the cycle of armature displacement is repeated. These principles are foundational for all self-interrupting circuits.
For many undergraduate students, with the exception of possibly physics and engineering majors, any tool or instrument that requires electricity is a “black box.” As an example that is intriguing to many students, the tattooing process reinforces the principles of periodic motion, nonlinear circuit elements, and harmonic oscillation. The machine exhibits how mechanical and electromagnetic phenomena are coupled in maintaining the uniform delivery of ink to the skin. This coupling also provides a simplistic physical model for the manner in which biological systems invoke electrochemical means to accomplish mechanical work (e.g., flagellar motors). By drafting plans to build a tattoo machine, students begin to apply their biological understandings to a real-world physics problem. For example, understanding fat index allows students to comprehend why needle speed and machine voltage must change during the application process.


The projects discussed here were developed within a larger collaborative learning environment aimed at highlighting interdisciplinary points of confluence within the sciences. Contextual learning, whereby specific information is rooted within a particular concrete example, has been shown to increase students’ learning gains within a traditional constructivist framework. For example, several of our students have made comments similar to this one:
Being able to take physics theory and to
bring it to life with biological aspects was
a great idea. I think that all physics labs
should be taught in this way. I really learned
a lot and enjoyed the lab.
The close connection between the physical phenomena associated with tattooing and relevant principles within biology provided the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning opportunities and collaboration among faculty. For example, the idea of “contexualized teaching and learning” has gained substantial support through the California Community Colleges and has roots within established theories of motivation learning and social cognition theory (Baker et al., 2009).
When the aforementioned material was introduced to primarily life-science majors (within an algebra-based physics course), ~90% of the 21 students in the lab course answered “much” (4) or “much more” (5) to five questions pertaining to the levels of interdisciplinary connections and contextual learning they experienced (mean = 4.4/5.0). Students indicated that the integrative nature of the biophysical lab improved their ability to identify diverse and conflicting concepts, as well as examine ideas and phenomena from multiple perspectives. Here are two of their specific qualitative responses:
I’m a bio major and physics is not my thing.
Having professors involved to talk about biological
applications of physics concepts made
me appreciate physics and biology more and
work harder to more fully understand it.
Multiple angles of approach ties to my major
(biology). The extra material gave me focus
and interest in the topics to a greater degree
than if it had just been a one topic course.
Across the biology courses, similar trends were seen in all subdisciplines that explored tattooing. Almost 75% of students in a cell biology course mentioned tattooing in their course evaluation. One student’s comment highlights how a simple reference and contextualization of material during lecture enhances a student’s perception of material retention:
Tattooing helped me place these difficult
concepts in to a real life example and allowed
me to wrap my brain around why the
human body was doing things like immune
responses and reacting to UV radiation.
When courses were tallied together, 64% of students commented specifically and positively about tattooing in their learning (45 total students in physics and cell biology). In fact, students said they would like to see more biological applications; they enjoyed the engagement and insight the applications created. Therefore, we observe that embedding science within the context of a relevant topic is useful and beneficial to student learning, and we would like to encourage tattooing as a strong candidate for impact within the classroom.
DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.6.5 | Acknowledgments | the authors and their students heartily thank Michael Adkins and Walking Work of Art Tattoo Studio in Roanoke, VA. They provided the expertise necessary to conceptualize the conversations and provided an insight into their world. The collaborative efforts of the authors were supported financially through a Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant to Roanoke College.

American Academy of Dermatology. (2004). Tattoos, Body Piercings, and Other Skin Adornments. Schaumburg, IL: American Academy of Dermatology.

American Society of Anesthesiologists. (2009). Practice advisory on anesthetic care for magnetic resonance imaging: a report by the Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Anesthetic Care for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Anesthesiology, 110, 459-479.

Armstrong, M.L. & Elkins, L. (2005). Body Art and MRI: Tattoos, body piercings, and permanent cosmetics may cause problems. American Journal of Nursing, 105, 65-66.

Baker, E., Hope, L. & Karandjeff, K., Eds. (2009). Contextualized Teaching & Learning: A Faculty Primer. San Francisco, CA: Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges.

Becker, W.M., Kleinsmith, L.J., Hardin, J. & Bertoni, G.P. (2009). The World of the Cell, 7th Ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

Cui, Y., Spann, A.P., Couch, L.H., Gopee, N.V., Evans, F.E., Churchwell, M.I., Williams, L.D., Doerge, D.R. & Howard, P.C. (2004). Photodecomposition of pigment yellow 74, a pigment used in tattoo ink. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 80, 175-184.

Engel, E., Santarelli, F., Vasold, R., Maisch, T., Ulrich, H., Prantl, L., Konig, B., Landthaler, M. & Baumler, W. (2008). Modern tattoos cause high concentrations of hazardous pigments in the skin. Contact Dermatitis, 58, 228-233.

Engel, E., Spannberger, A., Vasold, R., Konig, B., Landthaler, M. & Baumler, W. (2007). Photochemical cleavage of a tattoo pigment by UVB radiation or natural sunlight.Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft, 5, 583-589.

Engel, E., Vasold, R., Santarelli, F., Maisch, T., Gopee, N.V., Howard, P.C., Landthaler, M. & Baumler, W. (2010). Tattooing of skin results in transportation and light-induced decomposition of tattoo pigments–a first quantification in vivo using a mouse model. Experimental Dermatology, 19, 54-60.

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Friedman, T., Westreich, M., Mozes, S.N., Dorenbaum, A. & Herman, O. (2003). Tattoo pigment in lymph nodes mimicking metastatic malignant melanoma. Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, 111, 2120-2122.

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Kimelberg, D. (2007). INKED Inc.: Tattooed Professionals. Charlestown, MA: Inked Inc. Press.

Kluger, N. (2010). Cutaneous complications related to permanent decorative tattooing. Expert Review of Clinical Immunology, 6, 363-371.

Kreidstein, M.L., Giguere, D. & Freiberg, A. (1997). MRI interaction with tattoo pigments: case report, pathophysiology, and management. Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, 99, 1717-1720.

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Long, G.E. & Rickman, L.S. (1994). Infectious complications of tattoos. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 18, 610-619.

Mangas, C., Fernandez-Figueras, M.T., Carrascosa, J.M., Soria, X., Paradelo, C., Ferrandiz, C. & Just, M. (2007). Letter: a tattoo reaction in a sentinel lymph node from a patient with melanoma. Dermatologic Surgery, 33, 766-767.

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Moehrle, M., Blaheta, H.J. & Ruck, P. (2001). Tattoo pigment mimics positive sentinel lymph node in melanoma. Dermatology, 203, 342-344.

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Vasold, R., Naarmann, N., Ulrich, H., Fischer, D., Konig, B., Landthaler, M. & Baumler, W. (2004). Tattoo pigments are cleaved by laser light–the chemical analysis in vitro provide evidence for hazardous compounds. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 80,185-190.

Zimmer, C. (2011). Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. New York, NY: Sterling.

DOROTHYBELLE POLI is Assistant Professor of Biology, MATTHEW FLEENOR is Assistant Professor of Physics, and MATTHEW REARICK is Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance, all at Roanoke College, 221 College Lane, Salem, VA 24153. Table 1. A brief world history of tattooing as summarized by multiple sources (Leeming, 1990; Gilbert, 2000; American Academy of Dermatology, 2004; Kimelberg, 2007).
Date | Event
5300 BC | The “Iceman” had 57 tattoos located in modern-day
acupuncture areas (carbon dated, discovered in 1991).
3000 BC | Japanese figures show tattoos on the face that are
thought to be magical/spiritual in meaning.
2400 BC | Mummified people discovered in 1949 near the Altai
Mountains of Siberia have decorative animals tattooed
on them (carbon dated).
2000 BC | Egyptians used tattoos on royal women during rituals.
2000 BC | Tattooing spread throughout Southeast Asia; from China
it followed the silk trade.
1200 BC | Possibly the first Polynesian tattooing occurred at
this time.
247 AD | The first record of a (decorative) Japanese tattoo
occurred in this year.
4th century | Greek women were tattooed to warn husbands about
787 AD | Pope Hadrian banned tattooing.
1100 | There are accounts of Vikings being covered in
permanent pictures.
11th to 16th | There are Central and South American accounts of common
century tattooing for religious purposes. The Norman Invasion
was responsible for tattooing losing popularity in the
1593 | Captain John Smith wrote that natives of Virginia and
Florida were tattooed.
1691 | William Dampher brought a heavily tattooed Polynesian
to London and reintroduced tattooing to the West.
1700s | Pacific Island tattoo culture was discovered by world
navies; reinterest in tattooing became strong across
1700 | Japanese “body suit” emerged as a way to fight the
concept that only royalty could wear ornate outfits.
1846 | The first American tattoo shop was established in New
York City.
Mid-1800s | Most European ports had at least one professional
tattoo artist.
1861 | The French Army and Navy banned tattoos after deeming
them unsafe.
1862 | The Prince of Wales (King Edward VII) received his
first tattoo, beginning a trend for British royalty.
1891 | Samuel O’Riley invented the first electric tattoo
1900s | Tattoos become common among circus performers.
1944 | Coca-Cola shows a sailor and a tattooed islander
comparing tattoos in a Life Magazine ad.




introduces various modes of tattoo as described in several types of pre-modem Chinese texts...

Ancient-Chinese-Tattooing-An-Historical-Overview-Of-The-Practice_The-Tattoo-Art-And-Education-Guide_The-Tattoo-Concierge_www.TattooConcierge.com-1024x512_The Artists Choice
Although the study takes a widely cross-temporal view, covering texts from the Zhou to the Ming dynasties, its organizing focus is the twenty-five entries on tattoo found in the ninth-century miscellany, Youyang zazu. The author of this work, Duan Chengshi (c. 800-863), is remarkable because of his extraordinary interest in all types of tattoo, but particularly for his meticulous description of the voluntary decorative tattoos of his contemporaries. Given the fact that in China permanent body-marking was highly stigmatized, and cause for social ostracism, the information given in the Youyang zazu and other texts on tattoo is thought-provoking and valuable
An aggressive Lord who wants to rise in power will be forced to employ his own people. They will then love me with the love of parents, and will find my scent like that of the iris and epidendrum. They will turn from their lord and look upon him as if he were tattooed, and as if he were their sworn enemy Xun Qing (ca. 313-ca. 238 B.C) [1]  
Tattoo is represented in several types of early Chinese texts, including early prose works such as the Shang shu historical works such as the Shiji and later dynaslic histories, dynastic penal codes, zhiguai and biji works and miscellanies. This paper introduces a selection of representative passages from Chinese texts that mention tattoo and is intended partly to serve as a starting point for further study of this largely neglected topic. The twenty-five entries on tattoo found in the ninth-century miscellany, Youyang zazu are both stimulus for and focus of the paper; it is, in fact, their content that determines the types of tattoo to be considered. The author of Youyang zazu, Duan Chengshi (c. 800-863), deserves our gratitude be cause of his extraordinary interest in all types of tattoo, but particularly because of his meticulous description of Tang-dynasty figurative and textual tattoo. His beautiful descriptions of full-body tattoo raise many questions, questions of immense interest for students of Tang life and culture, as well as of informal narrative literature. What do we learn from the entries in a collection of informal narratives, such as a miscellany, that we do not learn from other types of texts? In what way does this collection of entries augment information already available? Besides communicating fascinating and educational data about the socio-cultural world of his time, Duan’s tattoo entries may reveal something of Duan’s own interests and world-view in general. Their place in his larger collection is of interest–why did he place them where he did, in Juan eight, with entries on dreams and lightning?
For the sake of organizational convenience, the paper treats separately several types, or modes, of tattoo, with some inevitable overlapping of types. The specific Youyang zazu entries that represent each type are presented after a brief discussion of that type. Since the pieces do not appear in their original order, I have given the entry number of each for easy reference.
The types of tattoo that are most often mentioned in early Chinese sources are: tattoo as one defining characteristic of a people different from the majority population, tattoo as punishment, tattoo of slaves, tattoo as facial adornment, tattoo in the military, and figurative and textual tattoo. Although the last two types are not always related, in Youyang zazu they seem to be taken up together and so they will not be treated separately here.
As this study takes a widely cross-temporal view, and since the original texts describe tattoo of many peoples and places, naturally the terms found used for tattoo vary widely as well. There is not great consistency in terminology; it is not the case, for example, that tattoo as punishment is always called by one name and tattoo as decoration by another name. Nor is it the case that one term is exclusively used in one era and a different term in a later period. Some of the terms encountered in these early texts are qing (to brand, tattoo), mo (to ink), ci qing (to pierce [and make] green), wen shen (to pattern the body), diao qing (to carve and [make] green), ju yan (to injure the countenance), wen mian (to pattern the face), li mian (to cut the face), hua mian (to mark the face), lu shen (to engrave the body), Iu ti (same), xiu mian (to embroider [or ornament] the face), ke nie (to cut [and] blacken), nie zi (to blacken characters), and ci zi (to pierce characters). These terms are sometimes used together, and there are numerous further variations. In general, if the tattooing of characters appears in the term, it refers to punishment, but this is certainly not true in every case. Likewise, if a term literally meaning “to ornament” or “decorate” is used, it does not necess arily mean that the tattoo was done voluntarily or for decorative purposes.
All of the types of tattoo are usually described as opprobrious; people bearing them are stigmatized as impure, deviant, and uncivilized. There does not ever seem to have been a wide-spread acceptance of tattoo of any type by the “mainstream” society; this was inevitable, partly due to the early and long-lasting association of body marking with peoples perceived as barbaric, or with punishment and the inevitably subsequent ostracism from the society of law-abiding people. Another reason, of course, is the belief that the body of a filial person is meant to be maintained as it was given to him by his parents.
The exception to this negative textual assessment lies in the collection of informal narratives of Duan Chengshi, a collector of curious information who usually simply observes and records, who occasionally allows himself openly to reveal his sense of wonder. Tattoo does not give rise to revulsion in this unusual man; like much of what he observed and recorded he finds it fascinating and marvelous; an aberration, perhaps, but a lovely one, often skillfully done and worthy of attention, and even of admiration.


The first kind of reference to tattoo to be discussed is probably the most widely known among sinologists. We know from historical records, poetry and other sources that many peoples in the areas surrounding the “central kingdoms” tattooed their bothes. Most of the records refer to Man or Yi barbarians, broad terms that refer to various tribes located mostly in the regions south of the Yangzi river, such as present-day Guangzhou, Zhejiang, and northern Vietnam. One commonly mentioned group is the Yue ; this is again usually understood as a general term for the non-Chinese peoples south of the Yangzi, extending all the way to Guangdong and Vietnam to the south, and to Zhejiang, and Jiangxi to the north. [5] In some cases the comments made by Chinese literati about these people indicate a fairly disinterested curiosity, and sometimes they are straightforward records of the important details that separated these peoples from the majority (viz., civilized) people. Sometimes the tattoo is information peripheral to an anecdote or lesson of some kind. In the first section of Zhuangzi, a text of the third or fourth century B.C., for example, we read of the futility of a man of Song attempting to sell ceremonial caps to the short-haired, tattooed men of Yue. [6] The Hanshi waizhuan contains an amusing anecdote about an emissary sent by the King of Yue to Jing . [7] A certain official of Jing asked to be allowed to receive the Yue emissary first, since the Yue were a barbaric people. The Jing official instructed the Yue envoy that he would have to wear a hat if he wanted to have a proper authence with the king of a civilized land. The Yue envoy countered that the Yue people had originally been compelled to settle in a riverine environment, and presently associated not with great and civilized people, but with various water creatures. He co ntinued that the Yue people only settled there after tattooing their bothes and cutting off their hair (presumably as apotropaic aids to living in this dangerous environment). “Now I have come to your esteemed country and you insist on saying that I will gain authence only if I wear a hat. Since it is like this, how would it be if, when your noble country send an emissary to Yue, he for his part will have to cut off his nose, be branded, tattoo his body, and cut off his hair before being granted authence?” The King of Jing came out and, in full court regalia, granted authence to this intelligent and witty Yue envoy. [8] The Tang commentator Kong Yingda (574-648) notes that the Yue people have a custom of cutting their hair and tattooing their bothes as an apotropaic device, to ward off jiao dragons. [9] To do this they cut their flesh and darken it by rubbing red and green pigment into it. [10] There is mention of th is practice in some of the works contained in the great sixth-century literary anthology, Wen xuan , as well. Zuo Si (ca. 250-ca. 305 A.D.), for example, writes admiringly of tattooed peoples in his “Wu du fu” (Wu Capital Rhapsody) thus:
Warriors with tattooed foreheads
Solthers with stippled bothes
Are as gorgeously adorned as the curly dragon
And are a match for the kog and the tya. [11] In Yang Xiong’s (53 B.C.-18 A.D.) “Yulie fu” (Plume Hunt Rhapsody) the emperor orders swimmers from the tattooed peoples to catch water creatures for him. [12] It is not clear how the tattoo protected these swimmers; perhaps it functioned as a simple charm, but also possible is that the tattoo rendered the swimmer indistinguishable (and thus safe) from certain dangerous water creatures, as the function of a kind of sympathetic magic. The Wei zhi , compiled before 297, states that all of the men among the people of Wo (presentday Japan) tattoo their faces and bothes. According to the text, this was originally done for the purpose of warding off harm in the water, but now is also decorative. [13] More than seven thousand li to the northeast of the nation of Wo lies Wenshen guo (the Land of Tattooed Peoples), according to the Nan shi The bothes of the inhabitants are tattooed like animal skins. [14] In the Sui shu we read that the women of Liujiu guo similarly tattoo their hands with ink, in designs of insects and snakes, while the men remove all of their body hair. [15] The Xin Tang shu lists a number of peoples who practice tattoo–among them are three tribes of the southern Man barbarians: the Xiujiao (“embroidered feet”), who tattoo patterns from the ankle to the calf, the Xiumian (“embroidered face”), who tattoo their faces black, and the Diaoti (“carved forehead”), [16] wh o tattoo both face and body. Elsewhere in the same text we read of the Kirghiz, whose men tattoo the hands as a mark of valor, and whose women tattoo the nape of the neck as a sign of marital status. [17] Wang Bao (1st c. B.C.) writes that there are countries whose people braid their hair, scar their faces, blacken their teeth, and whose eyes are set deep, like the eyes of houlets. There are those that cut their hair, tattoo their heads, and go about with naked, tattooed bothes; all of these peoples “hasten to make tribute offerings to the Chinese empire, and take joy in returning allegiance to China.” [18] The specific customs described by the Chinese in these texts vary, but in most cases the purpose of recording the passages seems to be, as in this one, to highlight the separateness of the peoples who practice tattoo. This impression of otherness is heightened by the mention, besides tattoo, of activities such as eating with the hands, going about naked, wearing rings in the nose, and so on; from the point of view of a civilized Chinese, these are habits hardly distinguishable from those of animals. Tattoo is in fact the epitome of uncivilized practice, since it patterns the human body like the skin of an animal or water creature.
Among Duan Chengshi’s entries on tattoo, there are only four that focus on tattoo as a practice of non-Han peoples, but, like the other types that he takes up, their inclusion is crucial to his overall contribution, as I shall discuss later. In these pieces Duan Chengshi does not offer much new information; most of his sources are former records. In entry 290 he does mention his personal interest in the contemporary practice of tattoo by residents of the south, and his remarks indicate that the slaves to whom he talks might have come from among non-Han peoples who practice tattoo. Except in entry 303 Duan refrains, however, from making any comments that reveal his own opinion; in each of these four pieces he simply records a few brief lines of rather dry information, the likes of which will sound familiar to readers of the passages I have mentioned above. At the end of entry 303 Duan does mention his belief, revealed elsewhere in Youyang zazu as well, that ignorance about tattoo, as about anything, is a most shameful thing. Though he intimates that he is an educator, he then provides a disclaimer, saying that he is just recording these notes as amusement. In the original order, this entry is the final entry of the tattoo section.
Entry 290

The craftsmanship of men of Shu [19] is such that their tattoos are as clear as paintings. Some say that if one uses eyeblack, the color will be freshest; but I asked the slaves and they said you simply have to use good ink.
Entry 295

The Yue people are accustomed to being in the water. They always tattoo their bothes to avoid trouble from jiao dragons. Now, in the south the practice of tattooing the faces of men and boys is probably a practice inherited from the Diaoti tribe. [20]  
Entry 299

Also, according to the Han shu, [21] Wang Wu and others were sent as envoys to pay a visit to the Xiongnu. According to the customs of the Xiongnu, if the Han envoys did not remove their tallies of authority, and if they did not allow their faces to be tattooed, they could not gain entrance into the yurts. Wang Wu and his company removed their tallies, submitted to tattoo, and thus gained entry. The Shanyu looked upon them very highly.
Entry 303

The Tianbao shilu [22] says that the Jiu mountains in Rinan country [23] are a connected range of who knows how many li. The Luo (lit., naked) people live there. They are descendants of the Bo people. [24] They tattoo their chests with a design of flowers. There is something like purple-colored powder that they paint below their eyes. They remove their front two teeth and think of it all as beautiful decoration. I am of the opinion that if a gentleman does not understand something he should he ashamed. Tao Zhenbai [25] always said it was deeply shameful not to know even one thing. How much more so when punishments of the “inking” sort, such as the lime that it was established by physiognomy that Qing Bu [26] would become king, or that on the licentious a red flower will always be marked, [27] are plain to see in classical documents. I have in my idle hours recorded what I remember, to send to friends of like mind. It will amuse them and serve to unfurrow their brows.


For most of recorded history tattoo was considered a highly effective means of punishment in China. Although we do not have verifiable information about the earliest times, we can infer from texts written in the Zhou (ca. 1100-256 B.C.) and the Han (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.) that the tattooing or branding of criminals was probably as widely used in ancient times as it was in dynasties possessing relatively reliable historical records. [28]  
The effectiveness of tattoo and of other physically defiling punishments derived from the shame that a criminal felt upon re-entering society, having had a part of his or her body mutilated or even removed, and thus being permanently marked as a criminal. From early times until recently, there has been a strong stigma attached to failing to preserve whole one’s physical body; he is seen to have failed in one of the most important filial duties, and has brought shame on his family, past, present, and future. In the beginning of the Xiao jing Confucius tells his disciple Zengzi that filial piety is the thing most necessary for civilized society, and that the basis of filial piety lies in avoiding injury to the skin, hair, and body that is received from one’s parents. [29] This kind of weighty injunction rendered particularly fearful punishments such as the marking of the skin by tattoo or branding. [30]  
There are several passages in the Shang shu that mention tattoo as one of the ancient physical punishments for crime. [31] In the section known as the “Tang shi” (The Oath of Tang), [32] Yi Yin states to Tang , the founder of the Shang dynasty, that there are nobles, high officials, and even princes who engage in activities such as drunken dancing and singing; they suffer from addiction to wealth, women, and hunting; they do not heed the words of the sagely ancients and are not filial. Ministers who do not remonstrate with this type of ruler, trying to change his behavior, should all be punished by branding or tattoo. [33] The mention of the possibility of fining or of symbolic punishments to take the place of tattooing and the other corporal punishments makes it clear that there was indeed a penal practice in ancient China of cutting off or into various parts of the body. [34] The Shang shu gives details about what kinds of fines to use if in doubt about a crime. Since crimes deserving of tattoo are the “lowest,” the fine substituting for it is the cheapest: six-hundred ounces (lit., one hundred huan ) of copper. [35] If the person deciding a case is not certain whether the criminal’s behavior warrants his feet or testicles being sliced off, he should fine the person three thousand ounces instead. The crimes that are usually punished by tattoo but that may, in doubtful circumstances, be substituted by the payment of money number one thousand, compared with five hundred crimes usually punishable by cutting off the feet, and two hundred crimes usually deserving of the death penalty. [36] This passage demonstrates the large numbers of crimes that were ordinarily punishable by tattoo, and also indicates a potential for leniency if a criminal were both wealthy and able to establish doubt as to his guilt.
In Shangshu dazhuan we read of another practice, that of substituting a cloth head-covering for tattoo and the other physical punishments. The text says that the “symbolic punishment under Yao and Shun” involved having criminals who committed various types of crimes wear an ochre-dyed cloth with no borders, hemp sandals, or a black cloth. The criminals should then be made to go live in their hometowns and suffer the shame of being looked down upon by the people. [37] There does not seem to be any way to prove that tattoo and other corporal punishments were widely used in remotest antiquity. The extant texts themselves are often difficult to date, and the customs that they describe are often difficult if not impossible to ascribe to any one particular people or time. Even if they were utilized widely, the desire to create an impression of a “Golden Age” makes it likely that writers in the late Zhou and Han would attempt to minimize the importance attached to the use of mutilating punishments and to emphasize the regular use of symbolic punishments in their stead. Suffice it to say that in the “Treatises on Punishment” {) and in other places in the dynastic histories from the Han dynasty onward there is confident mention of tattoo in “ancient times.” For example, the Han shu “Treatise on Punishment” says that there were five hundred crimes punishable by tattoo in the Zhou period. The text then states that tattooed criminals wer e sent to guard the city gates, those who had lost their noses were sent to guard the passes, and so on; the severity of the punishment was apparently in direct proportion to the distance from the center of “civilized life.” [38] Although theoretically tattoo was abolished along with the other mutilating punishments by Emperor Wen (reg. 179-155 B.c.) in 167 B.C., tattoo was apparently continued as a punishment during the Han [39] and the period of disunion following the Han. There is no mention of tattoo in the Tang penal code, though examples of the actual continuation of the practice are to be found in the histories. [40] It was reinstated as a legal form of punishment later, and there are many references to it in the Song, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. Tattoo was often combined with exile, ensuring that the defiled persons be removed as far as possible from law-abiding, civilized people. For example, the “Punishment treatise” of the Song shi states that there are two hundred crimes punishable by tattoo and banishment. Among these, in the case of relatively minor offenses, it was possible to modify the punishment to a lighter sentence involving only penal servitude or banishment, but without tattoo. However, if the criminal were to commit another crime, he was immediately tattooed and enlisted in the military. [41] A specific description of one type of punishment is given in the same text. We read that a ring should be tattooed (ci huan) behind the ear in all cases where a person is convicted of robbery or banditry. If it is a case where penal servitude or banishment is also in order, the tattoo should be square. If it is a case where flogging is also in order, the tattoo should be round. After three cases wherein a criminal has been punished by flogging, the tattoo should then be done on the face. In diameter each tattoo should not exceed five-tenths of an inch. [42] One of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) legal codes, the Yuan dianzhang , is a rich source for descriptions of specific tattooing punishments. In the section on illicit sexual relationships we read that, in general, on the first offense, the adulterous couple will be separated, but if they are “caught in the act” a second time, the man will be tattooed on the face with the words “committed licentious acts two times” () and banished. [43] Numerous examples are given to illustrate this type of punishment.
The Youyang zazu has, again, only four brief entries that pertain to tattoo as punishment. In these pieces Duan is mainly concerned with terminology and with re-recording interesting tidbits he had read in earlier works. In entries 296 and 301 he describes actual tattoos; the other two entries are concerned with substitute punishments. It is significant that there is no mention of current practice or of his personal familiarity with this type of tattoo.
Entry 296
There were five hundred [44] crimes punishable by tattoo as described in the Zhouguan (i.e., Zhouli). According to Zheng Xuan (127-200), first the face was cut, and then ink was used to stop up the wound. The person with tattoos made thus by putting ink in wounds was made to guard the gates. According to the (Shangshu apocryphon) Shangshu xing te fang , [45] the so-called “zhuolu” was a punishment wherein the person’s forehead was drilled into. The punishment called “qing” involved the use of a horse-branding iron to engrave people’s faces. Zheng Xuan said, “Those who suffered the zhuolu and qing were referred to by people of their day as ‘people of knife and ink.'” [46]  
Entry 297
The Shangshu dazhuan [47] says that the “Yu Shun symbolic punishment” was to make people who had done a crime punishable by tattooing wear a black cloth instead. In the Baihu tong it says, “‘mo’ is tattooing on the forehead. It is an example of fire defeating metal.” [48]  
Entry 298
The Han shu says that instead of the physical punishment, the person deserving of tattoo is shaved bald and shackled, and (if a man), made to do wall-building labor (chengdan ) for four years, or (if a woman), to do grain-pounding punishment (chong ). [49]  
Entry 301
The Liang Dynasty Miscellaneous Regulations [50] says that for all people who are imprisoned but whose cases have not yet been decided, the character (jie, “robber, thief”) must be tattooed onto their faces.


In most cases in the early texts the passages that describe punishments seem to apply to commoners and slaves alike. There are a few special types of tattoo that naturally only pertain to slaves, such as the forehead brand identifying a person as someone who had attempted escape, or the facial brand of ownership. In addition there are some records that describe the tattooing of slaves or concubines because of jealousy. One particularly instructive case shows to what extent a jealous wife will go to ensure that her husband does not notice other women. In the Wei zhi Pei Songzhi’s (fl. 424) note to a passage in the biography of Yuan Shao (fl. 168-80) tells us that after Shao thed, his wife had all five of his concubines killed. Since she believed that the dead have consciousness, she then had their hair cut off and their faces branded, to destroy their appearance in the a fterlife, and to cause Shao not to wish to see them. [51] We see more of the tattooing of slaves or servants in four entries of the Youyang zazu. Entry 288 is reminiscent of the passage just described; again, the jealousy and pettiness of a primary wife is the focus, but Duan dwells on the gory details of the tattooing to create a vivid image of the procedure. It is one of the rare passages in early Chinese literature that mentions using different colors to produce a tattoo of shades other than the usual dark blue-green or black. Entry 293 attempts to explain the provenance of certain contemporary facial adornment fashions. Entry 300, a brief informational piece, describes the exact placement, size, and shape of tattoos to do in the case of escaped slaves, but it does not specify to what period of time it refers. In the eerie little anecdote in entry 286, Duan proves that the marks of tattoo penetrate to the very bone. He probably means this to be the primary lesson of his anecdote, since he placed the piece under the heading of tattoo, but in it he also subtly inveighs against treating the remains of the dead with disrespect, and indicates the good that can come from honoring the dead, whatever their status might have been in life. In this short piece Duan illustrates the mutual reliance of the dead and the living. giving central importance to the tattoo; originally a mark of shame that ended up benefiting both the dead man (by allowing him to be buried properly) and the living (by making him rich).
In the two entries on tattoo as a kind of cosmetic technique Duan again aims to explain current customs, but here there is no connection with punishment or slavery–the tattoo in entry 292 is originally caused by a seemingly innocent drunken accident. The second piece constitutes a simple explanation of a contemporary custom. It is clear that in some cases people were willing to overlook the negative connotations that tattoo carried; this second piece shows that there are people who actually marked themselves to look as if they were tattooed; although the exact reason for doing this is not clear, it appears that it might be some sort of attempt to benefit one’s descendants. The usual stigma of a tattoo mark on the face is not mentioned in either of these cases.
Entry 286
My cousin [52] Jang, during the Zhenyuan period (785-805) once stopped at Huang keng . [53] There was one among his entourage who was collecting bits and pieces of skull bones to use as medicine. On one of the pieces appeared the three characters (“escaped slave”). The marks were like light ink traces. It was then that they realized that tattoo penetrates all the way to the bone. In the night that man in my cousin’s group had a dream of a person whose face was hidden and who wanted the bones that had been collected. He said: “My shame is great. If you, honored sir, would bury them deep in the ground, I will bring you good fortune.” That man awoke in alarm; his hair was standing on end. He went immediately to rebury the bones, for the sake of the ghost. Later, whenever something was about to happen, the spirit would appear to him as if in a dream and tell him what to do. With this help, he amassed great wealth. At his death he had almost one hundred thousand (cash).
Entry 288
Fang Rufu’s [54] (second) wife was of the Cui clan. She was jealous by nature. [55] The slave girls around her were not allowed to wear thick makeup or high coiffures. Each month she gave each girl one dou of rouge and one coin’s worth of powder. There was one slave who had just recently been purchased. Her makeup was slightly finer (than the others’). Mrs. Cui angrily said to her: “So, you like makeup, eh? I will make you up!” Then she had someone slice the girl’s eyebrows off, and she used blue-green ink to fill (the wounds) in. Then she heated an iron bar and burned the skin (starting) at the corners of each eye. The skin scorched and rolled up wherever she touched. Then she tinted the wounds with vermilion. When the scabs came off, the scars left there were just like makeup.
Entry 293
The “flower seed marks” that women use to decorate their faces nowadays originated with the fashion of Shangguan Wan’er (664-7l0). [56] Prior to the Dali period (766-80), among the wives of the official class, many of those who were jealous and cruel would tattoo the faces of the slave girls and concubines who failed, even in small ways, to please them. This is how there came to be the so-called “moon spot” and the “money spot” (tattoo)
Entry 300
The Jin ling (The Jin Orders) [57] says, “When a male or female slave has escaped for the first time, do a tattoo with copperas [58] like ink. Tattoo the two eyes. Later if he or she escapes again, tattoo on the two cheeks. For a third escape, tattoo a horizontal line below the eye. All of them should be one and a half inches long. [59]  
Entry 292
In makeup fashions of today, high value is placed on the facial “mole.” For example, there is the mole of a crescent-moon shape, which is called a “yellow star mole.” The fame of the so-called “mole inlay” derives no doubt from Lady Deng, wife of Sun He of the state of Wu. [60] Sun He favored her. Sun He was once dancing drunkenly and with abandon, when he accidentally cut Lady Deng’s cheek, drawing blood. Deng was delicate and weak, and became more and more miserable, so Sun He called the palace physician to mix some medicine. The physician said that he should be able to get rid of the mark if he could procure some bone marrow of white otter and mix it with powders of jade and amber. Sun He had to spend one hundred gold pieces to buy the white otter before they were able to mix the ointment. They added too much amber, however, so the ointment was inferior and the scar didn’t disappear. On Lady Deng’s left cheek there was now a red spot that resembled a mole. When people saw it they found her even more imbued with fascinating charm. Those of Sun He’s consorts who wished to gain his favor all marked dots on their cheeks with cinnabar. Only then would they gain his attention. [61]  
Entry 294
Among commoners there are sometimes people who apply to the face a bluish mole that resembles a tattoo. There is an old saying that in case a woman thed in childbirth, her face must be marked with ink; otherwise, it would be unlucky for later generations.


A short anecdote by Kong Pingzhong (fl. 1065) draws our attention to several issues that are of interest to this study. It concerns two men, who are working together in the Bureau of Military Affairs in the Palace Secretariat. Apparently Wang Boyong “regularly teased his colleague Di Qing about his tattoos. He would say, ‘They are finer and brighter than ever.’ Di replied, ‘Can it be that you don’t like them? I was hoping respectfully to present you with a line (or column) of them.’ Wang was deeply ashamed.” [62] The meaning of the exchange is not absolutely clear but a few things can be learned from it. First, there was at least one official working in the military branch of the Palace Secretariat sporting decorative tattoos; these seem to have included lines of poetry, which suggests an appreciation of literature. The behavior of the tattooed man is such that the man making fun of him is ashamed of himself. Second, the very fact that his colleague “regularly made fun” of his tattoos is of interest. Of course we may guess that Wang personally found Di’s body markings unusual, but more likely this little exchange suggests that although this military official had tattoos, the practice was not common, and probably was not entirely acceptable, in polite society. It is very likely that a large percentage of tattoos, voluntary or not, after at least the Han dynasty were in some way connected with the military. Tattoo was used to brand men as part of a particular regiment, as a means of identification (dead or alive), to prevent recruits from escaping, and to mark prisoners of war. [63] Valiant individuals also tattooed themselves with oaths, proclaiming their wholehearted dedication to a particular nation, or to a certain military or personal cause.
Most of the readily available information on military tattoo comes to us from rather late Song and Ming texts, and most of them agree that the practice of military tattooing was either started or reinstated in the Later Liang Dynasty (907-22). For example, Su Xun (1009-66) tells us in his Bing zhi (Military Regulations) that during the Five Dynasties (907-60) period, Liu Shouguang (fl. 911) [64] reinstituted the rules of tattooing the face and hands. Thereafter “the entire realm took it as a common practice.” [65] In describing the general societal breakdown and rise of banditry in his own time Sima Guang (1019-86) tells us that there was a practice of seizing and tattooing of ordinary citizens, making them slaves of the armies. In his Lei shuo he elaborates at length on this practice, particularly as it occurred in Shanxi. [66] A passage in the Song shi details how the highways were filled with panic-stricken, terrified common people, who frightened each other with stories of the armies capturing people and tattooing them, in order to make up their quota. [67] Zeng Cao (fl. 1136-1147) names the person responsible for allowing this to occur. He says that the general custom of tattooing solthers’ faces was begun by the First Emperor of (Later) Liang (Liang Taizu , reg. 907-14). This is reiterated in a passage found in Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian , where we read that in the first year of the First Emperor of Later Liang (907) the emperor had all of his solthers tattooed with their military post and rank, in order to prevent escape and absenteeism. Sima continues that some of the solthers were homesick for their villages and attempted to escape anyway. Since the villagers did not dare to give refuge to the solthers, the escapees were either killed or were forced to gather in the mountains or marshes and become bandits. When this eventually became a major social problem, a general amnesty was granted through imperial proclamation, a nd the tattooed men returned to their home villages. In this way bandits were reduced by seventy or eighty percent. [68]  
Tattoo was used by solthers in some armies as a way to demonstrate devotion to a cause. Usually a brief oath of several words would be tattooed on the arms, back, or chest; very likely the purpose was to instill a sense of strength and valor and to prove this valor both to others in one’s own regiment and to enemies. We read that the armies of Shu tattooed themselves with the shapes of axes to give themselves renewed courage when they learned that they were going to be attacked, [69] and that others tattooed characters on their chests, proclaiming dedication to the nation. [70] Undoubtedly the best-known example of a military man bearing a tattooed oath is the famous Song general Yue Fei (1103-41), tragic and heroic subject of many plays and stories that center on his attempts to recapture northern China from the Jurchen barbarians. Shen Defu even claims that the practice of tattooing oaths in the military originate d with Yue Fei, [71] though as we have seen this was a practice before Yue Fei’s time. Shen cites Yue Fei’s tattooed oath as a sign of the ultimate in loyalty. [72] Yue Fei’s official biography says that he had a tattoo on his back that read, “Jinzhong baoguo” (serve the nation with absolute loyalty.) [73] This bit of information was incorporated into many literary works, one of the most interesting of which is the chuanqi drama “Rushi guan” . It has a vivid description of Yue Fei’s mother crying as she pierces her son’s skin using an embroidery needle and rubs the ink into the fresh wounds. [74] A military-oath tattoo such as Yue Fei’s carries no negative connotation; on the contrary, the man bearing this type of tattoo is, at least in the popular imagination, considered positively heroic.
A late nineteenth century text records details for procedures that are followed during a coroner’s autopsy. In the examination of a dead body, two of the identifying marks to be looked for are tattooed characters, ci zi , and decorative tattoos, diao qing . In addition, any signs of tattoo removal by moxibustion were to be recorded. [75] The two types of tattoo are noted separately; the tattoo as a mark of punishment and that used as decoration are not considered to be the same.
Here we are concerned with the second type of mark looked for by the coroner in the above passage, that is, the figurative tattoo, which unlike the brand, was often done voluntarily. In a vernacular narrative work that traces the history of the Five Dynasties, Wudai shi pinghua , the portion of the text treating the life of Liu Zhiyuan , (Gaozu, reg. 947-48), founder of the short-lived Later Han dynasty (947-50), is of particular interest as an example of this kind of tattoo. The pinghua account is historical fiction rather than official history; it portrays the subject of Liu’s early life and career as it appeared in popular imagination starting at least in the Yuan dynasty. According to the pinghua story, in his youth, “Liu Zhiyuan went out, and hired a tattoo artist (lit., “needle-brush artisan” ) to tattoo his body. On his left arm he had the man tattoo an immortal fai ry maiden, and on his right arm he had tattooed a treasure-snatching green dragon. On his back was tattooed a “yaksa who laughs at Heaven.” This, along with his drinking and gambling, infuriated his family and Liu was kicked out of the house. Eventually Liu is humbled by a losing streak at gambling, and he sets out to reform himself His worth is recognized by Li Jingru a man skilled in physiognomy, who wants to help Liu to stay out of the army. Mr. Li, however, can only give Liu a job “in the back” feeding the horses, because of the unsightliness of his tattoos. Supernatural occurrences eventually convince Li of Liu’s special qualities, so in spite of the latter’s tattoos, he marries his daughter to Liu. This sets Liu Zhiyuan on the road to social rehabilitation and to his eventual seat on the dragon throne. [76] Liu Zhiyuan’s official biography makes no mention of any of this, and in fact, the first thing it points out when discussing Liu’s character is that “when the emperor was young he was not fond of amusements, and was serious and taciturn.” [77] Another literary treatment of tattooed heroes is that found in the sixteenth-century vernacular novel Shuihu zhuan . There are five tattooed men in the band of outlaws that gathers under the leadership of Song Jiang at Liangshan Marsh; they are Yan Qing , Lu Zhishen Shi Jin , Zhang Shun and Song Jiang himself. Song Jiang’s tattoo is a facial brand; those of the other four, however, are figurative tattoos. Shi Jin, for example, is known by all as the “Nine-patterned dragon” His father, eager to help young Shi Jin in his goal of becoming a great martial arts fighter, not only engages weapons experts, but also hires a tattooist to work on his son. Jin is tattooed on his shoulders, arms, chest, and belly with a pattern of nine dragons. [7 8] Later in the novel, another of the “decorated” heroes, Yan Qing, is obliged to cover his tattooed body with a cassock robe, so that he will not be recognized. [79] In another passage a woman named Li Shishi , whose support Yan is attempting to garner, indicates a desire to see his famous tattoos. “Li Shishi laughed and said, ‘I’ve heard that Elder Brother’s body is covered with beautiful tattoos; how would it be if I asked for a look at them?’ Yan Qing smiled and replied: ‘Although this humble man of lowly form does have some ornamental tattoos, in the presence of a lady how could I dare to remove my clothes and reveal my body?”‘ Needless to say, Lady Li’s will prevails: “Yan Qing had no choice but to strip naked. When Li Shishi saw his tattoos, she was greatly pleased. She caressed his body with her slender jade hands.” [80] The social inappropriateness and, in this case at least, the sexual allure of decorative tattoos is made abundantly clear. [81] Far and away the most comprehensive extant source for material on decorative tattoo in early China is the Youyang zazu. The eleven entries that describe figurative and textual tattoo are very informative for the scholar wishing to understand Chinese culture more deeply, particularly that of the Tang period. Duan Chengshi’s text reveals a world in which many kinds of people, of various social ranks, are tattooed with pictures or with literary texts, or both. Many of the descriptions are of people who lived during Duan’s own time, and some are of people with whom he was personally acquainted and whose tattoos he examined himself.
Although tattooed members of the official class are represented, many of the subjects of Duan’s entries are rather unsavory types, and are described as riff-raff and bandits. Duan describes the official reaction to these people as extremely negative. Their tattoos rendered them even more abhorrent to the authorities than their nefarious activities alone would have. Duan also tells of tattooed military men or of those who had been tattooed during their enlistment when young. Clearly solthers were not only tattooed as a measure against escape and as a brand of ownership; they were often decoratively tattooed of their own volition as well. It is important to note the connection between the tattoos used in the military for identification and punishment and those used for decoration. Probably tattoo was, of all Chinese social groups, most acceptable among members of the armies; perhaps in some cases decorative tattoo was employed as a way to cover or hide other types of tattoo. The problems associated with bearin g a tattoo in ordinary society were numerous, and tattoo could well lead to ostracism; this was, indeed, one of the primary reasons that it was an effective punishment. People thus shut out from proper society might naturally seek to associate with others like themselves, to create a new kind of fraternity or “in-group.” Bands of tattooed military men, outlaws, and street ruffians, then, can be seen to have partly arisen out of the prevailing attitudes and fears about tattoo.
Duan’s entries paint a picture of the streets of Jingzhou, Chang’an [82] and other cities that is not seen in such detail elsewhere. Duan pricks the reader’s imagination with these entries; particularly when he mentions cases like the man in entry 284, who holds a respectable position, but under whose concealing robes lies a full-body tattoo of an undulating snake. The reader cannot help but wonder if there were others like him, or if he was an anomaly. In his description of figurative tattoos Duan tells us that tattoo was sometimes known to endow the wearer with supernatural strength. The tattoo might be of a god who was believed to bestow his power on the person who bore his image; in other cases, the tattoo might be considered an effective apotropaic device.
Perhaps one of the most interesting types of tattoo is described in entry 282. There, the entire body of a street policeman is tattooed with thirty-plus poems of Bai Juyi (772-846). This is not the only example of the written language used as tattoo, but it is certainly the most unusual one, since no other example describes literary texts permanently inscribed on the body.
In a few entries Duan describes the fine quality of the tattoos that he saw. We do not know the exact technique by which some of the large and complex figurative tattoos were created, but in entry 291 Duan describes a simple stamping technique by which a small tattoo could be had instantly. This entry is truly astounding in its implications. The existence of a pattern book from which a client could order standard or specialized tattoos, and the capability of producing instant, high-quality tattoos by means of a needle-studded stamp, indicates a large demand for tattoos in some regions. We may speculate that the clients served by these tattoo artists were primarily local bullies, travelers, solthers, and so on, but there is a possibility that among the general population there was also some interest in this kind of fast, relatively painless body marking.
Entry 279
In the shopping streets of the capital (Chang’an) most of the young toughs are shaved bald and have their skin tattooed with the shapes of all kinds of things. They presume on their position in the various armies to beat others and steal by force. There are those who gather like snakes in wineshops [83] or beat people with the clavicles of sheep. The present Metropolitan Administrator, Lord Xue Yuanshang (fl. 827-46), after three days in office, [84] ordered the ward chiefs secretly to apprehend these (ruffians); approximately thirty men were beaten to death, and their corpses were exposed in the marketplace. All of the city residents who had tattoos destroyed their tattoos with moxibustion. At the time a strongman of Daning ward, Zhang Han by name, had tattooed his left arm with the words, “Alive, I do not fear the metropolitan administrator” and on his right arm he tattooed, “Dead, I do not hold in awe King Yama.” Also there was a man called Wang Linu, who had hired a tattoo artist for five thousand cash. On his chest and belly appeared mountains, pavilions, parks, ponds, and kiosks, grass and trees, and birds and animals. There was nothing that wasn’t included. The tattoo was so fine that it was as if it had been painted on with repeated fine washes of color. Lord Xue Yuanshang had both of these men beaten to death.
There was also the bandit Zhao Wujian who was marked with one hundred and sixty overlapping impressions of wheeling magpies and other birds. On his left and right arms he had tattooed the poem:
Wild ducks resting overnight on a sandbank,
Attacked by falcons morning after morning.
Suddenly in alarm they fly into the water,
Their lives spared until this morning.
Again, in Gaoling country [85] a man named Song Yuansu, whose body was tattooed, was arrested. He was tattooed in seventy-one places. His left arm said:
In days gone by, before my house was poor,
I wouldn’t begrudge a thousand gold pieces [86] to form a close friendship;
Now I’ve lost my way, and I seek those close friends,
Yet roaming over every pass and mountain, not a single one appears.
On his right arm was tattooed a gourd; from out of its top emerged a person’s head. It looked like a puppet in a string puppet show. A local official didn’t understand, and asked him what it signified. He explained that it was the spirit of the gourd. [87]  
Entry 280
Li Yijian (756-822) [88] was in Shu at the end of the Yuanhe period (806-21). A Shu city (Chengdu) resident named Zhao Gao was always getting into fights and was often in prison. His entire back was tattooed with the Heavenly King Vaisravana. Whenever the constables were about to have him flogged they would stop short when they saw the tattoo. Relying on this, he gradually came to be a major problem for the ward market. His assistants reported this to Li Yijian, and Li became furious. He seized the tattooed man and took him in front of the court. He got a newly-made stiff club, three inches wide at the head, and violently ordered the caner to beat the Vaisravana tattoo, and stop only when it was completely gone. He applied more than thirty strokes, but the man still did not the. [89] After ten days, Zhao Gao went from door to door, with his upper garment removed, howling and begging for meritorious offerings to repai r the tattoo. [90]  
Entry 281
The Lesser Commander [91] of Shu, Wei Shaoqing was Wei Biaowei’s (fi. 821-36) [92] paternal (older) cousin. When young, he wasn’t fond of studying; rather, he had a fetish for tattooing. His uncle once had him remove his clothes so that he could have a look at the tattoos. On his chest was tattooed a tree, on whose branches were perched several dozen birds. Below the tree hung a mirror; its central knob was fastened with a rope, which was being pulled by a person standing off to the side. His uncle didn’t understand and asked what it meant. Shaoqing laughed and answered “Hasn’t uncle read the poem of Zhang, Duke of Yan? [93] (One line of it) goes: ‘Pull the mirror, and in winter crows will come to gather.’ [94] That’s all it means.” [95]  
Entry 282
Ge Qing a street patrolman of Jingzhou, was brave and valiant. From his neck on down he was completely tattooed with the poems of Secretary Bai Juyi. A Jingzhou resident, Chen Zhi, and I once summoned him so that we could have a look. We had him take off his clothes, and he could recite from memory even the poems on his back, and could put his hands behind his back to point to exactly where they were tattooed. When he came to the line, “Is it not that, of these flowers, I only love the crysanthemum,” [96] there was a picture of a person holding a cup of wine, standing near a cluster of chrysanthemums. Again (with the line), “By the carved-out hollows on the yellow dyeing blocks, even in the winter the trees have leaves,” [97] then he pointed to an image of a tree. On the three were hanging wood blocks for dyeing, and the carvings on the blocks were exceedingly fine. Altogether there were more than thirty poems tattooed on him, and on his body there was not a sing le bit of intact skin. Chen Zhi called him “A walking illustration of Bai Juyi’s poems.” [98]  
Entry 283
Whenever my groom-servant Lu Shenting engages in tests of strength in the army (camps) he is able to chew dozens of pieces of gravel, can lift a stone step [99] and a basket [100] full of six-hundred catties of stone. The Heavenly Kings [101] are tattooed on his back. He says himself that he is imbued with the power of these spirits when he goes into the contest arena; with the help of the spirits his strength increases. On the first and fifteenth days of the month he always prepares milky gruel. He burns incense and sits with his tattoos exposed, and then he has his wife and children make offerings to the kings and worship them.
Entry 284
Cui Chengchong (n.d.) when young was an enlisted man who was skilled at donkey polo. When shooting or avoiding the ball he would wield his mallet so nimbly it was as if he were stuck to it with glue. Later he became the Surveillance Commissioner of Qiannan [102] When he was young he had had his entire body tattooed with the image of a snake. It started from his right hand, with the mouth gaping open between his thumb and forefinger. It circled his wrist and went once around his neck and then locked tightly around his stomach. It stretched out over his thigh, and the tail extended to his shin-bone. When facing guests and comrades, he would usually cover his hand with his robe, yet when he became intoxicated with alcohol he would strip down, posture with his arm and make a halberd of his band. He would grasp hold of the entertainers and would threaten: “The snake is going to bite you!” The entertainers would immediatel y scream and act as if they were hurt. In this way they would make a game of it.
Entry 285
During the Baoli period (825-27) a certain commoner had his arms tattooed. Several dozen people gathered to watch the process. Suddenly appeared a person wearing a white gown and a brimmed hat. He inclined his head, smiled a faint smile, and then left. Before the man had gone ten steps, the blood flowed from the commoner’s tattoos like that from a nosebleed, and he felt the pain penetrate to his bones. In just a short while he had lost more than a dou of blood. [103] The crowd of people suspected that it had something to do with the man who had looked at him before, and they told the tattooed man’s father to find him for help. [104] That person was not willing to take responsibility, and only after the father had made obeisance to him dozens of times did he finally scoop up a pinch of dirt and say something like an incantation. (Then he said), “You can put this on it.” When they did as he said, the bleeding stopped. [105]  
Entry 287
In the military camp of the Shu general Yin Yan there was a solther who arrived half an hour late for evening muster. Yan was about to reprimand him. The solther was drunk, however, and explained himself in a loud voice. Yan became angry and had him beaten twenty times or so, to the point that he nearly thed. The younger brother of the solther was the camp jailer. He was friendly and kind by nature, but he considered Yan’s actions unfair, so he tattooed the words “Kill Yin” into his skin, and blackened them with ink. Yin Yan found out about it and had someone beat him to death on another pretext. Later, when the Southern barbarians invaded during the Taihe period (827-36), Yan employed tens of thousands of solthers to protect the Qiongxia pass. [106] Now, Yin Yan was stronger than anyone else, and he would often joke around with those near him, striking their shins with a knotted jujube staff. As he struck them, their muscles would swell up, but there would be no outward trace left by the staff. Relying on their strength, the entire army left the pass and pursued the barbarians for several li. The barbarians then launched a surprise attack from both sides, and Yin Yan’s army suffered a crushing defeat. Yin’s horse was upended, and Yin was killed, having been pierced by several dozen spears.
Earlier, on the day the army rode out of the pass, the jailer that Yin Yan had previously executed suddenly reappeared, going along at the head of the army. The man was carrying a round yellow board as big as the hub of a wheel. Yin Yan had a bad feeling about it, but when he asked those around him, none of them could see the spectre. In the end he thed on the battlefield. [107]  
Entry 289
When Yang Yuqing (jinshi 810) was governor of the capital, [108] there was someone who frequented the marketplaces called “San Wangzi” who was so strong that he could lift up huge stones. His entire body was tattooed with pictures; there was not one piece of unmarked skin on his whole frame. He was sentenced with the death penalty many times, but he always took shelter with the army and thus managed to escape death. One day he slipped up, and Yang Yuqing commanded several of his personal followers [109] to capture and arrest him. They barred the gates and flogged him to death. The decision in this case reads: “He tattooed his four limbs, and he called himself ‘Son of the King’ (wangzi). What need is there to examine into it (judicially)? It is a matter of course that he is guilty.” [110]  
Entry 291
In Jingzhou, during the Zhenyuan era (785-805) there were tattoo vendors in the street. They had imprinting stamps into which they would press needles closely together into the shapes of all kinds of things, such as toads and scorpions, mortars and pestles, or whatever people wanted. Once they’d imprinted the skin (with this needle stamp), they would brush (the pricked area) with black lead. After the wound had healed, the tattoo was finer than that on the pattern from which the customer had originally ordered.” [111]  
Entry 302
In the Buddhist work Sanghika-vinaya [112] the so-called “black scar print” [113] is done when a bhiksu practices the rite of the Brahma King. They tear their flesh and, with the bile of peacocks and with copperas and other things, they paint on the cuts made in their bothes. They form written characters as well as the shapes of birds and beasts. They call it “print tattoo” .


Unfortunately, visual representations of tattoos from pre-modern China are not in abundance; [114] likewise, as prevalent as modem Chinese tattoo practices may be, they cannot be said to be a direct descendant of ancient Chinese practices. What we lack in pictures, we do have in texts, though. The sources examined in this paper describe a fairly broad range of uses, but naturally the glimpse they provide into the world of tattoo practice is limited, partly due to the generally negative connotation associated with permanent body marking by the class of literati. However, although these passages from zhiguai, novels, unofficial histories, etc., might not all be historically verifiable, they do at the very least reveal a valuable perspective on life in early and metheval China, as they indicate the existence of a many-sided culture in which people of various social classes practiced tattoo, for reasons sometimes, but not solely, connected with punishment or the military.
Tattoo in China in some ways seems quite limited, compared to the roles that it has taken in other cultures around the globe. It was not used in rites of passage into adulthood, as a mark of sexual maturity, marital status, or as a mark of identification in a special occupation. Tattoo as punishment, as facial cosmetic, as mark of bravery, as apotropaic device, and as personal body decoration are, on the other hand, among the uses that China’s tradition shares with some of these cultures. The tattoo practice that is not widely known to scholars is the figurative body decoration, and it is the type that lends itself most to conjecture. A person’s body decoration marked him as belonging to one of probably many subcultures–one of the most obvious being that of “street toughs,” made up of current or former military men, prisoners, or slaves. Another group of people used tattoo to draw divine protection or power. Why, though, did people mark themselves permanently, when they lived in a society in which such mark ing was highly stigmatized, and cause for ostracism? Does it indicate a changing attitude toward the physical (and social) body in the Tang, an attitude that continued into the Song and Ming (as suggested by the texts of those periods that describe tattoo)? Does it indicate a strong anti-establishmentarianism on the part of certain people, a willingness and even desire to identify with that which was perceived as barbaric, possibly exotic, and not a part of civilized Chinese society? These are tempting speculations, but we must remember that the available texts on this subject are few in number and not copiously supplied with useful historical details. Whatever the motives for body tattoo might have been, most texts do give a good picture of the strong and generally negative response to it, and also show that, due to this response, and for resulting practical considerations, the degree to which people were willing to reveal their personal attitudes varied widely. If necessary, robes functioned nicely to allow tattooed folk to remain in, and yet not of, the mainstream social group. Those in higher society may have judged the practice negatively, but many were also fascinated by it. Of course Duan himself may have been an extreme example of such a person, as he was the quintessential fascinated onlooker to everything “under the sun.” But his anecdotes are replete with spectators wanting to see that by which they are partly horrified; Duan was clearly not the only one who had a desire that the tattooed ones remove their robes and reveal the beautiful snake, the permanent clothing, the second skin, within. He was not the only watcher, or so he convinces us, but he was one of the only chroniclers–and we may presume that he hoped that readers would find the entries on tattoo thought-provoking and that his book would thus expand the circle of curious onlookers.
At the end of the last entry in the tattoo section of juan eight, Duan implies that the purpose for recording these entries on tattoo is to educate those who are shamefully ignorant of things that exist in front of their very eyes. The entire Youyang zazu, of course, may in a sense be seen as an eclectic collection of attempts to teach about one thing or another. Each such attempt has its own characteristic flavor, created by a complex set of variables, and each part derives some of its meaning from its relationship with the elements surrounding it. So, how is the section on tattoo enriched and given deeper meaning by its association with the other “ingrethents” in juan eight? However unlikely it may seem at first sight, there is very likely a connection for Duan between the three topics in that juan–tattoo, dreams, and lightning and thunder–and we may speculate about Duan’s understanding of and interest in tattoo by examining their unusual placement together. I believe that he saw tattoo in some sense as a social parallel to something that is explored on meteorological and psychological planes in the other sections. Juan eight is, in general, a record of three types of “boundary crossings”: the entrance into the human world of light, sound, wonder, and danger from the heavens; the entrance into the waking, conscious world of events and things from the sleeping unconscious; and the entrance into the realm of civilized, proper folk (both “human” and “conscious,” naturally) of the markings of the uncivilized or deviant. All of these types of boundary crossings recorded by Duan leave a mark on the world that they touch, in some way changing it permanently.
It is important that Duan included all of the types of tattoo, even though he was clearly most interested in figurative and textual body marking. Likewise it is crucial that the four types of records (tattoo of barbarian peoples, tattoo as punishment, as mark of slavery or as personal decoration by Chinese people) are not presented in linear, chronological, topical or other specific order. I believe that this is not simply careless disorder; it may in fact reflect the conviction that flux is inherently complex and at least seemingly disorderly. One of Duan’s favorite themes throughout his larger collection is this changing nature of life. He delights in showing that change, the crossing of borders between various states of being, whether physical, social or psychological, does not happen in a chronological, predictable fashion, and in fact is continually happening, always moving in different directions. In his twenty-five entries Duan defines by example the different type of tattoos, and also shows that thei r movement–from the barbaric, low-class, and deviant realms of their origin to the world that ordinary gentlemen can see everyday–is ongoing, and is as ubiquitous, frightening, inevitable, and marvelous as various weird manifestations of lightning and dreams, that regularly cross the thresholds of the heavens and unconsciousness into our world. Tattoo for Dunn is thus a fitting “educational topic,” worthy of recording because it is representative of phenomena that require us to ponder, marvel, and re-evaluate, simply because they enter our world, exist here, and change it by leaving a mark.
I thank Professor Stephen H. West of the University of California, Berkeley, for numerous suggestions and corrections on an earlier draft of this paper.
(1.) Wang Xianqian (1842-1917), ed., Xunzi jijie (Taibei: Lantai shuju, 1972), 5.32. Cf. Xunzi (Sbby), 5.11b.
(2.) The dating of the various parts of this text is controversial. Some parts probably date from as late as the fourth century A.D., and some from as early as around 1000 B.C.
(3.) Dating from 100 B.C.
(4.) Youyang zazu, ed. Fang Nansheng (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 8.76-80. As all of the entries appear on these four pages, and are clearly numbered, I will not footnote them separately in the pages below.
(5.) For a readable, brief introduction to the various southern tribal groups, see Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: Tong Images of the South (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1967), 9-17, 48-78. Also see Heather Peters, “Tattooed Faces and Stilt Houses: Who were the Ancient Yue?” Sino-Platonic Papers 17 (April, 1990).
(6.) Zhuangzi (Sbck), 1.14b. The Huainanzi , a collection of essays dating from before 139 B.C., is another early text that attests to the tattooing of the body with images of scaly creatures, practiced by the southern barbarians of Yue. See Huainan honglie jijie , ed. Liu Wendian (Taibei: Wenshi zhe chubanshe, 1992), 1.19.
(7.) In the Zhou period, Jing was the area later to be referred to as Chu . This was the largest of states in the Warring States period, comprising parts of modern-day Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Jiangsu provinces.
(8.) Han Ying (Han dynasty), Han shi waizhuan (Xuejin taoyuan), 8.1a.
(9.) On the jiao dragon, see M. W. de Visser, The Dragon in China and Japan (Amsterdam: Royal Academy of Sciences, 1913). Also see Schafer, Vermilion Bird, 217-21.
(10.) Liji zhengyi 12.16b. Pei Yin’s (fl. 450) note to a Shiji passage reiterates this information; Shiji 4.115. Also see Liu Xiang (77-6 B.C.), Shuo yuan Shuo yuan (Sbby), 11.5b. Also see Fan Ye (398-445), Hou Han shu (Zhonghua shuju, 1965), 76.2861.
(11.) Xiao Tong (501-31), comp. Wen xuan (Taibei: Zhongwen, 1971), 5.75. Translation is from David R. Knechtges, Wen xuan, or Selections of Refined Literature, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), 419. It must be remembered that however admiring this is, the praise is of the type given to animals and fantastic creatures, not to people.
(12.) Wen xuan, 8.134.
(13.) Chen Shou (233-97), Sanguo zhi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 30.854-56. For a translation of this Wei zhi passage, see Robert van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982), 247. For a concise study of the history of tattoo in Japan, see Iizawa Tadasu’s essay, Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan ed. Iizawa Tadasu and Fukudo Katshuiga (Tokyo: Haga shoten, 1973), 155-71, which also mentions (p. 159) the Wei zhi passage. Also see Eiichiro Ishida, Japanese Culture: A Study of Origins and Characteristics (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1974), 43. See Donald Richie and Ian Buruma, The Japanese Tattoo (New York: Weatherhill, 1980), for a concise treatment in English of the Japanese tattooing tradition.
(14.) Li Yanshou (fl. 629), Nan shi (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1975), 79.1975.
(15.) Wei Zheng (580-643) et al., compilers, Sui shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973), 81.1824.
(16.) The Diaoti appeared in the “Wudu fu” passage above. The Diaoti people (or perhaps the practice of tattooing the forehead) are also mentioned in the Chuci poem “Zbao hun” The speaker in that passage wonders why the soul would want to go to an inauspicious place where blackening the teeth, tattooing the forehead, and human sacrifice are practiced. See Chuci buzhu , 9.328. See also Taiping yulan , ed. Li Fang et al. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1992), 790.3501.
(17.) Xin Tang shu, 217B.6147. Also see Xin Tang shu, 222C.6328 for description of other tattooing practices.
(18.) Wen xuan, 51.710.
(19.) Modern-day Sichuan.
(20.) See also Taiping guangji , ed. Li Fang et al. (Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1991), 482.527.
(21.) Ban Gu (32-92), Han shu [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 94A.3772.
(22.) According to Xin Tang shu, 58.1472, there was a book called Xuanzong shilu , and in Tuo Tuo (1313-55) et al., Song shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977), 203.5088, there is a notice of a book called Tang Xuanzong shilu, both in 100 juan. This Tianbao shilu could be a record no longer extant of the Tianbao period (742-56) of Xuanzong’s entire reign (reg. 712-56).
(23.) The Tang country of Rinan was in the northern part of present-day Vietnam.
(24.) The Baimin, or Bomin [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] were a legendary people mentioned in texts such as the Shanhai jing and the Bowuzhi. They had “white” (transparent) bothes and disheveled hair. See, for example, Shanhai jing 7.42a. Imamura Yoshio takes this, however, to mean pingmin [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (also pingding [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or botu [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII], terms used to denote untrained solthers.
(25.) This refers to Tao Hongjing (456-536) of the Liang.
(26.) This refers to Ying Bu (?-196 B.C.). As a youth he was told by a physiognomist that, once punished, he would eventually become king. He was in fact later punished and marked with tattoo, whereupon he fled to the hills to become a bandit. During the chaos at the end of the Qin, he was able to rise to power and eventually, in the Han, was “rehabilitated” and became king of Huainan. See his biography in Shiji, 91.2597-2608.
(27.) This section is not clear, and I am not sure how to translate it.
(28.) It has been speculated that the character often used for tattoo ( wen) in fact originally was a representation of a person with a tattooed chest, and the other meanings of this character were derived from this original meaning. See van Gulik, Irezumi, 5. Also see Jiaguwen bian (Beijing: Zhongguo kexueyuan, 1965), 372-73. This is refuted by Mizukami Shizuo in Kokotsu kinbun jiten (Tokyo: Yuzankaku shuppan, 1995), 590; he says that (wen) was originally a representation of a pattern or decoration on a person’s clothing. For a discussion of the ancient penal use of tattoo (as well as a brief treatment of the etymologies of certain other terms meaning “brand” or “tattoo”) in a study of the inscription on a ninth-century bronze vessel, see Sheng Zhang “Qishan xinchu Ying yi ruogan wenti tansuo,” Wenwu 1976.6: 40-42.
(29.) Xiao jing zhushu (Shisanjing zhushu) (rpt., Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 1.2545.
(30.) For a good, brief discussion of this, see Anders Hansson, Chinese Outcasts (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 22.
(31.) Several examples are to be found in Shang shu zhengyi (Shisanjing zhushu), 3.130, in the “Shun dian,” and in 4.139 in the “Gaoya mo.”
(32.) The dating for this text is not clear, but it was written sometime during the Zhou dynasty.
(33.) Shang shu zhushu (Sbby), 8.9a.
(34.) For further information on corporal punishment and penal tattoo, in particular, see Derk Bodde and Clarence Morris, Law in Imperial China: Exemplified by 190 Ch’ing Dynasty Cases (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), 76, 96-97.
(35.) Following Legge on using “copper.” See James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1865), 604-6.
(36.) See Shangshu zhushu 19.1 5a; Shangshu zhengyi 19.249. This passage is from the “Lu xing” (Punishments of Lu), a text that probably dates from the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.).
(37.) See Shang shu dazhuan, attrib. Fu Sheng (2nd-c. B.C.) (Sbck), 1B.8a-b; also Xunzi jijie, 12.9, where this passage is quoted.
(38.) Han shu, 23.1091-92.
(39.) For example, see Han shu, 23.1097.
(40.) Empress Wu Zetian’s (reg. 684-705) tattooing of the female official Shangguan Wan’er (664-710) is an example of the actual continuation of the practice of tattooing as a form of punishment. See Liu Xu (887-946), comp., Jiu Tang shu , 51.2175, and Xin Tang shu, 76.3488.
(41.) Song shi, 201.5008.
(42.) Song ski, 201.5020. For specific descriptions of tattooing and exiling, see 30.561, 30.576, 33.630, 33.635, 33.742, 34.641, 63.1382, 181.4415, and 201.5016-18.
(43.) Da Yuan sheng zheng chao dianzhang Song fen ski congkan (1917), 45.16b.
(44.) Following the “Maoben” (Mao Jin’s [1599-1659] edition of Youyang zazu [found in the Xuejin taoyuan and Jin-dai mishu collectanea]), rather than the “Zhaoben” (Zhao Qimei’s [1563-1624] edition, found in Sbck), which has “three hundred.” The Zhouli has “five hundred” as welt. See Zhouli zhushu (Shisanjing zhushu), 36.242.
(45.) Following Taiping yulan in reading fang instead of kao . This book is one of the apocryphal texts, and is not extant.
(46.) See also Taiping yulan, 648.2898.
(47.) Shangshu dazhuan, 1B.8a-b. For this quotation, see also Taiping yulan, 648.2898.
(48.) Following Taiping yulan, which has , instead of the Youyang zazu texts which have This tine is difficult to understand. It is possible that the dominance of the fire “element” in the Han is credited with a greater use of tattooing over other cutting punishments, favored in other times.
(49.) This refers to Emperor Wen’s abolition of the corporal punishments of tattoo and slicing off the nose and feet. See Han shu 23.1099.
(50.) Liang chao zalu . Sui shu, 25.697-98 describes a work called the Liang lu , in twenty sections. Perhaps this is the same work. Sui shu, 25.699 says that the character is tattooed on the face in cases of serious crime. Also see Taiping yulan, 648.2898.
(51.) Sanguo zhi, 6.203.
(52.) “Cousin” here is (san zong); he was a relation with the same great-grandfather as Duan Chengshi.
(53.) I am not clear to what place this refers. In Fujian province, Longyan county , there is a Huangkeng mountain . Perhaps this is what is meant. See Imamura Yoshio, Yuyo zasso, 2: 91. However, it is possible that this is simply a local term for a real pit, or a tomb. In this piece, the latter speculation seems to make more sense.
(54.) Fang Rufu (753-94) was the son of the Prime Minister Fang Guan (696-763). See Jiu Tang shu, 111.3325.
(55.) Ms. Cui, the second wife of Fang (Fang had earlier harassed his first wife, nee Zheng, to death), was famous for her cruel and jealous behavior. Fang’s Jiu Tang shu biography mentions her whipping two servant girls to death out of jealousy, and having them buried in the snow. Although Fang, as the Prime Minister’s son, had not been inconvenienced by the death of his first wife, this new scandal caused him to be demoted, and to live separately from his wife.
(56.) For the relevant story about Shangguan Wan’er, the female official who was tattooed by Empress Wu Zetian, see Duan Gonglu, Beihulu (Baibu congshu), 3.13b-14a.
(57.) Jin ling a book in forty juan that is not extant. See Jiu Tang shu, 46.2009.
(58.) Copperas is a green hydrated ferrous sulfate.
(59.) Also see Taiping yulan, 648.2898.
(60.) Sun He (224-53) was the son of Sun Quan (d. 252), first ruler of the state of Wu (Wu Dadi [reg. 222-52]).
(61.) A version of this story also appears in Beihu lu, 3.13b. Also see Taiping guangji, 218.425.
(62.) Kong Pingzhong (fl. 1065), Kong shi tanyuan in Wu Shenglan (jinshi, 1778), ed. Yihai zuchen vol. 2 (Taibei: Yiwen, 1968), 2.13b.
(63.) Iizawa Tadasu suggests that on a battlefield, where bothes are sometimes stripped of all belongings, a tattoo is a very valuable form of identification. See Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan, 160.
(64.) He was one of the sons of Liu Ren’gong. Perhaps Su Xun is confusing the son with the father, since Liu Ren’gong is noted elsewhere as responsible for the reinstitution of tattooing.
(65.) Bing zhi (Changsha: Shangwu, 1939), 5.44-47.
(66.) Sima wengong wenji (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1937), 5.120-21.
(67.) Song shi 193.4806. Also see Shen Defu (1578-1642), Yehuo bian buyi (1869 ed.), 3.4a. This Ming author simply records that Song solthers had their faces tattooed to prevent desertion.
(68.) Zizhi tongjian, (Sbby), 266.14b-15a.
(69.) See Lu You (1125-1210), Lao xue’an biji in Biji xiaoshuo daguan vol. 3 (Taibei: Xinxing, 1974), 1.14b.
(70.) For example, see Chen Fu (1240-1303), An’nan jishi shi (Skqs 2.32a/b. Also see Bi Yuan (1730-97), Xu Zizhi tongjian (Sbby), 86.9a.
(71.) Yehuo bian buyi, 3.2b-3a. Also see 3.4b for more discussion of this practice.
(72.) Bizhou xuan shengyu (Taibei: Guangwen, 1970), 1.43.
(73.) See Song shi, 365.11393 and 380.11708. For another example of the same tattooed oath, see Ming shi, 272.6984.
(74.) This chuanqi drama is attributed to the Ming playwright Zhang Dafu (n.d.). See Du Yingtao, ed., Yue Fei gushi xiqu shuochang ji (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi, 1981), 246-50, esp. p. 249.
(75.) Huang Liuhong (fi. 1874-79), Fuhui quanshu (Baohan Iou 1879), 15.8b-9a.
(76.) Anon. (Yuan), Xinbian Wudai shi pinghua (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1926), 1.4.
(77.) Jiu Wudai shi 99.1321-41. Presumably this statement is meant to counter popular opinion to the contrary.
(78.) Shuihu zhuan (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1932), 2.28. Perhaps the tattoo gave him a kind of spiritual strength, which completed the physical martial arts training received by the youth. For another description of Shi Jin’s tattoos, see Shuihu zhuan, 2.25.
(79.) Ibid., 74.90.
(80.) Ibid., 81.7. It has been suggested elsewhere that the popularity of and fascination for figurative tattoo amongst certain social groups in Japan is a cultural phenomenon that has prevailed since the seventeenth or eighteenth century, as a direct result of the popularity of this novel in Japan. In particular, the responsibility lies with the famous woodblock-print artist Hokusai (1760-1849) and his pupils. They to a large extent created the visual images associated with the novel in Japan, which were later imported back to China. These artists portrayed as tattooed more heroes than those originally described as such in the novel; the gorgeous full-color illustrations in Japanese editions helped to fuel a tattoo craze in Japan. For a fascinating discussion of the influence of Shuihu zhuan on tattoo culture in Japan, see Robert van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan, 44-52. Also see Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan, 162. The Ming dynasty bibliophile Hu Yinglin also mentions the tattooed her oes of Shuihu zhuan, saying “while the work is not reliable history, at least it can prove that at the time the custom was practiced.” See Hu Yinglin Shaoshi shanfang bicong 20.7a.
(81.) For more examples of literary descriptions of hulking, brave tattooed men or tattooed scofflaws, see Meng Yuanlao (fl. 1126-47), Dongjing menghua lu (Xuejin taoyuan), 7.12a. Also see Shi Hui (Yuan), Yougui ji (Xiyong xuan congshu), l.23a; and Anon. (Yuan), Xuanhe yishi (Sbby), A.22b.
(82.) Note particularly that Duan does not only describe figurative tattoo in southern localities. The capital cities of the north had their own tattoo culture, we learn.
(83.) Or, “gather in wineshops because of the snakes” (in the wine, for example), or, “carrying snakes into wineshops.”
(84.) Following the Taiping guangji, which says .
(85.) In present-day Shaanxi province.
(86.) Following Taiping guangji: .
(87.) . This may be a pun on , which means to laugh or sneer at. Other compounds with mean muddled, or confused. So here, “spirit of the gourd” could mean something like “sneering spirit,” or “muddled spirit.” Also see Taiping guangji, 263.4.
(88.) For Li’s biography, see Xin Tang shu, 131.4509-11.
(89.) Following Taiping guangji: .
(90.) Immamura Yoshio suggests that Duan Chengshi was poking fun at Zhao here, hinting at the irony in the picture of a man begging for money to restore the efficacy of a money-making tattoo (since Vaisravana is the god of wealth). See Immamura Yoshio, 2: 84. Duan might just be interested in the perceived sacred character of the tattoo’s image, the restoration of which might earn contributors the same kind of merit as the restoration of a sacred building. Also see Taiping guangji, 264.6.
(91.) Xiaojiang . I am not sure how to translate this term.
(92.) A Tang scholar-official, who, for a time, was a Hanlin academician. Wei Biaowei’s son, Wei Shan (fi. 860), was a friend of Duan Chengshi, and Duan might have heard this information from Shan. For Wei Biaowei’s biography, see Xin Tang shu, 177.5274-75, and Jiu Tang shu, 189 B.4979.
(93.) Zhang, Duke of Yan , is the famous poet and official Zhang Yue (667-731).
(94.) I cannot find this line in Zhang’s poems included in Quan Tang shi.
(95.) See Taiping guangji, 264.6.
(96.) This line is a slight misquote of a line from a poem by Yuan Zhen , a friend of Bai Juyi’s. The original reads: “It is not that, of the flowers, I love only the chrysanthemums.” See the poem “Chrysanthemum,” in Yuan shi Changqing ji (Sbby), 16.lb. Bai Juyi possibly referred to chanting Yuan’s “Chrysanthemum” poem in his piece entitled “Jinzhong jiuri dui ju hua yi yuan jiu”; see Bai Xiangshan ji (Beijing: Wenxue guji kanxing she, 1954), 13.68.
(97.) This is a line from Bai Juyi’s poem entitled “Fan Tai hu shushi ji wei zhi,” Bai Xiangshan ji, 54.66.
(98.) Also see Taiping guangji, 264.7.
(99.) I emend (stone parasol) to (stone step), though a stone parasol is not entirely inconceivable.
(100.) I am not sure how to translate this difficult passage. Here I emend sa (to drag the feet, sandal) to ji (book box, basket). An alternate rendering is, “he was able to carry a stone step and drag six hundred catties of stones behind his feet.”
(101.) They are (Dhrtarastra) (Virudhaka), (Virupaksa) and (Dhanada, or Vaisravana).
(102.) Probably Qianzhou in Sichuan.
(103.) Hyperbole for a large quantity, not a literal “gallon.”
(104.) Or “try to implore him to stop it.”
(105.) See also Taiping guangji 286.151.
(106.) The Nanzhao invasion of Shu lasted five years, starting in 829. Duan Chengshi’s friend and mentor Li Deyu took over the reconstruction and repair of the pass in 832. See Zizhi tongjian, 244.1679.
(107.) Also see Taiping guangji, 122.674.
(108.) He took this position in 835 and was demoted only two months later to the position of Revenue Manager of Qianzhou , where he thed shortly thereafter. See his biography in Jiu Tang shu,.176.4561-63, and Xin Tang shu, 175.5247-49. The reasons for his demotion were apparently unrelated to the incident described here.
(109.) Following Taiping guangji:
(110.) See also Taiping guangji, 264.6-7.
(111.) See also Taiping guangji, 263.5.
(112.) This is an abbreviation for Mahasanghikavinaya, translated into Chinese by Faxian (fl. 399-416) in forty Juan).
(113.) Reading (scar) for (coiled).
(114.) I have seen no such paintings or other visual representations; this is not to say that they do not exist, of course.




and its acceptability in the Asian society: a case of tattoos and body piercings...

Creating Freehand Tattoo Art_The Tattoo Concierge_For Those Defining Body Art Culture_Large Slider Screen Shot


Radical body modification in the form of tattooing and body piercings has experienced expanded expression, appropriation and visibility within the last several decades and has become a part of everyday life for large sections of the population. Most scholarly interest has documented the perceptual trajectories of these practices across a wide range of societal context across time. Nonetheless, observations show that most of these stuthes were conducted in the American and European context and a scarcity of perceptual insights on this phenomenon remains in the Asian context. Contemporary perceptions on individuals who obtain tattoos and body piercings are examined among a sample of individuals in a multi-racial Asian country – Malaysia. The present study is exploratory in nature and adopts a qualitative approach using in-depth interviews. Overall, evidence suggests that the society perceives tattooing and body piercing practices as a form of art, spirituality, immortalizing significant moment memories, self-expression and representation of the dark. Nonetheless, a degree of uncomfortableness exists among most individuals in the current study when being around with individuals with tattoos and body piercing. Further, employment opportunities are also perceived to be negatively affected. Implications and recommendations from the research findings are also presented.


1. Introduction

The act of body modification, such as tattooing and body piercing (Featherstone, 1999), has had a long history across various cultures, including Asia, Africa, America, Europe and Oceania (Caplan, 2000; DeMello, 1995; Dorfer & Moser, 1998; Rubin, 1988). These practices have been documented in nearly every culture and were evidently used to communicate a number of messages, including group identity, religious commitment and individuality (Armstrong, Owen, Roberts & Koch, 2002). The work of Wohlrab, Stahl & Kappeler (2007) suggests that piercings were often used in initiation rites, assigning their bearer to a certain social or age group (Gritton, 1988; Jonaitis, 1988) while the use of tattoos represented a signal to religious affiliations, strength or social status (Gathercole, 1988; Gilbert, 2001; Schildkrout, 2004).
Contemporary perceptions about individuals who have tattoos and piercings abound in the literature (Greif, Hewitt & Armstrong, 1999). More specifically, many stereotypes and judgments remain surrounding these two forms of body modification. Recent stuthes in the Western context have suggests that social leaders are continuing to associate the practice of piercing and tattooing with rebellious, criminals and sociopaths while other members in the society perceive such practices as a form of fashion statement (DeMello, 1993; Firmin, Tse, Foster & Angelini, 2008), as seen among popular models and celebrities (Brown, Perlmutter & McDermott, 2000).
These modern-day findings, however, are often confined to understandings from the American and European contexts. In particular, while the body of literature has expanded to provide a better understanding on the trajectories of societal perceptions and motivations towards tattooing and body piercing in Western civilizations, there seems to be a lack of understanding on the perceptual changes of these body modifications in the other parts of the world.
The present study attempts to fill in this gap. In particular, this study explores the contemporary societal perceptions of tattoo and body piercing and its acceptability in an Asian country – Malaysia. While a number of investigation strategies were plausible, Firmin, Tse, Foster and Angelini (2008) and Maxwell (2005) argues that qualitative research is often the method of choice when exploring terrain where relatively few stuthes previously have been conducted. A qualitative approach is, therefore, employed through the use of in-depth interviews to investigate the current research phenomenon. The outcome of this study will shed some insights on the modern-day perceptions of tattoo and body piercing and its acceptability from an Asian point of view.

2. Research Methods

The current study attempts to find out the perceptions and acceptance of the society in contemporary times towards the practices of tattooing and body piercing in an Asian context. The study has an exploratory nature. A qualitative approach is employed through the use of in-depth interviews. The sample is selected through mall-intercept systematic sampling at a conveniently selected shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The sample consists of twelve individuals – age eighteen to forty-six; five males seven females; five Malays, five Chinese and two Indians; non-tattooed and moderate piercing (i.e. one or two on each side for females). Responses were audio recorded and transcribed in a verbatim manner. Initial transcripts were sent back to research participants for verification and initial findings were discussed with scholars in the field of consumer behaviour and social sciences. The final findings are presented in the following section.

3. Results

Seven themes emerged from the data collected. Five themes relate to contemporary societal perceptions about body modification practices in terms of tattooing and body piercing. These included tattoo art, spirituality, immortalizing significant moment memories, self-expression and representation of the dark. On the other hand, two themes that emerged relates to the societal acceptance of individuals with tattoos and body piercing. These included degree of comfort around individuals with tattoos and body piercing and perceive employment opportunities. The themes are discussed below with illustrative support, supplying voice to various individuals in our sample.

3.1 Contemporary Societal Perceptions on Tattooing and Body Piercing

Art: From the interviews, a common theme was observed from some the responses of research participants – tattoo and body piercing are an art. To these individuals, tattooing usually involves some kind of design while body piercing involves the use of fashion accessories, in which both practices of body modification portrays a sense of artistic beauty to individuals who know how to appreciate such art.
“When you look at tattoos, it usually has some kind of design, whether it’s a good design like an angel or a bad design like skulls or devils, or even if it’s just words, it’s not really plain as it’s drawn or written with some kind of style.”
“Body piercing can be anywhere, from the ears, to the nose, lips and belly button, which is often accompanied by some kind of fashion accessory. I guess its a way of making themselves look good by applying some individual artistic talent on the self. ”
Spirituality: Spirituality was uncovered as one motivation on societal views for body medication practices such as tattooing and body piercing. Although they recognize that some individuals may pierce their bothes for reasons of spirituality, these perceptions were confined to those individuals who were older as the younger individuals in the current study did not see their peers tattooing and body piercing for the purposes of spirituality.
“Spirituality could be one of the reasons as it brings people closer to God and his teachings. Some disciples of some religions may tattoo the chanting on their backs for beliefs of mystical powers and protection whereas others may tattoo it as a religious symbol on their bothes. ”
“I often hear people tattooing for spirituality reasons but I guess that’s the older generation. The younger generations aren’t that religious anymore and you will see that most of their tattoos are to express their love to their partners or simply being artistic in nature, such as dragon and tiger tattoos or piercings on the lips and belly buttons for fashion purposes. ”
Immortalizing Significant Moment Memories: To some individuals, tattoo and body piercing represents a way to immortalize significant moment memories. These memories are usually those which represent some significant events, happenings or milestones in the timeline of the individual.
“Some of my friends have tattoos and piercings, and especially for tattoos, they tend to make new ones when something comes up in their life, such as marriage, a new born child and other milestones in life. So I guess these body modifications could represent the changes in their life and help them to recall significant happenings and immortalize memories. ”
Self-expression: Although all individuals in the current study do not have any tattoos and have moderate piercings on the ears, some individuals viewed that the practice of tattooing and body piercing is a form of self-expression. It was argued that such body modification practices enable some individuals to create a special and unique identity that is distinctive from others as they believe that it would be extremely rare to see two individuals will have the same combination of tattooing designs and body piercing accessories.
“I guess its a way of self-expression. In a way, they can “customize” themselves to the form they want others to see them as.”
“My friend once told me that he expresses himself through his tattoos such as creating new tattoos which symbolizes his love to his girlfriend. ”
Representation of the dark: Practices of tattooing and body piercing, however, are not viewed entirely in a positive light. A large majority of respondents understood that while such practices of modification may be a representation of art, for spirituality purposes, as a way of immortalizing significant moment memories and as a way of self-expression, a trend of associating individuals with tattoos and body piercings with someone who is bad, such as triad gangsters and criminals, was visible in most interview responses.
“Even though not all individuals with tattoos and body piercing are bad people, but overall, I guess there’s a negative perception on such individuals. I personally feel that individuals with tattoos and excessive body piercings are usually those who have a history with triad gangsters or may have been criminals or prisoners before.”
“It’s usually on those people who are bad, like gangsters and criminals. We don’t see such practices among our leaders in society, don’t we?”

3.2 Societal Acceptance of Individuals with Tattoos and Body Piercings

Degree of Comfort: Generally, most individuals expressed that they are uncomfortable with individuals with tattoos and body piercings. While some said they would not mind hanging out with these individuals as they could understand the purposes of such body modification practices, others argue that they dislike the negative associations when they are spotted handing around with individuals with tattoos and body piercings, especially those with extravagant body modifications.
“When I have to hang out with excessively tattooed and body pierced friends, I will feel uncomfortable. People around me will put their eyes on me and they will start to judge me as bad person. Same goes when I walk beside him or her Moreover-, I am afraid that I will meet one of my family members. They are afraid that I will be influenced by him or her because my family still thinks that those with tattoos and piercings are bad people”.
Perceive Employment Opportunities: The issue of employment for those with noticeable tattoo and body piercing was raised in the interviews of the current study. From the responses obtained on the societal perception and acceptability of individuals with tattoos and body piercings, it was found that a negative perception on body modification practices was prevalent and this was perceived to largely affect these individuals when they interact with others in the society, particularly when applying for a job. In particular, individuals in the current study were asked on their willingness to hire individuals with tattoo and body piercings. Results indicate that all respondents chose to hire applicants with no tattoos and body piercings (except for moderate piercings on the ears for female applicants).
“I will not hire applicant with tattoo and body piercing. It will affect the customers and the company, especially when they are required to market a product. Generally, people with tattoo and body piercing are viewed negatively by society”

4. Implications and Recommendations

In the last decade, tattoo and body piercing have increased tremendously in popularity, rising not only in numbers but also involving a broader range of social classes (DeMello, 2000). For some individuals, tattoos and body piercings are nothing more than fashion accessories (Turner, 1999). For other individuals, however, such practices of body modifications are perceived as negative and unsavory.
Tattoo and body piercing was first practiced as a form of cultural expression (DeMello, 2000). Individuals included tattoos and piercings to indicate their social standing, to identify themselves, and to express their religious or spiritual views. The findings of this study further adds support as individuals perceive practices of tattooing and body piercing as a spiritual practice. However in today’s modern society, tattoo and body piercing is no longer confined as a cultural expression and may not be applicable to the younger generation. Instead, some individuals perceive tattoo and body piercing as an art. There is no doubt that the number of individuals with tattoos and body piercings have increased tremendously in contemporary times, especially as its services are more accessible in the marketplace (Newman, 2006). Findings in this study further indicate that the contemporary society view tattooing and body piercings as a as a way for individuals to express themselves. This is in line with the work of Atkinson and Young (2001) who found that individuals feel that tattoos and body piercings are a permanent way to express their individuality and as an avenue to create and maintain self-identity, being special and distinctive from others. Some individuals were also found with a desire to show the world that they are rebellious, able to make important decisions, not control by their parents or anyone else, and that they are able to take the pain of receiving tattoo and piercing (Flaherty, 2005). Further, some individuals are reported to make tattoos so that they will be able to reflect back on a certain time of their life that was important or special to them.
Despite some awareness on the reasons for tattooing and body piercing practices, results show that individuals with tattoos and piercings may not be acceptable to the society at large. In particular, societal perceptions that body modification practices of tattooing and body piercing is a representation of the dark exist. It is because of such perceptions that some individuals are not comfortable being around with those who have tattoos and body piercings due to dislikes of being attached with the negative perceptions of being associated with individuals with such body modifications. Further, existing research has also found that individuals with tattoo and body piercing are often covering their noticeable tattoos or piercings when interacting with others who are skeptical perceptions. In society, especially among the older generation, individuals with noticeable tattoos or body piercings are often judged as deviant or those living outside of society, whereby these individuals may be associated as being members of triad gangsters, criminals or prisoners (Koch, Roberts, Armstrong & Owen, 2010; Lichtenstein, 2007). Moreover, parents or guardians tend to protect their child to avoid making friends with those who are tattooed and body pierced because these body modification practices are often connected as indicators of societal problems and risk-taking behavior (Carroll, Riffenburgh, Roberts & Myhre, 2002). Besides that, the presence of tattoo and body piercing may significantly influence on employment opportunities. As individuals with excessive tattoo and body piercing are judged negatively, the society and employers may have pre-conceived negative evaluations on such individuals. Thus, when it comes to employment, individuals with excessive body modification may face more difficulty to secure a job as compared to individuals without body modifications. Notably, individuals in the current study further indicate a preference to hire applicants with no tattoos and body piercings. In the work of Bekhor, Bekhor and Gandrabur (1995) it was found that the number of individuals requesting of tattoos and body piercing removal is on an increasing trend, in which the reason revealed behind their removal was in order to obtain employment. For this reason, it could be shown that the presence of visible tattoos and body piercings militated against the employment of job seekers.
From the findings of the current study, it is arguable that body modification practices of tattooing and body piercing remains less acceptable among individuals in an Asian society. A high degree of stereotyping and negative pre-conceived evaluations of individuals with tattoos and body piercing may exist among Asian individuals. To avoid being associate with negative evaluations, it is recommended that excessive tattooing and body piercing should be avoided as it will cause others in the society to feel uncomfortable and insecure with such presence. More importantly, it is important that social marketers and educationists inform and educate the society on the consequences of body modification practices of tattooing and body piercing, including potential negative evaluation of others in the society, influence on employment opportunities, and the difficulty of future removal and recovery. In events where individuals want to remove tattoos, there is some light afforded through technology advance. In particular, the development of pulsed lasers, such as the Q-switch Nd: YAG and Q-switched Ruby, has made it possible to remove or significantly fade tattoos without residual scarring (Kilmer & Anderson, 1993).

5. Conclusions, Limitations and Future Research Directions

This study has, hopefully, provided some exploratory insights on the contemporary societal perceptions of tattoo and body piercing and its acceptability in an Asian context. The study concludes that the society may perceive tattooing and body piercing practices as a form of art, spirituality, immortalizing significant moment memories, self-expression and representation of the dark. However, the society may have a degree of uncomfortableness when being amongst individuals with tattoos and body piercings. Employment opportunities are also found to have a potential to be negatively affected. Recommendations from the research findings were also afforded, including a need to avoid having excessive tattooing and body piercing; the need to inform and educate the society on the consequences of body modification practices of tattooing and body piercing; and the technological advancement opportunities afforded to remove or significantly fade tattoos without residual scarring. Nonetheless, this study is limited in generalizability due to its small sample size. The integrity of the research results, however, can be uphold as the study is the first of its kind in providing some exploratory insights into the current societal perceptions of tattoo and body piercing and its acceptability in an Asian context. Future stuthes are encouraged to include a larger sample and expand its scope to include a cross-cultural comparison. Further, the insights from this study represent the responses from a third party view – none of the research participants had tattoos or body piercings (except on the ears for females). It will be potentially fruitful to gain some firsthand insights on the investigated phenomenon among individuals who actually have tattoos and body piercings and look at the responses from their point of view.



Armstrong, M. L., Owen, D. C., Roberts, A. E., & Koch, J. R. (2002). College students and tattoos: influence of image, identity, family and friends. Journal of Psychological Nursing, 40, 21-29.

Atkinson, M., & Young, K. (2001). Flesh journey: Neo primitives and the contemporary rediscovery of radical body modification. Deviant Behavior, 22, 117-146.

Bekhor, P. S., Bekhor, L., & Gandrabur, M. (1995). Employer attitudes toward persons with visible tattoos. Australasian journal of Dermatology, 362, 75-77.

Brown, K., Perlmutter, P., & McDermott, R. (2000). Youth and tattoos: What school health personnel should know. Psychology and Behavioural Sciences Collection, 70, 355-360.

Caplan, J. (2000). Written on the body: the tattoo in European and American history. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Carroll, S. T., Riffenburgh, R. H., Roberts, T. A., & Myhre, E. B. (2002). Tattoos and Body Piercings as Indicators of Adolescent Risk-Taking Behaviors. Pediatrics, 1096, 1021-1027.

DeMello, M. (1993). Convict body: tattooing among male American prisoners. Anthropology Today, 9, 10-13.

DeMello, M. (1995). Not just for bikers anymore: popular representations of American tattooing. Journal of Popular Culture, 29, 37-52.

DeMello, M. (2000). Bothes of inscription: a cultural history of the modern tattoo community. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dorfer, L., & Moser, M. (1998). 5200-year-old acupuncture in central Europe? Science, 282, 239.

Featherstone, M. (1999). Body modification: An introduction. Body and Society, 5, 1-13.

Firmin, M. W., Tse, L. M., Foster, J., & Angelini, T. (2008). Christian student perceptions of body tattoos: a qualitative analysis. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 273, 195-204.

Flaherty, P. (2005). Think b-4 you ink: things to consider when your child wants to get a permanent tattoo. United States of America: Teckni-Corp.

Gathercole, P. (1988). Contexts of maori moko. In A. Rubin (Ed.), Marks of civilization (pp. 171-179). Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.

Gilbert, S. (2001). Tattoo history: A source book. Juno books.

Greif, J., Hewitt, W., & Armstrong, M. L. (1999). Tattooing and body piercing: body art practices among college students. Clinical Nursing Research, 8, 368-385.

Gritton, J. (1988). Labrets and tattooing in native Alaska. In A. Rubin (Ed.), Marks of civilization (pp. 181-191). Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.

Jonaitis, A. (1988). Women, marriage, mouths and feasting: the symbolism of Tlingit. In A. Rubin (Ed.), Marks of civilization (pp. 191-207). Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.

Kilmer, S. L., & Anderson R. R. (1993). Clinical use of the Q-switched and the Q-switched Nd: YAG 1064 nm and 532 nm lasers for treatment of tattoos. The Journal of Dermatologic Surgery & Oncology, 194, 530-538.

Koch, J. R., Roberts, A. E., Armstrong, M. L., & Owen, D. C. (2010). Body art, deviance, and American college students. The Social Science Journal, 471, 151-161.

Lichtenstein, A. (2007). Texas prison tattoos. Retrieved March 25, 2012,

Lim, W. M., Ting, D. H., Leo, E., & Jayanthy, C. (2012). Body modifications: are tattooing and body piercing acceptable in contemporary Asian society? International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 2012, 25-28 June 2012, Barcelona, Spain.

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, C.A.: Sage Publications.

Newman, L. (2006). The beat: tattoos and body piercing. Spring, 141, 1-3.

Rubin, A. (1988). Marks of civilization. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History.

Schildkrout, E. (2004). Inscribing the body. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 319-344.

Turner, B. S. (1999). The possibilities of primitiveness: towards sociology of body marks in cool societies. Body and Society, 5, 39-50.

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image, 4, 87-95.


Copyright for this article is retained by the author(s), with first publication rights granted to the journal.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution license

Weng Marc Lim1, Ding Hooi Ting1, Elvis Leo1 & Cassandra Jayanthy1

1 School of Business, Monash University, Australia

Received: April 2, 2013 Accepted: May 15, 2013 Online Published: August 1, 2013




first amendment trumps municipal ban...

Preserving Access To Tattoos | Free Speech Under First Amendment Rights And American Court Cases | Body Art Discussions | Tattoo Concierge Global Platform | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists' Choice


In the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach,1 the court held that a municipal ban on tattoo parlors violates the First Amendment. Particularly, the Ninth Circuit diverged from the rulings of other jurisdictions to conclude that the business, process, and nature of tattooing are purely expressive activities entitled to robust First Amendment protection. After more than thirty years of courts getting it wrong, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion correctly reevaluates the purely expressive nature of tattooing to conclude that tattoos are protected speech. Nevertheless, while the Ninth Circuit’s decision aptly interpreted First Amendment protection and precedent, it went too far when it invalidated the Hermosa Beach ban as an unreasonable time, place, or manner restriction.
Parts II and III of this Note examine relevant First Amendment jurisprudence as well as the history and nature of tattoos generally. Part IV of this Note addresses the Ninth Circuit’s analysis in Anderson. Part V analyzes the Anderson decision in light of existing case law and Supreme Court precedent, concluding that while the court’s analysis of the tattooing process and business as “purely expressive” speech is correct, it erred in concluding that the Hermosa Beach ban is an unreasonable time, place, or manner restriction. Part VI offers a brief conclusion.


Plaintiff” Johnny Anderson ran Yer Cheat’n Heart tattoo parlor in Redondo Beach, within the City of Los Angeles. He wanted to open another parlor in the City of Hermosa Beach.2 Hermosa Beach lies within the County of Los Angeles, and while the City of Los Angeles generally permits tattoo establishments, Hermosa Beach does not.3 Hermosa Beach Municipal Code § 17.06.070 states: “Except as provided in this title, no building shall be erected, reconstructed or structurally altered, nor shall any building or land be used for any purpose except as hereinafter specifically provided . . . .”4 The Code subsequently permits several kinds of businesses, such as restaurants, bars, and gun shops, but no provision in the zoning code allows tattoo parlors.5
In August 2006, Anderson filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that § 17.06.070 was unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.6 The Central District of California dismissed Anderson’s suit, alleging that it was not ripe for review because he had not yet asked for permission to open a tattoo parlor.7 Thereafter, Anderson requested to open a tattoo establishment within Hermosa Beach under the city code’s provision allowing establishments not specifically listed in the statute to operate if the business could be classified as a “similar use.”8 Anderson’s request was denied by the city’s Community Development Director, and in 2007 he reinitiated his action in federal court to strike down the city’s ordinance.9


Upon filing the case in district court, both parties moved for summary judgment.10 The district court granted Hermosa Beach’s motion and denied Anderson’s, holding that “the act of tattooing” is not protected expression under the First Amendment because, although it is non-verbal conduct expressive of an idea, it is not ‘sufficiently imbued with the elements of communication'”11 that are required to receive First Amendment protection under Spence v. Washington}2 Because the court did not consider tattooing protected speech, mere rational basis review was required in order to uphold Hermosa Beach’s ordinance.13 As such, in light of the “health risks inherent in operating tattoo parlors,”14 Hermosa Beach possessed a rational basis for excluding tattoo parlors, and thus the ordinance stood. Anderson appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.15




The First Amendment, as incorporated and applied against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits government restrictions on free speech.16 However, within this broad rule rest several exceptions. Indeed, depending on the type of speech, First Amendment protection may or may not apply. In the broad continuum of speech, “pure” speech involves actual expressive activity, such as writing a book or giving a public oration.17 Pure speech is afforded the most protection under the Constitution. Additionally, conduct that is not “pure” speech but has a communicative aspect, such as burning a draft card, wearing an armband, or distorting the American flag, generally also receives some First Amendment protection.18
Nevertheless, even if speech is considered purely expressive in itself, as opposed to conduct that communicates, such a finding does not give the person a free pass to “speak” in all circumstances. For instance, a city or jurisdiction may be able to regulate the time, place, or manner of the speech, provided such a regulation is (1) content- neutral, (2) in furtherance of a significant government interest, (3) narrowly tailored, and (4) leaves open alternative channels of communication of the information.19 Expressive conduct may also be regulated under the test promulgated in United States v. O’Brien20 which permits narrowly tailored regulation in light of an “important or substantial government interest” that is unrelated to the suppression of speech.21

While both pure speech and expressive conduct are considered sacred under the First Amendment,22 and are at least presumptively protected subject to the various tests listed above, other forms of speech are not afforded similar protection. For instance, conduct that is not “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication,”23 or in other words, conduct that does not obviously communicate an idea, is not similarly exempted. Likewise, conduct that may have certain harmful effects may be regulated even if the conduct is obviously communicative in nature. For example, adult movie theaters24 and nude dancing25 are considered “communicative” in nature but can still be constitutionally regulated and banned in a number of areas.


A tattoo is an image or word engrafted onto a person’s body. Often termed “body art,” tattoos were first used as early as 5000 years ago.26 Later, tattoos became associated with two societal groups: prisoners and members of the armed forces.27 Now, tattoos have gained significant popularity with teenagers, celebrities, and other broad groups within society. Indeed, in 1982 the Governor’s Office of California issued a proclamation stating that “a tattoo is primal parent of the visual arts …. It has reemerged as a fine art attracting highly skilled and trained practitioners. Current creative approaches . . . [infuse] this traditional discipline with new vigor and meaning.”28 Most courts today recognize that a tattoo itself is considered to be “pure” First Amendment speech.29
A tattoo is created through a surgical process by which dye is injected “into the recipient’s skin by the use of needles or machines.”30 Generally, an electronic tattoo machine is used to create the tattoo, which commands a needle to puncture the skin.31 Ink is injected into the second layer of skin, and the result is “essentially an open wound.”32 Because the process involves puncturing skin and interaction with blood, there is a risk of transmission of disease.33 As such, certain risks include infection, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, and HIV.34 To guard against the spread of disease, many states and cities have passed regulations to monitor tattoo parlors and ensure that proper instruments and cleaning measures are being employed.35
Of course, behind the tattoo is the tattoo artist. Tattoo artists learn the trade through apprenticeships that allow them to learn the art and work the machines. Tattoo artists typically work either in a “tattoo parlor” or a “tattoo art studio.”36 A tattoo is ultimately created through collaboration between the recipient and the tattoo artist.37 Tattoo artists have been compared to painters, sculptors, and other artists who are commissioned to produce a piece of art in exchange for money.38


Anderson is not the first case to raise the issue of tattoo parlors and First Amendment jurisprudence. In fact, several courts have already encountered the issue, in most cases finding that tattoo parlors are generally not protected forms of speech under the First Amendment.
Thirty years ago, in the seminal case of Yurkew v. Sinclair39 a Minnesota court considered whether the Minnesota State Fair Board of Managers could refuse to rent space to a tattooist.40 The board denied the rental space because of health and safety concerns implicated in the tattooing process.41 The tattooist sued the Minnesota State Fair, arguing that tattooing is protected First Amendment speech and that the restriction was a prior restraint.42 The Minnesota court initially concluded that the process of tattooing was expressive conduct rather than pure speech, and thus the main question to decide was “whether the actual process of tattooing, as opposed to the image conveyed by the tattoo itself, is sufficiently imbued with elements of communication” as required under the Spence test.43 The court ultimately found that the tattooing process is not communicative in nature and thus does not implicate the First Amendment.44
In so holding, the Yurkew court stated that the tattooist made “no showing that the normal observer or even the recipient would regard the process of injecting dye into a person’s skin through the use of needles as communicative.”45 Under the Spence test, communicative activity requires “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message,”46 and that the circumstances surrounding the conduct would likely provide “that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.”47 Because the surgical process does not, in itself, communicate a message that the average observer could interpret, the Minnesota district court rejected the tattooist’s argument.48
More recently, in 2008, a U.S. district court in Illinois encountered a similar question concerning a city’s denial of a tattoo shop’s request for a special use permit. In Hold Fast Tattoo, LLC v. City of North Chicago49 a tattoo shop claimed that the denial of the permit violated the First Amendment.50 Taking a page from Turkew, the court presumed that the process of tattooing was expressive conduct, as opposed to pure speech, because “the act itself is not intended to convey a particularized message.”51 Specifically, the court compared the tattoo artist to a sound truck vehicle, in which the vehicle allows a person to convey a message, but the truck itself is not expressive.52 In sum, the court found that tattooing is not protected speech under the First Amendment.53
Consistent with Turkew and Hold Fast Tattoo, several other courts have also found that tattooing is not protected under the First Amendment. In Kennedy v. Hughes,54 the Delaware district court concluded that operating a tattoo parlor does not involve a “fundamental” right.55 In People v. O’Sullivan36 the Supreme Court of New York perfunctorily held that even if tattooing constituted pure speech or symbolic speech, it may be subject to “reasonable regulation in the public interest and [the] right to engage in tattooing is not paramount to the public’s right to good health.”57 These decisions set the backdrop for the Ninth Circuit’s encounter with Anderson and his tattoo parlor request.


In Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, the Ninth Circuit found the provision banning tattoo parlors within the city in Hermosa Beach’s Municipal Code § 17.06.070 facially unconstitutional.58 Significantly, the court concluded that because tattooing is purely expressive activity, not expressive conduct, there is no need to determine whether tattooing is “sufficiently imbued” with communicative aspects as required under the Spence test.59 Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit determined that an absolute ban on tattoo parlors is not a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction.60


The Ninth Circuit’s analysis proceeded by rejecting the underlying premise that had previously propelled the long line of tattoo decisions. The court found that, as opposed to symbolic conduct, such as burning a draft card, “tattooing is more akin to traditional modes of expression (like writing).”61 Therefore, the “sufficiently imbued” test is inapplicable because tattooing is purely expressive speech.
The Ninth Circuit engaged in a three-step approach to determine that the tattooing process is protected pure speech. The reasoning went as follows: (1) tattoos are expressive, protected speech; (2) speech includes the process of creating that speech; and therefore, (3) the process of tattooing is necessarily protected speech.
First, the Ninth Circuit found that there is “little dispute” that tattoos are considered expressive speech.62 The United States Supreme Court has found various forms of entertainment to be expressive activities, including dance, parades, movies, and music.63 Because tattoos consist of images, symbols, and words,64 there is little difference between a tattoo and a painting.65 The Ninth Circuit further explained that there is no difference between injecting dye onto a piece of paper as opposed to in a person’s skin.66 Therefore, because paintings and other forms of communication are protected, tattoos should be protected as well.67
Second, when speech is protected, the medium of the speech is likewise protected. Because “the process of expression through a medium has never been thought so distinct from the expression itself,”68 it would be contradictory to separate the process of creating the expression, such as a printing press or artist brushes, from the expression. Therefore, because the process of tattooing as performed in a tattoo parlor constitutes the medium of expression, it is protected under the broad umbrella of protected speech that accompanies a tattoo.


Next, the court found that an absolute ban on tattoo parlors in a city is not a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction.69 Even if speech is protected, cities may limit the speech in their own legitimate interests.70 However, the restriction must: (1) be content neutral, (2) be narrowly tailored, and (3) leave open alternative channels of communication.71
Here, the Ninth Circuit found that an absolute ban of all tattoo parlors in Hermosa Beach was not narrowly tailored and did not leave open alternative channels of communication.72 While the city argued that the absolute ban was narrowly tailored – as Los Angeles County lacks the resources to monitor the hundreds of tattooists working there – the court rejected this reasoning by stating that the city cannot use its own refusal to allocate resources as a means to create a broad-based prohibition.73 Similarly, the court found that alternative channels of communication are not available if tattoo establishments are prohibited because a tattoo is a unique form of communication that “often carries a message quite distinct from displaying the same words or picture through some other medium.”74 The court focused on the increasing popularity of tattoos, citing a 2006 survey stating that 36% of people from ages eighteen to twenty-five have tattoos, and 40% of people from ages twenty-six to forty have tattoos.75 These numbers suggest that tattoos are becoming an increasingly important and distinct form of communication.76 For these reasons, the court found that the ban on Hermosa Beach tattoo parlors was not a reasonable restriction.77


In light of prior decisions on the issue of tattoos and free speech, the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Anderson raises some interesting questions. Jesse Choper, an expert on the First Amendment and a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, commented that the Nindi Circuit’s opinion in Anderson constituted a “clear, uncontroversial application of the First Amendment.”78 However, while Choper believes that Anderson was a “pretty straightforward case,”79 it is hard to comprehend how, if he is correct, nearly every other court confronting the issue in the past thirty years got it wrong.80 Indeed, this warrants further analysis into the Ninth Circuit’s underlying premise and its inquiry into the art of tattooing and free speech generally. Under this analysis, the Anderson court correctly decided that tattooing should be considered purely expressive First Amendment activity but erred in concluding that the ban was not a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction.


After more than thirty years of conflicting decisions, the Ninth Circuit finally turned the tide of tattoo jurisprudence by holding that tattoos constitute a protected form of pure speech. Surprisingly, just two years ago, a U.S. district court in Illinois concluded that tattoos are not protected speech.81 This departure is significant, raising the intriguing question: What has changed?
The answer: not much. The Ninth Circuit simply questioned the underlying premise that several courts merely assumed was true – that the tattooing process is distinct from the tattoo. Certainly this distinction makes little sense. Courts have not separated the act of painting from the finished product, or a printing press from the newspaper product. The Supreme Court, in Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue*2 declined to make such a distinction when it held that a tax on newspaper ink may improperly burden the dissemination of the newspaper.83 However, the previous tattoo- ban cases have deliberately segregated the act of tattooing from the tattoo itself.
Perhaps one explanation for the shortcomings of other courts is the emphasis on the health and safety concerns of tattooing. While tattooing involves the transmission of blood, and possibly disease, no such risk exists for a pen-and-ink drawing. However, as observed by the Ninth Circuit judges during oral arguments in Anderson, a painter may very well use lead ink in making a portrait, which could cause lead poisoning, but the act of painting, as well as the painting itself, is still protected speech.84
Similarly, the negative, transgressive qualities of tattoos may have played a part in other courts’ refusals to accept the process of tattooing as protected activity. Previously, tattoos were believed to be a degraded art left to the “lower class.”85 Notably, however, the Ninth Circuit went to great lengths to demonstrate tattoos’ increasing acceptance in traditional social circles and also explained how tattoos have “increased in prevalence and sophistication.”86 More significantly, the increasing social acceptance of tattoos signifies that, as compared with thirty years ago, tattoos are now perceived as “communicative” in nature. While in the past, body art was generally understood as a barbaric practice received with repugnance by mainstream culture, the Ninth Circuit entered into a detailed description of how a tattoo makes a statement of “autonomy and self-fashioning.”87 Therefore, while the First Amendment jurisprudence on this issue seems to have remained relatively unaltered in recent years, the perception surrounding tattoos as speech seems to have changed.
Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit’s inquiry into the history and communicative nature of tattooing reflects the U.S. Supreme Court’s approach to First Amendment issues. Indeed, unlike the other courts that have confronted tattoo parlor bans, the Ninth Circuit engaged in an extensive discussion about the “decorative; religious; magical; punitive”88 nature of tattoos. This analysis mirrors the Supreme Court’s historical account in United States v. Stevens?9 in which the Court engaged in an extensive discussion of the history of animal cruelty to find diat depictions of maiming and mutilation are not likely protected under the First Amendment.90 While historical evidence is not necessary for First Amendment protection, the Court noted that the Constitution is not a document “prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.”91

Moreover, perhaps what occurred in Anderson that was absent from the prior tattoo-parlor ban cases was that the court recognized an amorphous line between pure speech and symbolic conduct. Where a tattoo transforms from serving as merely a symbol of an idea to become the very representation of the idea itself is a line that courts should not have to draw. After all, such a determination would change with each tattoo and every person who receives a tattoo. For some, a navy anchor tattoo may represent service in the military, but for others, the navy anchor may merely serve as a decorative design, symbolizing nothing more than the anchor itself. Thus, the Ninth Circuit recognized that for First Amendment cases it is better to err on the side of permission than prohibition.92


Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit fell short in its analysis of Hermosa Beach’s ban as an unreasonable time, place, or manner restriction. After accepting tattooing as expressive activity, the court proceeded to invalidate the ordinance on two grounds: that the ban was not narrowly tailored, and that it did not leave open alternative channels of communication.93 Specifically, the court focused on the fact that as a general proposition, absolute bans are disfavored in First Amendment case law.94 While this may be true, this broad proposition should not apply to the 1.5 square miles comprising Hermosa Beach.


In order for a time, place, or manner restriction to be upheld on free speech grounds, it must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.95 Anderson did not dispute that the health and safety concerns of tattooing serve a government interest. Rather, Anderson claimed, and the court agreed, that tattooing can be conducted safely, and that the failure of the city to appropriate the proper number of health inspectors cannot be a means to restrict free speech.96
The problem with the Ninth Circuit’s analysis is that while tattooing may be conducted safely in some circumstances, tattooing presents other risk factors that can lead to crime and drug use. For instance, tattooing presents specific risk factors for adolescents and teens, for whom tattoos have generally been found to accompany “low self-esteem, delinquency, [and] drug abuse.”97 Moreover, while health regulations often address the use of sterile equipment, diseases may be transferred through the ink or the string that is used to transmit the ink.98 Furthermore, what distinguishes tattooing from other potentially infection-creating trades, such as nail salons and barber shops, is that tattooing is closely associated with the drug culture and transmission of HLV and hepatitis.99 In other forms of problematic speech, like live entertainment and hand billing, the government is concerned about litter, parking, and neighborhood deterioration.100 Risks associated with tattooing are certainly more immediate and hazardous than those of littering and parking.

Similarly, while the Ninth Circuit alleged that health and safety regulations are a narrowly tailored means to confront the risks of tattooing as opposed to an outright ban, there is no information suggesting that such regulations improve the problem areas of tattooing. For instance, unreported or unlicensed tattoo artists operating in basements and homes are unlikely to be affected by health regulations. Indeed, in a Minnesota study on the relationship between government regulation and tattooists’ response to such regulation, artists who self-reported responded favorably to government regulation, but problem areas still existed with artists who did not report.101 In fact, “tattooists most in need of improvement [from government regulation] may be hardest to reach due to their opposition to the government.”102 This difficulty is in keeping with the culture of the tattoo industry, which has often been resistant to government involvement.103


The court proceeded to conclude that an absolute ban on tattoo parlors would not leave open alternative channels of communication to those who desired a tattoo. The Ninth Circuit focused on the Supreme Court’s general disfavor of broad prophylactic prohibitions on speech. Citing cases such as City of Ladue v. Gilleo104 and Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim,105 the court concluded that as a rule, absolute bans are rejected.106 However, the court’s analysis was flawed: the regulations in Ladue and Schad were not struck down because they were blanket prohibitions per se, but because the nature of the speech conformed to the surrounding area107 and the government interest did not outweigh the First Amendment rights.108 Indeed, in Schad, the Supreme Court invalidated a municipal ordinance that prohibited all nude dancing in the city, but the Court held that the “[t]he situation would be quite different if the ordinance had the effect of suppressing, or greatly restricting access to, lawful speech.”109 The Schad Court observed that there was no evidence in the record that the kind of dancing that was prohibited by the ordinance was available in close-by areas outside of the city.110
Here, what the court failed to mention, and what was incorrectly stated in the oral arguments by Anderson’s counsel, is that Los Angeles County, of which Hermosa Beach is only a small part, generally allows tattoo parlors subject to licensing requirements.111 Indeed, Anderson’s other tattoo parlor is located in the town of Gardena,112 only eight miles away from Hermosa Beach.113 While the court may have been correct in determining that a large-scale time, place, or manner restriction in all of Los Angeles County may be overly broad, certainly this is not the case in the present action. The Hermosa Beach ban merely restricted access to tattoos in Hermosa Beach, not all access; as residents would only need to travel five minutes, or walk ten blocks, to a neighboring city to find a tattoo artist.114 Unfortunately, the court was so committed to invalidating the tattoo parlor ban that it failed to consider the city’s location and its place in the larger community of Los Angeles. Contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s characterization, a prohibition in Hermosa Beach would not foreclose all opportunities for obtaining a tattoo in tattoo parlors in Los Angeles County.

Finally, the court engaged in a discussion of how tattoos are a “distinct” method of communication carrying a unique message.115 This analysis misses the mark. The Hermosa Beach time, place, or manner restriction bans tattoo parlors, not tattoos. Determining the validity of a time, place, or manner restriction is an inquiry apart from the pure speech versus conduct dichotomy discussed earlier.1 6 In the latter, the tattoo and the tattoo process are necessarily intertwined. But for the former, regulations restricting the manner of expression are not the same as restricting the expression itself. The court engages in an analysis assuming that regulation of the tattooing process is the same as limiting tattoos entirely. As mentioned earlier, this is not the case. Hermosa Beach does not ban tattoos, merely tattoo parlors. Certainly a ban in a city with limited space and neighboring cities that permit tattoo parlors is not unreasonable.


Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach is a landmark decision in several respects. Finally, after more than thirty years, tattoo parlors are recognized as a protected medium of pure speech, not conduct. The Ninth Circuit’s articulation of tattooing as a protected form of communication effectively closed the door to years of dispute. However, the Ninth Circuit failed to consider Hermosa Beach’s specific circumstances in concluding that the restriction was an invalid time, place, or manner restriction. Indeed, it appeared that the court was so concerned with making a statement about the impropriety of such tattoo prohibitions that it failed to analyze the realities of Hermosa Beach. While tattoo parlors should be protected under the First Amendment, they should still be capable of being regulated under proper time, place, or manner restrictions.
1. 621 F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2010).
2. Id. at 1055.
3. Id. at 1056-57.
4. Hermosa Beach, Cal., Municipal. Code § 17.06.070
5. Id. zt §17.06.030.
6. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1057.
7. Id.
8. Id. at 1057-58.
9. Id.
10. Id.
11. Id. (quoting Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 409 (1974)).
12. 418 U.S. 405,409(1974).
13. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1058.
14. Id.
15. Id.
16. See U.S. CONST, amend. I.
17. Beth Waldock Houck, Comment, Spinning the Wheel After Roulette: How (and Why) to Overturn a Sidewalk Sitting Ban, 32 ARIZ. ST. LJ. 1451, 1469 (2000).
18. Id.
19. See, eg., Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989); Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 298 (1984).
20. 391 U.S. 367(1968).
21. Id. at 377; see also Anderson v. City of Hemosa Beach, 621 F.3d 1051, 1059 n.3 (9th Cir. 2010).
22. As a corollary, there are of course certain types of “pure” speech which are given no protection under the Constitution. These include perjury, libel, slander, infringing on copyrights, and other forms of “fighting words.” See Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 417 (1974) (Rehnquist, ]., dissenting) (per curiam). However, since this presumptively unprotected speech is not at issue with the creation of a tattoo, such a discussion does not warrant much attention.
23. Spence, 418 U.S. at 409.
24. See Young v. Am. Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50, 70 (1976).
25. Erie v. Pap’s AM., 529 U.S. 277, 285 (2000).
26. Enid Schildkrout, Inscribing the Body, 33 ANN. REV. ANTHROPOLOGY 319, 325 (2004)
27. David Morton, Tattooing, INVENTION 8c TECH., Winter 2002, at 36, 40
28. Hoag Levins, The Changing Cultural Status of the Tattoo Arts in America, TATTOO ARTS IN Am.
29. Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621 F.3d 1051, 1060 n.3 (9th Cir. 2010) (“There appears to be little dispute that the tattoo itself is pure First Amendment ‘speech.'”).
30. Yurkew v. Sinclair, 495 F. Supp. 1248, 1252 (D. Minn. 1980).
31. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1055-56 (citing the city’s declaration).
32. Id.
33. See Body Art: Tattoos and Piercings, CTRS. FOR DISEASE CONTROL &. PREVENTION
34. Id.

35. See, e.g., COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA, MUNICIPAL CODE ch. 4.05 (2010)
36. See Levins, supra note 28.
37. See Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1057 (citing declaration submitted by Anderson describing his own approach to tattooing).
38. Thomas F. Cotter & Angela M. Mirabole, Written on the Body: Intellectual Property Rights in Tattoos, Makeup, and Other Body Art, 10 UCLA ENT. L. REV. 97, 104 (2003).
39. 495 F. Supp. 1248 (D. Minn. 1980).
40. Id. at 1249-50.
41. Id. at 1249.
42. Id.
43. Id. at 1253 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 409-10 (1974)).
44. Id.
45. Id. at 1254.
46. S/>e»ce, 418 U.S. at 410-11.
47. Id. zt 411.
48. Turkew, 495 F. Supp. at 1254.
49. 580 F. Supp. 2d 656 (N.D. 111. 2008).
50. Id. at 659.
51. Id. at 660 (refusing to engage in a dialogue about conduct versus pure speech and stating that the “act of tattooing fails the first prong of this test because the act itself is not intended to convey a particularized message”).
52. Id. (citing R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 386 (1992)) (describing a loud sound truck as unprotected First Amendment speech).
53. Id.
54. 596 F. Supp. 1487 (D. Del. 1984).
55. Id. at 1493.
56. 409 N.Y.S.2d 332 (App. Div. 1978).
57. Id. at 333 (citations omitted)
58. 621 F.3d 1051, 1059 (9th Cir. 2010).
59. Id.
60. Id.
61. Id. at 1062.
62. Id. at 1060.
63. Id.
64. Id. at 1061.
65. Id.
66. Id.
67. Id.
68. Id. at 1061-62.
69. Id. it 1068.
70. Id. at 1064.
71. Id. at 1064-66.
72. Id. at 1068.
73. Id. at 1065.
74. Id. at 1067 (citation omitted).
76. Id.
77. Id. at 1064.
78. Paul Elias, Appeals Court Ends Tattoo Parlor Ban in Calif City, ABC NEWS (U.S.) (Sept. 9, 2010)
79. Id.
80. See, e.g., Hold Fast Tattoo, LLC v. City of N. Chi., 580 F. Supp. 2d 656 (N.D. IU. 2008); Yurkew v. Sinclair, 495 F. Supp. 1248 (D. Minn. 1980); State v. Brady, 492 N.E.2d 34 (Ind. Ct. App. 1986); People v. O’Sullivan, 409 N.Y.S.2d 332 (App. Div. 1978); State v. White, 560 S.E.2d 420 (S.C. 2002); Blue Horseshoe Tattoo, V, Ltd. v. City of Norfolk, 72 Va. Cir. 388 (2007).
81. See supra notes 49-53 and accompanying text.

82. 460 U.S. 575 (1983).
83. «. at 592-93.
84. Oral Argument at 22:13, Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621 F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2010) (No. 08-56914)
85. See Randolph I. Geare, Tattooing, Sci. AM., Sept. 12, 1903, at 189.
86. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1066.
87. Id. at 1067 (citing Susan Benson, Inscriptions of the Self: Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing in Contemporary Euro-America, in WRITTEN ON THE BODY: THE TATTOO IN European and American History 251-52 (lane Caplan ed., 2000)).
88. Id. at 1061 (citing Mark Gustafson, The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond, in WRITTEN ON THE BODY, supra note 87, at 1 7).
89. 130S. Ct. 1577(2010).
90. Id. at 1585-86.
91. Id. at 1585 (quoting Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1 Cranch), 178 (1803)). Note, however, that the statute in Stevens was ultimately held to be unconstitutional as it was impermissibly overbroad. Id. at 1592.
92. See Fed. Election Comm’n v. Wis. Right to Life, Inc., 551 U.S. 449, 474 (2007) (“Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.”).
93. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1068.
94. Id. at 1064.
95. SeeSchad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61, 68 (1981) (“[A]s is true of other ordinances, when a zoning law infringes upon a protected liberty, it must be narrowly drawn and must further a sufficiently substantial government interest.”).
96. Anderson, 621 F.3d at 1065.
97. Ronald L. Braithwaite et al., Risks Associated with Tattooing and Body Piercing, 20 J. Pub. Health Poi/y 459, 459 (1999).
98. M. at 461.
99. Id.
100. See, eg., Schad, 452 U.S. at 73 (relating that the ban on live entertainment is arguably based on issues related to “parking, trash, police protection, and medical facilities”).

101. Monica ). Raymond, Linda L. Halcón 8c Phyllis L. Pirie, Regulation of Tattooing in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota: Tattooists’ Attitudes and Relationship Between Regulation and Practice, 188 PUB. HEALTH REP. 154, 160 (2003).
102. Id.
103. See id. at 159 tbl.3 (detailing widely varying opinions among tattooists as to proper extent of government regulation, including restrictions on purchasing tattooing equipment, giving tattoos to minors, and involvement of persons with bloodborne illnesses).
104. 512 U.S. 43(1994).
105. 452 U.S. 61 (1981).
106. Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621 F.3d 1051, 1064 (9th Cir. 2010).
107. Schad, 452 U.S. at 76.
108. Id. at 72; Ladue, 512 U.S. at 54.
109. Schad, 452 U.S. at 76 (quoting Young v. Am. Mini Theaters, Inc., 427 U.S. 50, 71 n.35 (1976)).
110. Id.
111. See Los Angeles Cnty. Code § 7.94.020(A) (2010), available at http://search.municode.com/html/16274/index.htm (“No person shall own or operate a body art establishment or permit the conduct of body art activity at any location unless and until a body art establishment license has been procured . . . .”).
1 12. See Elias, supra note 78.
113. Driving Directions from Hermosa Beach, CA to Yer Cheat’n Heart Tattoo, Gardena, CA, GOOGLE MAPS, http://maps.google.com (follow “Get Directions” hyperlink; then search “A” for “Hermosa Beach, CA” and search “B” for “Yer Cheat’n Heart Tattoo, Gardena, CA”; then follow “Get Directions” hyperlink).
114. See Tattoo Parlors in Redondo Beach, CA, GOOGLE MAPS, http://maps.google.com (search for “tattoo parlors”; then zoom in on Redondo Beach, CA) (showing two tattoo parlors in Torrance and one in Gardena).
115. Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621 F.3d 1051, 1067 (9th Cir. 2010).
116. See supra Part IV.A.
Richard Hyde | J.D. Candidate, April 2012, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University



considering gender, self-esteem, body appreciation, and reasons for tattoos...

Body modifications are becoming mainstream as more individuals are becoming tattooed. Using a convenience sample of college students, participants with and without tattoos were compared on measures of body appreciation, self-esteem, and need for uniqueness. Among these central Texas students 44% had at least one tattoo. Women, compared to men, were significantly more likely to have tattoos and also a facial piercing (other than ears) but scored lower on body appreciation and self-esteem. Body appreciation and self-esteem were correlated for both men and women together as well as separately. Top reasons given for getting tattooed included “To express myself,” “To be an individual,” and “To be unique.” As tattoos become more common, fewer differences between college students with and without tattoos will be found; tattoos may be one mode of expressing individuality rather than a connotation of deviance.



Body modification, altering the body via adornments such as tattoos and piercings, have evolved over the last century into a more mainstream cultural experience (Featherstone, 1999; Laumann & Derick, 2006; Swami, 2011). At one point, tattoos were markers of out-groups of individuals considered deviant from society and affiliated with criminal activity (Demello, 1993; Swami, 2011). Sailors branded themselves to display conquests and experiences out at sea while inmates used modification to show affiliation with gangs, mobs, and to express ranking within an organization (Demello, 1993; Sanders, 2008). From an underground activity origin, tattoos have developed into a commonplace form of art in alternative lifestyles and pop culture (Swami, 2011; Swami & Harris, 2012; Wohlrab, Stahl, & Kappeler, 2007).
Although the application of sub-cultural identity theory to body modifications (Koch, Roberts, Armstrong, & Owen, 2010) may be relevant for individuals identifying with deviant social groups, social learning theory may be more applicable for explaining the more mainstream acquisition of and acceptance of tattoos. According to Bandura, learning occurs through modeling and imitation (Bandura, 1977). The media, as one source of highly acclaimed models, has had a hand in influencing body modifications. Popular and admired individuals like celebrities may be revered as role models and their behaviors imitated by others. In addition, in the entertainment field body modifications are a common trend, and individuals who hold role models with tattoos in high regard may be more likely to imitate their behavior by obtaining tattoos themselves.
Modeled behaviors which have positive consequences are likely to be repeated. The act of body modification may be reinforced by the positive reactions individuals receive after copying the behavior (e.g. obtaining a tattoo), which then evokes feelings of pride and identity. Media and celebrities endorsing modifications or modeling body modification lifestyles then help to bridge the gap from an alternative lifestyle by popularizing and thus normalizing the obtainment of tattoos. In fact Laumann and Derick (2006) reported a 24% tattoo rate in a national sample in the U.S.
Even though celebrities have contributed to the popularization of tattoos, Swami and Harris (2012) describe other factors that have played a role as well, including better safety, more options in design, and greater numbers of available artists. Older individuals may be less likely to obtain tattoos, and women, compared to men, may have more concerns about pain and health risks associated with obtaining tattoos (Dickson, Dukes, Smith, & Strapko, 2014). However, some recent research with college student samples has reported a higher percentage of females than males with tattoos (King & Vidourek, 2013; Nathanson, Paulhus, & Williams, 2006) although men in a German sample had a greater number of tattoos than women (Wohlrab, Stahl, Rammsayer, & Kappeler, 2007).
Popular reasons for getting tattooed include self-expression and representations of bonds/connections with friends or family (Dickson, Dukes, Smith, & Strapko, 2015; King & Vidourek, 2013). Although “aesthetic self-distinction” was listed as a reason by 13% of Dickson et al.’s (2015) sample, about 15% of King and Vidourek’s (2013) sample disagreed with the statement that they got a tattoo “to be fashionable.” Although neither Dickson et al. (2015) nor King (King & Vidourek, 2013) report gender differences, perhaps traditional gender roles could impact individuals’ reasons. Perhaps women would be more likely to get tattoos for aesthetic or appearance enhancement reasons, fitting Wohlrab and colleagues’ (Wohlrab, Stahl, & Kappeler, 2007) “beauty, art, and fashion” category, while males would consider getting tattoos for reasons related to risk or toughness, perhaps related to a “physical endurance” category (Atik & Yildirm, 2014; Wohlrab, Stahl, & Kappeler, 2007).
Motivations for body modification may also be related to personality characteristics that are associated with having one or more tattoos. Individuals with tattoos may be higher in risk taking tendencies, including legal (multiple sexual partners) and illegal (being arrested, drug use) activities (Deschesnes, Fin[]s, & Demers, 2006; Koch et al., 2010; Roberts & Ryan, 2002). Using a sample of students from the University of British Columbia, Nathanson and colleagues (Nathanson et al., 2006) reported that deviance markers, including tattoos, were positively associated with openness to experience and subclinical psychopathy but negatively associated with self-esteem.
Additional personality traits differentiating those with body modifications from those without have been considered (Swami, 2012; Swami, Pietschnig et al., 2012; Tate & Shelton, 2008; Wohlrab, Stahl, Rammsayer et al., 2007). Swami and colleagues (Swami, Pietschnig et al., 2012) reported that, in a central European sample, individuals with tattoos scored higher, compared to those without, on need for uniqueness, extraversion, and experience seeking (subscale of sensation seeking). Others have also reported higher levels of sensation-seeking (Wohlrab, Stahl, Rammsayer et al., 2007) and need for uniqueness (Swami, 2012; Tate & Shelton, 2008; Tiggemann & Golder, 2006; Tiggemann & Hopkins, 2011) in tattooed versus non-tattooed individuals. In addition, Tate and Shelton (2008) reported that individuals with tattoos, compared to those without, scored lower on conscientiousness and agreeableness although others (Swami, Pietschnig et al., 2012;) using Big Five personality measures did not find these differences.
Although differences have been reported related to need for uniqueness, research comparing tattooed and non-tattooed individuals on appearance investment (Tiggemann & Golder, 2006; Tiggemann & Hopkins, 2011) or on the perception of one’s body’s attractiveness (Wohlrab, Stahl, Rammsayer, et al., 2007) has not found significant differences. However, in prospective research comparing individuals before obtaining tattoos and after obtaining tattoos (immediately and three weeks later), Swami (2011) reported a significant increase in body appreciation and self-esteem at the three weeks testing time, compared to the initial testing, as well as a gender difference with men having higher body appreciation than women.
As tattooing continues to become more mainstream, especially among college students, we wanted to examine possible individual differences between those who do and do not choose to modify their body as well as possible reasons for such modifications. In addition, gender differences related to body modifications, body appreciation, self-esteem, uniqueness, and reasons for body modification were considered.
In line with the literature just reviewed, we hypothesized the following:
1. Individuals with tattoos, compared to those without, will score higher on need for uniqueness (Tate & Shelton, 2008; Tiggemann & Golder, 2006; Tiggemann & Hopkins, 2011) but lower on self-esteem (Nathanson et al., 2006) and body appreciation.
2. Consonant with societal gender roles, we predicted that women would score lower on body appreciation (Swami, 2011; Tylka, 2013) and self-esteem (Sprecher, Brooks, & Avogo, 2013) and that women would more often give reasons related to appearance for body modifications. Men, on the other hand, would be more likely to give reasons related to risk-taking and toughness.
3. A significant interaction between gender and tattoo presence was predicted, with women, but not men, with tattoos scoring lower on body appreciation and self-esteem since women may be more likely to use tattoos to impact their appreciation of their bothes.



College students (88 male, 212 female) in a teaching theater, lifespan development psychology class at a central Texas public university participated by completing an anonymous questionnaire for a small amount of extra credit following an exam. Among these students, the largest number (120, 39.7%) were liberal arts majors, followed by health professions (54, 17.9%), applied arts (51, 16.9%), science (46, 15.2%), and business (23, 7.6%). The classifications of students included freshmen (9, 3.0%), sophomores (88, 29.1%), juniors (121, 40.1%), seniors (82, 27.2%), and graduate students (1, .3%). The majority (54.0%) identified their ethnicity as Caucasian, with 30.1% identifying as Hispanic, 8.3% as African American, 3.3% as Asian American, and 4.0% as other.

Materials and Procedure

Participants initially provided demographic information related to their age, gender, ethnicity, classification, college major, and GPA. Participants then completed the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1965), followed by items assessing reasons for having tattoos (Tiggemann & Golder, 2006), four items assessing uniqueness preference (Lynne & Harris, 1997), and the Body Appreciation Scale (BAS; Avalos, Tylka, & Wood-Barcalow, 2005). At the end of the survey participants were asked if they had tattoos and if so, how many pieces of art they had on their body. An item assessing whether or not the students had facial piercings (other than ears) was also included.
The RSES (Rosenberg, 1965) is a ten-item scale measuring the amount of self-worth an individual has. The RSES uses a 4-point Likert scale with possible responses ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (4). Some questions listed in the RSES related to self-esteem include, “I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on equal plane with others, “I feel that I have a number of good qualities,” and “I take a positive attitude toward myself.” Reliability for the RSES items was .87 among these participants. Mean scores on the RES were computed for each individual.
The reasons for obtaining tattoos measure lists 19 items describing possible motivations/reasons for obtaining tattoos (Tiggemann & Golder, 2006). For simplicity we asked participants to either agree or disagree with the statement listed (e.g. yes or no) rather than using a Likert-scale. Some of the statements listed included obtaining tattoos “Because they look good,” “Because I like taking risks,” “To look attractive,” “To be unique,” and “To look tough.”
The four uniqueness items come from Lynn and Harris’s (1997) Self-Attributed Need for Uniqueness Scale (SANUS); an example is, “I prefer being different than other people.” Items were rated using a 5-point Likert scale and had a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.79 in our data.
The BAS (Avalos et al, 2005) includes 13 items measuring body image. Item examples are “I respect my body” and “On the whole, I am satisfied with my body”; items are rated using a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1-“never” to 5-“always.” BAS items were scored by totaling the 13 items for each participant, with higher scores indicative of a more positive body image. In this sample the BAS had a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.91.


Out of 300 participants, 134 reported having tattoos (44%). In addition, of the participants who had tattoos, 61 individuals (46%) reported having tattoos on visible parts of the body (arms, hands, face, neck, legs). In terms of numbers of tattoos, 68 participants indicated they had one tattoo, 32 indicated two tattoos, 15 indicated three tattoos, and 19 indicated having four or more tattoos. Furthermore, 42 participants (14%) reported having facial piercings other than ear piercings.
Frequencies by gender for the most popular reasons for obtaining tattoos are given in Table 1. All other reasons were checked by fewer than 40 people, with the least frequently indicated item, “Because my friends are tattooed,” only chosen by six individuals.
To compare frequencies for men and women having a tattoo (no tattoos versus having one or more tattoos), having a visible tattoo, and having facial piercings, three 2 X 2 chi squares were performed. A higher percentage of females (51%) than males (31%) indicated that they had one or more tattoos, [chi square] (1) = 10.08, p < .01, [PHI] = .19; similarly, a greater proportion of women (19%) than men (5%) had facial piercings (other than ears), [chi square] (1) = 8.04, p < .01, [PHI] = .18. However, of those individuals having tattoos, women (44%) and men (41%) were not significantly different in the proportion with visible tattoos.   Six chi square analyses were also conducted to examine the gender difference in hypothesized reasons for obtaining tattoos ("to look attractive," "to be fashionable," "because they look good," "because I like to take risks," "to have a beauty mark," "to look tough"). Two of the six comparisons were significant with 6% of the men and 22% of the women indicating that "to have a beauty mark" was a relevant reason for them, [chi square] (1) = 437, p < .05, [PHI] = -.17; and 21% of the males, versus 2% of the females, indicating that "to look tough" was a reason for them to acquire a tattoo, [chi square] (1) = 16.10, p < .001, [PHI] = .33   To compare male/female means as well as means for those with and without tattoos, a MANOVA was performed on self-esteem, body appreciation, and need for uniqueness scores, with participant and tattoo presence (no tattoos, one or more tattoos) as the factors. The only significant effect was for participant sex, F (3,275) = 3.42, p < .02, [[eta].sub.p.sup.2] = .04. Participant sex was significant for both self-esteem, F (1,277) = 7.04, p < .01, [[eta].sub.p.sup.2] = .03; and body appreciation, F (1,277) = 8.87, p < .01, [[eta].sub.p.sup.2] = .03. The presence of tattoos did not differentiate participants on these variables nor were there any significant interactions between participant sex and the presence of tattoos. Descriptive data for these comparisons are given in Table 2.   Correlations were performed for body appreciation, self-esteem, and uniqueness scores. Body appreciation was positively correlated with both self-esteem, r (284) = 0.59, p < .001; and with total need for uniqueness score, r (291) = .16, p < .01. Need for uniqueness and self-esteem were also correlated, r (290) = .21, p < .001. In addition, correlations were performed by sex. Body appreciation was still correlated to self-esteem for both women, r (206) = 0.61, p < .001, and men, r (77) = 0.53, p < .001. Need for uniqueness also correlated with self-esteem for both men, r (80) = 0.31, p < .01; and women, r (209) = 0.19, p < .01. However, need for uniqueness and body appreciation were significantly correlated for men only, r (81) = 0.33, p < .01     Discussions | In this central Texas college student sample, 44% of the participants had tattoos, providing support that tattoos have become more common, accepted, and mainstream. Females were significantly more likely than males to have both tattoos and facial piercings (other than ears) in agreement with some previous research (King & Vidourek, 2013; Nathanson, Paulhus, & Williams, 2006).   However, contrary to previous research (Nathanson, et al., 2006; Tate & Shelton, 2008; Tiggermann & Golder, 2006; Tiggemann & Hopkins, 2011), our data did not support the hypothesized differentiation of need for uniqueness, self-esteem, and body appreciation by the presence of tattoos. Perhaps as tattooing becomes more common among college students, such differences are diminishing. Even though the need for uniqueness did not differentiate those with and without tattoos, the two most frequently given reasons for obtaining tattoos, "To express myself' and "To be an individual," suggest that wanting to be unique is a common reason for obtaining tattoos.   We did not find significant interactions related to the constructs of self-esteem and body modification by participant sex, but we did find the predicted differences between males and females in self-esteem and body appreciation, as has been previously reported (Sprecher et al., 2013, Tylka, 2013). Females overall had lower scores than males on the Body Appreciation Scale and on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem measure.   Of the six gender comparisons related to hypothesized reasons for obtaining tattoos, two reasons, "to look tough" and "to have a beauty mark," were significant, with men indicating the former reason more frequently and women indicating the latter reason more frequently. On three of the four appearance-related reasons, the proportion of men and women were not significantly different.   Perhaps appearance-related reasons are a factor for both men and women these days; 46% of the men and 50% of the women indicated that "because they look good" was a reason they obtained a tattoo. Similarly, Swami (2011), comparing before/after tattooing scores, reported that both men and women had lower appearance-related anxiety and higher body appreciation after obtaining tattoos.   Some limitations of the research conducted in this study include the sampling size and related demographics, including the smaller proportion of males in the sample. The sampling population of college students from a central Texas university may not necessarily be generalizable to other college students in the U.S and beyond.   In spite of these sampling limitations, this research contributes by examining body modification through a modern lens based on its rising popularity among college students in the 21st century, using gender comparisons to explore issues related to body appreciation, self-esteem, need for uniqueness, and reasons for obtaining tattoos. In this sample, women compared to men were lower in body appreciation and self-esteem, but they were significantly more likely than men to have a tattoo and facial piercing other than ears. Women, compared to men, were also more likely to indicate that having a beauty mark was a reason they got a tattoo. Perhaps for some women having tattoos is an act of rebellion against conforming to appearance norms, appreciating their own bothes in unique ways. As Western societies change, exploring body modification motivations and correlates will help us better understand the bi-directional process of creating and responding to appearance-related expectations for both women and men

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Table 1 Frequencies by Gender: Reasons for Obtaining Tattoos

Frequency (%)

Reason Males Females

To express myself 27 (77%) 100 (88%)
To be an individual 23 (66%) 74 (66%)
To be unique 23 (66%) 70 (62%)
They celebrate an occasion/person 19 (53%) (1) 74 (65%)
To be creative 19 (54%) (1) 72 (64%)
Because they look good 16 (46%) 56 (50%)
To feel independent 17 (47%) 51 (46%)
To control my body 11 (31%) 44 (39%)
Because I like to take risks 13 (38%) 39 (35%)
To look attractive 10 (29%) 42 (38%)
(1) Percentages are slightly different because of different numbers of people completing the question.
Hill, Brittany M., Ogletree, S. M., McCrary, K. M., College Student Journal




the practice and ritual of tattooing human skin has existed in all parts of the world and in most cultures...

Copyright For Tattoos - Modern Tattoo Articles - Unique Tattoo Artwork  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice

Are Tattoos Copies? The practice and ritual of tattooing human skin has existed in all parts of the world and in most cultures for thousands of years. (2) The modern history of tattooing in Western cultures can be traced to the voyages of Captain James Cook to the South Pacific, where sailors encountered various Polynesian tribes among which tattooing was, and remains today, an important cultural practice and spiritual ritual. (3) When these sailors, many of whom had adorned their bothes with tattoos, returned to Europe, they ignited an interest in tattooing known as the “tattoo rage,” which spread through nineteenth-century Europe. This interest in tattooing eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America (4) and, by 1891, due in large part to the development of the first electric tattoo machine by American tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly, the practice of tattooing began to permeate American society. (5)
During the early era of tattooing in America, tattoos were generally associated with sailors, criminals, and circus performers–the artistic value of tattoos received minimal, if any, recognition. In recent decades, tattoos have moved from their counterculture origins into mainstream American society, garnering an appreciation as a valid form of art. Today, tattoos are displayed prominently on the bothes of celebrities and athletes, (6) and they have been the subject matter of exhibits at museums and art galleries. (7) Television shows such as Miami Ink and Ink Master have increased the popularity of tattoos as an art form and have contributed to their increasing social acceptance. (8) As of 2012, approximately twenty-one percent of Americans had at least one tattoo; (9) for Americans under forty years of age, the percentage with at least one tattoo rose to almost forty percent. (10) This increase in the popularity and prevalence of tattoos has led to an estimated tattoo industry annual revenue growth of 2.9% between 2009 and 2014, resulting in an approximate revenue of $3.4 billion. (11)
Tattoo artists are aware of the purpose and protections of the United States’ intellectual property regimes. (12) Recently, tattoo artists have initiated lawsuits alleging their possession of intellectual property rights in their works under the United States’ copyright regime. Since 2005, three individual tat too artists have brought lawsuits alleging copyright infringement of their works–either of tattoos based upon preliminary drawings or tattoos created contemporaneous to their application in the client’s skin. The first two cases, Reed v. Nike, Inc, (13) and Whitmill v. Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc., (14) settled without going to trial; the third case, Escobedo v. THQ Inc., (15) was dismissed for lack of prosecution. After these cases, questions regarding the applicability of the copyright laws to tattoos remain unanswered. While the basic application of the copyright statute indicates tattoos are likely copyrightable subject matter, the courts should be cognizant of the negative policy implications that could arise should tattoos be granted copyright protection.
The focus of this Note is on tattoos on human skin, not on a tattoo artist’s drawings, “flash art,” or other forms of art utilized by tattoo artists as inspiration for a tattoo. (16) Therefore, as a preliminary matter, throughout this Note, the term “tattoo” shall be intended to mean the actual work applied to human skin rather than an embodiment of the work in any other form.
This Note argues that, although “flash art” and other drawings upon which a tattoo may be based are likely copyrightable subject matter under the Copyright Act of 1976 (17) (Copyright Act), the policy implications of granting copyright protection to tattoos militate against extending such protection. To avoid these consequences, the copyright statute should be interpreted as failing to include the human body as a “copy” within the scope of the Copyright Act and, therefore, tattoos would not be subject to the protection of the Act.
Part I provides a background on the statutory framework of the Copyright Act, including the requirements for copyrightable subject matter, copyright ownership, and the exclusive rights granted by the Copyright Act to the copyright owner. Part II provides an overview of three cases in which tattoo artists have alleged that their tattoos, or their drawings upon which a subsequent tattoo are based, are copyrightable subject matter. These tattoo artists have alleged infringement of their works based upon a subsequent reproduction or display of their tattooed work.
Part III begins by addressing whether, as a preliminary matter, a tattoo would generally meet the Copyright Act’s copyrightability requirements. Part III then presents several negative policy issues that would likely arise should copyright protection be extended to tattoos. It concludes by arguing that tattoos are not “copies” as defined under the Copyright Act and therefore, they are not subject to copyright protection.


The Intellectual Property Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution expressly grants Congress the authority to establish federal copyright law. (18) In the United States, copyright law is an area regulated exclusively by the federal government pursuant to the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act grants copyright protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (19) that fall within one of eight enumerated categories of “works of authorship.” (20) This Part will discuss the elements of copyrightable subject matter, how ownership of a copyright is established, and the exclusive rights conferred by the Copyright Act upon a copyright owner.

A. Copyrightability

Under [section] 102(a), federal copyright protection is extended to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” (21) In other words, [section] 102(a) requires the satisfaction of two elements for a work to be considered copyrightable: fixation and originality. The following subsections provide an overview of these two requirements.
1. The “Fixation” Requirement
The first requirement of copyrightable subject matter is fixation, which requires a work of authorship to be “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” (22) The primary function of the fixation requirement is to establish the point in time at which a work exists that may be eligible for copyright protection. (23) The medium in which the work is fixed is irrelevant to the analysis of fixation, as the Copyright Act was intended to encompass a broad scope of mediums of expression from paint on canvass to those mediums that require the assistance of technology to enable human perception, as in the case of computer software. (24) The duration of fixation need only be for “more than transitory duration,” (25) which means the fixation requirement may be satisfied even if the fixation is temporary. (26)
2. The “Originality” Requirement
The second requirement of copyrightable subject matter is originality, which limits the grant of copyright protection to “original works of authorship.” (27) When drafting the Copyright Act, Congress purposely adopted the phrase “works of authorship” (28) rather than utilizing the constitutional terms “Writings” and “Authors” (29) with the express intention of “avoiding] exhausting the constitutional power of Congress to legislate in this field” (30) by making the scope of the copyright statute narrower than the authority granted to Congress by the Constitution. In addition, Congress purposely left the phrase “original works of authorship” undefined with the intention of incorporating into the Copyright Act the definition of originality that had been developed through the courts’ prior copyright jurisprudence. (31) Therefore, the interpretation of the current originality standard may be based upon caselaw preceding the Copyright Act.
In Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., (32) the Supreme Court articulated the current definition of originality. Remarking that originality is the sine qua non of copyright law, the Court promulgated a two-prong originality standard, which requires that “the work [be] independently created by the author … and that it possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.” (33) The Court elaborated further that “the requisite level of creativity is extremely low” and that most works will satisfy the requirement “as they possess some creative spark, no matter how crude, humble or obvious it might be.” (34) The Feist standard presents a relatively low hurdle for copyrightability. When conducting an originality analysis, the artistic merit of the work in question is not to be considered by the court. (35) “‘Original’ in reference to a copyrighted work means that the particular work ‘owes its origin’ to the author. No large measure of novelty is necessary.” (36) Furthermore, “a ‘copy of something in the public domain’ will support copyright if it is a ‘distinguishable variation.'” (37)
In many circumstances, a work of authorship will most certainly consist of an author’s independently created expression that satisfies the requisite threshold level of creativity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, cases may arise where it is equally certain that works, such as letters or common geometric shapes, have not been created independently by the author and do not have the necessary minimum amount of creativity. (38)

B. Establishing Copyright Ownership

Once a work has been determined to be copyrightable, it is necessary to identify the proper owner of the copyright who will possess the rights conferred by the copyright statute. Section 201(a) provides that initial ownership of the copyright in a protected work vests in the author or authors of the work. (39) The following subsections will provide an overview of the forms of authorship recognized by the Copyright Act.
1. Sole and Joint Authorship
The concept of sole authorship is most clear when, for example, the purported author is the single writer of a novel or painter of a painting. But what if multiple people are involved in the creation or production of a work?
Copyright protection subsists in works that are “representatives of [the] original intellectual conceptions of the author.” (40) Even if the efforts of numerous people are utilized to produce a work, a work may only have one author who was the single person to whom the “original intellectual conceptions” of the work may be attributed. (41) Whether this is the case is not always clear, and disputes over authorship are often the basis for litigation, requiring the courts to conduct a fact-intensive inquiry to differentiate between works of sole authorship and joint works.
The Copyright Act defines a “joint work” as “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” (42) While the circuit courts are not in complete agreement on the proper method for determining joint authorship, several courts require that each “author’s” contribution to the work be independently copyrightable and that each purported author intended to be coauthors of the work. (43) This requirement would seem to be consistent with the Copyright Act’s requirement that to obtain a copyright, a person must be an author under the statute.
When considering whether two or more people intended to be joint authors of a work, the courts have considered factors such as the delegation of decision-making authority, how the parties billed or credited themselves with respect to the work, and the content of written contracts. (44) Courts also consider the objective manifestations of intent of the parties to be coauthors. (45) Ultimately, if two or more parties are determined to be joint authors of a work, they will receive an equal interest in the work that is both inheritable and devisable. Furthermore, permission of all coauthors will be required for an assignment or exclusive licensing of the work.
2. “Works Made for Hire”
The Copyright Act provides that the copyright in a work prepared by an employee may belong to the employer if the work qualifies as a “work made for hire.” (46) To qualify as a work made for hire, a work must either be prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or specially ordered for use in a collective work, so long as the parties expressly agree that the work is a “work made for hire.” (47)
The Copyright Act does not define either the term “employee” or the phrase “scope of employment,” which has required the courts to interpret this statutory language. In Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, (48) the Supreme Court held that the term employee carries its common law agency meaning, promulgating twelve factors that should be considered by a court when determining whether a hired party is an employee under agency law. (49) Subsequent caselaw has identified two of the factors–the provision of employee benefits to, and the tax treatment of, the hired party–as the most significant. (50)
If a hired party is not an employee under Reid, the “work made for hire” doctrine may still apply if the hired party is determined to be an independent contractor; however, two requirements must be satisfied. First, the purpose of the work must be for use as a contribution to a collective work that falls within one of the categories enumerated in [section] 101. (51) To satisfy the second requirement, the parties must expressly agree that the work will be considered a “work made for hire.” (52)

C. The Copyright Owner’s Exclusive Rights

The owner of a copyright under the Copyright Act is granted certain exclusive rights in the copyrighted work. These include the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works based on the work, to distribute copies of the work, and to display the work publicly. (53) Along with the exclusive right to exercise these rights, the copyright owner also possesses the right to authorize or license others to exercise these exclusive rights. (54) Furthermore, the ownership of the copyright in a work “may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law” and is inheritable and devisable. (55)
In addition to the rights granted under the Copyright Act, Congress enacted the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which provides protections for an author’s moral rights in a work. (56) The protections granted by VARA are restricted to authors of “work[s] of visual art.” (57) Works of visual art protectable under VARA are defined under [section] 101 as “a painting, drawing, print, or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition … signed and consecutively numbered by the author.” (58)
The protections granted by VARA include the right of attribution and the right to integrity. The right of attribution bestows upon the author of a work of visual art the right to claim authorship of his or her work, to prevent use of the author’s name in relation to any work of visual art not created by the author, and to prevent use of the author’s name in relation to his or her work of visual art if that work has been modified, distorted, or mutilated in a way that would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation. (59) The right to integrity not only protects the physical integrity of the work, but is also meant to protect the creative integrity of the author. (60) Therefore, the right of integrity is intended to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of th[e] work which would be prejudicial to [the author’s] honor or reputation” as well as “any destruction of a work of recognized stature.” (61)
There are several limitations on the moral rights conferred upon the author under VARA. First, any modification of the work of visual art that is the result of the passage of time or the nature of the materials used in the work does not amount to a violation of the statute. (62) Second, any modification of the work of visual art that is the result of conservation efforts or public presentation likewise does not fall within the protections of VARA. (63) The third exception denies protection if a work of visual art is used in connection with a work that is excluded from VARA under a subsection of [section] 101. (64)
Unlike the exclusive rights granted under the Copyright Act, the rights granted under VARA are not transferable; however, they may be waived. (65) A valid waiver must be expressly provided in a written instrument signed by the author and identifying the specific rights waived. (66)


The copyrightability of tattoos under the Copyright Act is an issue of first impression in the courts, and, as of yet, no lawsuit has proceeded to trial. Since 2005 three tattoo artists have brought individual lawsuits alleging that their tattoo–or at least the drawings upon which a subsequent tattoo were based–were copyrightable subject matter, that they were the owners of the copyright, and that their exclusive rights had been infringed. Each of these cases has been either settled or dismissed, leaving this question unanswered. American society is constantly progressing in the area of “Science and useful Arts,” (67) which requires the courts to consider how new–or in the case of tattoos, newly accepted–forms of creative expression and technologies fit into the existing intellectual property regime. While it could be argued that resolution of the questions presented in the following cases is analogous to the courts’ task of determining how other forms of expression fit into the copyright law, there is one marked difference–in these cases, the “tangible medium of expression” (68) involved is human skin.
A. Reed v. Nike, Inc. : The Rasheed Wallace Tattoo
On February 25, 2005, Matthew Reed, a Portland, Oregon tattoo artist and owner of TigerLily Tattoo and Design Works, brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon against sports retail giant Nike, Inc., NBA star Rasheed Wallace, and advertising agency Weiden + Kennedy, alleging copyright infringement. (69) In 1998, Reed, with Wallace’s input, designed a tattoo (the “Wallace tattoo”) and applied it to Wallace’s upper arm. (70) Before tattooing Wallace, Reed made several sketches and drawings that would become the basis for the tattoo. (71) After the tattoo had been completed, Reed admitted to observing the Wallace tattoo on Wallace during televised NBA games, but admitted that he expected this public display of the Wallace tattoo and that such exposure would benefit his business. (72)
In (2004), Reed became aware of a Nike television commercial, created by Weiden + Kennedy, featuring Wallace. (73) The commercial included a full-screen depiction of the Wallace tattoo, a computerized recreation of the tattoo, and a voiceover by Wallace “describing the tattoo and its meaning.” (74) Upon discovering the commercial, Reed registered the pencil drawing that was the basis for the Wallace tattoo with the Copyright Office and then brought his claim for infringement. (75)
Reed’s complaint alleged that he was “the owner of all right, tide and interest to the original artwork from which the tattoo on Mr. Wallace’s arm was created.” (76) In his first claim for relief, Reed alleged copyright infringement against both Nike and Weiden + Kennedy for “cop[ying],” “reproduc[ing],” “distribui[ing],” “adapting],” and “publicly display[ing]” the Wallace tattoo without his permission. (77) It should be noted that while Reed’s complaint alleges infringement of the “Wallace tattoo,” the alleged infringement was actually of his initial drawings, not the tattoo on Wallace’s arm.
Reed’s second and third claims for relief were alleged against Wallace individually. In this second claim, Reed alleged contributory infringement against Wallace for causing Nike and Weiden + Kennedy to believe that Wallace was the exclusive owner of the copyrights in the Wallace tattoo and to subsequently infringe Reed’s exclusive rights. (78) In his third claim for relief, Reed alleged, in the alternative, that, if Wallace was a joint author and therefore a co-owner of the copyright in the Wallace tattoo, Reed was entitled to an accounting for profits obtained by Wallace for the use of the Wallace tattoo in the Nike commercial. (79)
Reed requested damages from Nike, Weiden + Kennedy, and Wallace and injunctive relief against Nike and Weiden + Kennedy. (80) However, the case was ultimately settled before going to trial. (81)
B. Whitmill v. Warner Bros.: The Mike Tyson Tattoo
On April 25, 2011, S. Victor Whitmill, a tattoo artist formerly from Las Vegas, Nevada, brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri against Warner Brothers for copyright infringement. (82) In 2003, Whitmill tattooed an “original and distinctive” design on the left side of Mike Tyson’s face (the “Tyson tattoo”). (83) Unlike the tattoos at issue in Reed and Escobedo, which were based upon preliminary sketches and drawings, Whitmill never made any drawings prior to tattooing Tyson’s face. (84) Several years after tattooing Tyson, Whitmill discovered that Warner Brothers planned to release the motion picture The Hangover 2, in which the character portrayed by actor Ed Helms has a face tattoo identical to the Tyson tattoo. (85) Warner Brothers had also released movie posters and other advertisements depicting Helms’s character with the allegedly infringing tattoo. (86)
Whitmill alleged that he created the Tyson tattoo contemporaneously with tattooing it in Tyson’s face, that the Tyson tattoo was subject to copyright protection once applied to Tyson, and that he was the owner of the copyright. (87) Furthermore, prior to Whitmill creating the Tyson tattoo, Tyson signed a release stating “all artwork, sketches and drawings related to [his] tattoo and any photographs of [his] tattoo are property of Paradox-Studio of Dermagraphics,” Paradox-Studio of Dermagraphics being the name under which Whitmill was doing business at the time. (88) Whitmill registered the copyright in the Tyson tattoo with the Copyright Office by submitting photographs of the tattoo in 2011 after learning about The Hangover 2 and immediately prior to bringing his lawsuit. (89)
Whitmill’s complaint alleged that Warner Brothers infringed his copyright by “copying,” “distributing],” and “publicly display[ing]” the Tyson tattoo in promotional materials, as well as by creating a derivative work without his permission. (90) Whitmill requested injunctive relief seeking that Warner Brothers be enjoined from continued infringement, (91) as well as monetary damages. (92) Although the case settled before reaching trial, (93) Judge Catherine Perry, when ruling on Whitmill’s motion for preliminary injunction, indicated that she believed Whitmill had “a strong likelihood of prevailing on the merits for copyright infringement” (94):
Of course tattoos can be copyrighted. I don’t think there is any reasonable dispute about that. They are not copyrighting Mr. Tyson’s face, or restricting Mr. Tyson’s use of his own face … or saying that someone who has a tattoo can’t remove the tattoo or change it, but the tattoo itself and the design itself can be copyrighted, and I think it’s entirely consistent with the copyright law …, (95)
C. Escobedo v. THQ Inc.: The Condit Tattoo
On November 16, 2012, Christopher Escobedo, a Phoenix, Arizona tattoo artist, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona against video game developer THQ, Inc. alleging copyright infringement. (96) In 2009, Escobedo tattooed a large depiction of a lion (the “Condit tattoo”) on the ribcage of Carlos Condit, a popular mixed martial artist. (97) Prior to tattooing Condit, Escobedo first sketched the Condit tattoo on paper, (98) which became the basis for the subsequent tattoo. On February 24, 2012, Escobedo registered his sketch of the Condit tattoo with the Copyright Office. [99]  
In February 2012, THQ released the video game UFC Undisputed 3, for both the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 gaming systems, as a follow-up to its 2010 release of UFC Undisputed 2010. (100) Both video games included a computer-generated character representing Condit that could be selected for use during the gameplay–the Condit character featured a reproduction of the Condit tattoo. (101) When the Condit character was selected for use by the game-player, the character, with the Condit tattoo, was displayed prominently in different features of the gameplay. (102)
In his complaint, Escobedo alleged he had granted Condit an implied license to display the Condit tattoo on his body (103) but that he did not authorize any reproduction of the tattoo. (104) Escobedo alleged copyright infringement (105) against THQ for violating his “reproduction,” (106) “derivative works,” (107) “distribution,” (108) and “display” (109) rights by including the Condit tattoo on the Condit video game character.
Escobedo requested monetary damages consisting of an accounting by THQ of its profits earned by the alleged infringement. (110) However, the case was dismissed by the district court, with prejudice, for failure to prosecute. (111)


To warrant copyright protection, a work must satisfy the “fixation” and “originality” requirements of [section] 102(a). Undertaking a basic application of the statute, it seems that tattoos would satisfy these requirements. (112) As dis- cussed previously in Secdon II.C, at a hearing to rule on Victor Whitmill’s motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Catherine Perry, appraising Whitmill’s possibility of success on the merits stated, ” [o]f course tattoos can be copyrighted. I don’t think there is any reasonable dispute about that.” (113) Judge Perry stated further that, “[t]hey are not copyrighting Mr. Tyson’s face, or restricting Mr. Tyson’s use of his own face … or saying that someone who has a tattoo can’t remove the tattoo or change it.” (114) It is true that granting a copyright for the Tyson tattoo is not copyrighting Tyson’s face; however, it is not so obvious that there would be no restriction on Tyson’s use of his face or his ability to alter the tattoo. In fact, granting a copyright in the Tyson tattoo could have the opposite effect.
A tattoo is widely recognized as permanent. Unless a person decides to have his or her tattoo surgically removed, the tattoo will remain in the individual’s skin for the duration of his or her life. (115) It could be argued that a human being will eventually the, however, the span of a human life should satisfy the requirement of fixation for “more than [a] transitory duration.” (116)
To satisfy the originality requirement, a tattoo must be independently created and must exhibit more than a de minimis amount of creativity. Undoubtedly, in many circumstances, a tattoo will consist of a tattoo artist’s independently created expression that possesses the necessary level of creativity. On the opposite end of the spectrum, for example when a tattoo consists of words or common geometric shapes such as a heart or clover, it is likely that the work would not have been independently created by the tattoo artist and would not meet the minimum requirements for creative expression. (117)
Although the above application of the Copyright Act seems to indicate that, in general, tattoos could be copyrightable subject matter, the resolution of the issue should not be as obvious as Judge Perry would make it seem. First, it is important to recognize that there is a distinction between a tattoo and the drawings, sketches, or other works of art upon which a tattoo is based. Section A of this Part will discuss this distinction. Second, granting copyright protection to tattoos will have far more significant consequences than granting protection to most other works of art. These negative policy implications will be discussed in Section B of this Part. Finally, Section C will make the argument that the copyright statute could be interpreted so as to not include tattoos within the purview of the Copyright Act, therefore avoiding the negative implications discussed.

A. The Tattoo/Drawing Distinction

When a person meets with a tattoo artist to be tattooed, the tattoo artist may use several different methods to develop the concept for the tattoo. In some cases, the client will bring in photographs or drawings that the client wants reproduced in a tattoo. (118) In other instances, the tattoo artist’s client will choose a design from the tattoo artist’s existing “flash” collection. (119) For a more custom or unique tattoo, a client might present the tattoo artist with his or her ideas for a tattoo then work with the tattoo artist to develop a preliminary drawing which will become the basis for the subsequent tattoo. (120) In contrast, for those more trusting clients, a tattoo artist may choose to create a tattoo contemporaneously with the tattooing of the client, without basing the tattoo on any prior work. (121) As will be discussed, the distinction between a tattoo and the preliminary works upon which a tattoo is based is important.
Section 102(a) extends federal copyright protection to “original work[s] of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” (122) When a tattoo artist creates a drawing or sketch upon which a subsequent tattoo is based, assuming the drawing satisfies the [section] 102(a) “fixation” and “originality” requirements, the drawing or sketch will likely be subject to copyright protection. (123) The fact that the drawing or sketch is later reproduced in a tattoo should not factor into the analysis–the drawings should not be considered to be different than any other artistic drawing.
In both Reed and Escobedo, the tattoo artists each based their tattoos upon drawings and sketches they created prior to applying the tattoos to their respective clients. (124) Assuming for the purposes of this Note that these preliminary drawings satisfied [section] 102(a), Reed and Escobedo likely owned the copyrights in their drawings. In fact, both tattoo artists, prior to initiating their respective lawsuits, registered their drawings with the Copyright Office. (125) While the artists’ lawsuits alleged infringement of their tattoos, the alleged infringement is more properly characterized as an infringement of their drawings, not the completed tattoo. Therefore, when Reed and Escobedo allege the ownership of a copyright and infringement of their rights, it is not a copyright in the tattoo, but a copyright in the preliminary drawings.
The question of copyrightability in a case like Whitmill is complicated by the fact that there were no copyrightable preliminary drawings upon which the Tyson tattoo was subsequently based. (126) Therefore, when Whitmill registered his work with the Copyright Office, his registration was for the tattoo fixed on Mike Tyson’s face, not a prior drawing or sketch fixed on a piece of paper. (127)

B. Implications of Copyrightable Tattoos

The distinction highlighted in the above Section will have an impact on the analysis of the implications of granting copyright protection to tattoos. The analysis of authorship and extension of rights provided by the Copyright Act and VARA will differ depending upon whether the work in question is a preliminary drawing or a tattoo. Analysis with respect to preliminary drawings should not differ markedly from analysis of any other drawing under the Copyright Act. (128) In comparison, analysis as to tattoos is more complicated and may indicate that, as a policy matter, tattoos should not be granted copyright protection. The focus of this Section is on highlighting several of the implications of granting copyright protection to tattoos as opposed to preliminary drawings.
1. Tattoo Artist Control over the Client
Assuming that a court determines tattoos to be copyrightable, it becomes necessary to determine the author of the tattoo, which will likely be the tattoo artist, the tattoo recipient, or possibly both. As previously discussed, there are three possible forms of authorship that must be considered: “sole authorship,” “joint authorship,” and “work made for hire.” (129)
To qualify as a “work made for hire,” the tattoo artist would have to qualify as either an employee of his or her client acting within the scope of his or her employment or as an independent contractor. (130) First, since a tattoo artist is not likely to be found to be the employee of his or her client under the common law agency standard promulgated by Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, (131) the first possibility of qualifying under the doctrine does not apply. Second, for a tattoo artist to qualify as an independent contractor under the second option of the “work made for hire” doctrine, the tattoo must be for use as a contribution to a collective work and the tattoo artist and client must agree that the tattoo is a “work made for hire.” (132) This prong will likely not be satisfied since a tattoo is generally not intended to be incorporated into a collective work. (133)
Since a tattoo is most likely not a “work made for hire,” it must be either a work of “sole authorship” or a “joint work.” A tattoo is unlikely to be a “joint work” since the client probably could not be found to have made an independently copyrightable contribution to the creation of the tattoo. It is possible that the tattoo artist and the client could both intend to be coauthors of the tattoo; however, it is more likely that the tattoo artist would view himself or herself as the sole author of the work. Therefore, since a tattoo is most likely not a “work made for hire” or a “joint work,” if it is copyrightable, it must be a work of “sole authorship.” If a tattoo is a work of “sole authorship,” the sole author would be the tattoo artist. In that case, the tattoo artist would be vested with “the exclusive rights to do and to authorize” the exercise of the rights granted in [section] 106. (134) As a policy matter, this raises significant public policy concerns since the grant of copyright protection in a tattoo could enable the tattoo artist to control not only his or her artwork, but the person on whom it is “fixed.”
To realize the breadth of this problem, it is helpful to consider a hypothetical example. Since the facts in Whitmill involve the creation of a tattoo contemporaneously with the tattooing, (135) that case will be utilized here. The rights that would be granted to Whitmill if he were to be granted copyright protection in the Tyson tattoo would include the sole right to “reproduce” the tattoo, “prepare derivative works” based on the tattoo, “distribute copies” of the tattoo, and “display the [tattoo] publicly.” (136) Allowing Whitmill the right, for example, to do or authorize the public display of the tattoo highlights the public policy problem.
The term “to display” is defined in the Copyright Act as “to show a copy of [a work], either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images nonsequentially.” (137) To display a work “publicly” under the Copyright Act means to “display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” (138) The work can also be displayed publically by transmitting or communicating a display of a work, such as by television or film, to the public. (139)
The problem that would arise if Whitmill were to be granted copyright protection, and thus the display rights, in the Tyson tattoo, would be that he could control Tyson’s appearances in public, including Tyson’s personal appearances, television appearances, appearances in film, and appearances in print media. (140) Since Whitmill would have the “exclusive right[ ] … to authorize” (141) the public display of the Tyson tattoo, Whitmill would also possess the right to exclude and could effectively force Tyson to forego public appearances or, when appearing in public, to cover the tattoo. If Tyson were to choose to infringe Whitmill’s copyright by publicly displaying his tattoo, he could be subject to monetary damages for any actual damages suffered by Whitmill, as well as to an accounting for the profits earned by such infringement. (142) Furthermore, should Tyson appear on television or in a motion picture, the television network or film studio could be subjected to infringement liability.
Since Tyson is a celebrity/athlete who likely derives significant income from his appearances in person, on television, and in films, forcing him to forego these public appearances could have a significant impact on his ability to earn an income. A similar consequence is likely if Tyson were forced to cover the tattoo, especially since the tattoo is located prominently on his face. Requiring Tyson to cover his face could have a serious impact on his earning potential, not to mention his ability to function normally in everyday life. Additionally, if television networks or film studios face the prospect of copyright infringement liability, Tyson might find it difficult to secure work in the first place. While these issues might be of greater concern to celebrities and other public figures, it is not inconceivable that non-celebrities might encounter similar problems should tattoos be granted copyright protection. Until Congress recognizes a celebrity exception to the copyright law, this distinction should be irrelevant.
2. Tattoo Artist’s Moral Rights Versus Client’s Autonomy
As discussed in Section I.C, the VARA provides protections for an author’s moral rights, including the right of attribution and the right to integrity. (143) VARA grants the author the right to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to [the author’s] honor or reputation” as well as “any destruction of a work of recognized stature.” (144) Essentially, VARA prohibits changing or destroying a copyrighted work of visual art.
If tattoos are granted copyright protection, the tattoo artist would be granted the rights conferred by VARA. VARA would prohibit the recipient of the tattoo from altering, modifying, or destroying his or her tattoo, unless granted permission by the tattoo artist. This would include prohibiting laser removal of a regretted tattoo, the covering of a tattoo with a second tattoo, or even adding to a tattoo. In each of these cases, the court could enjoin the tattoo recipient from taking any of these actions and make the tattoo recipient pay the tattoo artist damages for any alteration of the tattoo.
As was also demonstrated in subsection III.B.1, if tattoos were found to be copyrightable, the rights conferred by VARA would carry significant human rights implications related to the ability of the tattoo artist to control a client’s freedom to make choices with respect to his or her body. Granting one person such controlling authority over another person by virtue of the copyright law would be in direct conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment’s express grant of individual freedom and autonomy. (145) Furthermore, it most certainly would be beyond the intended scope of the Copyright Act or VARA. The conflict that would arise between VARA and basic human rights should be sufficient to warrant extreme caution when considering the copyright-ability of tattoos and could be the basis for concluding that tattoos should not be granted copyright protection.

C. Are Tattoos Copies?

What if a “copy” of the Tyson tattoo never existed? “Copies” are defined in [section] 101 as “material objects … in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” (146) To satisfy the “fixation” requirement for copyrightable subject matter, a work must be “embothed] in a copy,” (147) therefore, if there is no “copy” of a work the fixation requirement cannot be satisfied and the work is not copyrightable subject matter under the Copyright Act.
By defining “copies” as “material objects,” Congress likely did not intend to include human skin within the category of mediums in which a copyrightable work could be embothed. In ordinary, everyday usage of the word “objects,” most people would not include human beings or their skin within the definition. Rather, an object is generally understood, consistent with its dictionary definition, as being “a thing that you can see and touch and that is not alive.” (148) This understanding is supported by the legislative history of the Copyright Act, which does not make any reference to tattoos or to a human body being utilized as a “copy” for the purpose of obtaining a copyright. (149) Examination of the copyright statute as a whole also indicates that inclusion of the human body as a “copy” would require absurd interpretation of other provisions.
For example, [section] 407 requires that the owner of a copyrighted work deposit, with the Library of Congress, two copies of the work. (150) It should be fairly obvious that copies of a tattoo could be made on paper, which could then easily satisfy this deposit requirement. But if the human body is included with the purview of things that could be “copies” under the Copyright Act, the human body would be included as a “copy” that could be placed on file with the Library of Congress. Of course, placing a human body on file with the Library of Congress would not be possible. What this highlights is that inclusion of the human body as a “copy” would lead to strange results, indicating Congress likely never contemplated nor intended for the human body to be a “copy” for the purpose of the Copyright Act.
Another example that indicates Congress likely did not intend to include the human body within the definition of “copies” can be found in relation to the first sale doctrine. Ownership of the material object in which a copyrighted work is fixed does not confer any of the exclusive rights granted by the Copyright Act. (151) However, the first sale doctrine, which provides that “the owner of a particular copy … lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy,” (152) provides an exception to this rule. In addition to the authority “to sell or otherwise dispose of’ the copy of a work, the first sale doctrine also provides that, ” [notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(5), the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled … to display that copy publicly … to viewers present at the place where the copy is located.” (153) Though it would seem that the exceptions granted by the first sale doctrine could be employed to provide a remedy for the policy problems discussed in Section III.B, (154) deeper analysis demonstrates not only that application of the doctrine to tattoos would be also strained, but also provides further support for the argument that tattoos do not qualify as “copies” under the Copyright Act. If this is true, tattoos would not be subject to copyright protection.
Returning to the Whitmill example (155) and assuming, arguendo, that Mike Tyson’s face qualifies as a “copy,” Tyson’s ownership of his face would not confer upon him any of Whitmill’s exclusive rights in the Tyson tattoo. Before Tyson’s face was tattooed by Whitmill, Tyson was undoubtedly the owner of his face. By tattooing Tyson, Whitmill certainly did not obtain ownership of Tyson’s face. (156) Therefore, since Whitmill never held title to the “copy” of the Tyson tattoo, he could not sell or otherwise convey title of that copy to Tyson as required for the first sale doctrine to apply. (157) This difficulty in applying the first sale doctrine–a difficulty which is caused by the fact that a tattoo is fixed on a human being and not on a transferable, inanimate object–supports the conclusion that the first sale doctrine, and the Copyright Act in general, did not contemplate granting protection to tattoos.
Another impediment to the application of the first sale doctrine in this hypothetical is the limitation of the doctrine found in [section] 109(d) which provides that “[t] he privileges prescribed by subsection[] … (c) do not, unless authorized by the copyright owner, extend to any person who has acquired possession of the copy … by rental, lease, loan, or otherwise, without acquiring ownership of it.” (158) Once again, application of the first sale doctrine to tattoos is strained because tattoos, unlike a painting, sculpture, or novel, are created on human flesh as opposed to an item of personal property. As discussed above, Tyson likely never parted with the title to his skin before, during, or after being tattooed by Whitmill. However, it could be argued that by allowing himself to be tattooed by Whitmill, Tyson granted some interest in his skin to Whitmill. This may seem extreme, but what if there was an agreement?
In Whitmill, Tyson signed a release acknowledging “that all artwork, sketches and drawings related to [his] tattoo and any photographs of [his] tattoo are property of [Whitmill].” (159) It is not clear how a court would construe this agreement. A court may find that the clause is only meant to reserve the intellectual property rights in Whitmill’s works to Whitmill. However, use of the terms artwork, sketches, and drawings seems to include the physical embodiment of Whitmill’s works, which in this case would also include Tyson’s face. While such a contract would likely be held invalid under the Thirteenth Amendment, if copyright protection were to be granted to tattoos, it is not impossible that a court would have to address similar issues.
Since, under the foregoing interpretation of the Copyright Act, the human body is not an “object,” it would not qualify as a “copy” in which a work can be fixed. When a tattoo is created contemporaneously with its application to human skin, the fixation requirement cannot be satisfied because, per the requirements of the Copyright Act, there is no resultant copy of the work. Therefore, a tattoo cannot be the subject of copyright protection. This interpretation of the statute will solve most of the aforementioned copyright issues arising in the realm of tattoos with respect to tattoos created contemporaneously to their application to a person’s skin and will impact the infringement analysis for tattoos based upon a tattoo artist’s drawings.
In the case of tattoos created as they are applied to a person’s skin, since the resultant tattoo would not be embothed in a “copy,” there would be no copyright protection available for the tattoo. Therefore, the tattoo artist would have no intellectual property rights in the tattoo that could restrict the client’s or a third party’s use of the tattoo. Furthermore, since no copyright protection would be available in the first instance, the client would also have no intellectual property rights in the tattoo he or she received. Any person would be free to utilize the tattoo in ways that, if the tattoo were copyrightable, would infringe upon the copyright owner’s exclusive [section] 106 rights.
One possible negative consequence of this interpretation is that tattoo artists who create tattoos based upon other copyright protected works will be protected from liability for infringement because the resultant tattoo will not qualify as a “copy” as required for copyright infringement. (160) Although creating a sort of “safe harbor” for tattoo artists could be a potential concern for copyright owners, the difficulty of identifying persons with tattoos depicting copyrighted work and the costs of initiating a lawsuit against such persons would likely outweigh the benefits of taking such action. Furthermore, if a lawsuit were brought alleging that a person’s tattoo infringes upon a copyrighted work, concerns, similar to those that were discussed in this Note, (161) would arise regarding the courts’ ability to fashion an appropriate remedy. (162) Finding that tattoos are not “copies,” and therefore not copyrightable subject matter, would also address these problems.
For tattoos that are based upon a preliminary drawing, the analysis is not as straightforward and infringement liability might not be completely precluded. A tattoo artist may own the copyright in his or her preliminary drawings; (163) however, the replication of the drawing in tattoo form will not create a “copy” of the preliminary drawing within the meaning of the statute since the replication is not embothed in a “material object.” Therefore, the tattoo artist will have no intellectual property rights in the tattoo and no right to control the subsequent display of the tattoo. Either the client or third party could display the tattoo without violating the Copyright Act, since violation of the [section] 106 display right requires showing a “copy” of a protected work. (164) As to the other [section] 106 rights, however, holding that a tattoo is not a “copy” may not foreclose the possibility of infringing upon the tattoo artist’s copyright in his or her preliminary drawing. If the recipient of a tattoo or a third party were to reproduce the depiction embothed in a tattoo that was created contemporaneously with its application in the recipient’s skin there would be no infringement. However, when the tattoo is based upon a preliminary drawing, the tattoo artist may possess the copyright in the preliminary drawing and it may be possible that the reproduction could be found to infringe upon that preliminary drawing. The same infringement analysis would be applicable with respect to the other [section] 106 rights. (165) Therefore, determining whether a tattoo was first conceived of while being applied to a person’s skin or whether it was based upon a preliminary drawing or other copyright protected work will be critical for the infringement analysis.
In sum, holding a tattoo not to be a “copy,” and therefore not copyrightable subject matter under the Copyright Act, will eliminate the possibility of infringement with respect to tattoos created contemporaneously with their application in human skin. In cases involving a tattoo based upon a tattoo artist’s copyright-protected preliminary drawing, the possibility of infringement will not be eliminated, but rather, the scope of possible conduct that will result in infringement will be narrowed.


One of the purposes of the Copyright Act is to provide incentives for authors to create new works by awarding them a limited monopoly over their works so as to “promote … Progress.” (166) This goal of copyright law certainly seems applicable to tattoo artists; however, extending copyright protection to tattoo artists may not provide much of an additional incentive for the creation of tattoos. (167) In light of the fact that tattoos and tattooing are gaining increased popularity in American society, it is not altogether clear that copyright protection is necessary to “promote … Progress” in tattoo works.
Regardless, the prospect of extending copyright protection to tattoos carries with it serious policy implications that are not present with other works of art–most significantly the potential for incursion upon individuals’ basic human rights–that likely trump the benefits gained by granting tattoo artists copyright protection. When a future court is required to determine whether tattoos are copyrightable subject matter, the proper course should be to deny copyright protection. Rather than attempting to determine whether tattoos meet the [section] 102 requirements for copyrightability or engaging in equitable balancing to determine whether granting copyright protection to tattoos would violate public policy, courts should look to the definition of “copies” provided by the Copyright Act. That definition should be interpreted as requiring fixation in an inanimate object and not to include the human body. By interpreting the statute in this manner, the court will be able to decide that tattoos are not copyrightable subject matter protected by the Copyright Act.
Michael C. Minahan, J.D. Candidate, University of Notre Dame Law School, 2016; B.S. in Political Science, Santa Clara University, 2007. I thank Professor Stephen Yelderman for guiding and encouraging me in the writing of this Note. I also thank my family and my wife Vanessa for their never-ending support. Finally, I thank the members of Volume 90 of the Notre Dame Law Review for their tireless work and dedication. All errors are my own.

(1) David Shields, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine 189 (2004).

(2) Aaron Deter-Wolf & Carol Diaz-Granados, Drawing with Great Needles xi-xii (2013) (“A Chinchorro mummy from Chile dated to 6000 BC exhibits a ‘mustache’ tattoo on its upper lip, while still other instances of … tattoos have been documented on ancient fleshed remains from Siberia, western China, Egypt, Greenland, Alaska, and throughout the Andes.”).

(3) Clinton R. Sanders, Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing 14 (1989) (“Cook introduced the Tahitian word ‘ta-tu’ meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘to mark’ and soon ‘tattoo’ became the common term.”).

(4) Id. at 16 (“The first professional tattooist to practice in the United States was Martin Hildebrand…. By the 1890s Hildebrand had opened an atelier on Oak Street in New York.”).

(5) Id. (noting how the development of the electric tattoo machine “increased the rate at which tattooing diffused in [American] society”); see U.S. Patent No. 464,801 (filed Jul. 16, 1891). Charlie Wagner improved upon O’Reilly’s tattoo machine design in 1904. See U.S. Patent No. 768,413 (filed Apr. 19, 1904). Variations of the electric tattoo machine are still utilized by tattoo artists in the present day.

(6) See Caitlin Johnson, Tattooed America: The Rise of Skin Art, CBS News (Oct. 29, 2006, 11:24 AM), .

(7) See, e.g., Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World, Japanese Am. Nat’l Museum, http://www.janm.org/exhibits/perseverance/ (last visited Mar. 9, 2015); Tattoo: Flash Art of Amund Thetzel, Milwaukee Art Museum, tattoo.php (last visited Mar. 9, 2015).

(8) Sec Johnson, supra note 6. See generally Ink Master, Spike, http://www.spike.com/ shows/ink-master (last visited Mar. 9, 2015); Miami Ink, TLC, http://www.dc.com/tvshows/miami-ink (last visited Mar. 9, 2015).

(9) One in Five U.S. Adults Now Has a Tattoo, Harris Interactive (Feb. 23, 2012), http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/970/ cd/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx. This percentage has increased by seven percent since 2008. Id.

(10) Id.; see also Millennial: A Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Ctr. (Feb. 2010), (indicating that thirty-eight percent of Millennial have at least one tattoo, while thirty-two percent of Generation Xers and fifteen percent of Baby Boomers respectively have at least one tattoo).

(11) Sarah Turk, IBISWorld Industrial Report OD4404, Tattoo Artists in the US 4 May 2014, at 4 (“[I]n the five years to 2014, [tattoo] industry revenue is expected to grow at an annualized rate of 2.9% to $3.4 billion, including a 1.6% growth in 2014.”).

(12) See Matthew Beasley, Note, Who Owns Your Skin: Intellectual Property Law and Norms among Tattoo Artists, 85 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1137, 1164-66 (2012).

(13) Complaint, Reed v. Nike, Inc., (No. CV-05-198) (D. Or. dismissed Oct. 19, 2005), 2005 WL 1182840.

(14) Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t, Inc., No. 4:ll-CV-752 (E.D. Mo. dismissed June 22, 2011).

(15) Complaint, Escobedo v. THQ Inc., (No. 2:12–CV–02470–JAT) (D. Ariz. dismissed Dec. 11, 2013), 2012 WTL 5815742.

(16) For a discussion of the intellectual property issues surrounding “flash art” and the copying of other visual art by tattoo artists, see Aaron Perzanowski, Tattoos &? IP Norms, 98 Minn. L. Rev. 511, 557-67 (2013).

(17) 17 U.S.C. [section][section] 101-1309 (2012).

(18) U.S. Const, art. I, [section] 8, cl. 8 (“The Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”).

(19) 17 U.S.C. [section] 102(a).

(20) Id. [section] 102(a)(l)-(8). The works of authorship include “literary works”; “musical works”; “dramatic works”; “pantomimes and choreographic works”; “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works”; “motion pictures and other audiovisual works”; “sound recordings”; and “architectural works.” Id.

(21) Id. [section] 102(a). Under [section] 102(b), there is no copyright protection for “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” Section 102(b) establishes a third requirement for copyrightability, the restriction of copyright protection to expression and not ideas; however, it is unlikely to be implicated when the work in question is a tattoo. Therefore, this discussion will be focused on the requirements of [section] 102(a).

(22) Id. Fixation in a tangible medium of expression occurs when “a work is … embodi[ed] in a copy or phonorecord [when], by or under the authority of the author, [it] is sufficiendy permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than a transitory duration.” Id. [section] 101.

(23) H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at 52-53 (1976), reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5659, 5665-66, 1976 WL 14045 (“[T]he concept of fixation is important since it … determines whether the provisions of the statute apply to a work….”).

(24) Id.; see, e.g., MAI Sys. Corp. v. Peak Computer, Inc., 991 F.2d 511, 519 (9th Cir. 1993) (holding a copy of computer software created in RAM to be fixed under the Copyright Act).

(25) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101.

(26) See MAI Sys., 991 F.2d at 518-19 (holding that the creation of a copy of computer software in RAM for the purposes of conducting maintenance on the computer is of sufficient duration even though the copy is deleted once the computer is shut off); see also Cartoon Network LP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121, 129 (2d Cir. 2008) (holding that the reproduction of copyrighted work in a network buffer for a “fleeting 1.2 seconds” did not satisfy the fixation requirement).

(27) 17 U.S.C. [section] 102(a).

(28) Id.

(29) U.S. Const, art. I, [section] 8, cl. 8.

(30) H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at 51 (1976), reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5659, 5664, 1976 WL 14045.

(31) Id. (“The phrase ‘original works of authorship,’ which is purposely left undefined, is intended to incorporate without change the standard of originality established by the courts under the [Copyright Act of 1909, as amended].”).

(32) 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

(33) Id. at 345.

(34) Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

(35) Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., 188 U.S. 239, 251 (1903) (“It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations.”).

(36) Alfred Bell & Co. v. Catalda Fine Arts, Inc., 191 F.2d 99, 102 (2d Cir. 1951) (footnote omitted) (quoting Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53, 57-58 (1884)).

(37) Id. (quoting Gerlach-Barklow Co. v. Morris & Benthen, 23 F.2d 159, 161 (2d Cir. 1927)).

(38) See 37 C.F.R. [section] 202.1 (2012) (“The following are examples of works not subject to copyright … (a) Words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring….”).

(39) 17 U.S.C. [section] 201(a) (2012). The term “author” has never been statutorily defined.

(40) Sarony, 111 U.S. at 58.

(41) See id.; see, e.g., Ashton-Tate Corp. v. Ross, 916 F.2d 516, 522-23 (9th Cir. 1990) (holding a software developer was not a joint author of a computer spreadsheet program because he did not make an independently copyrightable contribution); Lindsay v. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel R.M.S. Titanic, No. 97 Civ. 9248(HB), 1999 WL 816163, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (holding that a documentary filmmaker stated a claim for infringement of his copyright in the documentary footage even though the plaintiff did not actually conduct the photography).

(42) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101; see, e.g., Childress v. Taylor, 945 F.2d 500, 509 (2d Cir. 1991) (holding that lack of intent by both parties to be joint authors precluded a finding of joint authorship).

(43) See Aalmuhammed v. Lee, 202 F.3d 1227, 1231 (9th Cir. 2000); Thomson v. Larson, 147 F.3d 195, 200 (2d Cir. 1998); Erickson v. Trinity Theatre, Inc., 13 F.3d 1061, 1069 (7th Cir. 1994).

(44) See, e.g., Thomson, 147 F.3d at 202-05.

(45) See, e.g, Aalmuhammed, 202 F.3d at 1234-35.

(46) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101 (“A ‘work made for hire’ is–(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work … if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.”).

(47) Id.

(48) 490 U.S. 730 (1989).

(49) Id. at 751-52 (explaining that factors include “the hiring party’s right to control the manner and means by which the product is accomplished … the skill required; the source of the instrumentalities and tools; the location of the work; the duration of the relationship between the parties; whether the hiring party has the right to assign additional projects to the hired party; the extent of the hired party’s discretion over when and how long to work; the method of payment; the hired party’s role in hiring and paying assistants; whether the work is part of the regular business of the hiring party; whether the hiring party is in business; the provision of employee benefits; and the tax treatment of the hired party” (footnotes omitted)).

(50) See, e.g., Aymes v. Bonelli, 980 F.2d 857, 862-63 (2d Cir. 1992).

(51) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101. Other categories include motion picture or other audiovisual work, translation, instructional text, test, answer material for a test, and an adas. Id.

(52) Id.

(53) Id. [section] 106(1)-(3), (5).

(54) Id. [section] 106.

(55) Id. [section] 201(d)(1). Under [section] 201(d)(2) any of the individual exclusive rights may be transferred and owned independently of the others.

(56) Id. [section] 106A.

(57) Id.

(58) Id. [section] 101. The [section] 101 definition of work of visual art is rather lengthy, providing certain protections for photographic images and sculpture, as well as providing a listing of works that do not qualify as works of visual art. The quoted excerpt is the part of the definition relevant to this Note.

(59) Id. [section] 106A(a)(1)-(2).

(60) See Christine Lesicko, Tattoos as Visual Art: How Body Art Fits into the Visual Artists Rights Act, 53 IDEA 39, 51 (2013).

(61) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106A(a) (3) (A)-(B). Whether a work is of “recognized stature” may be determined by a two-part test which asks whether the visual art in question is viewed as meritorious and whether the visual art is recognized by art experts, members of the art community, or some cross-section of society. See Martin v. City of Indianapolis, 192 F.3d 608, 612 (7th Cir. 1999) (quoting Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 861 F. Supp. 303, 325 (S.D.N.Y. 1994)).

(62) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106A(c)(l).

(63) Id. [section] 106A(c) (2).

(64) Id. [section] 106A(c)(3).

(65) Id. [section] 106A(e)(1).

(66) Id.

(67) U.S. Const, art. I, [section] 8, cl. 8.

(68) 17 U.S.C. [section] 102(a) (“Copyright protection subsists … in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression….”).

(69) See Complaint, supra note 13, at 2.

(70) Id. at 3.

(71) Id.

(72) Id. at 3-4 (“[S]uch exposure would be considered common in the tattoo industry.”).

(73) Id. at 4.

(74) Id.

(75) Id.; see Copyright Registration Number VA 1-265-074, entitled “Egyptian Family” (Aug. 11, 2004). Reed was required to register his artwork to be able to bring civil infringement action. 17 U.S.C. [section] 411(a) (2012) (“[N]o civil action for infringement of the copyright … shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.”).

(76) Complaint, supra note 13, at 4.

(77) Id. at 4-5. Reed alleged infringement of exclusive rights granted by his copyright in the tattoo under 17 U.S.C. [section] 501(a), which states that “[a]nyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner as provided by sections 106 through 122 or of the author as provided in section 106A(a) … is an infringer of the copyright or right of the author, as the case may be.” 17 U.S.C. [section] 501(a). In relevant part, under [section] 106 the owner of a copyright has the exclusive rights:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; … (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works … to display the copyrighted work publicly….

17 U.S.C. [section] 106(1)-(3), (5).

(78) Complaint, supra note 13, at 5-6. The doctrine of contributory infringement is derived from common law principles and is well established in copyright law. See Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005) (“One infringes contributorily by intentionally inducing or encouraging direct infringement.” (citing Gershwin Publ’g. Corp. v. Columbia Artists Mgmt., Inc., 443 F.2d 1159, 1162 (2d Cir. 1971))).

(79) Complaint, supra note 13, at 6-7.

(80) Id. at 7.

(81) Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice at 1, Reed v. Nike, Inc., No. 05-CV-198 BR (D. Or. Oct. 19, 2005).

(82) Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 1-2.

(83) Id. at 2.

(84) Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Support of His Motion for Preliminary Injunction at 2, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t Inc., No. 4:11-CV-752 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 28, 2011).

(85) Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 4.

(86) Id. at 4-5.

(87) Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Support of His Motion for Preliminary Injunction, supra note 84, at 5-6.

(88) Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 3 (alteration in original). When Whitmill tattooed Tyson, he was doing business as Paradox-Studio of Dermagraphics. Id. at 3.

(89) See Copyright Registration Number VA 1-767-704, entitled “Tribal Tattoo” (Apr. 19, 2011).

(90) Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 7-8. Whitmill alleged infringement under [section] 501 of his exclusive rights under [section] 106 granted by his copyright in the Tyson tattoo.

(91) Id. at 7. Not only did Whitmill seek an injunction to stop Warner Brothers from continuing its use of the Tyson tattoo in promotional materials for The Hangover 2, but he also sought an injunction enjoining the release of the movie with the depiction of the tattoo. Id. at 8.

(92) Id. at 8.

(93) Order of Dismissal, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t Inc., No. 4:11-CV-752 (E.D. Mo. June 22, 2011).

(94) Transcript of Hearing on Motion for Preliminary Injunction at 3, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t Inc., No 4:11-CV-752 (E.D. Mo. June 21, 2011).

(95) Id.

(96) Complaint, supra note 15, at 1-2.

(97) Id. at 2.

(98) Id.

(99) Copyright Registration Number VA-1094-747, entitled “Lion Tattoo” (Feb. 24, 2012).

(100) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 3; UFC Undisputed 3, THQ, http://www.thq.com/ us/ufc-undisputed-3/360 (last visited Mar. 11, 2015).

(101) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 3.

(102) Id. at 3-4.

(103) See id. at 6.

(104) Id.

(105) See 17 U.S.C. [section] 501(a) (2012).

(106) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 6; 17 U.S.C. [section] 106(1).

(107) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 6; 17 U.S.C. [section] 106(2).

(108) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 6; 17 U.S.C. [section] 106(3).

(109) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 6; 17 U.S.C. [section] 106(5).

(110) See Complaint, supra note 15, at 7.

(111) Minute Entry, Escobedo v. THQ, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-2470 (D. Ariz. Dec. 11, 2013).

(112) In addition to the arguments made in this Note, there is a strong argument that human skin is not a “tangible medium of expression” under the Copyright Act; however, addressing that issue is beyond this Note’s scope. For an analysis of that issue see Amelle Sophia Millstein, Slaves to Copyright: Branding Human Flesh as a Tangible Medium of Expression, 4 Pace Intell. Prop. Sports & Ent. L.F. 135, 140 (2014).

(113) Transcript of Hearing on Motion for Preliminary Injunction, supra note 94, at 2.

(114) Id. at 2.

(115) See Laser Tattoo Removal, WebMD, http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/laser-tattoo-removal (last visited Mar. 11, 2015) (discussing laser tattoo removal as the most effective surgical procedure for removing unwanted tattoos).

(116) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101 (2012).

(117) See 37 C.F.R. [section] 202.1 (2012) (“The following are examples of works not subject to copyright … (a) Words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring….”).

(118) See Beasley, supra note 12, at 1162.

(119) Id. In such a case it is possible that the tattoo artist does own the copyright in the “flash” art.

(120) Id.

(121) Id.

(122) 17 U.S.C. [section] 102(a) (2012).

(123) See Perzanowski, supra note 16, at 526-27.

(124) See Complaint, supra note 13, at 3; Complaint, supra note 15, at 2.

(125) See Copyright Registration, supra note 75; Copyright Registration, supra note 99.

(126) See Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 2.

(127) See Copyright Registration, supra note 99.

(128) Since the focus of this Note is on copyrightability of tattoos and not the preliminary drawings, this point will not be examined further.

(129) See supra subsections I.B.1-2.

(130) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101 (2012).

(131) 490 U.S. 730 (1989).

(132) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101.

(133) However, it might be argued that tattooing a person who has numerous tattoos created by multiple tattoo artists could constitute a contribution to a “collective work.”

(134) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106. In the case of a joint work, certain rights granted to the tattoo artist may be limited by the rights of the client.

(135) See Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 1.

(136) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106(1)–(3), (5).

(137) Id. [section] 101.

(138) Id.

(139) Id. (“[T]o transmit or otherwise communicate a … display of the work to … the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”).

(140) Each of these appearances could also implicate the other exclusive rights granted by the Copyright Act, which might be infringed by Tyson or a third party such as a television network.

(141) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106.

(142) Id. [section] 504(b) (“The copyright owner is entitled to recover the actual damages suffered by him or her as a result of the infringement, and any profits of the infringer that are attributable to the infringement and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages.”).

(143) Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, 17 U.S.C. [section] 106A.

(144) 17 U.S.C. [section] 106A(a)(3).

(145) U.S. Const, amend. XIII, [section] 1.

(146) 17 U.S.C. [section] 101.

(147) Id.; see supra subsection I.A.1 (discussing the fixation requirement).

(148) Object, Merriam-Webster, h115ttp://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/object (last visited Mar. 11, 2015).

(149) Declaration of David Nimmer at 16, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entm’t, Inc., No. 4:11-CV-752 (E.D. Mo. dismissed June 22, 2011).

(150) 17 U.S.C. [section] 407(a) (1). The publication requirement is satisfied once copies of the work are distributed to the public “by sale or other transfer of ownership.” Id. [section] 101.

(151) 17 U.S.C. [section] 202 (“Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embothed. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy … in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work….”).

(152) Id. [section] 109(a).

(153) Id. [section] 109(a), (c).

(154) Since [section] 109(c) only allows for display to “viewers present at the place where the copy is located,” it would still preclude Tyson from displaying the tattoo on television or in film. Id.

(155) See supra Section III.B.

(156) Under the Thirteenth Amendment, there is no circumstance in which Whitmill could legally obtain ownership of Tyson’s face. See U.S. Const, amend. XIII, [section] 1.

(157) See Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 1351, 1355 (2013) (“[O]nce a copy … has been lawfully sold (or its ownership otherwise lawfully transferred), the buyer of that copy and subsequent owners are free to dispose of it as they wish.”).

(158) 17 U.S.C. [section] 109(d) (emphasis added).

(159) Sec Verified Complaint for Injunctive and Other Relief, supra note 14, at 3 (first and second alterations in original).

(160) For example, since a tattoo is not a “copy,” if a tattoo artist were to create a tattoo depicting Mickey Mouse, the tattoo artist would not be liable for infringing upon Disney’s copyright in that iconic character.

(161) See supra Section III.B.

(162) A court could conceivably require a person to keep the tattoo covered, or even more extreme, order surgical removal of the tattoo.

(163) See supra text accompanying note 123.

(164) See 17 U.S.C. [section] 101 (2012).

(165) This would not apply to the “performance” rights listed in [section] 106.

(166) U.S. Const, art. I, [section] 8, cl. 8.

(167) See Perzanowski, supra note 16, at 586.




historical and current view of State regulations...

Tattooing Regulations - Body Art Journals - Unique Tattoo Artwork  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
Tattooing and body piercing are flourishing, and the new innovations of branding and scarification continue to develop. Even more evident is the advent of cosmetic tattooing, advertised boldly in the newspapers and phone books as permanent makeup for a beautiful personal investment. While no national databases are available to provide an accurate picture of body art recipients, findings from several small, recent stuthes are consistent. They include published rates of 19 to 23 percent for tattooing among young adults 18 to 25 years of age and rates of 33 percent for body piercing (Armstrong, Roberts, Owen, & Koch, 2004; Drews, Allison & Probst, 2000; Forbes, 2001; Mayers, Judelson, Moriarty, & Rundell, 2002). A recent Ohio University poll found that about one of every seven adults was tattooed, with young adults (18 to 34 years of age) 10 times more likely to have the decorative designs (Hargrove & Stempel, 2003).
Another way to look at the presence of body art is to examine the number of studios in a state; the figures then become phenomenal. In Texas, with a population of 21 million people, almost 900 tattooing studios were registered in the state as of January 2004, with over half that number listed as beauty salons or spas performing cosmetic tattooing. Of the 599 body-piercing studios registered in Texas, approximately 300 combine both tattooing and body piercing. If one estimated that body-piercing studios average five piercings weekly, then over 155,000 yearly would be produced in just one state; the number of tattoos would be over 234,000.
Body art is an invasive procedure: For body piercing, jewelry is inserted into a tract; for tattooing, non-FDA-approved pigment is introduced into the skin by multiple punctures to produce indelible designs; and for permanent cosmetics, pigment is inserted into the eyelids, eyebrows, and lips (Tope, 1995a). Branding is a specific method of scarification resulting in a deliberate keloid formation. In each procedure, there is a release of serosanguinous fluid “accompanying the repetitive puncturing of tattooing, the puncture wounds of body piercing, and the application of heated steel,” predisposing the patron to local infections and systemic illness such as bloodborne diseases (Armstrong & Kelly, 2001, p. 16).
The public may assume that state regulations exist for body art, with regular inspections protecting the client, and that if there are problems with a studio, the state will automatically close it. Often it is not until a body art complication occurs and is reported to state health officials that the public begins to realize just how strong or weak these statutes can be for client safety. In reality, it may take over two years for the due-process procedures to work before a studio is shut down, if it even happens.
The purposes of this article are a) to provide a brief historical perspective of body art regulations, b) present the current status of state statutes as of September 20, 2003, and c) identify continuing concerns for further legislative regulations. While some believe people who get body art get what they deserve (Ferguson, 1999) and would therefore just leave them alone and let the customers have their own problems, effective body art regulations do provide several important guidelines. They
* provide guidance to the artists in safe practices,
* give advice for protection to the public, and
* provide some recourse, if there are complications.
Most reputable body art artists support these enforceable regulations and even work to help create them, as the regulations lend legitimacy to their practice (Armstrong & Fell, 2000; Armstrong & Kelly, 2001; Tope, 1995b).

A Brief Historical Perspective on Body Art Regulations

Tattooing and piercing have been around for thousands of years. While the popularity and acceptance of body art has waxed and waned, many injunctions, laws, and regulations have been implemented. Very early “regulations” included Moses’ remarks in Leviticus 19:28 forbidding any cuttings in the flesh or the printing of any marks. Also, there were the decrees banning tattooing by the Roman and Japanese Emperors, and the French 1869 national laws.
In the United States, the only federal agency that has examined elements of tattooing is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); its concerns are the ingrethents in tattoo pigment. These pigments were listed in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 as “color additives” and intended for topical use. The agency has considered better inspection of the pigments, but has never proceeded to undertake that review. Tattoo pigment for intradermal injection has never been approved (Tope, 1995a; Larkin, 1993).
For a time in the 1950s, several states passed tattooing regulations allowing only physicians to tattoo. Florida’s original statute still remains, although the state now has added doctors of osteopathy and dentists to the list of those allowed to administer tattoos. Also in the 1950s, there was a dramatic increase of hepatitis cases that caused the New York City health officials to close tattoo parlors and ban tattooing. Officials in that metropolitan area wrote that “tattooing was neither necessary, useful, or desirable, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality” (Silvers & Gelb, 1991, p. 308).
Over the past 25 years, there have been many documented changes nationwide to the regulations regarding body art, especially tattooing. In 1979, Goldstein (1979) reported that only three states (California, Hawaii, Maine) had standards or inspections in their regulations, and seven states (Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont) prohibited tattooing. Many states (n = 36) did not report statutes of any type, although 10 of those states (Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia) reported local tattooing ordinances in their larger cities. Goldstein makes the following comments about individual states: “Connecticut had no tattoo ‘parlors’ in the state” and that “the one tattoo parlor in District of Columbia was ‘regularly inspected for sanitary practices’ even though there is no law about tattooing” (Goldstein, p. 913). Montana reportedly had “rules governing tattooing race horses, but not people.”
Newspapers also have published articles about the conditions of tattooing. In 1988, one headline in a Fort Worth paper read, “Tattoo artists of Tarrant County (TX) are not answerable for cleanliness.” The article described “the lack of regulations for sanitation” and suggested that “this was disconcerting despite a two year old warning from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that a dirty tattoo needle can spread infectious diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis” (Polilli, 1988). At that time the only tattoo regulation in Texas was that the client be 21 years of age.
By 1989, 16 states had statutes of some form, requiring either licensing of the studio or licensing of the artist, while 31 states and the District of Columbia still did not have regulations (Stauter, 1989). Five of the 16 states (Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Vermont) still permitted only doctors or dentists to either perform or supervise the tattooing. At the same time, model legislation for disease prevention from tattooing was being proposed. While more states were enacting further legislation, a continued increase in both tattooing and body piercing was occurring, as well as the advent of the AIDS epidemic, the introduction of cosmetic tattooing (1984), and use of laser therapy for tattoo removal (Tope, 1995a). Backinger (1989) also raised concern about “personal service workers,” a term (which included tattoo artists) coined by CDC, and personal service workers’ close personal contact with clients, their exposure to contaminated blood or blood products, and the absence of a “system to ensure that appropriate infections control measures were being employed” (p. 31). Anderson (1992), a dermatologist who had had many patients with poor tattoos, agreed, stating that there was “little or no regulation of the training of tattooists, the sterilization of tattooing instruments, the screening of customers, or the inspection of tattoo parlors” (p. 207).
In that same year, the American Academy of Micropigmentation, an independent, nonprofit organization, was founded by a physician to help physicians, nurses, and derma technicians disseminate new techniques and methods in the field of cosmetic tattooing. A monthly newsletter, a journal, and an opportunity to take the certification examination are all part of membership.
Six years later, Tope (1995a) reported that 17 states had modified their tattoo regulations in the past 15 years, with some states issuing comprehensive regulations for infection control provisions. Using both written and phone inquiries, he obtained information to document 27 states still without tattooing regulations, six states (Alabama, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana) with local ordinances, and four states consistently prohibiting tattooing (Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont). Oregon’s legislation was lauded as the most comprehensive program because it included artist training, an examination, and mandatory continuing education for tattoo artists. Tope also advocated “more mandatory inspections of tattoo facilities and apprentice-ships and licensing for cosmetic and artistic tattoo providers” (p. 796). Body piercing was not discussed in Tope’s article as it was just beginning to become popular.
Following Tope’s regulatory review, Muscarella (1995) questioned the need for further regulations if there was a “low documented incidence of reported complications from tattooing” (p. 1058). Tope’s (1995b) response to this editorial question focused on the poor documentation of tattooing complications, the concerns of artists exposed to contaminated body fluids, and the infrequency with which artists were being vaccinated against hepatitis B virus. Tattooing was still banned in the same four states (Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont) (Barad & Brown, 1997) in 1997.
Recognizing a need for better guidelines for governing the body art industry, the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) gathered a task force of 21 members comprising representatives from three body art organizations, physicians, nurses, health educators, and individuals from relevant federal agencies to create a model code for body art. The intent of the code was to “establish public health criteria and recommendations as well as promote consistent regulations for adoption throughout the nation” (Armstrong & Fell, 2000, p. 27). Both the model code and a comprehensive guidebook for body art were published by NEHA in 1999 under the title Body Art: A Comprehensive Guidebook and Model Code (Body Art Model Code Committee, 1999) (readers can obtain copies by visiting the NEHA Bookstore at http://www.neha.org.) As part of the laudable support for this effort, four major body art organizations wrote letters for the model code that are found in the guidebook. Since the creation of the model code, several states and jurisdictions have referenced them in building their legislative action.
Documentation of body art regulations, which now included body piercing, was provided by Armstrong and Kelly (2001) in an article targeted at school nurses in 1999. While 33 states now had some form of regulation, others (10 states) either maintained or moved to local ordinances. Kansas had joined Oregon in having similar comprehensive regulations for body artists. Armstrong and Kelly noted that several states were reviewing their regulations as the popularity of body art continued.
Two court cases (Massachusetts, 2000, and South Carolina, 2002) tested the lack of state tattooing regulations under the First Amendment, maintaining that it was a form of art and expression (N. Ridley, personal communication, January 23, 2001; University of South Carolina, School of Law, 2002). In South Carolina, the state successfully argued that tattooing posed a risk to public health, and the motion was denied (University of South Carolina, School of Law, 2002), whereas in Massachusetts, the superior court agreed that the statute did violate the First Amendment (N. Ridley, personal communication, January 23, 2001). Subsequently Massachusetts has drafted and approved new regulations.

Current Status of State Regulations

In September 2003, a table was prepared by the author to document the regulations of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the three common types of body art (tattooing, body piercing, cosmetic tattooing), as well as for branding. The table, which is too large to be printed here, can be found at . Much of the information was verified through telephone inquiries to the specific state agencies since some of the initial Internet sources tended to perpetuate old information.
Three major factors seemed to emerge as this table was completed: 1) remaining current with the latest regulations is challenging as some states seem to be changing their response to body art safety each legislative session, 2) the strength of these regulations still varies widely, and c) almost 36 states have changed their body art legislation since 1998.
As of September 2003, 34 states have regulations for both tattooing and body piercing, 39 states for tattooing only, and 35 states specifically for body piercing. Some (Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma–for body piercing only–Massachusetts, and Mississippi) passed their legislation in 2003, and Kentucky’s went into effect in 2004. Four of these states (California, Indiana, Minnesota, and South Dakota) report that they have limited regulations while their cities or counties have developed more stringent local ordinances. In another three states (Connecticut, Florida, and South Dakota), a physician, dentist, or doctor of osteopathy still supervises tattooing. While the language varies, statewide regulations commonly address the definition of body art, the procedures needed for sanitation and sterilization, procedures for single-use items, competency requirements for personnel, infection control, client records and retention, preparation and care of the body art area, and the enforcement measures and prohibitions related to the services. In addition, state laws address concerns that patrons should have skin free from active disease and should not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time the body art is administered.
Of interest are some state regulations that mention branding (n = 19), implants (n = 4), and scarification (n = 4); the newest procedure of tongue splitting is listed and prohibited in two states (Florida and Texas). Three states require that signs disclosing risks be posted in studios (Alabama, Louisiana, and Minnesota), whereas others states (Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, and Louisiana) require a detailed client history, especially with respect to medical conditions like diabetes, blood disorders, and epilepsy. Client records need to be maintained at a studio for two to three years in 26 states, while one state (Alabama) requires six years. Rhode Island mandates a criminal history of the artists and mandatory reporting of body art complications to the health department, but this reporting is being done on a limited basis; two others states (New Hampshire and Hawaii) require that artists have a medical examination before registration. While eight states (Alaska, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Tennessee) describe specific numbers of hours for residentships, others require a specific body of knowledge (and examination) covering content such as bloodborne disease (15 states), sanitation (three states), CPR (three states), and anatomy/physiology (Alaska, Massachusetts); the requirement may relate to tattooing, body piercing, or both. Texas will not implement its recently passed bloodborne-disease course requirement because of budgetary constrains and significant cost impacts. Hepatitis B vaccinations of all body art personnel are required in only eight states (Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia). Written examinations and mandatory continuing education are required in the two states that have the most comprehensive regulations (Kansas, Oregon); Alaska’s new regulations are similar.
The age of the patron at the time of the body art also varies. Eighteen states are firm that patrons must be at least 18 years of age. Another 22 states cite the age of 18 as a guideline, then use language to include parental/guardian consent, notarized signatures, or both, providing latitude for younger patrons to obtain body art. Five other states (Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Tennessee and Wisconsin) allow patrons younger than 18, whereas South Carolina maintains that no body art may be administered until the patron is 21 years of age. Several states also stipulate that the body art artist must be at least 18 years of age.
In contrast, seven states (Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming) have no statewide regulations and still elect to use either city or county ordinances as enforcement tools. In four states, the business licensing of tattooing is emphasized rather than sanitation (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, and the District of Columbia). Only two areas (Idaho and the District of Columbia) have no regulations or ordinances for tattooing, body piercing, or cosmetic tattooing, while Oklahoma still maintains a total prohibition on tattooing.
The popularity of permanent cosmetic tattooing seems to correspond to the amount of industry regulation addressing the procedure. Twenty-nine states mention permanent makeup in their body art regulations, with most of them referencing their original tattooing rules. Five of these states have chosen to separate their cosmetic-tattooing rules from the tattooing and body-piercing regulations. Georgia maintains that only a physician or doctor of osteopathy can tattoo within one inch of the eyes, whereas South Carolina and Hawaii permit only physicians to tattoo on the face. Two states (Maine and New Jersey) use successful completion of the American Academy of Micropigmentation Certification exam as the qualification requirement for those performing permanent makeup. Oklahoma has created its own micropigmentation examination; Nevada and Pennsylvania prohibit permanent cosmetic tattooing in beauty salons; and in New Hampshire, cosmetologists have to consult with physicians regarding their permanent makeup practice.

What Still Needs to Be Done

For many years, the presence of body art was ignored, often because the studios were located “on the other side of town” and only “certain types” of individuals obtained it. It was a service without accountability and scrutiny, commonly referred to as an “artist-customer regulated business” (Armstrong & Kelly, 2001, p. 13). Today, those studios are closer to residential areas, located in local beauty salons, across the street from schools, in the malls, or at fraternity parties. Except in a few states, there are still no specific curriculum, training, or mandatory continuing-education requirements for the artists performing these invasive procedures. Anyone with $300 can purchase a kit from a trade journal, complete with the equipment and procedural videos needed to get started, and become an artist. Creativity abounds with respect to where a body art studio may be established.
The need for up-to-date regulations remains important. While it is commendable that the number and depth of state regulations for body art have risen dramatically over the past 25 years, concerns still remain (Anderson, 1992; Stauter, 1989; Tope, 1995a). More work is needed to protect the public. Areas in which further protection is needed are outlined below.
Standard Precautions
With every body art procedure that is performed there is exposure to contaminated body fluids, yet not all patrons of body art are vaccinated against hepatitis B virus, and few states require vaccinations of the body art personnel. Presently less than half of the states require an examination or even annual attendance at bloodborne-disease courses, or adequate education in sanitation, sterilization, or procedural precautions beyond an initial registration process with the state. In addition, body art artists come from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, so use of a variety of teaching methodologies for this education is important.
In some states, a course on standard precautions given by any organization is accepted to fulfill course requirements, with no specification as to content or length of course. Standard-precautions courses should be industry specific so that body art artists can readily apply the information to their practices–in contrast to course content that contains broad sweeping statistics and information. A novel idea is to use reputable body art artists to help plan, provide, and evaluate the content of standard-precautions courses; NIOSH personnel, in cooperation with OSHA, are presently developing such courses. This approach will certainly stimulate participation. Course regulations should especially cover artists who provide body art in temporary locations such as mobile vans, flea market booths, and rock concert venues, given the questionable surroundings and lack of proper sanitation facilities in these locations.
Documentation of Complications
While most body art continues to be administered without problems, there is a potential for local, as well as systemic, diseases with any break in the skin (Barad & Brown, 1997; Haley & Fischer, 2001; Haley & Fischer, 2003; Hellard, Aitken, Mackintosh, Ridge, & Bowden, 2003; Larkin, 1993; Long & Rickman, 1994; Tope, 1995b). Only one state (Rhode Island) mandates reports of complications to its health department, and this requirement has produced limited results. Overall, there are no states or national databases that effectively collect information on the number of complications arising from body art when and if complications are presented to a health provider. In 2000, among seven children or young adults (10 to 19 years of age) who had received high-ear piercings from a spring-loaded piercing gun, an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa resulted in hospitalization, surgery, and several cosmetic ear deformities; an additional 18 infections were suspected. This occurrence was documented in a state that already had stringent body art regulations and became known because it occurred in a small community (Keene, Markum, & Samadpour, 2004). Importantly, health officials quickly employed effective investigative techniques to report the common-source outbreak; organisms were traced to a single-use disinfectant spray bottle that was being re-used and a sink where the solution had been mixed.
Further examination and scientific research should be undertaken regarding the specific body-piercing instrumentation of spring-loaded piercing guns, especially in relation to upper-ear cartilage piercings. No accurate documentation of complications has been undertaken to characterize the far-reaching effects of this equipment. Meanwhile, the equipment has been associated with numerous reports of infections both with ear lobe and upper-ear cartilage piercings, whether the problem is the blunt trauma predisposing the surrounding pierced tissue of patrons to potential infections, the ability to properly disinfect the equipment, the poor training of shopping-mall employees in the use of the equipment, or improper use of the equipment (Armstrong & Kelly, 2001; Armstrong & Fell, 2000; Keene et al., 2004; Long & Rickman, 1994; More, Seidel, & Bryan, 1999).
In addition, as more people have their body art for longer periods of time, more long-term effects could be noted. One example already observed is the long-term effect of tongue piercings on the gums and teeth (Smith, Wang, & Sidal, 2002). When body art patrons do encounter problems, most clients initially seek advice from the studio artist rather than from health providers, so many problems are not even known in the health community. Many medical personnel do not take the time to publish. Only a few complications (and often the unusual) are published, and publishing cycles can be slow, giving an incomplete picture.
Uniform Regulations
State lawmakers who believe that prohibiting body art, emphasizing business licensing, or pushing for limited regulations can be the way to deal with this phenomenon are being extremely unrealistic. They are denying their citizens quality protection by not proposing a more comprehensive regulatory approach. In Northern Texas and Central Arkansas, tattoo studio artists are extremely pleased that Oklahoma continues to prohibit tattooing–it keeps their business brisk. Oklahoma also has a large body art equipment business in the state. While wishful thinking might hope that body art will go away, the opposite has occurred in the last 20 years, as seen by the sheer number of studios and body art, and the development of further instances of creativity such as branding, scarification, implants, and tongue splitting. Next could be a recent Netherlands trend of implanting tiny pieces of jewelry in the mucous membrane of an eye, a style called “JewelEye” (Reuters, 2004).
While having state regulations is important, the key element is the enforcement of the legislative mandates. Often, the amount of enforcement depends not on the quality of the regulations, but on the human, time, and financial resources of the departments and on the commitment of individuals to making the body art industry safe (Armstrong & Kelly, 2001). For example, in Texas, when the body-piercing regulations were passed, no moneys were appropriated for carrying out any surveillance of the studios. Moneys had to be redirected from tattooing surveillance if there were problems. This statute has since been corrected, but few inspections in body-piercing studios were carried out during that time, even though regulations were in place and complaints were being received.
Unannounced, periodic visits to body art studios would be ideal; unfortunately most states still respond only reactively, to complaints. Interagency cooperation (health departments cooperating with police departments) is also important, as well as the types of infractions for which the regulations provide. Police do not want to waste their time, so “with stiffer penalties with violations, they are more cooperative to assist during enforcement” (Armstrong & Kelly, 2001, p. 15).


This report has provided some history, as well as a current overview, of state regulations for tattooing, body piercing, branding, and cosmetic tattooing. Overall, many states have taken a proactive stance, but more work is needed. The NEHA model code and guidelines (Body Art Model Code Committee, 1999) should continue to be an excellent example for states and local jurisdictions that need to review effective guidelines for both tattooing and body piercing. Environmental health personnel can play an important, proactive educative role in obtaining more legislation based on effective rationale for client safety; body art, in its many forms, is not likely to go away for a long time.
Acknowledgements: The author acknowledges the special assistance of Abbie Cox, B.A., as well as partial funding of this work by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing Research and Practice Committee.

Anderson, R.R. (1992). Tattooing should be regulated. New England Journal of Medicine, 326(3), 207.

Armstrong, M.L., & Fell, R.P. (2000). Body art: Regulatory issues and the NEHA Body Art Model Code, Journal of Environmental Health, 62(9), 25-30.

Armstrong, M.L., & Kelly, L. (2001). Tattooing, body piercing, and branding are on the rise: Perspectives for school nurses. Journal of School Nursing, 17(1), 12-24.

Armstrong, M.L., Roberts, A.E., Owen, D.C., & Koch, J.R. (2004). Toward building a composite of college students influences with body art. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 27, 273-291.

Backinger, C. (1989). Personal service workers: A critical link in the AIDS education chain? AIDS Education and Prevention, 1(1), 31-38.

Barad, M., & Brown, G. (1997). Health hazards of body modification. Disease Prevention News, Texas Department of Health, 57(8), 1-3.

Body Art Model Code Committee. (1999). Body art: A comprehensive guidebook and model code. Denver, CO: National Environmental Health Association.

Drews, D.R., Allison, C.K., & Probst, J.R. (2000). Behavioral and self-concept differences on tattooed and non-tattooed college students. Psychological Reports, 86, 475-481.

Ferguson, H. (1999). Body piercing. British Medical Journal, 319, 1627-1630.

Forbes, G.B. (2001). College students with tattoos and piercings: Motives, family experiences, personality factors, and perception by others. Psychological Reports, 89, 774-786.

Goldstein, N. (1979). Laws and regulations relating to tattoos. Journal of Dermatology Surgical Oncology, 5(11), 913-915.

Haley, R.W., & Fischer, R.P. (2001). Commercial tattooing as a potentially important source of Hepatitis C Infection. Medicine, 80(2), 134-151.

Haley, R.W., & Fischer, R.P. (2003). Are stuthes of acute hepatitis adequate to identify routes of transmission of subclinical hepatitis C infection? Archives of Internal Medicine, 163(9), 1095-1098.

Hargrove, T., & Stempel, G.H. (2003). Generations sharply disagree over tattoos. http://www.newspolls.org (5 July 2003).

Hellard, M., Aitken, C., Mackintosh, A., Ridge, A., & Bowden, S. (2003). Investigation of infection control practices and knowledge of hepatitis C among body-piercing practitioners. American Journal of Infection Control 31(4), 215-220.

Keene, W.E., Markum, A.C., & Samadpour, M. (2004). Outbreak of pseudomonas aeruginosa infections caused by commercial piercing of upper ear cartilage. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(8), 981-985.

Larkin, M. (1993). Ancient art requires care and caution. FDA Consumer, 15, 29-33.

Long, G.E., & Rickman, L.S. (1994). Infectious complications of tattoos. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 18, 610-619.

Mayers, L.B., Judelson, D.A., Moriarty, B.W., & Rundell, K.W. (2002). Prevalence of body art (body piercing and tattooing) in university undergraduates and incidence of medical complications. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 77, 29-34.

More, D.R., Seidel, J.S. & Bryan, P.A. (1999). Ear-piercing techniques as a cause of auricular chondritis. Pediatric Emergency Care, 15(3), 189-192.

Muscarella, V.A. (1995). State and territorial regulation of tattooing in the United States. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 33(6), 1058.

Polilli, S. (1988, February 1). Tattoo artists of Tarrant County are not answerable for cleanliness. Fort Worth StarTelegram, p. 45.

Reuters. (7 Apr. 2004). Eyeball jewelry a new Dutch fashion trend: Surgeons implant glittering shapes into eye’s membrane. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4685961/ (15 Nov. 2004).

Silvers, D.N., & Gelb, H. (1991). The prohibition of tattooing in New York City. American Journal of Dermatopathology, 13(3), 307-309.

Smith, R.A., Wang, J., & Sidal T. (2002). Complications and implications of body piercing in the head and neck. Current Opinion in Otolarynogoloy and Head and Neck Surgery, 10(3), 199-205.

Stauter, R.L. (1989). Laws regulating tattooing. American Journal of Public Health, 79(9), 1307-1308.

Tope, W.D. (1995a). State and territorial regulation of tattooing in the United States. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 32, 791-799.

Tope, W.D. (1995b). State and territorial regulation of tattooing in the United States. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 33(6) 1058.

University of South Carolina, School of Law. (4 Mar. 2002). State vs. White: Appeal from Florence County. http://www.law.sc.edu/opinions/25421.htm (18 June 2003).

Myrna L. Armstrong, Ed.D., R.N., F.A.A.N.

Corresponding Author: Myrna L. Armstrong, Professor and RN-BSN Coordinator, School of Nursing, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, TTU-Highland Lakes, Marble Falls, TX 78654




separating the service from the message...

Tattoos Versus The Tattooist | Separating The Message From The First Amendment Right | Body Art Discussions | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice



Tattooing has become a commonplace practice in the United States over the last few decades.1 Celebrities increasingly sport visible tattoos, and so does the mainstream American public.2 Moreover, tattooing is gaining recognition across the country as a form of art and is increasingly the subject of museum and art shows.3 If the tattoo is a piece of artwork, then the process of creating such art could be considered protected First Amendment speech. Indeed, the past few years have seen scholars arguing for constitutional protection of the tattooing process.* But unlike other types of art, tattooing can have serious health consequences for the tattoo recipient, including allergic reactions to the ink and serious skin infections.5

To address these health risks, states and cities have implemented strict regulations on tattooing. As of 2003, thirty-nine states had tattooing regulations.6 Other states have no statewide regulations but choose to allow municipal or county ordinances to regulate.7 These regulations range from mandates concerning the sterilization procedures to be used by the tattooists8 to outright bans on tattooing.9 The harshness of some of these regulations has brought tattooists to the courts to protect their businesses, claiming that tattooing is part of their right to free speech under the First Amendment. Their success in the courts has varied widely.

In reviewing these First Amendment claims, some courts dismiss tattooing altogether, holding that the process of tattooing is not even symbolic conduct, much less pure First Amendment speech.10 In Turkew v. Sinclair, for example, a federal district court recognized that the speech arising from the tattooing process differed significantly from the speech embothed in the tattoo itself.11 The tattoo was “clearly more communicative” than the process of tattooing and, furthermore, the average observer would not view the tattooing process itself as communicative.12 Consequently, the court found that the tattooing process was “not sufficiently communicative in nature” to fall within the realm of symbolic conduct protected by the First Amendment.13

Other courts have treated tattoos as a type of art form – entitled to full First Amendment protection – and have given tattooing the same protected status of pure speech.14 For example, in Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, the Ninth Circuit held that because all tattoos are forms of pure speech, the process of tattooing necessarily leads to pure speech.15 Because the tattooing process leads to pure speech, the process should not be separately analyzed as conduct apart from the end result.16 The court stated that the act of painting is never separated from the resulting painting and so neither should the process of tattooing be separated from the tattoo.17 Accordingly, the court held that the process of tattooing was pure speech, similar to a commissioned art.18

Thus, whether a court finds tattooing to be protected under the First Amendment seems to rise or fall on one issue: whether the process of tattooing should be analyzed separately from the message conveyed by the tattoo or if the tattooing process and the tattoo are inseparable for First Amendment purposes.19 Courts that refuse to separate the tattooing process from the tattoo find both to be protected speech.20 On the other hand, courts that examine the tattooing process independently of the tattoo find that tattooing should not receive any First Amendment protection.21 Thus, separation plays an important part in the debate because it ultimately can determine what, if any, First Amendment guarantees tattooing receives.

After examining the reasons for and against separation, this Comment argues that because the speech created by the tattooing process belongs to the customer and not to the person who actually injected the ink, separation of the tattooing process from the resulting tattoo is necessary for First Amendment analysis. Unlike a commissioner of art, the tattoo customer determines what message, if any, the tattoo conveys. Part II of this Comment gives background on the Supreme Court’s treatment of art and symbolic conduct under the First Amendment and gives a detailed summary of important court decisions on the speech aspects of the tattooing process. Part III shows that because the tattooing process does not always lead to pure speech and substantially differs from commissioned art, separation of the process from the tattoo is necessary. Part IV explores the impact of separation on the constitutional protection for the process of tattooing and the consequently permissible regulations, as well as the impact of separation for other collaborative processes that result in communication. Finally, Part V gives a brief conclusion.




The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”22 What qualifies as speech is perhaps best defined, first, by what it is not. Incitement to violence, fighting words, libel, obscenity, and child pornography may involve speech, but they do not receive any constitutional protection23 because they are considered low-value types of speech that do not further First Amendment values.24 Outside of these categories of unprotected speech, any use of words, oral or written, is protected under the First Amendment.25

While words themselves are certainly protected by the First Amendment, “the Constitution looks beyond written or spoken words as mediums of expression.”26 Artistic mediums that use pictures, music, or movement rather than words to express an idea are also protected by the First Amendment. Justice Souter has declared: “It goes without saying that artistic expression lies within this First Amendment protection.”27 Elsewhere, the Court has called paintings and music “unquestionably shielded.”28 Indeed, music, live performances, and paintings have received protection in several Supreme Court cases.29 But the Court has failed to offer a detailed explanation for its protection of art or how art fits within the First Amendment.30 The exact level of art’s protection is also uncertain as the Court has left open the exact test for the protection of artwork.31 But, while the Court has not offered any definitive opinion about what types of art are protected, clues can be found within the Court’s previous decisions.

In affording First Amendment guarantees to art, the Court seems to emphasize the communicative nature of art.32 For example, the Court has reasoned that films are included in the First Amendment because they “are a significant medium for the communication of ideas” that can espouse a particular agenda or subtly mold a viewer’s thoughts.33 In defending art as speech, Justice Souter has stated that the constitutional protection of art does not rest on any political significance but rather on the piece’s “expressive character.”34 But although art may generally receive protection for its communicative possibilities, no “narrow, succinctly articulable message” is required of an artwork for it to be protected by the First Amendment.35 Therefore, the First Amendment covers even abstract artwork that arguably lacks a distinct message.36

Lower courts have also emphasized the artist’s intent to communicate when analyzing the protection of art under the First Amendment.37 For example, in White v. City of Sparks, the Ninth Circuit protected a painting “so long as it is an artist’s self-expression . . . because it expresses the artist’s perspective.”38 Also in White, the Ninth Circuit reserved the question of whether “paintings that are copies of another artist’s work or paintings done in an art factory setting where the works are mass-produced by the artist” would receive any First Amendment protection.39 The court’s reservation of this question indicates that it was comfortable in affording constitutional protection to artwork only when there were no questions concerning authorship or the author’s communicative input into each artwork.

The Supreme Court has also recognized that beyond words and artistic mediums, conduct may be sufficiently communicative to qualify as speech. The Court has noted that “[symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas.”40 Given this communicative value, the Court has protected some conduct as symbolic speech.41 But the Court has refused to extend First Amendment protection to the “apparently limitless variety of conduct” that could be claimed as speech “whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea.”42 Thus, in Spence v. Washington, the Court protected the government’s interest in regulating a course of conduct by limiting protection to conduct where “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message was present, and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.”43 Instances of protected symbolic conduct include wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War,44 taping a peace sign on an inverted American flag,45 burning an American flag,46 and marching in an organized parade.47

Even if speech falls within the protection of the First Amendment, however, regulation may be permissible. The protection of the First Amendment is not absolute.48 Some government regulation may be constitutional even though it regulates protected speech.49 In determining what types of regulation are permissible, the Supreme Court has typically divided regulations of protected speech into two categories: content- based regulations and content-neutral regulations.50 Content-based regulations aim at the content of a message and thereby attempt to shut down certain messages or viewpoints.51 Content-neutral regulations, on the other hand, “limit communication without regard to the message conveyed.”52 These regulations are often referred to as time, place, and manner restrictions because they aim at regulating the circumstances surrounding the speech and not the actual message.53

Because content- based and content-neutral regulations present differing First Amendment concerns,54 the Court uses different tests to determine the constitutionality of each. “Content-based restrictions are more likely than content-neutral restrictions to distort public debate, to be tainted by improper motivation, and to be defended with constitutionally disfavored justifications.”55 For these reasons, content-based regulations are subject to strict scrutiny.56 That is, the government interest at hand must be compelling, and the regulation must be narrowly tailored to meet this government interest.57 Content-neutral regulations can similarly undermine First Amendment principles by limiting the “availability of particular means of communication.”58 But because content neutral regulations do not distort debate or favor a certain viewpoint, they are subject to a lower level of scrutiny.59 Thus, a content- neutral regulation must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest” and must “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”60

Regulation of symbolic conduct, however, is not subject to these same standards. Symbolic conduct is not “pure speech”; it necessarily combines both speech and non-speech elements. As a threshold matter, a regulation of symbolic conduct must not aim directly at the regulated conduct’s expressive elements but rather may impose only an incidental limitation on the First Amendment.61 Otherwise, the regulation is content-based discrimination subject to strict scrutiny.62 An incidental regulation of symbolic conduct is “sufficiently justified … if it furthers an important or substantial governmental interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.”63 In this way, the regulation is similar to a time, place, or manner restriction in that it is not seeking to limit the message but rather the way that the message is conveyed.64


While several cases have examined whether a tattoo by itself is speech under the First Amendment,65 less than ten cases have actually analyzed the speech qualities of the tattooing process to determine whether it is entitled to First Amendment protection. These cases have come down on both sides of the issue. A majority of courts have held that the tattooing process, analyzed apart from the tattoo itself, was not protected speech or symbolic conduct.66 In contrast, by refusing to separate the process of tattooing from the tattoo, other courts have held that the tattooing process is protected as First Amendment speech.67


Although all the cases that separate the tattooing process from the tattoo conclude that tattooing is not symbolic conduct, their mode of analysis falls into two general camps. Some cases simply declare, with little analysis, that the tattooing process is not symbolic conduct. The other cases find that tattooing is not symbolic conduct because, unlike the tattoo itself, tattooing is not communicative. But both groups of cases fail to provide a detailed justification for the separation of the tattoo and the process of tattooing.

Of the cases that separate the tattoo from the tattooing process, some hold that tattooing is not speech or symbolic conduct but fail to provide support for the holding.68 The court in People v. O’Sullivan simply declared that “[whether tattooing be an art form … or a ‘barbaric survival, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality,’. . . we do not deem it speech or even symbolic speech”69 and provided no additional analysis of the speech qualities of tattooing. To the court, even if the tattooing process were speech or symbolic conduct, the regulation would still be constitutional due to the health risks of tattooing.70 Likewise, the court in State ex rei Medical Licensing Board v. Brady held that the process of tattooing was not protected speech, even after admitting that the First Amendment protects a “wide range of expression.”71 To support this holding, the court simply cited previous cases holding that tattooing was not speech.72 Beyond finding these cases “persuasive,” the court did not discuss the issue further.73 The court in State v. White continued this trend by proceeding straight to the Spence test without mentioning the speech qualities of the tattoo.74 In applying the Spence test, the court found that the tattooing process was “not sufficiently communicative to warrant protections”75 and yet provided no analysis for this assertion.

On the other hand, courts that do provide meaningful analysis on this issue mostly find that tattooing is not symbolic conduct because it is only the tattoo itself that communicates. For example, Yurkew v. Sinclair held that tattooing was “undeniably conduct” that did not “rise to the level of displaying the actual image” and simply was not as communicative as the tattoo itself.76 The court found no showing that the average observer “would regard the process of injecting dye into a person’s skin through the use of needles as communicative.”77 Thus, the court held that the process of tattooing was not symbolic conduct.78 Because no First Amendment rights were implicated, refusal to rent a booth for tattooing at the state fair survived under rational-basis review.79 Similarly, in Hold Fast Tattoo v. City of North Chicago a federal district court held that tattooing failed the Spence test. To the court, the process of tattooing was “one step removed from actual expressive conduct.”80 The court felt that tattooing was a mechanism for speech and not speech itself.81 To support this assertion, the court likened the process of tattooing to a sound truck, in that both are used to convey a message but do not by themselves receive First Amendment protection.82

Significantly, none of the cases that separate the process of tattooing from the tattoo discuss the reason for this separation. Even the courts that found tattoos to be communicative did not find that the tattoo’s speech properties prevented separating the tattoo from the tattooing process.83 Nor do these cases even discuss this possibility. But the cases that do not separate the process from the tattoo do spend time examining how the tattoo’s speech qualities factor into the decision to whether to separate the two.


Of the few cases that do not employ a separate analysis for the process and for the tattoo, all found that the process of tattooing was pure speech. These courts have emphasized the artistic nature of tattoos, leading to the conclusion that tattooing is art created by the tattooist, and, therefore, pure expression. In Commonwealth v. Meuse, for example, the court focused on the current social view of tattoos as acceptable and even artistic.84 Considering the social acceptance of tattooing, the court held that “[t]attooing cannot be said to be other than one of the many kinds of expression so steadfastly protected by our Federal and State Constitutions.”85 This ruling was later reaffirmed by the same court in 2007.86

In a similar vein, the Ninth Circuit in Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach has held that tattoos are pure artistic expression; unlike other cases, Anderson used this finding to give a detailed explanation as to why the process behind the tattoo should not be subject to a separate analysis.87 The court reasoned that tattoos themselves are combinations of forms of pure expression, regardless of the choice of medium.88 The Spence test is applicable only when a process results in conduct that does not always convey a message rather than a process that always results in pure speech.89 Because tattoos are pure speech, the court reasoned, the process of tattooing should not be separated from the resulting tattoo and subjected to the Spence test.90 Otherwise, the court suggested, the act of painting could be analyzed as conduct separate from the painting itself.91 As with other collaborative processes, such as commissioned art or a news article overseen by multiple editors, the fact that several people contribute to the end result does not revoke First Amendment protection.

After determining that all aspects of the tattooing process, including its business side, are protected speech,93 the court found, under a strict scrutiny analysis, that a total ban on tattooing was not sufficiently tailored to the significant health interests at issue nor did it leave open adequate alternative channels of communication.94 Having the same symbol on a shirt or other medium is not the same message as a tattoo because the essence of the tattoo’s message is wrapped up in its permanence and its painful placement directly onto the body.95 Thus, the tattoo is not only a more effective medium of communication, as a sound truck is more effective than simple oral communication, but it also communicates a unique message that no other medium can entirely capture.96 For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit struck down the city-wide ban on tattooing as facially unconstitutional.97


As established in Part II, courts are divided on whether the process of tattooing and the tattoo should be treated as one for First Amendment analysis or whether the two should be treated as distinct forms of speech. Although the courts that have separated the two have not provided much analysis or support, the choice to separate is the correct one. Careful examination into the tattoo itself and the tattooing process exposes cracks in the foundation of the cases that refuse to separate the tattooing process from the tattoo. First, because many tattoos lack a communicative function, not all tattoos are pure speech. Second, the courts’ comparison of the tattooing process to commissioned art is improper given the tattooist’s low level of input into the tattoo’s message and into the aspects of the tattoo itself. For these reasons, courts should separately analyze the tattooing process and tattoos when determining their protected status under the First Amendment.


For the courts that choose not to separate the tattoo from the tattooing process, the argument is simple. A process that creates pure speech, such as writing or painting, is never separated from the resulting speech.98 Tattoos are considered art” or forms of pure speech.100 Therefore, tattooing should not be distinguished from the tattoo for First Amendment analysis because tattooing is a process that leads to pure speech.101 But there is a problem with the underlying premise that all tattoos are artistic and thus forms of pure speech. Many tattoos are not meant to be communicative and are not treated as such by the courts. As a result, the logic of Anderson and Meuse falls apart, leaving the correct approach: the separation of the tattooing process and the tattoo according to the Spence test.


While many tattoos are expressive in nature, others simply are not. Some tattooees have no communicative motive for receiving a tattoo. Perhaps the best example of a non-expressive tattoo is the cosmetic tattoo, otherwise known as permanent makeup. Cosmetic tattooing is done around the eyes or lips and gives an appearance of eyeliner, fuller eyebrows, or lip liner.102 The common reasons for getting a cosmetic tattoo have nothing to do with expression. Many recipients of cosmetic tattoos merely “desire to improve their appearance” and to “look their best at all times.”103 Besides hoping for an aesthetic improvement, cosmetic tattooees choose to be tattooed in order to “decrease the amount of time they spend in applying makeup.”104 The desire to look better and to spend less time applying makeup has no communicative value. These tattooees are not trying to speak with their permanent makeup; they are simply trying to look their best. While other types of tattoos can be used for a wide range of potential communicative purposes, such as proclaiming membership with a group, registering important personal events, memorializing loved ones, or even expressing passions or hobbies,105 cosmetic tattoos present none of these communicative purposes.

In a similar vein, when asked what the experience has done for them, cosmetic tattooees most commonly answer that the cosmetic tattoo has boosted their self-confidence.106 Notice that this answer does not reaffirm any type of message; rather, it is tied to a perceived improvement in appearance. This sharply contrasts the answers of recipients of body tattoos when asked what effect the tattoo has had on their life. One interviewee described how “things that were . . . a big part of my life are now on my body.”107 Another noted that her tattoos connect her to others with tattoos and also separate her from the non-tattooed population.108 “Tattooees consistently conceive of the tattoo as having impact on their definition of self and as demonstrating to others information about their unique interests and social connections.”109 Thus, recipients of body tattoos tend to believe that their tattoos change their own views and the views of others while cosmetic tattooees find changes only in personal appearance and self-confidence.

Nor are cosmetic tattoos the only type of tattoos received for non-expressive purposes; they are merely one example. Any tattoo may be non-expressive if the tattooee had no communicative purpose in mind. As tattoos have gained in popularity, tattoos could be chosen merely as a type of fashion statement that does not merit First Amendment protection as speech. This seems more possible given the tattoo’s rise in popularity.

Further, tattoos are no longer viewed by society as “an act of rebellion or deviance, associated with sailors, carnival performers, criminals, and other marginal groups in society.”110 In recent years, tattooing has become quite popular among the mainstream public.111 The data on the subject is quite revealing. “Of Americans age eighteen to twenty-four . . . only twenty-nine percent describe tattoos as ‘freakish,’ and fifty-three percent find tattoos ‘artistic.'”112 Middle-class, suburban women are “the single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoos.”113 The Pew Research Center found in 2007 that thirty-six percent of young adults age eighteen to twenty-five have a tattoo and that forty percent of adult’s age twenty-six to forty have a tattoo.114

As tattoos become fashionable, the fashion-forward may choose a tattoo for the same reasons they pick an outfit.115 Case stuthes examining the reasons for getting a tattoo find “they look good” to be a common reason.116 In one study, almost a third of tattooees surveyed “described their tattoos as decorative with no symbolic meanings” attached to them.117 Another study found diat while the majority of tattooees surveyed chose to get the tattoo as a means of individual expression, others chose it merely as a fashion statement.118 As one tattooist laments, “Tattooing’s become fashion now, it’s become trendy. . . . Whether it’s a tattoo or a pair of shoes or something, they treat it as the same tiling. It’s a fashion statement.”119 This idea is reinforced by one tattooee who described her neck tattoo as “just very decorative, like a permanent necklace.”120

Perhaps it could be argued that the permanence of a tattoo distinguishes it from other fashion choices and makes the tattoo naturally expressive, regardless of communicative intent. Fashion choices such as an outfit or hairstyle are transitory, easily changed at any time. Tattoos, on the other hand, reflect a greater, more permanent commitment to the image. But the image is not absolutely permanent; it can be removed by costly and painful surgery.121 Furthermore, other fashion statements can be worn day in and day out – almost to the same level of permanence. The wearing of a certain necklace everyday does not necessarily raise it from fashion choice to expressive statement.



The lack of creative input or expression from the tattooist into the tattoo provides another reason for separately analyzing the tattoo and the tattooing process for First Amendment purposes. One major premise of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Anderson is that the process of tattooing should not be separated from the tattoo because “both the tattooist and the person receiving the tattoo are engaged in expressive activity.”136 The court likened tattooing to a piece of commissioned art.137 Even though Michelangelo did not choose the subject of his painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is still his masterpiece and, therefore, his speech.138 The same is said for a newspaper writer who receives assignments and feedback from his or her editor.139 As applied to tattooing, the court stated that the tattoo artist was still rendering art, the tattoo, regardless of whether the paying customer had the final say in the design chosen.140 If the tattooist and the tattooee were indeed both speaking, this would provide a compelling reason to analytically fuse tattooing and tattoos. But the amount of creative input and the singularity of the speech conveyed by the tattoo distinguish tattooing from commissioned art in such a way that invalidates a comparison of the two. Unlike a commissioned painting, society views the tattoo as almost entirely the speech of the customer.


The cases that refuse to separate the tattoo from the tattooing process observe that tattooing has become an art. True, tattooing has of late gained recognition as an art form.141 Anderson noted the “skill, artistry and care that modern tattooists have demonstrated.”142 Tattooing is increasingly the subject of museum and gallery exhibitions and is discussed by academics and critics of the art world.143 But while the tattoo may be artistic, a tattooist has much lower level of creative input into a tattoo than a traditional commissioned artist. Indeed, the amount of the tattooist’s input varies greatly depending on whether the tattooist performs custom work or highly standardized “flash” tattooing.

In custom tattooing, each tattoo is a unique creation. Input from both the tattooist and the customer is expected, and both work together to create the exact design for the tattoo.144 But this is not the only type of tattooing practiced. In fact, custom-only shops are the minority of tattoo shops.145

Flash tattooing lies on the other side of the spectrum from custom tattooing. Flash tattoos are generated from “highly standardized tattoo designs,” usually found on large sheets on the walls of the establishment.146 These designs may be created by the tattooist or can even be purchased from other tattooists or “mail order tattoo design companies.”147 Indeed, most of the flash sheets in contemporary tattoo shops originated in the 1970s or 1980s.148 The tattooist traces the tattoo outline from the design onto the skin and then proceeds to fill in the outlines with color.149 Due to their standardized nature, these types of tattoos seem more like a rendered service than artwork.

Comparing flash tattoos to either commissioned art or to a news article presents serious problems because tattooists can tattoo without any creative input, unlike a commissioned artist. Typically, an artist working by commission is given a subject or theme with which to work. The artist’s work may even be subject to correction if specific aspects do not match the customer’s expectations. But the commissioner of a painting would not provide the outline of the image and engage an artist merely to paint by numbers. Likewise, while an editor may dictate the subject, tone, length, and viewpoint of a news article, the editor certainly wouldn’t provide the entire outline of an article for the writer to simply fill in with a few sentences and quotations. Nor would an artist buy the outline of another artist’s work to recreate the work on another canvas.

Yet this is what a flash tattooist does. A flash tattooist technically would never have to create any original design but could just fill in the outlines provided by other tattooists. No original, creative input from the tattooist is needed. The tattooist usually does not make any creative decision regarding the tattoo’s size, location, coloring, or even the design itself. Thus, because these choices are left to the customer, little creative outlet remains for the flash tattooist to render his or her own expression.

If a tattooist purchases his or her designs from a tattoo design company and the company has a copyright on those designs, then this would seem to raise questions about the true authorship of the tattoo. The Ninth Circuit in White v. City of Sparks explicitly chose not to decide whether paintings that were copies of another artist’s work would receive any First Amendment protection.150 A flash tattoo can be an exact copy of another artist’s work onto a customer’s skin. Accordingly, the tattooist’s lack of creative authorship for the tattoo raises basic concerns over whether the tattoo should be even considered the tattooist’s art, much less whether the tattooist should be protected by the First Amendment.

Therefore, the complete lack of artistic contribution by the tattooist in some types of tattooing is a major difference between tattooing and commissioned arts. The First Amendment should not be stretched to protect a tattooist who had no creative input in the formation of the tattoo and only supplied a service. Even the tattooists who do create the tattoos themselves lack substantial input into the decisions concerning the ultimate message behind the tattoo.


Just as the creative input of the tattooist differs from the input of traditional commissioned artists, so does the tattooist’s input into the message of the artwork differ from that of a typical commissioned artist. The entire message behind the artwork in question, the tattoo, derives from the customer. A claim that the tattooist is the speaker cuts against the intensely personal symbol of tattoos, especially given the tattoo’s placement upon the tattooee.

It is the customer that imbues the tattoo with meaning and not the tattooist. The customer comes to the tattooist to affix a message to his or her body. There are innumerable reasons for a customer to choose a particular tattoo. Some tattoos communicate a connection between the tattooee and another. Alternatively, tattoos can be a means of identifying with a gang or other group.151 “The tattoo is a powerful symbol of affiliation and identity.”152 Tattoos can also act as a registration of significant, personal events or a “private diary.”153 A vow tattoo expresses “love and commitment” to a significant other.154 But tattoos are not received only to show connection to others; tattoos are also a means of self-expression, a way to describe who the individual is.155 Due to the placement of the symbol onto the skin itself, many tattoos convey a message about the tattooee’s own body.156 For example, those who have received tattoos have described the tattoo as a way of reclaiming the body for oneself or even as a “statement of ownership over the flesh.”157

While these are only a few of the possible motivations behind getting a tattoo, they all focus on the tattooee, not the tattooist. It is the tattooee who is part of the group. It is tattooee who shows dominance over his or her body. The tattooee proclaims love for another or records the tattooee’s experiences. The tattoo is displayed on the tattooee. The tattooist simply has no automatic part in determining the meaning of the tattoo’s message. In commissioned arts, even when the artist has not chosen the subject, the end product is still regarded as the artist’s message, the artist’s speech. This is seen by the court’s treatment of artwork, where art is protected speech when it represents the artist’s own expression.158

Furthermore, tattooists have little-to-no say concerning the aspects of the tattoo. The customer is the one to make all of the significant decisions concerning the tattoo. The customer may seek the tattooist’s advice on such matters, but the ultimate control over the design, location, and size of the tattoo is in the hands of the customer. These aspects of the design can play into the message behind the tattoo. For example, one tattooee had a grenade tattooed on his chest “like armour, protecting me from those who’ll break my heart.”159 In this case, the placement of the tattoo was very significant to the tattoo’s overall meaning. By controlling the other decisions concerning the tattoo, the tattooee controls more than just where it is or how big it is: the tattooee actually controls the message behind the tattoo.

It is true, as declared in Anderson, that the choice of medium does not factor into whether speech occurred.160 But the choice of medium emphasizes the speech of the tattooee over that of the tattooist because placing the tattoo upon the skin communicates messages about the tattooee’s body. For a tattooist, the medium chosen is not dead, unfeeling canvas or wood, but living human tissue. Because the medium is the customer, the message must belong solely to the customer.

Part of the message inherent in the tattoo is that the body of the recipient is something capable of being controlled. Obviously, the tattooist does not communicate control over his or her body – the tattooee does. Placement of a design upon one’s own body indicates a much higher level of personal speech and commitment to the message than commissioning a painting. Furthermore, “central to a lot of contemporary tattoo and piercing talk is the idea of individuation, of the tattoo … as ‘a declaration of me-ness.”‘162 Thus, the unique medium emphasizes that this is the speech of the recipient and not the distributor.

Because the design, size, and even message are chosen by the tattooee, the execution of the design is the only possible element of speech left for the tattooist. But this is not as communicative as the tattoo itself. As the court in Yurkew stated: “Here, even assuming that tattooing constitutes an art form, [the] plaintiff’s interest in engaging in conduct involving tattooing does not rise to the level of displaying the actual image conveyed by the tattoo, as the tattoo itself is clearly more communicative.”163 Execution of a design should not receive First Amendment protection. Consider, for example, a cake decorator who executes a design upon a cake chosen by his or her customer. One would not typically conceive of this work as constitutionally protected speech. Cake decorating lacks a communicative purpose and, therefore, does not appear to be speech. Likewise, a tattooist must have a communicative intent behind the execution of the design in order for the act of tattooing to count as protected speech. Since the tattoo does not represent the tattooist’s communication, execution of the tattoo design should not be protected speech.


Separating the tattooing process from the resulting tattoo may lead the process to receive less constitutional protection and, consequently, subject tattooing regulations to a more deferential standard of scrutiny. Also, a choice to not separate the tattoo from tattooing could have significant ramifications for other types of collaborative processes.


Separating the tattoo from the tattooing process requires that each be analyzed for their speech content under the First Amendment. Because some subsets of tattoos are not forms of pure expression, tattoos as a whole cannot be labeled pure speech. Otherwise, drawing a line between what does or does not constitute speech becomes impossible. If all tattoos were considered pure speech, then every fashion choice would necessarily also be considered pure speech, leading to untenable results. For example, wearing a certain color or a shirt with sleeves would become constitutionally protected speech. Refusing to label all tattoos as pure speech preserves the distinction between fashion choices meant to communicate an intelligible message from those that do not. Thus, for tattoos, a more individualistic analysis under the Spence test must take place,164 and just as the wearing of a black armband must be examined to see if the intent behind the action was communicative, so must the tattoo be examined for a communicative purpose. But even though the tattoo itself should be considered potential symbolic conduct, the tattooing process is not symbolic conduct but instead should be considered as a medium for others to speak.

All of the courts that have separated the process of tattooing from the tattoo have held that the process itself did not meet the standards for symbolic conduct.165 Most courts have found that the process of tattooing failed both prongs: no intent to convey a communicable message existed nor would a message be understood by an authence.166 Although these courts may not have provided much analysis to support their holdings,167 their ultimate conclusion was correct. The tattooist is not trying to impart his or her own message through tattooing, nor would an authence view the tattooing process as the tattooist’s message.


First, the tattooing process fails to meet the first standard for symbolic conduct because the tattooist does not intend to convey his or her own personal message through the tattoo or through the act of tattooing. The tattooist also does not communicate through the act of tattooing itself. Neither can the tattooist try to claim the tattoo as his or her speech. The tattoo is the expression of the tattooee and not the tattooist. Additionally, the tattoo’s permanent placement on the skin means that no subsequent owners can attach a different meaning to the tattoo.

The act or process of tattooing is not a communication by the tattooist. It is difficult to imagine what the injection of ink into the skin of another would convey. Likely because of this difficulty, tattooists do not claim that the injecting of ink into the skin conveys any type of message by itself but instead tend to claim that they convey a message through the tattoo. For example, in his brief to the Nindi Circuit, tattooist Johnny Anderson argued that “his images are expressive and emotionally evocative.”168

But this claim is misguided because it is the customer who speaks through the tattoo. The tattooist has no input into the message of the tattoo; this is entirely generated by the customer, the owner of the tattoo. As previously discussed,169 the customer alone determines what the tattoo represents. Since the tattooist cannot choose any aspect of the tattoo or the tattoo’s message, the tattoo cannot be the tattooist’s speech.

Additionally, a tattoo differs from a design on other mediums because a tattoo permanently resides with the original owner. While paintings are frequency sold and traded, tattoos cannot be sold, traded, or moved. Once a tattoo is commissioned, it forever resides with the purchaser unless the purchaser takes steps to remove or cover it with another tattoo. Because the tattoo forever stays with the original customer, there is no possibility that a later owner can affix a different interpretation or message to the tattoo. The tattoo can never have significance beyond what the original owner gives it. Thus, the tattooist cannot claim that he or she communicates through tattooing since the actual process of tattooing is not communicative and any message that the tattoo might carry belongs only to the original purchaser of the tattoo.


Furthermore, an authence would not view the injection of dye into the skin as the tattooist communicating a message, as required by the Spence test. Authences may recognize that tattoos have meaning,170 but they would not think of the tattooist as communicating by injecting ink into someone else’s skin. Because tattoos are considered the tattooee’s speech, an observer would not recognize the process of tattooing as a communication of the tattooist. The tattooist is not the one declaring “I love Mom” or a passion for dolphins. It would seem odd to ask a tattooee what the tattooist meant by creating such a design. Questions about the meaning of a tattoo are posed to the tattooee, not the tattooist.171 The focus is on the meaning of the tattooee’s choices, not what message the tattooist intended. Simply put, the tattooee’s speech overwhelms any of that by the tattooist. The observer would not view a tattooist inking another as the tattooist speaking. Because a tattoo’s message focuses on the wearer rather than the tattooist, the tattooing process is not symbolic conduct and hence does not receive First Amendment protection as such.


Even if the tattooing process is not speech, it might receive some First Amendment protection because it is closely related to speech. Some courts that have separated the tattoo from the process have compared the process of tattooing to a sound truck that “enables each customer to express a particularized message, but the sound truck vehicle itself is not expressive.”172 But this analogy is flawed because a sound truck is just one method to express oneself vocally. The sound truck is not necessary for the actual expression itself because the message could still be delivered, although in a different manner, without the truck. In contrast, tattooing is the only means for a customer to express himself symbolically through a permanent tattoo. If a city banned the use of sound trucks, individuals could still proclaim their messages vocally. If tattooing is banned, no one can express herself by receiving a tattoo. Thus, comparing a tattooist to a sound truck presents problems rather than solutions.

Rather than comparing a tattooist to a commissioned artist or a sound truck, a tattooist is more aptly likened to a publishing house. A publishing house provides a mechanism for those who desire to speak to get their message to the public. Yet a publishing house does not create its own message. It is a conduit for others’ speech. Publishing, whether by a formal publishing house or at home, is the only way to create a printed message available to the public. Similarly, tattooing is also a method that makes a certain type of speech possible. It brings that speech into the public arena. But the tattooist, just like the publishing house, is not advocating his or her own message but is merely providing a way for others to speak. It follows that the process of tattooing should thus receive the same amount of First Amendment protection as does a publishing house.

Publishing houses do not create protected speech, but they could receive protection from the First Amendment as a conduit for an entire type of speech. In Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., the Supreme Court applied the First Amendment to a regulation of newspaper racks.173 The Court noted that the licensing scheme at issue concerning the placement of newspaper racks on public lands was directed at “conduct commonly associated with expression.”174 The Court found that this scheme was still subject to First Amendment guarantees because of the potential for censorship of expression.175 Likewise, in Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected newspaper publications from a special use tax on ink and paper.176 Therefore, the tax burdened the printing of speech rather than the actual speech. Even though the tax did not actually regulate protected speech, the Court found that the tax placed “a burden on the interests protected by the First Amendment.”177

Thus, even if the activity at issue isn’t speech itself, an activity that usually accompanies expression could receive some First Amendment protection. These activities receive protection when the action serves to promote or protect “free access of the public to the expression.”178 Although the analogy between newspaper racks and tattooists is not perfect, tattooists also conduct activity that is usually associated with speech but is not speech itself. A tattooist most definitely promotes public access to a type of speech because the tattooist serves as the way for the public to speak through the medium of permanent tattoos. Thus, even though tattooists do not speak themselves when tattooing, the practice could still receive some First Amendment protection.


One of the most significant implications of separating the tattoo from the process is that tattoos and the tattooing process could constitutionally be subject to different types of regulations. The tattoo and the process are considered together only if the tattoo is pure speech. As a result of analyzing them as one, tattooing would then also be pure speech. But when separated from the tattoo, the process of tattooing is not pure speech or symbolic conduct and deserves protection only as a medium used to convey speech.

If the debate centered on whether the tattooing process is pure speech or symbolic conduct, the answer actually would not have much significance as to permissible regulations. If the act of tattooing is pure speech and a city attempts to enact a content neutral regulation, such as a requirement of certain safety procedures, the test used would be the time, place, and manner test. The regulation would have to be tailored to meet a significant government interest while leaving open alternative avenues for communication.179 If the act of tattooing is symbolic conduct, then any regulation would have to pass the O’Brien four-factor test, which requires that an “incidental limitation on First Amendment freedoms” further “an important or substantial government interest” that is “unrelated to the suppression of free expression” and is “no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.”180 While the two tests may employ different words, the two amount to approximately the same level of scrutiny.181

Even if the city attempted to regulate the process of tattooing for content reasons, any difference between defining tattooing as pure speech versus symbolic conduct would be negligible. Regulating tattooing for content would mean that the regulation would fail the O’Brien test, since O’Brien requires that the regulation be an incidental limitation on the First Amendment.182 A content-based regulation is a quintessentially non incidental restriction on speech.183 If the O’Brien test is thus not applicable, the regulation would be subject to strict scrutiny.184 This is the same standard for a content based regulation of pure speech. Therefore, a choice between labeling the tattooing process as pure speech or symbolic conduct has few ramifications.

But if the tattooing process is not speech or symbolic conduct, then a very different standard is applied. A lack of First Amendment protection for tattooing would mean that any regulations of the process of tattooing would only have to pass rational-basis review.185 Because rational basis only requires a legitimate government interest that is reasonably related to the statute,186 almost any statute would pass this standard given the health risks of tattooing.

Generally, tattooing is safe if performed under sterilized conditions.187 But tattooing can present serious health risks not inherent in other types of art. If unsterile tattooing occurs, the recipient is at risk for several infectious diseases, including HIV, syphilis, hepatitis virus, hepatitis D virus, and hepatitis C.188 Bacterial infections are also a possible hazard.189 Skin reactions to the pigments can also occur, ranging from photosensitivity to the different pigments to allergic reactions and metal toxicity.190

Because of these serious health risks, a legislature considering regulation of the practice of tattooing could constitutionally pass almost any measure if the regulations are only subjected to rational – basis scrutiny. Indeed, all of the courts that separated the tattooing process from the tattoo found that the regulation passed constitutional muster.191 Even in White, the court found that a total ban on tattooing within the state was still constitutional.192

But the courts that have subjected tattooing solely to rational basis review have failed to consider the fact that tattooing is a medium for speech. As such, not all regulations may be permitted. Because the goal of the First Amendment is to preserve the free flow of expression,193 regulations that tend to completely shut off mediums for speech or distort the marketplace of ideas have been found unconstitutional. Hence, in Lakewood, the Supreme Court struck down the licensing scheme because of the potential for censorship.194 Because no objective standards existed for the granting or refusal of a license, the licensor could potentially grant licenses exclusively to messages that he or she agreed with.195 This would lead to a distortion of the expression at issue. A licensing scheme for tattooing that lacked objective standards unrelated to the message of the tattoo would likely be unconstitutional in light of Lakewood.

Likewise, a total ban on tattooing would foreclose an entire area of speech and possibly violate the Constitution. Without someone to perform the tattooing, potential speakers wouldn’t be able to share their message through a tattoo. Shutting off a legitimate form of expression is usually an unconstitutional time, place, or manner restriction.196 Even so, some bans of an entire medium have been upheld by the Supreme Court. In Kovacs v. Cooper, the Court upheld a citywide ban on sound trucks as a protection of others from the “distracting noises” of the sound trucks.197 The Court noted that this legislation did not act as a “restriction upon the communication of ideas” through mediums other than sounds trucks.198 This case implies that where the medium is one of many available to convey a message, a ban may be permissible. But this case would not be applicable to tattooing since tattooing is the only means to acquire a tattoo.

Neither does any other medium convey the same message as the tattoo. A temporary tattoo, such as a henna tattoo, cannot communicate in the same manner as a permanent tattoo because permanence of the tattoo generally plays a large role in the tattoo’s overall message.199 Neither would displaying the same design on a tshirt or other item of clothing speak in the same manner as a tattoo would. As mentioned, part of the tattoo’s meaning is derived from its placement on human skin, and so placing that design on inanimate clothing simply is not the same. Since tattooing is the only medium to convey the message of a tattoo, a ban on the act of tattooing would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

Along these same lines, states or cities that permitted tattooing only when performed by a licensed physician would likely also be unconstitutional. While the regulation certainly furthers the government’s interest in public health, a doctors-only provision would severely limit the availability of tattoos and greatly increase their cost. It seems unlikely that a tattooist would attend medical school to pursue his or her vocation. Nor is it likely that already licensed physicians would start specializing in tattooing or even take on tattooing as a part-time job. Thus, requiring that only licensed physicians perform the act of tattooing would essentially shut down an entire medium of expression and would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

In contrast, regulations that do not effectively bar all tattooing or discriminate based on viewpoint would likely pass constitutional muster. Regulations of this type might include statutes that require a physician or other health professional to supervise the tattooing or strict health regulations of the business and practice of tattooing. It is debatable whether requiring health professionals to supervise would effectively shut down all tattooing in the way that requiring tattooing to be performed by a licensed physician would. Tattoo parlors likely would not be able to hire a physician to supervise the work full time; but if the physician did not have to be present for the entire process or only had to ensure that the tattooist was properly using sterilized equipment in a safe manner, then it is plausible that tattooing would still occur legally. Strict regulations, such as requiring a license or mandating the use of certain sterilization procedures and chemicals, would not tend to shut down all tattooing or distort the marketplace. Thus, these types of regulations would be constitutionally permissible due to the important safety issues involved in tattooing.


It may seem unjust to some that the tattooist’s role is downplayed to a service rather than elevated to that of artist, but it is consistent with the way we view many other collaborative processes. The Anderson court reasoned that “[a]s with all collaborative creative processes, both the tattooist and the person receiving the tattoo are engaged in expressive activity.”200 This statement is flawed, however. Usually collaborative creative processes are not treated as if everyone involved was expressing something. A few examples help to illustrate this point.

If all involved in a collaborative process that results in speech are “engaged in expression,” some strange (even absurd) results can occur. For example, if a person went to a barber to have a phrase or name shaved into his head, under this rule, both the barber and the customer would be communicating. This seems ridiculous as clearly it is the customer’s speech and not the barber’s. The barber may have to use his or her creative touch to make the words look nice but he is not speaking in the usual sense of the word. He may help another put his message out there, but the barber is not the speaker. Furthermore, if anyone engaged to help another speak is also speaking, then the friend who applies face paint proclaiming support for a sports team on another is also speaking. The same goes for the person who applies a rub-on tattoo for a friend. These examples may seem silly, but they are all logical outgrowths of the Anderson rationale.

In Anderson, the court decries the separation of tattoos and tattooing, saying that doing so would provide no protection for the process of writing news articles assigned by editors.201 But not separating the tattoo from the process raises a potential problem about the ownership of the speech. If both the writer and the editor are speaking, then do both have claim to the finished article as their speech? The Anderson court would likely be hesitant to say so. If the article was the editor’s speech as well, then any editor who contributed to the article by correcting grammatical errors could possibly lay claim to the article as his or her speech. This result is avoided by separately analyzing the tattoo and the process of tattooing.

Finally, choosing this separation has implications for another area brought into court recently – body piercing as First Amendment speech. In recent years, both individuals owning piercing shops and those with piercings have claimed First Amendment privileges for their right to wear or insert a piercing.202 Just like tattooists, piercers claim that body piercing is an art and communicates ideas of body ownership.203 If piercings are First Amendment speech, as one jurisdiction has found,204 then the Anderson holding would dictate that both the customer and the piercer are speaking through the resultant piercing. This stretches the First Amendment beyond its rightful bounds because many piercers are simply performing a service rather than communicating themselves.

In all of these situations, one person communicates and another helps that person to communicate. But the giving of aid does not necessarily render the helper a speaker for First Amendment purposes. Truly, a state could not completely prohibit the hairdresser or the face painter from rendering their services if it would prevent others from speaking, but it does not mean that they should be viewed as speakers themselves. Courts should remember who is actually putting forth the message when providing First Amendment protection. When courts separate the tattoo from the process of tattooing, they acknowledge that the wearer of the tattoo is the one communicating and thus the one in need of constitutional protection, not the tattooist. If the courts do not emphasize the main speaker at hand, many others could claim a message as their own even if they have not input anything into the actual message at hand.


Tattooing can be a means for a tattooee to communicate a message to the general public. Despite court efforts to afford wide protection to the tattooing process, the simple truth is that some tattoos, such as cosmetic tattoos or self-expression tattoos, are not communicative. Thus, tattoos generally cannot categorically be labeled pure speech. Because the act of tattooing does not always result in pure speech and because it requires little to no creative input from the tattooist, the process of tattooing can be treated differently from other commissioned arts and can be separated from the tattoo for First Amendment purposes.
Once the tattooing process is separated from the tattoo, it becomes obvious that the process cannot qualify as either pure speech or symbolic conduct. The tattooist does not convey his or her own message through the tattoo, nor would an audience view the tattoo as the tattooist’s communication. Tattooing may still receive some First Amendment protection as the only means to speak through a tattoo, but this protection may allow more rigorous regulation than if the process of tattooing was protected speech itself. In light of other collaborative processes, this separation becomes necessary to protect the truly dominant speaker and not the one who provided the mechanism for speech | Hannah H. Porter | JD, April 2012, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University.




body modification as self-control...

Tattooing And The Civilizing Process | Body Art Discussions | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com
North America is experiencing what some call a second “tattoo renaissance” (DeMello, 2000). As part of this revolution in the popular cultural significance of tattooed flesh, tattooing is ascending to unprecedented levels of popularity among a vast array of social groups. Once a long-standing symbol of the North American underclass, this “body project” (Shilling, 1993) is now a floating signifier of a full panorama of social statuses, roles and identities. The tattoo is blossoming as a polysemic symbol of Canadian culture, and is actively inserted into the identity politics of a melange of actors. More so than in any previous era, tattoos are, as Hebdige (1979) might describe, “pregnant” with cultural significance.
Sociologists and other academics, however, almost invariably describe tattooing as cultural deviance (Atkinson, 2003a; DeMello, 2000; Copes and Forsyth, 1993; Irwin, 2000). Studies of tattooing among the mentally challenged (Ceniceros, 1998; Measey, 1972), prisoners (Kent, 1997; Seaton, 1987), gang members (Rubin, 1988), and deviant youth subcultures (Atkinson, 2002), represent the tattoo as a badge of dislocated, ostracized, and disenfranchised communities. Apart from anthropological analyses of tattooing in Japanese, Melanesian, African, and Polynesian cultures (Gell, 1993; Kaplan and Dubro, 1986; Kitamura and Kitamura, 2001; Mascia-Lees and Sharpe, 1992), few social scientific studies portray tattooing as either rational or pro-social. Even comprehensive historical (Caplan, 2000; Gilbert, 2000) or ethnographic (DeMello, 2000; Irwin, 2000; Vail, 1999) analyses of the practice selectively link tattooed bodies to stigmatized populations. Tattooing is decoded as esoterically normative within the boundaries of historically marginal groups, as its profanity well represents group members’ feelings of difference and exclusion. It is deciphered, in Cohen’s (1955) terminology, as a deviant “collective solution” to sentiments of social inferiority.
While tattooing is by no means widely respected in Western cultures, its one-dimensional depiction as uncontested deviance is sociologically myopic (see DeMello, 1995; Fisher, 2002; Friedman, 1996; Gallick, 1996). A majority of empirical analyses of tattooing fail to consider how the body project symbolizes conformity to prevailing cultural body idiom, or expectations of affective control upheld throughout Western nations. Even fewer juxtapose the booming popularity of tattooing against cultural prescriptions to engage in a style of body work underpinned by the impetus to display one’s “individualism” to others. Theorists regularly ignore whether tattooing may be a part of what White and Young (1997) refer to as the established “middle-class body ascetic,” or what Monaghan (2001) describes as “vibrant physicality.”
In this paper, the tattooing projects of selected Canadians are inspected as acts of compliance to “established” (Elias and Scotson, 1965) codes of bodily control and display. While tattooing is not the pinnacle of normative behaviour in Canada, the self-expressed meanings of Canadians’ tattooing projects smack with compliance to a diffuse cultural imperative to engage in disciplined body work. Through a theoretical framework provided by figurational sociology (Elias, 1983; 1994; 1996), contemporary sensibilities about tattooed skin are interpreted as an extension of long-term civilizing processes.


Mainstay social-psychological interpretations of tattooing revolve around a construction of tattoo enthusiasm as inherently pathological (Gittleson and Wallfn, 1973; Grumet, 1983; Houghton et al., 1996; Howell et al., 1971; Newman, 1982). Social psychologists typically contend that a tattooed body is the manifestation of a mind fraught with disorder. Furthermore, they suggest wearers cannot conform to dominant social norms, values and beliefs as a result of developmental or cognitive defect (see Williams, 1998). If we accept classic social psychological interpretations of tattooing offered by Gittleson et al. (1969), Goldstein (1979), Lombroso-Ferrero (1972), Measey (1972) and Pollak and McKenna (1945), tattooing predicts more serious deviance; as individuals who brutally mutilate their bodies in such a barbaric way cannot contain other “primitive” or contra-normative impulses.
In related medical and epidemiological research, tattooing is attributed to youth impetuousness and irrationality (Armstrong, 1994; 1995; Armstrong and McConnell, 1994; Armstrong and Pace-Murphy, 1997; Armstrong et al., 2000; Grief and Hewitt, 1998; Gurke and Armstrong, 1997; Houghton et al., 1996; Martin, 1997). Tattooing indicates immaturity among “at-risk youth” and is correlated with other forms of self-harm such as physical aggressiveness, promiscuity, substance abuse and suicide (Braithwaite et al., 2001; Kern, 1996; Roberts and Ryan, 2002). Accordingly, enthusiasts exhibit a paucity of foresight in their behaviours, prefer physical expression over cognitive or verbal, and demonstrate feelings of social inferiority through unhygienic and physically dangerous patterns of action (see Frederick and Bradley, 2000). To voluntarily inflict pain on one’s body and mar the skin with everlasting symbols of impurity is described as overtly antisocial (see Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990; Loimer and Werner, 1992). Such interpretations ring with Judeo-Christian understandings of the body as a sacred “home,” and legitimate Western-scientific theories about tattoo enthusiasm prevalent since the turn of the 19th century (see Atkinson, 2003a).
Sociological analyses of tattooing produce a slightly broader spectrum of interpretation than psychological-medical. Yet despite Sanders’ (1989) and DeMello’s (2000) path-breaking analyses of tattooing as a contextual and negotiated signifier of identity, sociological statements on the cultural use of tattoos in North America ultimately (re)produce a conceptualization of the practice as contra-normative. The symbiotic relationship between tattooing and illegal behaviour (or otherwise unconventional lifestyles) still dominates in sociological research. Sociologists prefer to study the subversive subcultural uses of tattooing among groups such as prisoners (Kent, 1997; Seaton, 1987) and youth gangs (Govenar, 1988). Examinations of everyday life in tattoo studios equally “verify” the disreputable nature of North American tattooing cultures (Burchett and Leighton, 1958; McCabe, 1997; St. Clair and Govenar, 1981; Steward, 1990; Webb, 1979). Tattooing is deconstructed as a signifying practice that purposefully embraces and promulgates images of Otherness. It is postulated to be part of what Willis (1978) calls a “homology” of deviant style, that is, a set of complementary group practices coalescing around a shared set of outsider ideologies, activities and representational preferences.
With apparent irreverence to Klesse’s (1999), Myers’ (1997), Mifflin’s (1997), Rosenblatt’s (1997), and Atkinson’s (2002; 2003a) claims that non-mainstream forms of body modification foster cultural bonds, few examine tattoos as pro-social markers. The nature of tattooing as a normative practice is rarely considered, because both the pathology of the act and actor is assumed. Reflective of this ongoing tradition of interpretation, there presently exists a giant schism between social scientific interpretations of tattooing and contemporary sensibilities about the act circulated by Canadian practitioners. The dominant manner of analysing tattoos in academic research may, however, be challenged by exploring several of the sensitizing principles of figurational sociology (Elias, 1994; 1996).


Data utilized in this paper stem from a three-year, participant observation-based study of tattoo enthusiasm in Canada. (1) During the research, I spent three years “hanging out” (Willis, 1980) with tattoo artists and their clients in Calgary and Toronto. Through the research process, I interacted with hundreds of tattoo enthusiasts and eventually interviewed 92 of them. I met participants in a variety of social contexts, but first encountered a majority of them at tattoo studios in Calgary. Some of the enthusiasts were return patrons to the Calgary studios, while others were tattooing neophytes. I also met selected interviewees through friendship networks cultivated during the participant-observation phases of the research (i.e., during the first two years of field work). A smaller number of interviewees were students or friends of mine at a university in Canada (see Atkinson, 2003a).
The nature of my participation in tattooing considerably influenced the sampling process. As a person who immersed himself in a tattoo-enthusiast role and as a researcher who spent copious amounts of time hanging around with tattoo enthusiasts, I interacted with a substantial diversity of individuals during the field work process. At first, I interacted with a core group of enthusiasts in Calgary, but progressively “branched out” by hanging around with their tattooed friends in various social locales. By tactically “doing nothing” (Atkinson and Shaffir, 2003) with them in everyday life (i.e., going to restaurants, running routine errands, watching television, sitting in tattoo studios, or simply “shooting the breeze” over drinks), I casually inquired about their tattooing experiences, perspectives, and stories. In spending leisure time with tattoo enthusiasts, initial insights into the complex motivations for and meaning structures attributed to tattoo projects developed. The sampling process utilized in the research is therefore best described as a pastiche of convenience, snowball, and theoretical sampling.
The number of field interviews conducted in this research totalled 92, including 27 tattoo artists and 65 clients. The average age of the artists interviewed is 25, with an overall range in age from 20 to 55. While men and women are more or less equally represented among tattoo enthusiasts in Canada (Atkinson, 2003a; Atkinson and Young, 2001), only four (15%) of the artists I interviewed in this study are women. Eighteen (67%) of the artists have working-class family backgrounds and nine (33%) have middle-class family backgrounds, as measured by Blishen’s (1967) socio-economic index. Twenty of the artists have completed a high-school degree (74%), and four (15%) have received either a post-secondary degree or at least one year of college/university education. All of the artists interviewed are White, with the exception of one Asian-Canadian artist. Twenty of the artists (74%) are single, while three have spouses (11%) and four are divorced (15%). Two (7%) of the artists have one child, and three (11%) of the artists have two children. The income of the artists interviewed in this study averages from $500-$3,000 per week. The artists have a range of professional experience/employment in the business of tattooing from eight months to 35 years, with an average of six years. Each of the artists has tattoos varying in size, location and in the amount of the body surface covered by the work.
Comparatively, the average age of the clients interviewed is 24, with an overall range in age from 18 to 50. Forty of the clients (62%) are women and 25 (38%) are men. Sixteen (25%) of the clients interviewed have working-class backgrounds, with 41 (63%) located in the middle class, and eight in the upper class (12%). Of all the clients interviewed, 51 (78%) have some form of employment, with an average group income of approximately CAD$24,000. Clients in the sample are more educated than artists, with 42 (64%) of them holding a post-secondary degree or at least one year of university education. Fifty-three (82%) of the clients interviewed are White, eight (12%) Asian-Canadian, and four (6%) Afro-Canadian.
Forty-nine (75%) are single, 13 (20%) have a spouse/partner and three (5%) are divorced. Twelve (18%) of the clients have children: five have one child, three have two children, and four have three or more children.
A majority of the clients, 41 (63%), had one tattoo at the time of the interview. Seven (11%) clients have two tattoos, two of the clients (3%) have three tattoos, and 15 clients (23%) have three or more tattoos. Clients’ experience with tattooing is varied, with the age of entry into the practice ranging from 14 to 48 (with a mean of 22). Fifty-six (86%) of the clients received their first tattoo in either Calgary or Toronto (including nine different studios in Calgary and six different studios in Toronto). Other Canadian cities in which individuals experienced tattooing include Vancouver (B.C.), Victoria (B.C.), Edmonton (Alta.), Lethbridge (Alta.), Regina (Sask.), Winnipeg (Man.), Windsor (Ont.), Kitchener-Waterloo (Ont.), London (Ont.), Montreal (Que.), Quebec City (Que.), Charlottetown (P.E.I.), Halifax (N.S.), and St. John’s (N.L.).
I conducted field interviews in a variety of settings, such as my office at the university, coffee shops, pool halls, local restaurants or tattoo studios. In all but a few instances, I avoided using a tape recorder in the sessions. Instead, I created field notes both during and after the interviews and subsequently entered them into computer files. Interviews ranged in length from 45 minutes to four hours. In all cases, pseudonyms are used to protect the participants’ identities.
The interview strategy adopted in this research closely followed the prescriptions for open-ended interviewing as outlined by Lofland and Lofland (1995) and Prus (1996), but incorporated Gubrium and Holstein’s (1997) suggestions for exploring “layered” narratives through an “active interviewing” process. I required an interview strategy that would elicit free-ranging responses from people about their experiences with tattooing, including, of course, whether they view tattooing as deviant, different, rebellious or risk-taking. As a result, the interviews became narrative explorations of how people decide to become tattooed, experience tattooing, and rely upon a series of “interpretive resources” (Gubrium and Holstein, 1997) when telling stories about their tattoos.
As an elicitation technique, I often introduced academic interpretations of tattooing into the interviews. Academic constructions of tattoos sparked concern and frustration among enthusiasts because they feel academics grossly misinterpret the cultural relevance of tattoos in North America. Individuals, feeling particularly eager to address problems of academic interpretation, adopted a teacher’s role and lectured me at great length about the tattooing process. Interviews evolved into collaborative sessions addressing the ascendance of the body project in Canada and the interpretive vantage points from which people give meaning to tattoos. Exploring what Ronai (1992) refers to as “multi-layered accounts” of social experience, I subsequently inspected how people assign social meaning to their tattoos and how motivations for, experiences with, and constructions of tattooing are intersubjectively defined. Needless to say, the bulk of social scientific interpretations of tattooing resembled little of what I learned through field work with enthusiasts.


Ethnographic data collected on Canadian tattoo enthusiasm in this study suggest that tattooing is routinely undertaken as: i) a rational form of identity expression; and ii) a conservative gesture of conformity to dominant norms of self-restraint. Viewed from this perspective, the tattooed body is both a marker of social position in Canada and a symbol of “civilized” individuality therein. (2) Without interrogating the complex relation between the tattoo’s status as both, we overlook how the tattooing process may jibe with and homologically fit into “established” (Elias and Scotson, 1965) cultural ideas about communicating the self through avant-garde and individualistic body work. While researchers have laboured to inspect the highly “individualistic” motivations (i.e., psychologically pathological) buttressing tattoo projects (see DeMello, 2000; Steward, 1990), few interpret how one’s sense of individualism is a product of cultural membership and position. Divorcing the tattooed body from larger cultural contexts within which it is situated and defined obscures how pervasive body habits may influence personal preferences for tattooing.
Figurational sociologists, for example, argue that body projects like tattooing cannot be understood outside of the “figurations” within which they are produced (Atkinson, 2003a). A “figuration” is a complex matrix of social relationships based on far-ranging individual and group interdependencies that interconnect family, school, workplace, leisure, religious and political spheres. Elias’s concept of the figuration is based upon a rather simple idea that individuals are mutually bound to one another through extended networks or “chains” of action:
“The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such interdependencies are the nexus of what is here called the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. Since people are more or less dependent on each other, first by nature and then by social learning, through education, socialization, and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist, one might venture to say, only as pluralities, only in figurations (1994, p. 214)”
Through social interaction processes within figurations, common cultural ways of thinking, or “habituses,” are formed (Elias, 1996). A habitus is internalized through socialization processes and becomes a socially learned “second nature” of behaviour (Elias 1983; 1996).

By attending to enthusiasts’ tattooing narratives we realize how the practice is a learned cultural habit that is dialogical with, and not irreverent to, diffuse body norms within a figuration. As tattoo enthusiast Matthew (22) suggests, “I never thought about getting tattooed until I started hanging around with a lot of people who had them, you know.” Modifying the body as a normative act is learned through and reinforced by one’s interdependencies with others. As such, we must examine the conditions of social interdependence giving rise to tattooing habits and the character of broader body modification norms “framing” (Goffman, 1974) cultural understandings of tattooing.


At a very basic level, tattooing projects reinforce and reflect “I-WE” figurational relationships (Elias, 1978; 1991). Tattooing the body represents one’s sense of “I” within social circles; starting with quite intimate and mutually identified “WE” groups (e.g., family, friends, peers, or social club members) and extending to WE groups bound by lengthy chains of interdependency (e.g., social classes, religious groups, or fellow lifestyle participants). Carl’s (23) words about the multi-WE group significance of his first tattoo help to clarify:
“I can’t say my first tattoo represents just this or that wherever I go. Of course, as we talked about, I got it right after I graduated [to symbolise the accomplishment]…. In a way, I did it to show mom and dad how their faith in me helped me persevere and graduate. Because it is a cross, it also tells Christians I am committed to our religion…. And, it looks very masculine in the way it frames the outside of my deltoid”
Carl expresses how his tattoo at once signifies an identity shift to university graduate, his relationship with his parents, identification with other Christians, and understanding of dominant codes of masculinity. Carl begins by describing his tattoo’s primary significance as an expression of bonding with his parents, but then articulates how the tattoo’s meaning represents other cultural groups and practices. Previous research on tattooing attests to how tattoos mark intimate WE-group perspectives about and experiences with body modification (DeMello, 2000; Sanders, 1989), but limit the study of social influences to proximal group bonds. Even though primary social groups’ perspectives about the body are imprinted on individuals, more ubiquitous WE cultural preferences are equally germane. Sandra (29) argues, “It’s silly to think your tattoo is always defined the same way. It’s even sillier to think a tattoo is defined as meaningful by people immediately around you.” Although enthusiasts articulate how close social relationships are intextuated into and confirmed by their tattoos (see DeMello, 2000; Sanders, 1989; Steward, 1990), we should heed Sandra’s suggestion and attend to how one’s location in a broader matrix of interdependence is deeply embedded in tattoo projects.
By widening our analytical lens and exploring the impact of diffuse cultural habits on body modification attitudes, one may examine how tattoo enthusiasts display an acceptance of established cultural standards to improve, beautify and personalize the body through its invasive manipulation (see Dutton, 1995). In Carl’s excerpt above, for example, he mentions how the tattoo makes his body more “masculine,” thereby indicating his understanding of the appropriately gendered body. Equally, the vast majority of tattoo enthusiasts interviewed (83, 92%), speak of the power and legitimacy of cultural expectations to perform identity through “aesthetically pleasing” forms of physical manipulation. Despite claims that women are more pressured than men to conform with such cultural body ideals (Balsamo, 1996; Davis, 1997), ethnographic data collected in this study point to the sweeping impact of established constructions of the “body beautiful” on both.
Tattooing is described, for instance, by many enthusiasts as a calculated effort to “fit in with other people and look appealing” (Jill, 34). Tattoos are clearly forms of “social capital” (Bourdieu, 1984) in this respect, and document the social power, accolade and acceptance garnered by manipulating the “natural” body to comply with diffuse figurational norms. Just as cosmetic surgery (Gillespie, 1996), dieting (Lupton, 1996) and exercise (Loland, 2000) empower practitioners by generating culturally revered body shapes (i.e., young, slim, toned and beautiful), tattooing produces aesthetically enhanced and socially acknowledged bodies. Tattooing narratives speak of a cultural pressure to do “something” with the body and make it more physically attractive. Jim’s (24) narrative suggests:
“An ugly body I can forgive as long as you’re trying to look better. Not everyone is beautiful, but if you don’t try to enhance yourself, you’re lazy. You work at being attractive, it doesn’t come naturally…. My tattoos get so many compliments, and part of it comes from people’s realization of how much effort I put into them. And, since they’re art and not just Post-It notes tacked onto my body, I know people admire the way I look. I mean, don’t we all treat gorgeous, carefully sculpted bodies better than hideous ones?”
Jim explains that building “better looking” bodies (i.e., powerful, beautiful and controlled) is a vehicle for acquiring recognition, admiration, and inclusion within mutually identified WE groups (see Maguire and Mansfield, 1998). Jim does not view tattooed bodies as stark rejections of established WE norms and ideologies in Canada, but rather a fulfilment of the imperative to maintain an outwardly decorated/cultural body. Eve (30) similarly describes:
“I see tattooing as crafting your body into a piece of moving art. Look at my arms … what is naturally attractive about a blank arm? Place a beautiful piece of art on your arm and it becomes something unique, something coloured, something fluid and moving…. I don’t think we [Canadians] embrace art like in other cultures. Tattooing might be our generation’s call to be aware of artistic bodies”
Conformity to established WE ideals about the body beautiful often involves commodifying the flesh (Falk, 1994; Featherstone, 2000; Miles et al., 1998). Canadians flock in droves to professional “body modificationists” to rework their bodies/selves in a multitude of non-invasive or invasive ways. Fitness experts, dieticians, physical therapists, cosmetic surgeons, aestheticians and personal stylists collectively instruct people to redesign, rehabilitate, reconstruct and extend their bodies through the aid of commercial products and services. Their services allow us to achieve preferred cultural body shapes through precise techniques, and understand the body as something to be individually “worked.” The flesh is subjected to a series of rationalized services/products in the burgeoning body industries, and becomes more structured by specific “technologies of the self” (Foucault, 1977). Not surprisingly, tattoo enthusiasts speak of bodies as objects to be rationally modified via the aid of various “flesh artists”:
“I see nothing wrong with changing what God gave you. With everything available to us, people are crazy for not taking advantage. I went through plastic surgeries, diets, and exercise programs in the last five years to get my body in the best looking and feeling shape possible…. So I thought, hey, a tattoo artist is a kind of aesthetician. He could help make me beautiful, like the doctor who surgically raised my brow, or the trainer who brought out my stomach [muscles] (Rachel, 35)”
One might argue that as tattooing is progressively compared to other “professional” body modification industries in Canada (i.e., as respectable, businesslike and regulated), its cultural status is elevated. The tattoo artist Earl (26) explains:
“This isn’t the old days. When people come into my studio they can expect to see a professional operation in every aspect. I don’t take my art lightly, it’s a very personal and intimate act for me. My clients share this seriousness and want to meet someone who is a professional artist when they come in…. Making my shop clean, having a strong portfolio, and respecting people as clients and friends are not “extras,” these things are everyday practice. People know that … they have to know that or they’ll find someone else who is a professional”
Enthusiasts’ tattooing projects should not be conceived, however, as explicit consent to corporeal docility and consumerism. Enthusiasts do not envision the tattooing process as part of what Stu (27) called, “the blind acceptance of Canadians’ ideas to look a certain, cookie-cutter way.” While a standard cultural imperative to modify/improve the body is evident in many tattoo enthusiasts’ narratives, so too is the culturally learned habit of innovatively “customizing” the body in the pursuit of individuality. In social figurations categorized by a high degree of functional and cultural interdependence (Elias, 1978; 1991; 1994), expressing one’s sense of I to we and they others via “alternative” body projects is quite common:
“There’s something about a tattoo that screams individuality. First, not everyone does it, so it’s still tricky [non-mainstream]. Plus, you completely style the way it looks. No one else, probably ever, will look like you afterward. With every person I know running out to buy the spring line at the Gap or get the new “Ross” haircut, I see my tattoos as statements about who I really am. When my friends say, “wow, your tattoo is fantastic,” the key word is your. They don’t say “that tattoo you have is amazing”…. Most people I know wouldn’t ever copy someone else’s tattoo. The whole point of redesigning your body is to make it your own, so why destroy it by stealing someone else’s? (Carl, 26)”
Whereas wearing a particular style of clothing, reshaping the muscles through exercise, or styling one’s hair are well-received techniques for performing individuality and complying to established gender, ethnic, class and sexual standards of body idiom (see Miles et al., 1998), tattooing projects are considered ideal for literally illustrating individuality. In this process, enthusiasts like Carl tactically poach the tattoo’s long-standing status as a symbol of “difference” in Canada, and invert its meaning by attributing pro-social and culturally normative meanings to the practice.
By describing the tattoo’s significance as a symbol of individuality, enthusiasts also express a keen understanding of how physical display is monitored and judged as part of everyday life. They claim audiences are watching every physical communique offered in social spaces, and therefore one must regulate public behaviour to transmit favourable messages about the self. To them, the display-view-judge process is amplified by the ongoing development of communication, information and surveillance technologies, as well as our new cultural penchant for “on-line” digital voyeurism. Enthusiasts discuss how the “Internet age” encourages a stronger “culture of surveillance” (Foucault, 1977; Pecora, 2002), in which watching bodies move in every conceivable space is normative. Jack (26) explains:
“With people looking at you all the time, it has an impact. When I was a kid, mom always told me not to stare, but I don’t think it’s a rule anymore. I feel, like, well this is going to sound stupid, if I don’t prepare myself to be watched, people will exclude me…. We spend so much time on-line looking at the most private and personal parts of life. I’m desensitized and jaded by everything and want to see everything, so I want to show everything…. How is tattooing any different? A tattoo is a piece of information about yourself that you put out for other people to download. It says, “I want you to watch me.”
Jack’s remarks allude to the taken-for-granted process of monitoring body cues in everyday life. The pressure to self-monitor is not seen as an invasive violation of personal rights and freedoms, but simply an offshoot of participating in progressively high-tech social relationships.
In sum, tattoo enthusiasts’ projects of self-redesign are “customized” forms of compliance to established body norms and practices in Western figurations like Canada. Tattoos reflect one’s position in social networks of identification and illustrate one’s identities and statuses held therein. The marks do not ring with irreverence to others, as they are interpreted by wearers as rational gestures of identity given to be “read” as cultural signs. Tattooing projects also reverberate with a cultural preference to beautify the body through highly individualized body work, especially via the help of service professionals. Enthusiasts ultimately contend that their predilections for tattooing are congruent with established cultural habituses detailing appropriate body use and display.


The enthusiasts involved in this study view tattooing projects as communicative acts of conformity to prevailing body idiom in Canada. Yet they equally believe tattoos speak a language of culturally normative “emotion work.” Practically without exception, enthusiasts’ tattooing narratives collected in this study are layered with emotional accounts of social life. In particular, enthusiasts refer to tattooing as a way of etching controlled representations of emotional experience onto the body, or managing “problematic” emotions stirred through social interaction. Many of the enthusiasts with whom I spoke understand their tattoos as “contained” representations of affect, and give them to be read as such in the process of communicating “desirable” messages about their selves. (3)
Among some women tattoo enthusiasts, for example, body markings are replete with strong feelings of sexual desire. Tattoos draw wanted sexual attention to the body and heighten erotic sensations in certain contexts of exchange (i.e., in a night club, on a date, within a leisure scenario, or during intimate sexual interaction). Since Canadian women have been, at least historically, dissuaded from participating in tattooing in light of its hypermasculinist image (Atkinson, 2002; Cohen, 2000; Wroblewski, 1992), marking the body in this manner may signify sexual independence, freedom and self-determination; qualities recently popularized by “girl power” attitudes in Canada. Marie (22) remarks, “My ‘Canadian girls kick ass’ tattoo is about being a proud and sexy woman. Girls do kick ass, so my tattoo, which is right above my ass, lets guys know that I’m pretty but I’m also very strong.” Tattoos in this vein are neither flamboyant nor large and exist on locations of the body that are concealed in everyday life. They serve to accentuate the “natural” fleshy curves and sexy contours of the stereotypically female body:
“When you arrange a tattoo with sex in mind, it gives you confidence. Men love my tattoos and I feel incredibly attractive when men gawk at me…. I want people to stare at my tattoos [around the hips] and see a confident woman who isn’t afraid to be herself … a woman with sexual feelings…. I don’t go around and sleep with every guy who gets aroused by my body. It’s enough to know that I could have guys if I wanted. That’s the real sexual power of a tattoo (Allison, 20)”
Rather than expressing sexuality through forms of risk taking (i.e., promiscuity), these women emote sexuality through tattooing in a self-restrained and personally responsible manner.
Enthusiasts also engage in tattooing to manage feelings of grief or sorrow. Elias (1983; 1994), like Sennett (1998), points out that displays of sorrow are regularly “pushed behind the scenes” of social life because they connote shameful instability. If grief is publicly managed in a rehabilitative manner, though, individuals highlight their capacity for self-control. Particularly troubling or wrenching emotional experiences (most usually, the loss of valued bonds with we others) and their management structure such tattooing projects. Through a “controlled decontrolling of emotional controls” (Elias and Dunning, 1986), individuals lower their learned emotional guards and vent feelings of detachment from WE others in tattoo projects. Tattoos commemorating a death of a loved one, divorce, exiting from an especially close peer group (e.g., a team, school, or friendship clique), or even national “victimization” (as noted by the spate of post-9/11 tattoos) help illustrate:
“There’s a point in your life where you either take the bull by the horns, or sit in your house and be a loser. When I left the [hockey] team, I wanted to be the second kind of guy. It felt like I was dying, having to be away from the guys and not feeling the camaraderie. It was total shit. My friends wanted nothing to do with me because I would piss and moan. So, I withdrew into a shell … that’s where the tattoo [team logo] comes from. There’s only so much you and your family can stand and then you help yourself…. I feel empty and depressed some days because I’m not the player I was, but having the tattoo reminds me of happier times. Those memories can’t be taken away, and my tattoo shows I was once part of a special group of guys (Shane, 27)”
Shane thinks that wallowing in self-pity or angst is counter-productive and emits an undesirable outsider image (i.e., as powerless, dominated or psychologically weak). Tattoo enthusiasts like him prefer to rework the body through tattooing and engage in innovative self-help. To receive personal meaning for Shane, this self-help must be recognized and understood by others.
Although largely misinterpreted in the tattooing literature, feelings of fear and anxiety motivate certain tattooing projects. Bodies are tattooed by some individuals in response to fears produced by a gamut of diseases (e.g., cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS/HIV), social conditions placing people at risk (e.g., crime, poverty, discrimination, war, terrorism and stratification), and cultural trends restructuring WE/THEY group identification (e.g., gentrification, globalization, fragmentation and secularization). These tattooing projects communicate a sense of self-empowerment, efficacy and restraint in the face of such daunting conditions:
“It’s totally understandable to me why tattooing is popular now, when there are a million ways your body can be invaded. How can I hear about rapists, gang-bangers, these fucking corporations who pollute every product we buy, or strangers with disease and not think, hmmm, maybe should be afraid…. After a while you pay attention to how your body works and looks. A weak-looking body is a target…. With all the risks I can’t control, I put on this armour [tattoos] and show how I won’t lie down and be a victim. It’s like drawing a line in the sand saying, I might be at risk but you can’t cross this line. Right here is where I make my stand (Regina, 29)”
By accepting the cultural imperative to perform identity through body work (i.e., including personal response to threat), Regina interprets tattooing as congruent with established figurational ideals about facing one’s fears and overcoming them in socially/self- responsible ways.
Where certain tattoo enthusiasts intextuate symbols of social anxiety onto the body, others symbolise “positive” emotions like joy and exuberance through tattoos. Tattooing the body can be a gesture of love, happiness, excitement and belonging for those seeking to display the satisfaction gleaned from involvement in valued WE-groups. Individuals denote the value placed on emotional attachments and publicly announce the importance of such bonds by indelibly inscribing the skin:
“To show my friends and co-workers how much my relationship with my daughter means [through her tattoo] is incredible. We have an extremely close friendship, and having people see the symbol of her [daughter’s abstract artwork] on my back makes me glow. I’m bursting with pride for her and I can’t find the words to describe the joy she adds to my life. I’m truly blessed to be her morn, so I try to find every way possible to let the world know…. Even when we are apart, I want her to be with me and feel the warmth of togetherness. My tattoo takes those feelings and puts them in this weird bottle I carry around with me (Helen, 45)”
For Helen, tattooing is physically exhilarating and well represents the excitement produced by her relationship with her daughter. Elias and Dunning (1986) discuss how the pursuit of these “mimetic” forms of “exciting significance” are common in figurations wherein an elevated level of affective containment and moral regulation is customary. Narrative accounts of the tattooing process indicate how “significantly” body modification projects mark and extend emotions like excitement.
For a small group of the enthusiasts, tattooing projects express “negative” feelings of anger, resentment or aggression. These enthusiasts pursue tattooing projects as mutually identifiable and personally controlled coping mechanisms. Instead of attacking the source of frustration through a physically threatening or malicious act, they design corporeal projects to illustrate their learned capacities for self-restraint. Even though substantial portions of the social-psychological literature depict tattooing as symptomatic of an inability to cope with aggression (i.e., the tattoo is a quintessential mark of aggression or an anger-based lifestyle), enthusiasts articulate how tattooing the body releases anger in a restrained fashion:
“The bastards let me go without any notice or decent explanation. I gave them over ten years of loyal, hard work, and I got the shaft. There’s a happy story for you. The pricks didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me to my face. The p.f.o. [“please fuck off”] papers were sent regular post…. They wouldn’t allow any tattoos at work, so two weeks after I was canned, I headed down to the shop to do something for myself. Being tattooed restored my self-respect. I felt like walking into the office and punching out my ex-boss, but I channelled the anger. It changed my life because, like three months later, I felt so in control I started up the business I’m running now (Andy, 32)”
Enthusiasts like Andy understand why the public display of self-help and personal control receives kudos. According to Andy, Canadians uphold the “keep things to yourself philosophy when things go wrong,” but similarly expect people to share success stories of self-help when their circumstances improve. The pressure to contain negative affect is viewed by enthusiasts like him to be a fundamental part of the Canadian habitus. As Andy further describes, “Every time you turn on a television, wimps on talk shows are crying about how miserable their little lives are … but, the testimonials always turn around into how they privately overcame life’s hardships … then we clap.”
Unlike Andy, others tattoo their bodies to vent anger and frustration in deliberately confrontational ways. Such tattoo enthusiasts typically find membership in mutually identified outsider groups. Members of the “alternative” youth figuration called Straightedge, for example, illustrate their contempt for mainstream cultures of corporeal excess through selected tattoo projects (Atkinson, 2003b). The Straightedge Evan (24) states:
“Straightedge is a lifestyle that rejects the self-killing shoved down our throats as acceptable; like drinking, screwing without protection, and doing drugs…. My “Down for Life” tattoo is an emblem for the lifestyle of discipline I live each day of my life. I won’t treat my body like a garbage dump and I want everyone to know how much disgust I feel about others who do. I find it really ironic when people see me as the freak of nature. Screw them, they’re total hypocrites”
As Evan’s story implies, individuals do not tattoo their bodies to manage fleeting sources of frustration, or to temporarily alleviate noxious environmental influences (Atkinson, 2003b). The tattooing process is a permanent gesture exhibiting a critical social commentary about one’s “outsider” status and the cultural conditions creating outsider identities in a figuration.
In brief, tattoos are encoded with a broad range of emotions. By inspecting the narratives of Canadian tattoo enthusiasts, we learn how tattooing is not merely an unbridled outcome of uncontrolled emotionality, but simply one stage in the processual social experience of affect. Having internalized established cultural instruction to modify the body and regulate affective display, enthusiasts understand tattooing as a pro-social and rational method of communicating “normative” identity and emotion to others in a figuration.


A dominant theme running through Elias’s research on long-term social transformation in Western nations is the idea that “early” (i.e., pre-Medieval) social configurations relied on coercion and external force as the main mechanisms of social control. But as functions within social institutions increasingly differentiate and people rely upon others more extensively in daily life, individuals become more attuned to the needs of many actors (Elias, 1994). The predictability and control of personal action is essential in complex social figurations, as individuals acquire more specific, extended and interdependent roles (Elias, 1983; 1994). Personality structures are subsequently altered over the long term such that cultural habits involving high levels of inner containment became part of the collective habitus (Elias, 1991; 1994; 1996).
Persons choosing to act impulsively or irrationally jeopardize their ascribed and achieved social positions in figurations demanding high levels of inner restraint. In step with and predating Goffman’s (1959; 1963), Foucault’s (1977; 1979), and Bourdieu’s (1984) landmark statements on the disciplining of bodies via cultural codes, Elias argued that individuals in Western nations self-regulate all facets of public conduct and self-display because they fear a loss of status accompanying socially unwanted behaviour. To Elias (1994), this represents a “civilizing” change in the functioning of social control. Self-restraint among a vast group of people results when the experience of shame (and a learned compulsion to avoid it) becomes a cornerstone of their shared cultural habitus (Elias, 1994; 1996; Scheff, 2001). In conjunction with the push toward self-control and the notable impact of shame on personality structures, cultural thresholds toward licentious, disgusting, immoral or otherwise lascivious behaviours lower over the course of time (Elias, 1978; 1994).
In outlining the above civilizing processes, Elias (1994) underscores the importance of “bodily control” as a symbol of one’s inner pacification. Arguing that the body transforms into a text through which a person performs social distinction, status and affective control, Elias (1983; 1994; 1996) notes how personal control is intentionally inscribed onto the skin. Key to understanding Elias’s (1994) analysis of corporeal performance is the notion that bodies are increasingly rationalized over the course of civilizing processes. If affective containment and the daily exhibition of personal control symbolize one’s cultural standing and help maintain one’s positions, roles and varied social statuses, the inner pacification one “does” through body work significantly shapes one’s social identity (Elias, 1983; 1994). Whereas the articulation of control through conversation may illustrate inner pacification, most notable forms of self-restraint are often unspoken corporeal acts of compliance to established body idiom.
Given the ongoing diversification in the cultural uses of tattooing in Canada and some of the sensitizing theoretical principles outlined above, social scientists might recalibrate our understandings of the social interdependencies and affective communications embedded in tattoos. Preferred academic interpretations of the body project hold firmly to a conceptualization of tattoo enthusiasts as impulsive and non-reflexive social misfits who express disdain for conventional body practices (see Armstrong, 1992; Armstrong and Pace-Murphy, 1997; Loimer and Werner, 1992). Despite recent estimates that anywhere from 10%-20% of Canadians have tattoos (Atkinson, 2003a), academics generally deconstruct tattooing as atypical and isolated risk-taking behaviour. However, by letting go of heretofore preferred theoretical constructions of tattooing and actually conversing with tattoo enthusiasts, we begin to appreciate “alternative” empirical lessons about this brand of body modification.
Figurational sociology may help rebuild the decaying analytical bridge between social-psychological constructions of tattooing and everyday interpretations of tattoos that wearers make. Akin to Copes and Forsyth’s (1993) analysis of the body project, figurational sociologists point out how popular uses of tattooing reflect a collective sensitivity to the social importance of publicly performed inner restraint and acceptance of established cultural body habits (Atkinson 2003a; 2003b). Enthusiasts’ narratives suggest how social interdependencies influence both the desire to become tattooed and the character of tattooing projects. Furthermore, individuals either explicitly or implicitly manage affective expression through their tattoos, thereby transforming the skin into a social billboard of normative emotion work.
Even though Canadian tattoo enthusiasts promulgate pro-social constructions of the act, many do not wish tattooing to achieve widespread cultural acceptance. In fearing the tattoo will transform into a vacuous cultural commodity through its common usage (and quickly forgotten as a passe trend), enthusiasts stress how “tattooing is too good for most people” (Kurt, 27). For these people, the historically deviant nature of the practice is alluring, exciting and chic. It is a quasi-normative form of body marking allowing one to customize the self through “alternative” skin art and explore a culturally recognizable sense of “individuality” (Atkinson 2003a; Sanders, 1989).
Contemporary tattooing in Canada is, then, a social paradox and strange amalgam of cultural values about the body and its display. The tattooed body both marks long-term “civilized” cultural preferences to alter the flesh as part of “doing” social identity, and signifies more recent social influences on body modification preferences arising from corporeal com-modification, risk processes and technological innovation. In reading the tattooed body as a marker of figurational ebbs and flows, the “micrological” and “macrological” influences on our cultural attitudes regarding tattooed flesh are highlighted. Future social-psychological research on tattooing in Canada and abroad should challenge overly simplistic, ahistorical and stereotypical constructions of the tattooing process, and pursue empirical explanations of the practice grounded in the lived experience of being tattooed.
* This study was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The author would like to thank Marilyn Porter and the reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. This manuscript was first submitted in May 2003 and accepted in March 2004. Contact: [email protected]
(1.) For a full description of the research methodologies employed in this study see Atkinson (2003a).
(2.) Figurational sociology is often defined through the work of Norbert Elias. Elias’s work and the bedrock of contemporary “figurational” approaches are moulded by the concept of “civilizing processes.” In studying Western figurations like France, England and Germany, Elias notes how individual personalities transform over historical periods such that self-restraint, foresight, and mutual recognition become engrained in everyday cultural habits (a process referred to as “psychogenesis”). As a result, he traces the development of such changes in personalities to broader “social-structural” shifts within figurations, including the formation of courts, an increased division of labour, the pacification of life through a monopolization of violence by the state, and a general increase in social interdependencies (processes collectively referred to as “sociogenesis”). For Elias and figurational sociologists, then, the analysis of how social spaces are “civilized” (read self-controlled) or “de-civilized” (read affectively unrestrained) is a fundamental task.
(3.) As outlined elsewhere (Atkinson, 2002) there is a noteworthy correlation between one’s gender and the size/amount of one’s tattoos. Canadian women tend to receive smaller, more concealable and conservative tattoos in comparison to men. This does not suggest, though, that men more boastfully express inner-restraint or emotion work through tattoo projects. The size, amount and content of one’s tattoos should not be haphazardly associated with the strength of one’s emotions, ability to manage affect, understanding of established body idiom, or desire to have his/her body read as normative.
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MICHAEL ATKINSON McMaster University



on the meaning of tattoos in the analytic process...

Inuit-Facial-Tattoos-Compass-Cultura - Tattoo Art And Education Guide  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
Tattooing projects a visual image in transference to form a backdrop for the most salient unconscious inner conflicts arising during an ongoing analytic process. Like a snapshot, the tattoo is a dialectic record of the mother-father relationship, of desires for closeness and distance, commonality and difference, identification and individuation. As Walter Benjamin famously stated about the nature of visual images in his Arcades Project, the tattoo represents “dialectics at a standstill.” What seems paramount to the patient who participates in the act of tattooing is the need for stasis and immutability, as if bringing unconscious conflicts to “standstill” were to deliver a sense of stability. Unconsciously, the need is triggered by a threat to the inner stability resulting from fear of violating a taboo escalating to the point that fears of abandonment and fusion become unbearable.
On the one hand, the tattoo is a visual symbolization of a taboo transgression; on the other hand, it activates the same through an act of self-injury that resembles the magical ritual acts of indigenous peoples’ use of tattoos. The taboo thus serves as an ersatz for the actual violation of the taboo in real life, so that the tattoo may be ascribed a magical significance or totemic function. And yet the tattoo’s success as a vehicle for constructing a transitional object is always contingent on the tangible manipulation of the skin conjoined with the creation of a symbolizing visual image. The image then acts like a “patch” to repair holes blown into Winnicott’s “potential space” and to reconstruct it.

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past – rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic).

(Walter Benjamin, 1999, p. 1088)
Although the practice of tattooing has been in existence for millennia, tattoos have acquired renewed and widespread currency in contemporary Western culture. Tattooing is a multi-layered phenomenon, not only in the very concrete sense of literally inscribing subcutaneous layers of the skin with outwardly visible colour on certain parts of the body or distributed over the whole body, but also in psychological and symbolic terms. The implications of tattoos – conscious and unconscious alike – are multifaceted. Extensive historical, sociological, and psychological research delineates the significance tattoos have had for various peoples and contexts throughout the history of the phenomenon (Fried, 1983; Grumet, 1983; Kichelen, 2004; Oettermann, 1994; Rosenblum, 1999; Stirn, 2002). Interestingly, most of this research concerns itself almost exclusively with the conscious implications of tattooing practices – almost as if tattooing seductively invites a singleminded focus on the conscious and the concrete.
Undoubtedly, tattoos function to draw distinctions between people who have them and those who do not, and thus can be seen as physical markers indicating belonging to or separation from certain social or cultural groups (Grumet, 1983; Kichelen, 2004). For many cultures, tattoos were components of initiation rituals, often used in tribal societies to signal the transition from youth to adulthood (Van Dinter, 2005). In modern Western society, tattoos are particularly popular with adolescents, which has been attributed to the notion that they signify the transition to adulthood (Van Dinter, 2005), expressing stations or crises in the development of a consolidating identity. Inasmuch as they function as transitional rituals, they symbolize turning points in life and aid the process of finding solutions to issues arising at various stages of development. Especially during adolescence, the experience of being tattooed with a self-made, visible decorative identifier can reinforce a sense of agency and control through the active manifestation of an otherwise passive experience (Grumet, 1983). What is more, the tattoo signifies a certain degree of resoluteness (Rosenblum, 1999); it inscribes on the body an incontrovertible expression (Hewitt, 1997) and this permanent alteration of the body is experienced as more concrete, more forceful and more persuasive than any form of verbal expression. Tattoos are heavily laden with sexual significance, functioning either as secondary sexual characteristics or as compensatory elements in expressions of sexual identity. In both men and women, they thus enhance individuals’ perception of their own sexual potency or attraction (Kichelen, 2004). All these considerations, however, are concerned primarily with lending insight into the conscious motivations for people to get tattoos. They fail to address the question of the unconscious dynamics informing the phenomenon. The following study will explore the questions:
* Why does anyone choose this means over others as a way of expressing unconscious conflicts?
* What psychic structure might provide the background for these performative practices? Is the practice of tattooing associated with a specific psychodynamic structure?
Although the academic reception of Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretation of anthropological data (Totem and Taboo, Freud, 1912-13) has been predominately negative in anthropological circles and did not stimulate very much interest in psychoanalytic discourse either (Spillius, 2000), it nevertheless delivers an exemplary model of the interaction between unconscious motivational structures and conscious thought processes (Spillius, 2000) with its comparison of neurotic structures and the thought systems of Australian aboriginals, that is to say, the comparison between two distinct forms of thought (Grossmann, 1998). The approach is certainly problematic, or, as Freud himself said: “Writings that seek to apply the findings of psychoanalysis to topics in the field of the mental sciences have the inevitable defect of offering too little to readers of both classes” (Freud, 1912-13, p. 75), but the particular charm and the intellectual impulse lie precisely in the attendant shifts in perspective.
Both tattoo and taboo are derived from the Polynesian language. The word taboo describes the status of a person who is being tattooed (Hewitt, 1997; Sinclair, 1908). Various cultures in which traditional ritual tattooing prevailed assigned multiple meanings to tattooing practices, and many of these practices are enacted to this day by indigenous people. In this context, the tattoo attains magical qualities above and beyond its function as a marker of an individual’s social status. Among the Maori in New Zealand tattoos documented a person’s genealogical heritage back to ancestors of divine origin and were thus endowed with magical energy that established a connection between body and spirit (King, 1992). For the Ariori people of Tahiti who felt a particular kinship with the gods, the task of tattooing was to permanently preserve deeply in the body both what was sacred and what was prohibited (‘tapu’). They covered their bothes with tattoos in the hope of increasing the degree of divine power (‘mana’) within themselves (Kuwahara, 2005). The Dayak people of Borneo thought that the practice of tattooing endowed them with the magical powers of protective spirits (Dunkel, 1977). Because the ink used in tattoos was considered to be of divine provenance among the Ainu in Japan, tattooing offered protection from demonic spirits (Kichelen, 2004). Many of the indigenous peoples of North America had totemic images tattooed on their both to establish their connection to a supernatural spirit (‘Manitou’) (Van Dinter, 2005). This list could be extended to include many more examples, from antiquity to the present day, and from all over the world.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes that, according to “an account given by Reinach, who, in 1900, sketched out a ‘Code du totmisme’ … of the totemic religion … Men have pictures of animals painted or tattooed on their bothes” (1912-13, pp. 100-1). He elaborates further: “In particular important circumstances the clansman seeks to emphasize his kinship with the totem by making himself resemble it externally, by incising a picture of the totem upon his own body, and so on” (p. 105). Freud describes the way that totems originally stemmed from animal species, and functioned as patriarchs and protective spirits of the clan. Interestingly, the totem may be inherited through the maternal or paternal line, and is closely associated with exogamy, so it is this that enforces the prohibition against incest amongst indigenous peoples. Killing or consuming the totem animal is strictly prohibited, and this taboo is at the core of totemism.
Beliefs about taboos emanate from fear of the effects of demonic powers that must be understood as projections onto the environment of unconscious desires to participate in prohibited acts. Taboos are tied to a magical prohibition against touching which is an expression of the technique governing the animistic thought of totemic cultures. The underlying principle is the omnipotence of thoughts. And this is where Freud establishes the connection between compulsive neurosis, other forms of neurosis, and paranoia – all instances in which the omnipotence of thoughts predominates in a form of magical thinking. In this context, the totem, transformed into the tattoo, becomes a mark of the taboo.
This provides the segue to the third question addressed by this study. Are there parallels to be drawn between these magical, totemic and tabooistic significance of tattooing practices and contemporary motivations for individuals who get tattooed?

Clinical case stuthes

I shall investigate these inquiries using moments from two analytic treatments. Patients who get tattooed in the course of analysis present an opportunity for observing the specific meaning attached to the idea and the actual reality of tattooing as it stands in relationship to transference and countertransference in the analytic process. In the interest of protecting the patients’ anonymity, descriptions of the specific images of the tattoos have been altered slightly.
The first case study presents episodes in the analysis of a woman who was 23 years old at the start of a treatment plan that included four hours of analysis per week. Mia sought treatment because she suffered from severe depression, multiple anxieties, feelings of isolation and meaninglessness, in addition to persistently recurring suicidal fantasies that began when she was 13 years old. Relevant details concerning her background include the fact that she was raised in a middle-class environment. On the surface, her childhood followed a stable trajectory; however, in her memory it was characterized by a pronounced sense of isolation between family members. In particular, there was a great degree of distance between her and her mother – there was hardly any physical contact with the mother. At the same time, she depicted her mother as excessively controlling and dominating – a woman who could not tolerate the differences between herself and her daughter and who responded with denial or denigration whenever Mia expressed her own thoughts or ideas. In adolescence, Mia developed numerous hypochondriacal anxieties. During her time at primary school, she developed a special relationship with her father as the two of them began playing music together. This idealized relationship came to an abrupt halt when the father left the family for a year while conducting a relationship with a younger woman. Mia was aged 12 at the time, and her world came crashing down: she neglected her stuthes, dropped out of school and got involved in the punk rock scene. By the time she began analytic treatment ten years later, she was unable to sustain long-term commitment to anything, incapable of pursuing further education or of maintaining friendships, and the only thing that held her interest was listening to music. Above all, she was incapable of entering into intimate relationships. Mia’s history with tattooing began at the age of 15 when she had an ornamental image based on an (American) Indian tribal design tattooed on her upper arm. Apart from the fact that she got the tattoo without her parents’ prior knowledge or permission, she says little about the circumstances surrounding this first tattoo. Once her parents discovered the tattoo, they responded with disparaging disapproval.
In the first few months of analysis, Mia was intensely concerned with her desire to enter a relationship and wondered why all her relationships had fallen apart after a very short time. In those initial months of analysis, this theme manifested itself through frequent tardiness and cancelled appointments, as if this relationship too was always imminently at risk of termination. In the countertransference, this triggered feelings of insecurity and consternation. After eight years, it was only in the course of therapy that Mia began toying with the idea of getting another tattoo. At first, her deliberations about the potential tattoo were vague and indeterminate, both in terms of content and localization on the body. She wanted to document something in colourful images. After dropping out of yet another vocational training programme, leaving herself void of any professional prospects, she felt angry and at the same time helpless. This situation triggered the idea in Mia of having her ‘whole body’ tattooed. Five months into the analysis, Mia’s father wrote me a letter questioning his daughter’s need for continued treatment. She was outraged by his interference but refused to discuss the potential meaning of her anger. After about six months of analysis, Mia decides to get another tattoo. That week, she arrives ten minutes late, sits down on the couch and starts talking.
Mia: Last night I dreamt that I had a brain tumour, they wanted to operate on me. But I didn’t want to let them, even though I knew something was not right.
I understand this to mean that she fears analysis as though she were afraid of ‘brainwashing’ at the hands of a controlling and invasive mother. After telling me about the dream, she lies down on the couch and continues:
M: B. [a girlfriend] is so unreliable … what can you really expect from friends, I guess.
I think what she really is wondering is what you can expect from an analyst.
M: [Pause] … T. [a boyfriend with whom she has recently developed a sexual relationship] is weird, he acts as if we aren’t in a relationship, and yet we obviously have something going on. The only reason he thinks we aren’t in a relationship is that he doesn’t ejaculate, but he’s kidding himself … He says I’m cold and it’s impossible to carry on a relationship with me … [Pause] … I can’t come to the third and fourth sessions next week because I’m leaving town.
Analyst: Oh really … [I am surprised and feeling provoked.]  
M: [Continuing after a brief pause] So I suppose you’re mad now?
A: Well, I wonder why you want to leave town without talking it over with me first. You’ve been coming late more often. The two things may be related. Maybe you feel pressured, as if I want to operate on you, like in your dream …
M: [Not responding to my interpretation] I knew you were going to get down on me for that …
I wonder whether she is not asking herself what makes her feel like she always has to keep people at bay, as if she and her mother spoke different languages and if that may not be what compels her to lash out at me.
M: [Continuing] I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. And then I sit alone at home, like yesterday, I was just so depressed … like I always used to be … my father sent me an email saying how he thinks back nostalgically on the way we used to make music together and how sad he is that that came to an end when I was about 12. He blames me for putting an end to it, then there he goes getting on my case again …
A: It seems as if you feel like it’s your fault every time some form of relationship fails …
In the following Tuesday session, she informed me that she had decided not to leave town the coming week after all. Then she told me about her half-hearted interest in a certain young man, and whether she should perhaps try to make contact. She didn’t want to show any emotion, but rather to keep her cool.
She started our Thursday session with another dream:
M: I had a dream about my mother. I’d dyed my hair red, and my mother went ballistic. Then our dog (my mother’s darling) fell out the window. [Without pausing for breath, she continues:] My parents are totally middle-class. I thought about getting tattooed. My whole left arm covered in brightly-coloured images that tell the story of my life. My parents would not be happy about that. But I hope they’ll still keep paying for my education. They have to, don’t they? They were horrified by my first tattoo, too. That was something only sailors and social degenerates did, not respectable people from middle-class backgrounds. Sure, there’s an element of protest in that, I know.
A: But at least you got a reaction from your mother, and in this way, got through to her, by dying your hair, or getting a tattoo. At the same time, though, there’s the risk that you might fall out ‘the window’ …
M: [Pause …] By the way, do you take notes about me?
A: [I hesitate in my response.] … That depends.
She may be wondering what I think of her, whether I’m interested enough in her, whether I may even be judging her the way her parents did and whether she might ‘fall out the window’ with me, too. Pause …
M: [Changing the subject] … I wonder whether I should write D. [a guy she barely knows] again? I’ve always immediately broken things off as soon as any there was any sign that something wasn’t right. My parents would not approve of D. What do you think, should I write him again? [Pause … then she changes the subject again.] … By the way, do you play any kind of musical instrument?
A: What would it mean if I did?
M: I don’t know. Do you play?
I am caught off guard and feeling increasingly backed into a corner.
A: Hmm, seems like that’s a primary concern for you. What would you imagine me playing?
M: I don’t know. Do you play an instrument?
Now I’m rather surprised to hear myself answer her question in an uncharacteristically direct way:
A: [Hesitant] Yes … Why does it matter?
M: I would imagine you play piano, do you?
A: No. But that would be true of your father….
M: I hated that as a kid. He was always too busy practising to worry about me when I was little.
She is feeling comfortable in this particular session and is fiercely intent on establishing close contact with me – indeed, she is attempting to get inside my head. I have withdrawn emotionally and have the sense that I have been too responsive to her insistence. She spends the rest of the session talking quickly and randomly about other relationships in which she has supposedly had disagreements with other people.
The following night I had a dream about Mia that I consider a countertransference dream. In it, she is seated at the desk in my office, working at the computer, trying to reprogram (‘operate on’) it so that I no longer have access to my own files. In the dream, Mia has literally taken over my position and thus appropriated my allocative and intellectual functions as an analyst. So I interpret the dream as expressing my fear of a ‘hostile takeover’ or, as Zwiebel (1984) put it, fear of the destruction of my analytic competence. I was clearly aware of how relatively helpless I felt in that particular session, how I felt as though I was at Mia’s mercy and pressured by her.
Several authors (Brown, 2007; Ferro, 1999; Heenen-Wolff, 2005; Rudge, 1998; Whitman et al., 1969; Winnicott, 1949) have outlined the value of countertransference dreams in the process of understanding countertransference phenomena. I interpret this dream as an expression of my fear that Mia is penetrating my inner world. It seems like a modified mirror image of Mia’s dream about the brain tumour.
The next day (Friday), Mia misses her appointment without calling to cancel. When she arrives for her session the following Monday, she reports that she has been having terrible problems sleeping the last few days. Aside from that, she was sick and so was unable to come to Friday’s session. She doesn’t answer my question about why she did not cancel, and what is going on.
M: [Speaking quickly and erratically, as if she’s under tremendous pressure.] Yesterday I played guitar for hours, composed new songs …[Pause] … No one can stand to be around me for long, but I can’t stand being around anyone else for long either … My mother never comes to see me – apparently it’s too much for her. She left a message on my answering machine, but I didn’t call her back. [She continues after a pause.] I can barely sleep at all … Now I’ve got an idea for a tattoo I’m going to get …
I try to get her to talk about her intentions, about the meaning of her plans to get another tattoo, offer several different interpretations – that she may be using it as a means of establishing contact with her mother, or with me; that she may be trying to distance herself from her parents’ expectations, or mine, etc. … but she doesn’t say another word for the rest of the session. I feel like her mother, as if I’m not getting through, speaking to her instead by voicemail.
The subsequent two sessions proceed in much the same way – it is as if Mia is whirling out of control in another orbit. She is late again, her speech is hurried, she is not sleeping well and responds superficially to all my comments. I feel helpless, almost as if I am some kind of extra on a movie set. Finally, on Friday she arrives with the tattoo completed and shows me the wounds on her forearm. It is a self-composed image of something like a sliding glass door that can be opened or closed. When she shows it to me, my first association was to see in it a fence. On the one hand, I am shocked at how quickly she went ahead with her plan without being able to discuss it with me. On the other hand, at first glance the image strikes me as downright unspectacular, even boring. She does not respond to my attempts to get her to talk about the tattoo or her reasons for getting it; instead, she is silent for a long time and then begins describing her inability to communicate with men, how frustrated, lonely and empty she feels. She feels as if the pressure has been lifted. She has been sleeping better and, in the following week, she dreams about her parents nearly every night. In the last of this series of dreams, she shows her mother the new tattoo, and her mother tries to be nice about explaining what is wrong with the tattoo. At this point, it is impossible to broach the subject of the tattoo with Mia. Every attempt to do so is met with silence; later, all she can do is talk about how pretty she thinks it is. The night after the session in which Mia first came to me with the tattoo, I dreamt of a woman with a gigantic bouquet of roses tattooed on her breast. In the dream, the tattoo transforms itself into a largerthan- life-sized bouquet of roses. My initial response was to see this as a desire for conventionalism – seeing the red roses as a classic clich of a tattoo motif and a reflection of my maternal countertransference – as if I were telling myself subconsciously that there is nothing special about it, we have seen it many times before. But the bouquet was huge, and larger-than-life. The subtext of my dream, then, was that she had overdone it with the tattoo.
The tattoo incident occurred at a point in the analytic relationship in which the boundary had become uncertain and I decided to maintain my distance as analyst. In the transference, it may be that Mia first felt bound to her mother, then immediately felt as though she had been summarily rejected. I felt pressured and forced to engage with her – it was as if she sought to get inside me – ‘under my skin’, as it were – by having the tattoo. So my initial association with the fence was to view it as an attempt to establish a boundary between us, and my tepid reaction to the tattooed image as an effort to stave off the anger, helplessness and fear I felt in the countertransference. The tattooed image itself as an object that can be opened and closed at will represents, on the one hand, the desire to transcend the boundary, to open up, forcing open the door to communication. At the same time, it suggests the possibility of being able to crawl out of one’s own skin, as it were, like changing clothes and thus indicates a desire for a change in character. As such, the image is symbolic of the analytic ‘operation’ itself. For Mia, it is a way of transforming her sense of being torn open into an act of her own initiative – it is not her internal defence mechanism that makes the incision, rather she is the one who determines how deeply her defences penetrate. She is thus able to maintain a sense of authorship and initiative while at the same time ascribing to the analyst the function of ‘opening her up’. I see in this image a depiction of the analytic relationship: we are intimately intertwined, from one session to the next, and this relationship can be closed or dissolved at any given time.
The second episode occurs about three months later, nine months into the start of analytic treatment. At this time, my father thed unexpectedly and I had to interrupt analysis for four weeks. Mia falls into deep crisis: withdrawing to her own apartment, breaking off contact with everyone, she can barely eat or sleep, suffers from severe anxiety attacks and spends a lot of time crying.
In the first session following the break, she begins by saying:
M: What can I say? I’ve been miserable, today is the first day I’ve felt normal again. I stayed home a lot, cried a lot, managed to pull myself together a few times and go to school. Constant anxiety and unrest. Afraid of people, especially of T. It’s hard to believe any of it had anything to do with reality. I was afraid that T. was out to get me, I felt threatened. I withdrew from everyone, didn’t even want anyone to come and visit me at home. [She starts crying.]  
During the remaining sessions of the first week following the interruption of therapy, Mia is intensely concerned with the question of whether she should reduce the frequency of analytic sessions. She does not want to feel dependent on me. The next week, on Monday, we discuss the four-hour per week treatment plan. Mia claims she cannot afford it, doesn’t want to depend on me, doesn’t want to do what I ask. She challenges me – whether I think what we are doing is actually helping her or whether her money might not be better spent on fitness training. On Tuesday, she does not show up, without bothering to cancel – I am worried, and angry, fearing she is about to abandon treatment entirely. When she arrives on Wednesday, she is extremely agitated, having barely slept the night before. She says the reason she missed Tuesday’s session was that she overslept because she didn’t fall asleep until early morning. We are not able to talk about what is really bothering her. She is aloof, and tells me about her relationship with her boyfriend.
On Thursday, she has again had trouble sleeping:
M: I hardly slept a wink. I’m not eating or sleeping, but smoking a lot.
A: You’re very agitated …
M: Yeah … I like the fact that I don’t have to eat – I went through the same thing a couple of years ago. Back then, I only weighed about 97 pounds and looked really sick. I’m 121 pounds now, can you imagine what I looked like then? It was the same thing – I just didn’t have much of an appetite. You really can’t take care of yourself, when you’re feeling so lousy … (She pauses) … By the way, I have a new tattoo …
A: [Surprised] Oh, really?
M: [She takes off her jacket and is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt.] Do you want to see it?
Even before I am able to respond, she shows me the new tattoo … I am shocked at the ugly image of a grimacing figure: a black face with an evil grin – reminiscent of the Joker in a deck of cards – adorned with symbols of death and expendability.
M: Well, are you shocked?
A: [Slightly taken aback, fearing she can see how horrified I am] … When did you have that done?
M: Yesterday.
A: And what does the picture say to you?
M: It doesn’t matter one way or the other … [Pause] … I decided to do it while you were gone and I was in such bad shape …
I feel rebuffed, powerless, and caught off guard. She probably felt just as shocked and helpless when I suddenly cancelled our sessions for four weeks. In terms of the analytic relationship, she likely felt as though I had literally abandoned her. Subconsciously, what this probably meant was that she could never be as close to me as the deceased. So, here again, in the case of the second tattoo, she transformed passivity into activity. Symbolically, the image of the Joker is testimony to her own feelings of irrelevance, lack of relationships and expendability: it can be played as a substitute for anything. The image is adorned with objects that evoke death, as if it were to signify that, in the face of death, we are all expendable and powerless. It is as if she seeks to identify with me by having this symbol of death engraved in her body the way, in her mind, I have come to represent the ‘marker’ of the experience of death. In selecting this image, she has succeeded in getting ‘under my skin’, as is immediately apparent from my horrified reaction to the image – the experience allows her to come into her own, to feel her own presence, her own strength and her own vitality. The interruption of the analysis robbed her of the opportunity to process – intellectually or verbally – the experience. By way of projecting her sense of abandonment by her mother, she decides to have an image of male superiority inscribed on her arm to function as a talisman intended to endow her with power and invincibility. In addition, unconscious feelings of guilt come into play by way of transference as she sees herself to blame for the imagined injuries inflicted on her mother so that the tattoo also serves to exorcise a part of herself that is evil and threatening. By affixing this part of herself to the skin’s surface, it is contained and rendered innocuous.
As the analysis progresses, Mia comes to me with ideas for additional tattoos, but never follows through on them. Later, she concedes: “Somehow the tattooing isn’t working for me the way it used to, I just can’t relate to it any more.”
About two years later, after she has completed her schooling and entered the workforce, moved into an apartment she shares with roommates and, for the first time in her life, has successfully established loving relationships with others and found a place where she can finally feel at home, Mia thinks about expressing this new-found sense of well-being in a tattoo. She imagines having a rose tattooed on her right forearm. We are able to discuss the way this image represents the idea that lasting loving relationships are possible. Her conscious desire is to document permanence and continuity. But since she is now able to put into words the notion that the tattooing is her way of lending concrete expression to things, she no longer feels compelled to act on the tattoo she has in her mind.
The second case study outlines episodes in the therapy of a homosexual man who is 37 years old when he begins analysis. Four years prior to the start of treatment, he had contracted HIV and fallen into deep depression as a result.
Martin came from a working class family. He describes his father as an unapproachable, authoritarian alcoholic who – between work and the bar – only spent about an hour a day at home. When Martin was 13 years old, his father thed of cancer. The father never told his family about his illness and kept working as usual until six weeks before his death. Martin tells me how much he hated his father. After his father thed, his mother was no longer able to maintain the family’s daily routine.
He said he was his mother’s favourite child, portraying her as childlike and naive – someone who believed in conjuring ghosts. As a child, Martin was forced to participate in his mother’s ritual stances – a source of great anxiety and fascination for him. In his memory, Martin enjoyed an intimate, exclusive relationship with his mother – one that essentially consumed him. His childhood was riddled with myriad fears. For a long time, he visited pharmacies on a nearly daily basis – almost as if this were some magical ritual that calmed his nerves. Today, he wonders why this behaviour did not give anyone cause for concern at the time. Since he was 15 years old, Martin has been involved in numerous successive and at times anonymous sexual relationships with men. He defines himself through his sexuality, and ever since early childhood never had any other interests or activities that could serve his need for sublimation. He has always attached great value to his outward appearance. Since the age of 18, he has been lifting weights and, at intervals, has taken anabolic steroids to maintain his image of strength and power. When he first entered therapy, he repeatedly stated that he would take his own life as soon as his AIDS became physically apparent to the outside world.
At age 20, Martin got his first tattoo. He and his partner had the same image of an animal tattooed on their upper arms as an expression of their commitment to one another and their relationship. Martin later decided he no longer liked the image and had not even thought about getting another tattoo before he entered therapy. At the start of treatment, Martin talked a lot about his parents, portraying his father strictly as an aggressor who disdained and denigrated him, always seeking to make Martin bend to his will. Whenever his father was in the house, Martin said he retreated in fear to his own room. One particularly conspicuous symptom that reoccurred in our sessions was that, whenever Martin called to mind his relationship with his father, he suddenly became hypersensitive to any kind of sound for several minutes – sometimes even hours – at a time. In the countertransference, these situations make me feel invasive and importunate; the best I can do is to address him in a whisper. Only after approximately five years of therapy did this symptom subside. Martin’s identity seems strongly tied to his mother; she was also afraid of his father and was unable to protect Martin. He often sought refuge under her skirt, something he does not recall fondly. The mother was very vocal and explicit in her idealization of the father’s sexual prowess; and, when Martin discusses this with me, it is with a combination of revulsion and admiration. Three months after the start of analytical therapy, the treatment is interrupted for an eight-week period because the case reviewer for the insurance company charged with determining the need for psychoanalytic care denied the claim. Martin accepts the news with an outward veil of indifference and decides to interrupt or entirely abandon the treatment plan. Even though he has sufficient means to finance treatment himself, he decides against continuing therapy. He simply cannot imagine placing that degree of value on his psychological suffering and my ability to help. After he files for a reconsideration of his claim, his health insurance company approves the request for analytic treatment, and Martin resumes his sessions.
The following is an excerpt from the first session following the interruption of therapy. Martin is visibly happy to see me but, when he starts talking, his tone is sober and distant:
Martin: I haven’t been well since I last saw you, did a lot of running around, tried to distract myself … I spent a lot of time alone. I was so agitated that I couldn’t sleep well. […] Oh, and I got a new tattoo. It was a spontaneous thing, I didn’t give it much thought. One day, I just went to the tattoo studio.
Analyst: [Surprised] Oh really? … and then?
M: I had a word tattooed on my back – ‘gruff’ [this is an approximate English-language equivalent of the word in German] in big bold letters. I don’t know exactly why. Somehow I felt better after that, I was more relaxed and laid back, stronger, too […]  
We went on a trip, B. [his partner] and I. We went to the mountains, which he loves. But for me, being outdoors just makes me nervous, I just can’t take it. […] Once, when I was a little kid, maybe 5 years old, we went to the mountains. With mother and father, and that never happened, really, that they were both there. I can still recall the way I tried to carve a walking stick and my father yelled at me because I didn’t do some thing or other right. He didn’t bother to explain, he just kept screaming. He never explained anything … I can still remember how lousy that made me feel …
A: In any case, your father was rather ‘gruff’ with you back then, on vacation.
M: It was horrific, the whole vacation […]. To make matters worse, I lost my little ‘Gruffy’ [a stuffed animal, ‘Oscar’ from Sesame Street, whom he had nicknamed ‘Gruffy’]; it was horrific, not just for me, but for my mother as well. There was nothing she could do to console me, I had to have Gruffy everywhere I went …
At this point, the sense of despair he felt while the therapy had been interrupted became palpable, and I realized how forlorn he must have felt. What is striking is the onomatopoeic resemblance between the name of his transitional object and the word he had tattooed on his back. Nevertheless, in the countertransference, I was not immediately moved by the fact that he had got the tattoo, but rather astonished and fascinated by his telling of the tale: I felt more like a passive observer. Associations of a baby clinging to his mother’s back come to my mind. From his perspective and in terms of mother transference, I was not in any position to offer him stability or security. That was made clear to him by the insurance company’s initial denial of his claim. To Martin, the reviewer’s rejection of his application was not unlike the rejection and devaluation that he experienced at the hands of his father as a child. In his mind, he was convinced that the claim was denied because, as a homosexual, he did not have a right to treatment, just as his father would have disowned him had he lived long enough to see his son grow into a homosexual man. The tattoo is thus demonstrative of the harsh treatment he has grown accustomed to. On the other hand, his selection of block letters in Gothic font may also have been expressive of an unconscious desire to identify with the ‘gruff’ father whom he despises and rejects out of hand on a conscious level. Even as he was confronted with his own pending death, the father had displayed no emotions or weakness. The archaic lettering connotes Martin’s father’s reactionary, judgemental, bordering on fascistic stance toward homosexuals. The tattoo’s placement on his back – directed at his partner – signifies the desire for passive penetration while at the same time a rejection of that desire. In addition, it is perhaps indicative of the need to develop a ‘gruff’ exterior shell to retreat into in much the same way as he had sought shelter under his mother’s skirt.
Four months later, the desire to get another tattoo resurfaces. At the time, after a holiday break in analysis, Martin had fallen ill with an intestinal infection that his physician initially diagnosed as AIDS-specific. Over the course of two weeks, he lost a tremendous amount of weight. For the first time, he had the feeling that his illness was beginning to show. He was afraid he would soon see a rapid progression of AIDS, a lingering state of deterioration and finally death. He tells me about a dream he had at the start of the holidays in which a man clad in black carried him to bed. In the dream, the man was death personified, seeking to take him to his father. This is when he first thought about getting a tattoo placed on a spot that was visible at all times – his forearm. In this case, too, all he is able to express is the conscious desire to make himself feel like a strong, one-ofa- kind individual. As it turned out, the tattoo issue faded into the background – partly due to his need for physical recovery – and was never mentioned again.
The feeling of abandonment he experienced while we had the break in therapy, coupled with his sense of helplessness surrounding the intestinal infection and the attendant fear of death were probably what provided the impetus for the tattooing. In the countertransference, I am feeling powerless, feeling I may be forced to sit there watching him deteriorate and the. I envision myself attending his funeral – something that actively concerned him. It is interesting to note here that Martin’s diffuse need for a publicly visible sign preceded any concrete image he had in mind for the actual tattoo. Whatever motif a tattoo may display is of secondary concern to the significance of the act itself. He cannot articulate what the compulsion to get a tattoo means, he can only describe the feeling of strength and independence associated with his fantasies about having himself tattooed.

Theoretical considerations

Let us return, then, to the questions posed at the outset of this study.

What are the unconscious dynamics behind the practice of tattooing?

The painful penetration of the skin in the process of tattooing requires taking action so, from a psychodynamic perspective, it is a form of acting out. It is a meaningful action involving injury and alteration of the skin. Unlike other forms of body modification – piercing, self-mutilation and cosmetic surgery, for example – tattooing is fundamentally distinct because it produces a highly differentiated picture which lends plasticity to the specific theme that is at issue.

What does the sense of taking action in tattooing – that is, in painfully penetrating the skin – indicate?

The process of having an image tattooed on the skin is painful and palpable; once the damaged skin has healed, the picture becomes integrated into the body on a tactile, sensory level. Mia was in the habit of brushing her finger across her tattoos at certain times, as though it settled her nerves. In transference, both Mia and Martin used their skin as a way of establishing relationships with me through tattooing – whereby they each sought to simultaneously gain access and to establish boundaries.
We can assume that the original function of an infant’s skin is to contain and constrain the individual’s most primitive personality traits (Bick, 1968), so the manipulation of the skin through tattooing in an early stage represents the attempt at direct confrontation with an object that contains and constrains the self. Taking Freud’s (1923) famous statement, “The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but it is itself the projection of a surface” (p. 26) as his point of departure, Gaddini (1981) views the skin as a fragile protective boundary to the self. He describes the process by which, in the early stages of infant development, around the seventh month – that is, in the second half of the first year of life – the infant is concerned with detachment and separation from the mother, coupled with its discovery of a transitional object. If at precisely this moment of development a psychic road-block surfaces to hinder the progression of development – for example, a disturbance in the relationship to the mother – then the problem finds expression in a somatic pathology that manifests itself on the skin, atopic dermatitis. Gaddini interprets dermatitis as a defence mechanism which reveals that the skin as boundary (to the separated Self) is unable to ‘contain’ or protect the content beneath its surface. Hence, the need for attachment to the other remains constant and inevitable, but the other merely serves a utilitarian function as a boundary to the self. A successful separation generally involves the conceptualization of an internal space, delineated by the boundary, and of an external, unlimited potential space that exists outside of this boundary, where a part of the self that has been severed from the Self – the breast – resides. As already outlined by Hewitt (1997, p. 161) and others, the tattooing process – the painful injection of ink into the skin – involves inducing an artificial dermatitis that requires a number of days or weeks to heal before the visual image emerges complete. This recovery period requires that the injured skin receive special care, with the application of salve and other recuperative measures. In this sense, then, the process of having oneself tattooed can be seen as an attempt to actively represent and recompense, as it were, an early deficiency through individual activity. According to McDougall (1989, p. 183) painful sensory stimuli serve to secure physical integrity. In her view, the suffering body becomes the transitional object and thus anchors the relationship: if I stop suffering, my mother will forget that I even exist. Hirsch (1989, p. 310) outlines the way active engagement with the body in the form of self-injury can aid in the process of overcoming borderline psychotic tensions and emptiness triggered by both separation and symbiosis anxieties. He, too, concludes that the individual’s own body functions as a transitional object. What is more, according to Winnicott (1953), the transitional object is the infant’s first ‘not-me-possession’:
It is true that the piece of blanket (or whatever it is) is symbolical of some partobject, such as the breast. Nevertheless, the point of it is not its symbolic value so much as its actuality. Its not being the breast (or the mother), although real, is as important as the fact that it stands for the breast (or mother).

(pp. 91-2)
The potential space is thus construed from the dialectics of this simultaneity, or – as Ogden (1985) elaborates further:

The transitional object is a symbol for this separateness in unity, unity in separateness. The transitional object is at the same time the infant (the omnipotently created extension of himself) and not the infant (an object he has discovered that is outside of his omnipotent control).The appearance of a relationship with a transitional object is not simply a milestone in the process of separation-individuation. The relationship with the transitional object is as significantly a reflection of the development of the capacity to maintain a psychological dialectical process.

(p. 132)
This is precisely what the recipient of a tattoo is no longer able to maintain. Winnicott’s potential space – the space between the symbol and what is symbolized, as mediated through the lens of an interpreting Self – is at risk of ceasing to function when the pressure becomes too great. The transitional object loses its meaning when the internal object becomes unreliable and provides no security as for example in the separations presented in my patients’ stories. As a result, the potential space collapses like air escaping from a balloon. Mia’s efforts to establish a relationship between us are rather inept (“Do you play a musical instrument?”). She has no idea how to go about it, and is not even aware of which mutual language we might speak. Every time I engage with her, responding to her at a concrete level, she becomes afraid. Desperately, she sits alone playing her guitar, composing songs – but to no avail – the guitar and the music no longer suffice as transitional objects for her. In the separations described here in the analytic processes, both patients, Mia and Martin, feel threatened and gripped by fear, anxious and sleepless. And these are the factors that come into play with the action involved in tattooing – it is akin to an attempt to re-inject air into the deflating balloon. The fact that the object thus created in the form of a tattoo possesses only some of the transitional object’s characteristics as defined by Winnicott – it remains a permanent feature of the subjects’ body – is reflected in this situation. The act of tattooing cannot represent an altogether successful attempt at constructing a transitional object.
In analytic treatment, these patients both resorted to the act of tattooing at those points at which symbolic language proved insufficient and at which the boundary between the patients and the analyst had become diffuse or the relationship was threatened by interruptions caused by external exigencies, to the degree that this may have led to a termination of treatment. So the tattooing was designed to restore certainty and security at those stations in the analysis in which uncertainty over the patients’ ability to access and control the object of transference became intolerable and they had no means of consciously expressing themselves.
The anality of the processes is apparent in the adamant desire for control of the situation and for self-determination as well as in the way tattooing creates an object that will never have to be relinquished. By way of projection, this leads to a sense of powerlessness in the analyst. Much like the so-called ‘core complex’ in the psychodynamics of perversions (Glasser, 1986), the acting out aspect of tattooing can be seen as a reaction to the experience of a threat to the boundaries of the self in transference which is accompanied by severe annihilation or abandonment anxieties. The fundamental underlying unconscious dynamics of perversion – commensurate with experiences in the early relationship with the mother – are rooted in the fear that the object may be capable of devouring or annihilating the self. At the same time, there is a longing for intimacy and unity. In the case of perversions, this irreconcilable conflict is resolved through sexualization in which aggression is transformed into sadism or the desire to annihilate is modified to become a desire to control. In other instances, patients react to these overwhelming fears by withdrawing, directing the focus of aggression against the self in a sexualization process that leads to masochistic behaviour. In the episodes outlined here, the patients aggressively fended off these fears by subjecting their own skin to the painful process of tattooing. In this sense, then, tattooing can be seen as a form of perversion. It contains, on the one hand, an element of exhibitionism in which the tattoo is placed on public display; in analysis, the painful feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and helplessness were unleashed in the countertransference. On the other hand, there is a masochistic gain to be gleaned from suffering through the pain. This is why tattooing activates a sort of drive satisfaction mechanism. In both cases outlined here, it is interesting to note that the act of tattooing occurs in two phases: it begins with a regressive and only vaguely identifiable urge to be tattooed, stemming from feelings of unease and anxiety, followed by a progressive development of the tattoo’s motif and concrete design, until finally, after the actual procedure has been completed, tension is relieved to produce relative calm. Martin describes the feeling of relaxation the tattoo brought him. The act of tattooing transfers the unendurable affect to the painful manipulation of the body, thus rendering said affect tolerable. The reaction to the tattoo in countertransference – in the unmediated experience of witnessing the tattooing process during Mia’s analysis – similarly occurred in two phases. It started with a vague sense of disquiet and anxiety which triggered conscious associations and the emergence of unconscious symbolic images in the form of dreams. The act of tattooing thus became a sort of milestone marking the end of a turbulent period of regression and, at the same time, the point of departure in the symbolizing progression. It is as if the point is driven home hard by injecting ink into the skin at 5,000 points per minute with the tattoo machine.
According to Aryan (2006), the tattoo artist plays the role of the dominant partner in a sadistic sexual relationship. Refuge is sought in the tattoo artist who delivers the desired dosage of pain, satisfying the need for control because the dosage is self-regulated. This may be the case, but we may also be concerned here primarily with a triangulation that manifests itself in the figure of the tattoo artist. The act of tattooing is also significantly distinct from the dynamics of perversion in that it represents an attempt at overcoming through magical means the imminent, overwhelming fear of abandonment and annihilation in the developing relationship – here, in the relationship to the analyst. The forcible penetration of the skin’s surface with symbolic images in the tattooing process may be conceived of as a magical act. As Hanna Segal concludes: “Not only the actual content of the symbol, but the very way in which symbols are formed and used seem … to reflect very precisely the ego’s state of development and its way of dealing with its objects” (1957, p. 393)

What are the psychodynamic implications of the images depicted in tattoos?

There is a difference between whether we are considering an image inscribed into the skin, a metal rod piercing the flesh, the scar left from an incision or the results of plastic surgery. This raises the question of why anyone would choose a visual image – in this case, in the form of a tattoo – as a vehicle for expressing their innermost thoughts.
According to Freud (1923):
The study of dreams and of preconscious phantasies as shown in Varendonck’s observations can give us an idea of the special character of this visual thinking. We learn that what becomes conscious in it is as a rule only the concrete subject-matter of the thought, and that the relations between the various elements of this subject-matter, which is what specially characterizes thoughts, cannot be given visual expression. Thinking in pictures is, therefore, only a very incomplete form of becoming conscious. In some way, too, it stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and it is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.

(p. 21)
A visual image always carries symbolic meaning. As early as 1916, Jones (1916) established that the process of symbol formation occurs at the unconscious level, that symbols represent the self, the direct objects of its desire and its relationships and that symbolization results from intra-psychic conflicts. Klein (1930) extends this analysis to identify fear as a constitutive element of the drive to develop symbols. She stresses that guilt stemming from the injuries inflicted on the mother’s body and fear of vindication are what trigger the need for symbol formation. Money-Kyrle, in his stuthes of symbol formation in the context of cognitive development, outlines three distinct stages in the process: “… a stage of concrete representation, … a stage of ideographic representation as in dreams; and a final stage of conscious, and predominantly verbal, thought” (1968, p. 694). The picture portrayed by the tattoo is a component in the stage of ideographic representation. One might conceive of tattoos as dream-images projected onto a screen – the skin. Especially in conjunction with Winnicott’s notions of ‘potential space’, tattoos function as dream-image-patches to be applied to the surface of the balloon to prevent the air from escaping. In Segal’s words, “[S]ymbol formation is an activity of the ego attempting to deal with the anxieties stirred by its relation to the object. That is primarily the fear of bad objects and the fear of the loss or inaccessibility of good objects” (1957, pp. 392-3).
This sounds very much like the regressive processes depicted in the accounts of my patients’ cases. It seems plausible to assume that the need to have oneself tattooed arises when the patient must defend against a regression to the paranoid position and when the patient is seeking progression toward the depressive position. Perhaps this is one reason people resort to tattooing during adolescent crises or other circumstances conducive to regression: the psychic strain of these situations is always coupled with the loss of a previously accessible means of symbolization that the process of tattooing may serve to restore or provide initial access to. From this perspective, then, one may ascribe an anti-psychotic function to the tattoo.
A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. Pictures leave more ample room for interpretation than words. It takes time to look at a picture long enough to understand it; or, as Paul Klee once put it: “Wasn’t it Feuerbach who said you need a chair to understand a picture?” (Scholz, 2004, p. 172). Pictures are the ideal medium for conveying hidden meanings. The image of the tattoo is visible on the skin while, at the same time, its multi-layered, intimately personal message can only be determined in context, and so its meaning remains relatively obscured. So it is ideally suited to represent something prohibited, a taboo, that must be kept secret and yet absolutely must find expression. In this manner, the visual image of the tattoo allows for the unconscious presentation of an inner conflict and, in this sense, it resembles a hysterical symptom. In contrast to more variable and fluctuating hysterical symptoms, however, the tattoo is fixed and immutable (H. Brodbeck, 2005, personal correspondence).
Seen in the context of disassociation from a painting, or, in more general terms, the sublimating act involved in artistic creation, tattooing is in between. The content of the self-designed visual representation may speak for itself but, because the body functions as the ‘canvas’ on which the picture is painted, it is inextricably bound to the individual and, thus, to a limited life-span as well as a clearly circumscribed context.
Whether in reality or mere fantasy, a picture is always meant to address the person viewing it. Fenichel (1937) establishes a connection between scopophilia and identification:
In the unconscious, to look at an object may mean various things, the most noteworthy of which are as follows: to devour the object looked at, to grow like it (be forced to imitate it), or, conversely, to force it to grow like oneself.

(p. 9)
Seeing thus involves a prohibited identification with the object that is at once the fulfillment of a wish and a punitive process. In looking at the object, the observer assumes the characteristics of the object. “He who looks at the dead is himself struck dead” (Fenichel, 1937, p. 27). This is how images translate into identification through the process of spectatorship. K chenhoff (2007) provides a detailed analysis of the way, “the visual identification of an object is a fundamental building block in the process of identity formation. Identity is a dynamic and a process that is substantially related to the way experiences of difference are worked through” (p. 450). In his article on identification, Freud (1921) outlines the way a person may adopt only one character trait of the person with whom he or she identifies.
To the best of my knowledge, there is only one psychoanalytic study similarly providing an account of a patient who has herself tattooed during analysis. This study by Wiener (2001) takes a Lacanian approach to the case of a young woman who, during the course of analysis, has the picture of two interlocking signet rings tattooed on the crook of her arm following the death of her grandmother. Before the grandmother’s death, the patient had taken possession of the grandmother’s ring without telling the rest of the family. Wiener interprets the act of tattooing as a reference to the patient’s family heritage, her relationship to the grandmother and the desire to establish a clear sense of identity. Wiener’s study is insightful; unfortunately, though, the reader does not learn anything about the analytic circumstances or the transference situation in treatment. It is interesting to note the way that Wiener elides the potential aspects of transference involving the tattoo – intertwining rings call to mind wedding rings – focusing instead solely on the consciously constructed content of the image. Wiener (2006) sees the tattoo’s function in elevating a portion of the body to the level of a Lacanian subjective inscription, signifier, or script. Against the backdrop of Lacan’s (1949) mirror stage, Wiener postulates that the marking, engraving or tattooing of one’s body is a gesture intended to regain control of the ego using the gaze as mediator, and furthermore posits that engraving the body may allow for the internalization of a character trait that permits the identification of a subject. This is certainly accurate, and yet, in my view, it fails to take into account the dynamic movement of the transference process. A tattoo is more than a mere marker, signalling one moment in time; it is rather a record of what is presently going on in a relationship, an attempt to bring that to a standstill while at the same time offering a point of departure from which development in another direction can proceed.

Are there parallels between contemporary Western motives for tattooing and magical thinking about tattoos?

As we have seen, the impulse for having a tattoo can arise from regressive situations in which early conflicts are called to the fore, such as the threat of terminating a relationship or possibly developing symbiotic structures in the relationship that transgress boundaries to the object. Tattooing is an attempt to demarcate and anchor a position in the relationship, to reach a place where mutual differences and commonalities may exist simultaneously. In the transference, this would then determine, so to speak, the optimal distance at which a sense of security is to be found. This is the feeling that must be initiated and retained. The degree of vehemence with which this aim is pursued is directly proportional to the degree to which the sense of security is threatened.
What is it that threatens the sense of security? It is the unconscious awareness of a pending violation of some taboo. A significant factor in the process is the experience of transgressing a forbidden boundary. Mia’s first tattoo – the sliding glass door – was a concrete symbol of her desire to transgress not only her own physical boundaries, but also the analyst’s at precisely that point in the treatment when the transgression of boundaries surfaced in dreams and countertransference dreams. This is indicative of a series of unconscious desires: predominately, the desire to re-enter the maternal body, but also to rekindle the early Oedipus conflict through transference in the violation of the incest taboo and, furthermore, to establish boundaries and distance.
It was a similar situation with Martin’s tattoo: at the start of analysis he is directly confronted by a devastating rejection – an insurmountable barrier preventing him from going to the mother (the analyst) because the father (the health insurance agent) has forbidden him. Consciously, he attributes the rejection to his homosexuality – something that he recalls being taboo between him and his father. In his imagination, he is sure his father would have rejected and disowned him as a homosexual man. The tattoo on his back saying ‘Gruff’ is thus an expression of his desire to be penetrated by the father as a way of identifying with the mother. That, too, is entirely taboo. The tattoo illustrates these sexual taboos. But it is similarly informed by the death wish he holds against the father which is projected onto the insurance agent in transference. As a child, Martin had often fantasized about his father’s death, hoping it would happen, imagining that it would. The fantasy became ‘self-fulfilling’ with the father’s sudden, premature death, and the taboo against patricide came into play.
The attributes of death in Mia’s second tattoo suggest that it was triggered by the abandonment caused by the death in the analyst’s family and thus represents the prohibition against contact with death. It was the same with Martin who decided to have himself tattooed while he was anticipating his own imminent death when he fell gravely ill during our vacation break, even though he had not yet thought about the tattoo’s specific motif. Here, too, we witness the desire to see and to display something forbidden and taboo: death. Both the desire to transgress the taboo and the fear of doing so are unconsciously present in both patients as a form of maternal and at the same time oedipal transference. On the one hand, the tattoo is a visual symbolization of taboo transgression and, on the other, it serves to activate the same through the act of self-injury, in much the same way as this functions in the magical, ritualistic activities of indigenous peoples. The tattoo stands as a substitute for the taboo and is thus thought to avert it in real life – so it is entirely plausible to attribute magical significance or totemic function to the act of tattooing. Like the need for indigenous peoples to identify with a totem representing a protective parental figure or divine power, the contemporary desire to seek refuge and protection under the aegis of a parental figure endures as a motivation for having oneself tattooed. Thus the practice of tattooing in Western culture is not far removed from its practice as it exists in other cultures.
What we can safely ascertain is that tattooing constitutes an unconscious visual projection of the situation present in the analytic process, expressing in the transference crucial internal conflicts: in Walter Benjamin’s words, “image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” The tattoo is something of a dialectic snapshot of the state of maternal and paternal relationships, desires for intimacy and distance, commonality and difference, identification and individuation in ‘dialectics at a standstill’ as Benjamin (1999, p. 1088) so famously described the dynamics of images in his Arcades Project. What appears most significant for the visual image of the tattoo is the need for stasis and immutability, as if the standstill produces a degree of stability. This inner stability is threatened by the unconscious fear of potential violation of a taboo which renders abandonment and fusion anxieties unbearable. Tattooing thus represents a marginally successful attempt to create a transitional object by conjoining the actual manipulation of the skin with the symbolic creation of an image. The effort is akin to patching up holes in the transitional space in the attempt to reconstruct it.
Even though the primary distinguishing characteristic of the tattoo rests in the conscious awareness of its function as an expression of individuality, we have also seen that it simultaneously strives to bring about the exact opposite, that is, to enlist the visual image as a way of establishing identification in emulation of and in relation to the targeted objects. It is a veiled expression of individuality in the form of a fashion statement. This invites us to cautious speculation about whether the popularity of tattooing results from the fact that it is fashionable, or whether it is fashionable precisely because it is often the manifestation of a psychodynamic constellation, especially in adolescence.



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tattoo's place in contemporary American culture...

American Tattoo Culture - Tattoo Art And Education Guide  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
Long considered a hallmark of American deviance, the tattoo has undergone drastic redefinition in recent decades. No longer the purview of bikers, punks and thugs, tattooing is increasingly practiced and appropriated by mainstream, middle class individuals (DeMeIIo 41; Irwin 50). For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. Estimates on the number of Americans with tattoos generally range from one in ten to one in five (Kosut 1036; Stirn, Hinz, and Brähler 533).
Despite the fact that millions have been tattooed, not all tattooed bothes are equal in American culture. There is, indeed, a difference between people who have tattoos and the tattooed people (Bell 55-56). People who have tattoos usually have one to a few tattoos strategically placed on areas of their bothes that are easily hidden. While such tattoos may represent the self, they are not usually part of one’s (public) self. Tattooed people, on the other hand, get tattoos that are always visible to others. Bold tattoos on the hand, neck and/or face are a prerequisite for tattooed people. Tattooed people readily and regularly display their tattoos to the world – to cover one’s tattoos would be to deny one’s true self. Though the number of Americans with tattoos has boomed, those who have tattoos and those considering tattoos typically recognize becoming a tattooed person necessitates “fully embracing marginalization” (Bell 55-56), limiting the number of tattooed people. According to Laumann and Derick, more than ninety percent of American tattooees can be classified as people who have tattoos (416).
The aim of this article is to better understand how and why people who have tattoos – those with no desire to be associated with the “freak show” surrounding tattooed people (Bell 56) – negotiate their status as tattooees and transition through mainstream society. Considering the vast expansion of tattoos among mainstream Americans since the late 1980s and early 1990s (Rosenblatt 300), the reluctance of social scientists to investigate tattoos as a nondeviant, mainstream phenomenon is noteworthy. While the “Tattoo Renaissance” (Sanders, “Marks” 401) has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes and arguments put forth by academics concerning tattoos, by no means are the old attitudes disappearing from the literature:
Despite… path-breaking analyses of tattooing as a contextual and negotiated signifier of identity, sociological statements on the cultural use of tattoos in North America ultimately (re)produce a conceptualization of the practice as contra-normative. The symbiotic relationship between tattooing and illegal behaviour (or otherwise unconventional lifestyles) still dominates in sociological research. Sociologists prefer to study the subversive subcultural uses of tattooing. (Atkinson 127)
This quote exposes the academic schism that has formed around this phenomenon. On the one side, researchers portray tattoos negatively by focusing on deviance and mental disorders. On the other, scholars view tattoos as positively contributing to identity formation and fashion.
Even more important than the ideological split within the academic community is the one forming within society. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has “undergone dramatic redefinition” (Irwin 50) and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression – at least as far as the youth are concerned. One contributing factor of this youthful shift is the media, which legitimates tattoos by positively portraying the tattooed “lionized public figures” (Kosut 1038) that many young people admire, such as actors, musicians and athletes. At the same time, however, the media is critical of average people with tattoos. This mixed message contributes to the seemingly contradictory situation wherein individuals use tattoos for identity expression and formation, all the while keeping the existence of their tattoos secret from the general public.

Tattoo Scholarship to Date

Tattooed bothes have existed in geographically diverse societies throughout history, but tattoos have long been considered taboo in American society (Sanders, “Customizing” 10). Though tattoos were a fad among the upper class, sailors and solthers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they became unacceptable by the 1920s, leading to academic research framing tattoos as deviant or symbolic of mental health disorders (Post 516; Sanders, “Customizing” 18; Steward 10, 190). Negative stereotypes associated with tattooees emerged after the invention of the electric tattoo machine made tattoos affordable for the working class, causing social elites to distance themselves from and stigmatize the practice previously celebrated as an indicator of status and/or one’s knowledge of foreign cultures (Govenar 30). Once removed from the upper class’ repertoire, tattoos became affiliated with social undesirables and deviants. Not only were tattoos linked with deviance, it was argued that the physical act of getting a tattoo would cause future deviance (Post 522; Steward 93). Accordingly, research on tattoos investigated and proclaimed a link between tattoos and criminals or the mentally ill (FergusonRayport, Griffith and Straus 130; Lander and Kohn 326). Some recent articles (Brooks et al. 48; Carroll and Anderson 635-36; Stirn, Hinz, and Brähler 534; Wohlrab et al. 948) still seek to convince readers of a link between tattoos and both mental health problems and (sexual) deviance.
Given this history of negative attitudes, it is somewhat surprising that the number of people with tattoos has been on the rise, and it is the middle class that is at the heart of the “mainstreaming of tattoo” (Kosut 1045). There are numerous explanations for the recent embracing of tattoos among this group. For some, tattoos are merely a fashion accessory (Sweetman 51; Turner 47). Others have argued that tattoos can be viewed as tools of self completion and permanent reminders of one’s true identity in an ever changing world (Carroll and Anderson 627; Langman 242-43; Rosenblatt 308). According to Shannon Bell (57), to get a tattoo is “to live in truth for eternity.” In an era when one’s professional or marital identity might readily change with the ebbs and flows of life, the ability of tattoos to serve as an unchangeable reminder of the true self makes them highly desirable.
Still other scholars have focused upon the media, suggesting they have played the pivotal role in the spread of tattoos. According to Mary Kosut, one explanation for the recent rise in the acceptability of tattoos is that current media portrayals often separate the art of tattoo from its working class roots: “popular print discourses have contributed to the erasure of early images and meanings of tattoo by recreating tattoo as a middle-class cultural practice with inherent aesthetic value” (1043). DeMeIIo echoed this sentiment when she argued that the media has made tattoos more acceptable by:
first focusing their articles around a select group of middle-class individuals, most of whom have relatively small, inoffensive tattoos; by second, denying all of those who do not fit this category the right to be represented, except as the absent unit of comparison; and third, by centering the discussion around ideas which are very popular outside of the tattoo community. (42)
According to DeMeIIo, the media often purposefully ignore those who were tattooed for what are deemed the old reasons, such as those who were drunk or spontaneous. Instead, she has argued that the media now focus on things such as the amount of preparation or financial resources needed for a good tattoo. By portraying tattoos as a serious investment as opposed to an intoxicated spur of the moment waste of money, the media have made it so that tattoos “can be appreciated and understood even by the nontattoo wearing, middle-class public” (42).

Critiquing Claims of Mainstream Acceptance

Even though tattoos have been adopted by many middle class Americans, there is still a question about the role of tattoos in American culture. The old way of looking at tattoos (i.e., socially and criminally deviant) maintains its hold for many in this society. The pairing of the rapid expansion of tattoos against this old way of thinking has resulted in “the creation of a sort of cultural war… over the definitions and meanings of tattoos in society” (Irwin 54). One’s personal orientation toward tattoos aside, the key issue at hand becomes whether or not America as a whole now accepts tattoos. Many believe that tattoos have become so widespread as to be considered mainstream (Deschesnes, Fines and Demers 389; Kosut 1039), but cultural reactions to the practice call this into question.
Notwithstanding positive portrayals, scholars have found that many tattooees continue to face negative repercussions in response to their tattoos: “Although media images in the 1990s often defined tattoos as hip and trendy, many individuals suggested that older definitions associating tattoos with dangerous outcasts continued to shroud this form of body modification” (Irwin 50). Unfortunately, many individuals who accept the media’s positive redefinition of tattoos decide to get tattooed, only to realize that there is still an entrenched social stigma attached to tattoos:
While the tattooed person enjoys the positive attention from his/her peers generated by the tattoo, most of these same people feel embarrassed about the negative reactions they get from others, especially when this reaction is coming from friends and family… Even as tattooing becomes more prevalent in the USA, there is still a persistent taboo on tattoos. People with tattoos often feel that they should cover their body markings in public or risk social rejection. (Fisher 2002: 101)
The media’s shifting views of tattoos have been linked to greater participation in tattooing, but the sanctioning of tattooees by nontattooed individuals shows that American culture has yet to fully embrace tattoos – even those which espouse culturally valued middle class traits and aspirations. Moreover, it is inappropriate to speak of media portrayals as if all media outlets are in agreement about the permissibility of tattoos. Adams’ study of newspapers from across America, led him to suggest the media underemphasize the risks of tattooing in order to help portray tattoos as acceptable “consumer lifestyle options” (103). Pitts’ review of news articles, on the other hand, led her to conclude that the media, largely influenced by mental health professionals, rob tattooees of their agency while negatively portraying tattoos as self-harmful (293).
Americans are often cautioned about the ramifications for going too far with tattoos. A recent TIME magazine article reported that: “in the past few years, the garish body-art trend has taken on an increasingly negative connotation as it has become a signifying mark of street gangs and prison inmates” (Sayre 56). By labeling tattoos as garish, outlandish and having negative connotations, the author suggests that tattoos are still deviant. Moreover, the author warns that many potential employers, including the US Marines and numerous police forces, find tattoos to be unprofessional.
Examples of negative portrayals of tattoos abound throughout other popular media outlets, as well. An example of tattoos being presented as unprofessional can be found in a popular sitcom, King of Queens. King of Queens lasted nine seasons and reruns can still be seen on a daily basis throughout the country. During one episode, the main male character, Doug, met a married couple at his local gym. Both the husband and wife were tattooed. When Doug introduced the tattooees to his wife, Carrie, the tattooed couple began talking about their tattoos. After the tattooed woman asked Carrie if she had any tattoos, Carrie responded: “Tattoos? No. I have a job, sooo…” Carrie’s remark is then followed by the laugh track (Pole). The message is unmistakable: respectable people do not get tattooed. Similar portrayals of tattooees can be regularly seen on popular crime shows, such as the various versions of Law & Order and CSI. One need not be a tattoo expert to notice the obviously fake tattoos strategically placed on the actors in order to give credibility to their character’s criminal history. Representations such as these indicate that the increasing use of tattoos has yet to erase the stereotypes associated with tattooees in American culture. For now, at least, tattoos are suspended in a cultural limbo. Assumptions of future normalization should be received with skepticism.
In addition to media outlets, the cultural battle over tattoos has increasingly taken place within the court room. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of court cases involving the termination of employees because of their tattoos. Courts have upheld such workplace discrimination, arguing that companies have the right to place restrictions on employee appearance when it relates to the company’s business objectives. In addition to private corporations, state and local governments have also terminated employees solely on the basis of tattoos, such as a Kentucky Parks employee who was fired for not covering his US Navy tattoo (Roberts). Just like private corporations, the courts ruled that states have the right to enforce a dress code prohibiting tattoos. In a more recent case, the courts ruled that employees cannot be terminated simply because they have tattoo. If the tattoo is not hidden, however, the employee may be fired (Baldetta). These cases further exemplify the limited extent to which tattoos have been embraced by the mainstream. Within American culture, tattoos are fine – so long as others do not have to look at them.


Research for this project was conducted in a tattoo shop in a medium sized, Midwestern city. Following the recommendations of previous tattoo researchers (Deschesnes, Demers and Fines 327), I decided that it would be most beneficial to become a participant observer. Since most of the subjects entered the shop only once or twice while I was in the field and our interactions were fairly brief, I became what Gold termed an “observeras-participant” (221). An observer-as-participant has greater access to a larger pool of potential subjects. Participant observation also presents the opportunity to learn about previously unthought of, albeit highly relevant, issues (Whyte 279-358). However, the somewhat brief nature of the interaction increases the chances of misunderstanding clients. It was important to combine the method of informal interviews with observations in order to minimize this.
Gaining entrée was an admittedly easy task, for I already had a relationship with a local tattoo shop, where I was offered a job as a receptionist. The shop is close to a large university, and although a large percentage of the shop’s clientele are university students, it also draws customers from the metropolitan area and beyond. Clients regularly travelled nearly a hundred miles to visit the shop. This can be attributed to the shop’s highly skilled artists. The artists are well respected in their field, as evidenced by regular invitations to the nation’s most prestigious tattoo conventions. The shop’s emphasis on sanitation and professionalism is also an important feature that distinguishes it from some alternatives.
Though I worked at the front counter, by no means was I glued to my seat. I regularly left the lobby to deliver messages to and converse with the tattoo artists. While one senior tattoo artist had his own room, the rest of the tattoo artists shared a large room. There were also two piercing rooms and a drawing room located on the long corridor linking the front lobby to the back office. During my time in the shop, the artists decided to convert two smaller rooms into one larger room because it allowed them to be less isolated throughout the day. Tattoo artists and clients were able to interact with each other and not succumb to the monotonous sound of the tattoo machine. Of course, this also made it easier for me to observe more during my trips away from the front counter.
During the five months of data collection, I worked an average of 10-15 hours per week. Working at the front counter enabled me to listen to many conversations between (potential) tattooees and their friends while they sat on the lobby couches. Within the literature, tattooee is a general term including any individual with a tattoo. I also apply this term to participants who were tattooed during their visit to the shop. Potential tattooees, on the other hand, include those considering a tattoo, such as those entering the shop for a tattoo consultation. Moreover, I was able to probe deeper by engaging tattoo clients in informal conversations as they waited for their tattoo appointments. On average, these informal interviews (N = 34) lasted fifteen minutes. Although I chose not to use formal interviews, only those individuals who consented to participating in the research study have been included. The conversations were drawn from a convenience sample, because my receptionist duties precluded me from being able to spend any length of time with potentially relevant clients during extremely busy periods. However, I was able to observe and record noteworthy events during these busy moments.
I attempted to learn three key facts during each informal conversation. First, I wanted to know why the client did or did not bring somebody with him or her. Second, I asked what the client was getting tattooed and sought to understand any significance attached to the design. Third, I inquired about the reason for the particular size and location of the tattoo. Once I had obtained information about these points, I would simply let the conversation run its course. Many conversations involved discussions about family members. Socioeconomic aspirations were also an important topic. In addition to providing me with data, these conversations more often than not had a calming effect on those traversing the tattoo culture.


A tattoo artist once told me he couldn’t understand why anybody would bring another along to a tattoo appointment. How boring that must be, he thought. It quickly became clear that this mindset was not the norm. A common thread among customers emerged early in the data collection phase: the vast majority brought friends or family along with them. Not only did the supporting individuals enter the shop with the tattooees, they typically stayed with the person getting the tattoo throughout the application process. This trend was especially common for first time tattooees.
During one month, 48 individuals came in for tattoos during my shift. An additional 39 clients came in for tattoo consultations, though only those individuals who actually received tattoos during their visits are considered here. Tattoo consultations took multiple forms. First, some clients, especially those desiring larger and more intricate pieces, needed to make a 30-minute appointment with an artist. During this time, the artist would discuss the client’s desires and options as well as draw a rough sketch of the tattoo. Second, some people came into the shop without a specific tattoo idea in mind. Rather, they often posed generic questions about the tattoo process and the shop’s pricing methods. Finally, many potential tattooees walked into the shop without appointments but with specific designs in mind. When possible, these individuals met artists who specialize in the types of tattoos they were interested in. Otherwise, shop personnel would take a copy of the design back to an artist, who provided a time and price estimate that was then relayed to the client.
Among the 48 tattooees, 32 had at least one person accompany them. Eleven of the 16 clients who came alone had previously been tattooed, many of them multiple times. There were also 39 tattoo consultations during this time period, 13 of whom came alone. It is interesting to note that the ratio of individuals coming alone (one-third) and individuals coming with company (two-thirds) was exactly the same for both people getting tattooed and people merely being consulted. As discussed below, this calls into question clients’ stated reasons for bringing moral support.
After noticing the tendency for tattooees and potential tattooees to bring moral support, a term often invoked by clients and those accompanying them, I began to question them about their reasons for doing so. One young client said that she simply needed somebody to talk to during the tattoo process. She claimed that the person was there in order to avoid boredom, though most of the participants said they brought others along because they felt uncomfortable entering the tattoo shop for the first time. Gina was a typical example of such clients:
D Did you have somebody with you for your first tattoo, too?
G Yeah, I came with a guy friend the first time.
D And why’d you come with him?
G He’s got a lot of tattoos, he’s got ’em everywhere. And I wanted somebody who’d been through it before to come with me because. . . I was intimidated!
Upon further inquiry, two commonly stated reasons for the intimidation were uncovered. First, many clients claimed that they were afraid of physical pain. Naomi came in with her sister-inlaw and brother, as they were both previously tattooed and were good sources of moral support. When she entered the shop, she was obviously nervous and pacing. When asked about her nervousness, her sister-in-law jumped in and said, “She’s afraid of the pain.” Naomi confirmed her fear of pain and later added that this fear played a role in the selection of a suitable place on her body for her tattoo: “Well, I have a friend who has one on her neck and she said it didn’t hurt at all so that’s why I chose the neck.” Even though Naomi said she chose the back of her neck because it would not hurt, she also stated that her career goal of being a lawyer demanded that she place the tattoo someplace where she could easily hide it. This led to questioning whether it was pain that was the reason for her nervousness and need for moral support. Other clients also altered their claims about fear of pain upon further questioning.
The other reason clients felt intimidated was a fear of the unknown. Most clients had little or no previous experience with the tattoo culture prior to entering the shop. Although they had seen tattooed athletes and celebrities on television and in movies, they had few physical encounters with tattooed people; the shop often represented the first real opportunity to interact with tattooed people. In order to offset this unfamiliarity and discomfort, many clients brought people with tattoos for moral support. For example, Eugene brought his friend, Tom, because Tom “has a tattoo already and has been through it all already.”
Although many clients, like Naomi, claimed that it was merely a fear of pain that caused them to bring friends and/or family, the data suggest that this is an insincere claim meant to save face. If it were really a fear of pain that led clients to bring moral support, then one would expect to find a clear distinction between the number of individuals who came in for tattoos with support and the number who came in for tattoo consultations with support. After all, if one is not getting a tattoo on a given day, there is little need to be concerned with physical pain. There would be no need for moral support. However, since clients were just as likely to bring support for a consultation as they were for an actual tattoo, it is not likely that the clients were, in fact, afraid of pain. On the contrary, it was the fear of and lack of comfort with tattoo culture, as discussed by Eugene, which drove clients to bring support into the shop.
It is important to note that participants in this study primarily gave the same motivations for getting tattooed, such as fashion and identity formation, as the subjects found in the literature discussed above and that they rarely viewed their tattooing experience as inherently wrong or deviant. Most (potential) tattooees, especially young ones, truly felt that getting tattooed was a viable way to express one’s identity. Nonetheless, the reason clients felt the need to bring moral support seems to stem from their awareness of tattoo’s low cultural standing. Even though they believed tattoos were acceptable for themselves and significant others, respondents expressed a belief that American culture as a whole still does not accept tattooed people and that being tattooed would likely lead to negative sanctions in the future, such as personal or professional discrimination. The same belief that led clients to bring moral support also influenced their decisions regarding the location of their tattoos. In order to help prevent future sanctions, tattooees chose locations that are typically unseen in public. As discussed above, such fear of negative sanctions in response to tattoos is not unfounded. Not only have incidences of employer discrimination against tattooees increased in recent years (Baldas 5; Jones par. 1), public opinion often supports such discrimination (Mann par. 5-13). Furthermore, media and career counselors regularly warn against visible tattoos in order to avoid such problems (Smith par. 4; Vogel par. 11-13). These facts support the notion that there is both a struggle for and against tattoos taking place within American culture. In response, clients felt the need to have a friend nearby, because they recognized that they were about to cross the boundary of socially accepted behavior.

Conflicting Cultural Understandings of Tattooing

The Tattoo Renaissance has been characterized by a boom in tattooing rates. Results of a 1989 poll indicated that 3% of the general population had at least one tattoo (Anderson 207), while more recent stuthes have estimated the percentage of tattooed Americans to be between ten and twenty percent (Kosut 1036; Whelan 9). The majority of those getting tattoos belong to the younger generations: “The rate of tattooing in the 1990s has been documented to be much higher in young people than among adults” (Schulz, Karshin, and Woothel 123). The data collected during this study support this claim.
Older Americans are not only tattooed at significantly lower rates than younger individuals, they are more likely to adhere to the old way of thinking about tattoos. Namely, they tend to believe it is a negative form of deviance. The fact that somebody may participate in the nonnormative behavior does not necessarily mean that they have changed their perception of the behavior or that they think the behavior should become the cultural norm normative. Betty entered the shop with her daughter, Maggie, and grandson, Joe. Although Betty had a tattoo, she still thought of it as deviant:
D So what made you decide to get a tattoo?
B Well, you know, it was our little walk on the wild side… I was sixty-seven when I had it done. My husband don’t like it though.
D Oh he doesn’t? (smirking)
B No, he thought it was gunna be smaller.
D Oh, he knew about it ahead of time?
B Yeah, but he thought it was only gunna be like this (shows me her right hand and makes a hole about the size of a half dollar.)
D So he doesn’t like it then?
B (shrugs shoulders and pauses) No.
Betty thought of getting a tattoo as an act of deviance and later told me that she would never have gotten the tattoo on her own or if she had to pay for it herself. She was tattooed with four other women, all of whom considered their tattoos to be their “walk on the wild side.”
Although her mom and dad both considered tattoos deviant, Maggie, who was in her upper thirties, liked larger tattoos. As Betty and I were speaking, Maggie interrupted us:
M Hey, how much would this cost. Just like that. The whole thing. (She was pointing at a flash piece of a chalice tilted with wine splashing out from the top and a cross floating above it. There was a banner around it which read last call for alcohol.)
D Oh, you’d have to ask Mikey about that (point to Mikey)
B (scoots to the edge of the couch and leans forward in order to see what her daughter is talking about.) Oh you wouldn’t get that!?
M Sure I would.
B That big!?!?
M Yeah, on my back (points to the small of her back)
B No, that’s too much. That’s crazy.
This interaction between Betty and Maggie provides a good example of the intergenerational cultural conflict that often surrounds tattoos. Not only did Maggie bring her son (who is a minor) to be tattooed, she was also interested in getting a tattoo that is approximately six inches by six inches. Even though it would be in a hidden location, her mother still thought the tattoo’s size made it “too much.” In Betty’s eyes, it was one thing to get a small tattoo in a moment of weakness, but it was quite another to plan a large tattoo.
Marybeth is another woman over thirty with tattoos. Much like the subject of the TIME article discussed above, Marybeth is a police officer. As was the case for each of her previous two tattoos, Marybeth brought moral support – her friend Justine, who was also a client of the shop.
D Is this your first tattoo?
M No, my third.
D Oh, ok. Where are the other ones?
M (pointing to the places on her body) One is on my lower back. And one is on my ankle. This one is going on my side.
D How come you brought somebody with you?
M Moral support.
D (leaning in attentively) And why did you need moral support?
M Well, you know it’s scary…. And I guess I just wanted somebody there with me for something so permanent.
J (suddenly putting down her magazine and interjecting from the couch) I just need somebody to talk to me and hold my hand.
D So that’s it? It’s just that it’s scary?
M (nods yes) And… well, it’s not something you’re supposed to do. So it’s good to have somebody there.
Marybeth used tattoos to commemorate loved ones and express her identity, as shown by the fact that she was getting her children’s names on her side. Even though she believed that tattoos can legitimately be used as a form of identity formation, she still felt that getting tattooed was a violation of cultural norms. Whereas she was progressive in her use of tattoos as a form of identity formation, she maintained the old notion that tattoos are inherently deviant. Her views on tattoos were solidified by her experience as a police officer:
D Do you tell people about your tattoos? At work?
M No. I mean if they ask I’ll tell them. My family all knows.
D What kind of work do you do?
M (Pauses for approximately five-seconds, looks at her friend and smiles nervously) Ummm…rmacop.
D I just read an article a few weeks back. A cop in California got a full sleeve done and then they decided tattoos weren’t allowed. Palo Alto I think it was.
M Yeah, we’re not allowed to show them. We can’t offend people. If it offends somebody then that’s not good.
Marybeth never criticized the fact that tattoos are still nonnormative. On the contrary, she said that tattoos are deviant and accommodated others who feel that way by getting tattooed in unobjectionable locations. Not only has she complied with police regulations regarding visible tattoos, she also refrained from openly disclosing the fact that she has multiple tattoos.
Young tattooees in both the shop and general population are increasingly middle class (DeMeIIo 47; Kosut 1043-44). Charlie is in her midtwenties and attends graduate school. During our conversation, she made it clear that she did not consider tattoos deviant. Nonetheless, her professional aspirations led her to choose a more discrete location: “I don’t mind, but I may end up at a conservative place and I don’t want to cut myself off already just because of a tattoo. So I’d like it either on my back or side.” Charlie wished that tattoos could be more widely accepted, but was under the impression that such acceptance remains a long way off.
Current and previous data on tattooed Americans indicate the increasing prevalence of middle class tattooees and a steadily decreasing association of tattoos with deviance within each progressively younger generation – regardless of one’s own tattooed status (Armstrong et al. 28). Accordingly, the Tattoo Renaissance has not initiated a whole sale cultural shift. Rather, it is characterized by a gradual shift in the cultural acceptability of tattoos. Moreover, it seems older Americans with tattoos may be less willing to confront the cultural taboo attached to tattooing. In contrast to Marybeth, who did not voice displeasure with the fact that tattoos are perceived negatively, Charlie and other members of younger generations were sure to quickly point out that they disagreed with the notion that tattoos are deviant. Young clients were well aware that the tattoo’s status has not changed for older Americans. Nonetheless, they have become participants in the social transformation that now sees tattoos as worthy of mainstream, respected individuals. In order to both satisfy their desire for tattoos and accommodate older, more powerful members of society, young clients took great care to make sure their tattoos would not be discovered by those who do not approve. The methods employed by the clients can best be explained through a dramaturgical analysis.

Saving the Face on the Tattooed Body

New tattooees were aware that they would eventually need to transition out of their youthful setting into one dominated by older individuals and that their tattoos would likely be received with some hostility. Irwin argued that new tattooees attempt to make their tattoos seem legitimate to nontattooed people by emphasizing the middle class motivations for their tattoos (49-73). In other words, tattooees often feel pressured to give accounts of their tattoos to others in order to justify what is an otherwise “socially undesirable” act (Orbuch 457). While this specific shop’s clientele were most commonly tattooed for reasons discussed by Irwin, such as the young college graduate who was tattooed with the school’s mascot in celebration of graduation, it is more meaningful to focus on the fact that the majority of new tattooees were tattooed in places that are rarely visible to others. After all, tattooees knew that if they interviewed for a professional job, and the interviewer was disapproving of tattoos in general, then it would matter very little whether they got the tattoo in honor of graduation, in remembrance of a lost loved one, or as an initiation into a street gang. Hence, clients entered the shop prepared to undergo the process of impression management.
An important time to be able to control others’ perceptions, and one often mentioned by clients, is during a job interview. Clients expressed a fear that the interviewer would maintain the traditional way of thinking about tattoos and discriminate against them if they had visible tattoos. Clients came into the shop hoping to be able to manage future impressions by getting their tattoos in discrete locations. Brittney was the sister of a tattoo artist, but said she hopes to become a French teacher after graduation. Although she and the rest of her family had wholly accepted her sister’s many visible tattoos, Brittney only had tattoos on her back and ribs, because she didn’t want to “jeopardize a chance at getting a teaching job in the tight economy.” Even after I told her that I was able to get a job as a teacher after I was already a tattooed person, she remained skeptical because she knew that tattoos are not ideal for teachers. Goffman explained how this awareness of professional standards affects an individual’s actions:
If an individual is to give expression to ideal standards during his performance, then he will have to forgo or conceal action which is inconsistent with these standards. When an inappropriate conduct is itself satisfying in some way, as is often the case, then one commonly finds it indulged in secretly; in this way the performer is able to forgo his cake and eat it too. (“Presentation” 41)
Brittney found tattoos satisfying in the sense that “it looks good.” Yet, she knew that teachers are expected to look and behave a certain way. Accordingly, she secretly indulged in tattoos by having her tattoos placed on parts of the body that could never be seen while working.
Valerie also picked a location that would not cause her to violate professional standards. While she initially wanted a tattoo in a visible location, she later decided against it after considering how it might affect her work:
V I wanted it on my neck at first but I decided to get it lower down on the top of my back. I can’t have it to where it’ll be showing.
D Why couldn’t you have a tattoo showing?
V Well, I’m training to work in a hospital and I wear my hair up a lot. The hospital doesn’t let you have tattoos that people can see, because people don’t like them. People are offended by them. I mean, I’m not. But others are offended by them so I can’t have it on my neck.
Valerie needed to be able to conceal her tattoo, because she knew that tattoos are “incompatible with the image of self to the other (Goffman, “Interaction” 141) that she would have to maintain for hospital administrators. Accordingly, the entirety of Valerie’s tattoo was located beneath the neckline.
By getting tattooed in hidden locations, tattooees can be confident that their tattoo will not prevent them from being seen as cultured or civilized during nonintimate interactions. Easily hidden areas of the body are particularly appealing to people with tattoos, because they allow tattooees to pass as normal and prevent damage to their social identity. Lindsay, a client and university student with one tattoo, realized that having a tattoo is “still wrong” in American culture. She took great care in selecting the location of her tattoo -a French translation of “No Regrets” under her left breast that served as a reminder of the type of person she desires to be. While she felt comfortable showing her tattoo to close friends, she strategically placed the tattoo where nobody could see it without her permission so that her elder family members, as well as future employers and coworkers, would never have the opportunity to judge her negatively based upon her tattoo. Lindsay’s story demonstrates Goffman’s avoidance process: “The surest way for a person to prevent threats to his face is to avoid contacts in which these threats are likely to occur” (“Interaction” 15). People with tattoos who have white collar aspirations know that they will have to interact with nontattooed people who view tattoos negatively. Whereas they cannot altogether avoid these interactions, they can avoid the threat of being perceived as unworthy of respected positions by getting tattooed in places that will not be visible during such interactions. Discrete tattoo locations can also prevent tattooees from being viewed negatively by disapproving family members. In order to enable this avoidance process and minimize future threats to their face, those who were merely traversing the tattoo culture were willing to undergo more intense pain.
The majority of new tattooees received tattoos in places that could never be seen while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, let alone while dressed appropriately for a professional work environment. Many females were tattooed on their hip bone, beneath the waistline, or on the top of their foot. It has also become increasingly popular for both male and female tattooees to be tattooed on their rib cage. Ironically, the locations where one can most easily hide a tattoo, such as the foot and rib cage, are also among the most painful. For this reason, most tattoo artists preferred not to do a first tattoo on these sensitive areas and shop personnel regularly suggested alternative bodily locations.
As discussed above, many clients claimed to be afraid of what they perceive to be the extremely painful tattoo process. If they were afraid of the pain, it would be logical to conclude that they would be willing to take the advice of the shop’s employees and consider getting their first tattoo in a less painful place. One wonders then why the majority of first time clients refused to change their mind about the location of their tattoo. Based upon the oft repeated concerns about future employ ability and personal rejection, it seems that the tattooees were more concerned with the social stigma of having a more readily visible tattoo than the temporary physical pain experienced while getting the tattoo. The clients were aware of the cultural status of tattoos and, therefore, more willing to experience physical pain. For example, Brittney knowingly entered a very painful rib tattooing process in order to prevent future job discrimination. Her tattoo had to be broken into several sessions, due to the intense pain. In the words of Goffman, such a client exhibits “a defensive orientation toward saving his own face” (“Interaction” 14). Clients believed that they will need to be able to hide their tattoos in the future in order to maintain the image they wish to present to others – especially elder people in positions of authority. The shop’s artists were also aware of this, which led to the shop policy of refusing to tattoo minors in visible locations as well as refraining from tattooing hands until a client has significant body coverage.


The expanding popularity of tattoos seems to be based on the fact that these can serve various purposes for different individuals. Some use them as a fashion tool whereas others use them as a method of identity formation, such as commemorating a lost loved one or representing one’s neighborhood. At the same time, society condemns tattooees for their permanent markings based on the idea that only deviants would do such a thing. Successful musicians, actors and athletes are regularly seen with visible tattoos and inspire many young tattooees to join the ranks of the tattooed. Yet while younger tattooees increasingly find tattoos normative, tattoos are in limbo – neither fully damned nor fully lauded. DeMeIIo (47-50) has argued that those promoting tattoos have won the cultural battle and gained tattoo’s acceptance in the mainstream culture, but tattoo clients remain concerned about cultural rejection.
The seemingly contradictory situation in which tattoos are both mainstream and unacceptable contributes to clients’ impression management. In an attempt to fill the gap of qualitative analysis in tattoo research, this article has discussed the willingness of clients go to great lengths, including severe pain, to maintain a presentation of the self that is acceptable to society’s powerful members. In addition to getting tattooed in discreet locations, many people with tattoos openly chastise tattooed people. James, a very well known and respected artist in the tattoo industry, told me how this relates to some of his clients:
There is an old saying in the tattoo community: “the only difference between tattooed people and nontattooed people, is that, tattooed people don’t care if you’re not tattooed.” Sadly, you even see this with minor tattooed folks. The middle age business woman decides to get the small rose ankle tattoo, and quickly makes fun the people who have sleeves or back pieces. “How could anyone get that, ” she’ll say.
What seems to be a contradiction at the societal level sometimes reveals itself to be hypocrisy at the individual level. The fact that millions of Americans continue to get tattooed has led some scholars to suggest tattoos are now mainstream. Yet, as argued above, the accounts of participants who were in the process of getting tattoos indicate tattoos are not wholly accepted. As more and more people choose to express themselves through ink, the dramaturgical processes meant to maintain one’s “dark secret” (Goffman, “Presentation” 141) will become increasingly harmful to tattooees and, in turn, the society at large. Should tattoos fail to gain full cultural acceptance, millions of Americans will be fated to live a life of “a special kind of alienation from self” (Goffman 236).
Were tattoos just another youthful fad that parents and elders disapproved of, discrimination against tattooees would not be as pressing an issue. However, tattoos are more than a typical fad: “Even if the meanings of tattoos shift, and their present cultural currency declines or exhausts, most tattooed bothes will bear this ironic fad for the course of the life cycle” (Kosut 1043). According to Kosut, over half of all adolescents have seriously considered getting a tattoo. There is a bleak future for today’s youth should they get tattooed only to enter a workforce where two in five adults think simply having a tattoo justifies being denied employment, including nearly half of all people holding supervisory roles (Mann par. 5, par. 13). The combination of more highly skilled and highly educated Americans getting tattoos (Greif, Hewitt, and Armstrong 380) with increasing discrimination against tattooees is setting the table for a cultural clash wherein highly productive members are forever disqualified based solely on pigmentation.
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the inner essence of the art...

Tattooing - Mind Body And Spirit - The Inner Meaning Of The Art - Academic Viewpoints - Peer Reviewed Journal Publication  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
This research began to understand why people choose to get tattoos. The reason was to find out if getting a tattoo was a novelty or if there was more to it than just what we can see inked on their skin. The interest of this research lies in the feeling, emotion, human awareness of expression, and the deeper meaning on the inside that coincides with what is seen only as skin deep on the outside.
Open-ended interviews were conducted, over a period of six months, with four tattoo artists and thirteen people that have tattoos. Time was spent in a local tattoo studio talking with people who were getting a tattoo or who had already been tattooed.
The reasons and the meaning behind getting a tattoo were found to vary as much as the number of people getting tattoos. The similar thread running through the reasons for getting a tattoo, however, was that tattooing is a form of self-expression.


The subject of tattooing has been of interest to this researcher for many years, toying with the idea of getting one on every milestone year that was celebrated. However, enough nerve was never conjured up to go through with it. Then, a few years ago, a talented young artist, who does tattooing for a living, entered the scene. Several of her paintings, done in different media, promoted a certain energy in their presence that was magnetic. It was not known, to the researcher, that she was also a tattoo artist. The researcher’s ingrained image of a tattoo artist was extremely the opposite of what was found in her. Her talent, her almost shy, meditative energy, and her knowledge gave a reason to question an unfounded opinion of the art of tattooing. Beginning to relate to it with a new awareness, the desire to acquire a tattoo rose to a new level. One no longer wanted just a cute little ladybug on the foot. The tattoo had to have meaning, to resonate with the spirit within, and portray the intent from which one lives their life.
The research of symbols, sayings, meanings of colors, and different types of tattoos, began while thinking of the places on ones body that one would comfortably wear a tattoo. This led me to wonder why other people got tattooed and what their tattoo meant to them, if anything. How does one arrive at the decision to make a permanent statement on their body? In this paper, the desire is to gain a wider knowledge of the art of tattooing and the people involved in it.


For purposes of this research, the concentration is on tattooing in Western societies. According to researcher Shannon Bell (1999), there is a differentiation between people who have tattoos and tattooed people. The people who have tattoos only have one or two; usually personal images strategically placed so as not to be seen. Tattooed people have many tattoos, usually larger and more colorful and placed so they can be seen. She states that they have “crossed the point of no return” (Bell 1999: 56) and have chosen to socialize in the subculture of tattooists and others as heavily tattooed as they are. This action allows them to avoid the reactions of the general population and “fully embrace marginalization” (Bell 1999: 56).
Stuthes over the last ten years show that people from all types of occupations, ages, and social classes are getting tattoos at an increasing rate (Armstrong 1991). According to a study done by Armstrong and Pace-Murphy (1997); 10% of high school adolescents have tattoos. Stuthes done between 2000 and 2002 found that 16 – 23% of college students surveyed have tattoos and thirty seven percent of military recruits in basic training have tattoos, with 64% of them entering the military with them, having had them done between the ages of 15 and 21 years old (Armstrong, Pace-Murphy, Sallee, and Watson 2000).
An article in Newsweek dated January of 1991 by M. Mason states “from sailor to sales rep: tattoos go mainstream It’s (tattooing) moved up the cultural system. The clients are more and more commonly people in managerial and professional positions.” (p. 60)
However, several articles show that those getting tattoos come from all walks of life.
An article in MacLean’s dated September of 1991 by N. Underwood tells of a 39-year-old mother, who is a bartender, and her 18-year-old daughter getting matching tattoos. One mother, at age 42, decided to get a tattoo after her daughter did, according to the National Catholic Reporter (Vineyard 1999). In 2005, Herizons magazine had an article by Alexis Keinlen that told of a 46-year-old mother getting a tattoo to memorialize the death of her 20-year-old son.
An article in Spirituality and Health dated February of 2006 by Mandi Caruso features a middle age post mastectomy woman who had both breasts removed because of cancer. She has a tattoo across her chest depicting her love of the water and surfing.
Another group that gets tattoos is the convicts. There is a difference between an inmate and a convict. The convict is more covered with tattoos, portraying the acceptance of the lifestyle and marginalization for life (Bell 1999).
Before the 1960s rock stars, popular athletes, and other youth icons were the people that displayed their tattoos. In the late 1980s tattooing was described as “trendy” and “no longer restricted to socially marginal groups” (Forbes 2001: 775). A significant number of well-educated middle-class people began to come on the tattoo scene (Forbes 2001).
The research indicates that there is no one group, no one age or gender, no one personality, and no particular level of social status that get tattoos. Just as diverse as who gets a tattoo are the reasons why people get their tattoos.


According to Bell (1999), American tattooing is unique. Tattoos are images and literal interpretations of things, not surprising because America is a consumer society. Bell states that the meaning of the act of tattooing is “inextricably linked” (p. 54) to the chosen image itself. Any permanent mark on the body signifies a person’s separation from the mainstream of culture, and a tattoo can separate someone from society at large. Separation from society is a large factor in her theory about tattoos and why people get them. She states, “tattooing is a struggle for individualization in a society that is increasingly impersonal” (p. 54). They are a sign of resistance to the impermanent and conservative world of today. She quotes Vaclav Havel as saying that being tattooed is synonymous with “living the truth” (p. 54); your own personal truth.
Christensen (2000) found many reasons for getting tattoos including “expressing individuality, communicating rebellion, defining group membership, conveying spiritual meaning, or marking milestones such as life or death” (Christensen 2000: 432, as cited in Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, and Koch 2002). Tattooed career women said that the tattoo “helped them feel good, unique, and special” (Armstrong 1991: 219, as cited in Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, and Koch 2002). Among adolescents and college students, the purpose for their tattoo was “expressing myself” and the reason for doing it with a tattoo was “I just wanted one” (Armstrong and McConnell 1994; Armstrong and Pace-Murphy 1997; Greif et al., 1999: 368, as cited in Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, and Koch 2002). Forbes (2001) found college students “just liked the looks of it”(p. 778) and they offered the tattoo as a form of self-expression. Military recruits’ reasons were to “be myself, I don’t need to impress people anymore” and because they just wanted one (Armstrong et al. 2000: 137, as cited in Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, and Koch 2002).
Bell also refers to Paul Willis’s theory on symbolic creativity, which states that even though the lives of young people are not involved in the arts, they are full of expressions, signs, and symbols to establish the young persons presence, identity and meaning. Being tattooed is an act of this creativity. Forming an identity is important to young and old, and for some, tattoos can be a symbolic part of this identity. Tattoos can honor their family or lover, display their religious beliefs or patriotism, or their association with a certain group (Bell 1999).
Bell writes that women choose softer, more personal images for tattoos and place them where they can be hidden. Men choose macho imagery and place them where they can be seen. Tattoos have long been associated with men because of the stereotype of the tattooed person and the pain associated with it, so when a woman gets tattoos, it is regarded as a resistance to female beauty as society commonly sees it. She writes; “it takes a strong will and sense of self (identity) to withstand the blatant and piercing stares” (p. 56) because of the stigma still attached that differs in every culture and city. As stated earlier, it creates a separation from mainstream society (Bell, 1999).
Prison tattoos are “identity claimers” (p. 55), according to Bell, that are associated with gang or group membership. Prison tattoos are done with single needles and with no color, so they appear very different than tattoos done professionally in a tattoo studio. This difference in imagery and the way it is done creates a class marker between prison and professional tattoos for all of society to see (Bell 1999). Some prison inmates bring their own equipment; a sharpened guitar string for a needle and a melted down checker piece for the ink, according to an article by Ronald Day in Body Positive magazine (2005).
An article in Jet magazine dated July 2001writes that athletes get tattoos for several reasons. One athlete has tattoos that portray his attitude in life, such as “Only the Strong Survive” (p. 46), and some that are dedicated to his family and friends. Another uses them to express himself through meaningful symbols. Yet another says his tattoos “revolve around my life. I think tattoos are something that tell who you are and how you feel” (p. 46).
There are myths that people get tattoos for personal advertisement and that every tattoo means something explicit. Some people do get a tattoo with the intention of others seeing and interpreting it, yet others have a tattoo in places that cannot be seen by the general public because it is a symbol for their self and those that they are intimate with. The more tattoos a person has, the less meaning the actual tattoo has. The meaning is in the act of getting the tattoo. It becomes less about it meaning something to them down the road, and more about it being aesthetically pleasing (Bell 1999). “Meanings change, beauty and truth are eternal” (Bell 1999: 57).
Bell writes that tattooing goes beyond the lack of depth of the visually based American consumer society that is superficial in nature. She says that American tattooing is a “product of this surface-oriented society” (Bell 1999: 57) and quotes Marshal Blonsky:
[Surface] is a characteristic of our fast-flowing time, where everything has to communicate fast and move onDepth is a category that pretends to penetrate surfaceFirst impressions are decisive [and] surface is individuated by apparelThe search for interiority merely creates more surface. (Blonsky: 17)
There is no other form of adornment or decoration that is permanent. Fashions allow change of mind, tattooing does not. The most common concern about tattoos is their permanence (Bell 1999). This fear of permanence says a lot about society and “its unwillingness to commit to identity and accept the consequences. To do something permanent is to be unable to take it back – it is to live in truth for eternity” (Bell 1999: 57).
An article in Print dated Jan/Feb 1995 written by Akiko Busch writes of the decoration factor of tattoos. A couple got tattoos together when they decided to get married because they thought it to be more expressive of commitment than jewelry. Another person chose their tattoo because they could imagine being “accompanied through life by such an emblem” (Busch 1995: 112). Tattoos are about intimacy, image and identity (Busch 1995). A young 15-year-old girl got a tattoo, with her mother’s permission, as an attempt to reclaim her body with a protective talisman on herself because of being a victim of a crime (Vineyard 1999).
A lot of women get tattoos to reclaim their bothes or to mark incidents in their lives. A mother, father, and several friends of a student that thed got tattoos to mark the loss. It is a constant reminder of him and a symbol of the relationship and closeness he had with each one. The pain of getting it done was welcomed as a pain that could be controlled amongst all of the emotional pain that could not be controlled. Another woman got her whole arm tattooed to represent a reclaiming of her childhood. Women tend to get tattoos to mark a change in the way they see themselves, not to change the way society sees them (Keinlen, 2005).
In Cultural Anthropology journal, 1997, Daniel Rosenblatt writes about the “modern primitive”, meaning the tattooed person of today in the Western world. Linking modern day tattooing with the ancient world brings in a long history and thus exemplifies it as a human practice. Identifying with tattooing in other cultures allows people to feel like they’re connecting with the history of humanity (Rosenblatt 1997). It allows us to see tattooing as a spiritual activity because it is ancient and widespread and “is seen as an expression of a basic human need for rituals that give life meaning” (p. 303) and connects the tattooed person to the rest of humanity (Hardy, as cited in Rosenblatt 1997). The modern tattooed person is seeking other truths and other ways of knowing the world. The tattoo can connect the person wearing it to knowledge of powers in “nature” that the “primitive” people knew in intimacy (Zuluata, as cited in Rosenblatt1997). The growing popularity of tattooing in the Western world may be interpreted as a sign of a bigger change in society (Rosenblatt 1997). Maybe we are no longer the “monolithic engine of rationality”(p. 304) that we are imagined to be (Rosenblatt1997).
Judeo-Christian and Jewish tradition look down on tattooing. This is another factor in linking tattoos to identification with non-Western or alternative ways of thought. The outdated social stigma attached to tattooing is melting away. Tattooing is beginning to be seen as more of a meaningful art than a “brand”. Tattoos seem to be about representing or expressing an aspect of the self, both in public and privately. It reflects the duality in our notion of the self, and is an attempt to bring these two aspects together (Rosenblatt 1997).
Some people get tattoos to express the aspects of them that go against the stereotyping of society. It can be a process of self-exploration, affirmation of self, and/or a mask. It opens the person up to the world by expressing beliefs or feelings in a visible manner, yet it can create a barrier against the world (Handel, as cited in Rosenblatt 1997).
In Rosenblatt’s piece, he quotes Fakir Musafar; “The purpose of the tattoo is to do something for the person, to help them realize the individual magic latent within them [Vale and Juno 1989:11]”. The tattoo can be a way to get in touch with the private, intuitive self and can be an act of reclaiming the self. There is a relationship between controlling your body and realizing yourself as an individual. This is why tattoos are popular in prison – no one can take away your skin. They are an expression of freedom (Hardy, as cited in Rosenblatt 1997).
The issue of power and control is also prevalent in the youth who get tattoos according to Georg Simmel in his 1950 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”. In this essay he writes of conformity and mistrust in modern life producing an uneasiness that leads people to look for ways to express individuation and find selffulfillment. He states that deviance is an outlet for this (Koch, Roberts, Cannon, Armstrong, and Owen 2004).
Lyman and Scott (1970) take this idea further by discussing four sites in which the individuation may occur: public territories, home territories, interactional territories, and body territories. Body territories are the most private and sacred of the territories. Even though body territories are sometimes regulated socially, the person can also claim it as a place of self-expression. The body is a viable way to express oneself symbolically, especially if the person has limited access to the other territorial forms. Irwin (2001) and Velliquette and Murray (2002) agree and add that tattoos “represent both a moral passage of sorts and also an attempt to individuate oneself from the larger society” (Koch, Roberts, Cannon, Armstrong, and Owen 2004: p. 83). It is a public display of self-concept and is important in developing the social self for some people (Koch et al. 2004).
For some people, getting a tattoo means that they have done something real about their relationship to the world because of its permanence and its connection to their inner self. The tattoo can express and take away their unhappiness with the roles society offers them, and it can bring them a refuge from societal conditioning. The ancient background of tattoos makes them a human and permanent commitment rather than a fad of society, therefore, tattoos become a culturally recognized way to express self. The body is a way of expressing and altering the relationship between self and society. It uses the skin, sexuality, the body and the “primitive” connection as key symbolic domains to recover and express the self. Primitive cultures encourage development of intuition and magic and allow for more expression of individuality than we do in Western culture. So, a tattoo in Western culture makes the person look different, and also gives their difference a greater meaning. It brings some part of the personal inner self out and makes it part of the social self, and frees the person from society to become human instead of Western. In having control over their body, the person has control over their self, which becomes a powerful emotional experience (Rosenblatt 1997).
Memorial tattoos are popular, especially among the military. Many Marines in Iraq get tattoos as “a way to give ink-and-skin permanence to friends taken young. It’s like death-it’s forever” (Phillips 2006: A8). “It’s also never forget the cost of war, to get people to understand what they’re asking for when they support war” (Phillips 2006: A8). For some, the pain of the needle eased the guilt of having survived and the sorrow of the loss. Some said that feeling the pain made it okay that the others got killed and they didn’t. It became a way to remember their brothers (Phillips 2006).
Mary Kosut brings another theory of motivation forth in her 2005 article in Deviant Behavior journal where she contributes that some motivations for getting a tattoo are characterized as negative (Kosut 2005). The desire to be tattooed “may be the result of deficiency or because of low levels of cortical arousal and a need for constant stimulation” (Copes and Forsyth 1993; Favazza 1996, as cited in Kosut 2005: 82). Her article also provides that tattoo artists have been associated with “non-normative behavior” (p. 83). This train of thought has been redefined and reinterpreted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of the amount of trained artists in the field of tattooing (Kosut 2005).


Data were collected through interviews with thirteen people that have tattoos, a sample consisting of seven women and six men ranging in age from 20 – 65 years old. Four tattoo artists, two men and two women were interviewed. One evening was spent “hanging out” in a tattoo studio observing and interacting with the patrons that visited. Several conversations were had, which did not constitute an interview as such, with students on campus and other people that happened to come in contact with the researcher elsewhere. The researcher designed and had her own tattoo done.
Five of the people were interviewed in person; the other seven were interviewed online by computer. Face-to-face interviews consisting of both closed and openended questions were tape recorded and conducted in tattoo studios. The researcher’s interest in the subject and her desire to get a tattoo seemed to make for a deep connection with those that she interviewed.


Tattoo artists claimed that a wide range of people get tattoos. The two male tattoo artists said “everybody” and then went on to elaborate. Mike, a 61-year-old tattoo artist, has been tattooing for 35 or 36 years. He says he has tattooed people from all walks of life; doctors, nurses, lawyers, and surgeons. His clients are mainly a younger crowd ranging from ages 18-40 years, although he said that he gets a considerable amount of people from the 40-70’s age group too.
There are also many women in their 60’s that he has tattooed. He told a story of five women that all worked in the same office together coming in for tattoos. They all had different reasons, but all got them done.
Rick is a “30-something” tattoo artist that has been tattooing since he graduated from art school. He said that people who get tattoos are anywhere from 18-70 years old, and can range from cops to criminals. He tattooed a 70-year-old funeral director.
The two women tattoo artists that I interviewed went into a little more detail when asked who got tattoos. Lori, who is in her late 30’s, is also an art school graduate and started tattooing to support her family when her children were young. She says that people that have been hurt as a child, recovering addicts that don’t spend their money on drinking or drugs anymore, bike club members, and just “normal, ordinary” people came in for tattoos. The ages range from 18 years to the oldest at 77 years old.
Janice is 33 years old and no longer does tattooing. She has artistic talent and expressed it through tattooing others. When asked who gets tattoos, she stated:
“The stereotypical 20-year-old guy with a bit of a chip on his shoulder-the James Dean type. Obviously though, women are a larger authence than everbefore…and we would see many older men getting touch ups and cover-ups. A lot of college aged people. A sprinkling of retireesshe was 77. So, there are all typesbut the stats are correct, college age kids, mostly male are the biggest authence”


The reasons and meaning behind the tattoo were as numerous as the people who get them. The artists who do the tattoos were an excellent source of information on this topic. Mike, the tattoo artist, says that people see a lot of it on television and on stars, athletes, and people in public exposure. He did a tattoo on a 78-year-old male who had wanted a tattoo all of his life, but his wife wouldn’t let him get one. She passed on, so he got it done. Mike said that younger women wear tattoos like jewelry; it was to beautify. A girl and her brothers got praying hands with a rosary as a memorial to their father when he passed. There was a gentleman that came into his studio undecided about what he wanted. He looked at wolves howling at the moon, bats, and the grim reaper and wanted to work up a scene with them in it. When asked what he did for a living, he said he was a gravedigger. For him, the tattoos were an expression of himself and what he does in life. Mike has also been working on a fellow since 1991 or 1992 who has about 90-98% of his body covered in tattoos. Mike didn’t know the reason for it, other than the fellow just likes them. He said, “they have their own reasons and I don’t question them”. According to Mike, most of it is an expression of themselves. It makes them feel different about themselves, “like a new outfit”, it just feels new.
Rick also said it is a form of self-expression. With young kids it is sometimes because a popular person has it. He had a family come in for tattoos when their little girl was hit by a car and killed. He did her portrait on three of the family members. He tattoos the workers at the county jail as well as the inmates. He said that the tattoos are a source of commonality among the prisoners and the workers, something that they can talk about. He found it rare that anyone does it for the pain or because they are addicted to any part of getting a tattoo. He said that “everybody has an instinct to express themselves” whether it be for a rite of passage or for a keepsake.

Lori told of many reasons for people getting a tattoo. Some want to prove their love to a particular person. Some men want their newborn’s name and footprint copied from the birth certificate “to attempt to prove their happiness or eternal bond” and comment that the mother will be happy to see it (the tattoo). Some just do it for themselves because they are happy that they just had a baby. People that have been hurt get a tattoo to claim themselves” it’s their skin, this is a decision I’m making a large number of them say they do not feel any pain at all. Some do it to see if they can feel pain that way”. There are people that say, “they love the feel, they really don’t care what the image is, and they simply want to feel that sensation”. If a “biker” has just purchased a motorcycle, part of the package is to get the bike emblem. They said, “their skin is still soft and supple and hasn’t been exposed to the wind yet.”
She has had countless people tattoo animal’s names and/or portraits, and they would cry from the loss while getting it done. Others get a tattoo to memorialize a loved one. She said, “a family actually believed if they all were together in the shop getting a tattoo for the same person, that person’s spirit would be aware of what was happening and they could feel his presence”.
She tattoos as many women as she does men. She tattooed a 77-year-old woman that had been in the hospital. The woman thought that she was dying, so when she was released from the hospital, she did the things that she regretted not doing in her lifetime. “A tattoo of a rose was at the top of her list”. A 72-year-old man came in to her shop and had two large tattoos of naked women covered. The tattoos had bothered him for years and he was ashamed of them.
Lori did see a lot of influence from television and movies in where people want their tattoos placed on their body. They thought it would make them more like the image on the screen; not physically but through an emotional connection to the character portrayed.
Janice found that most of her clients wanted a tattoo because they are “cool” or they “have always wanted one”. She says another reason is for a tribute to someone or some event in his or her life.
Overall, the tattoo artists interviewed could not state a typical reason for getting a tattoo or a typical person that gets a tattoo. They see a very diversified clientele who each have their own unique reason for getting a tattoo. The only commonality, that the artists experienced, is that their clientele do it as a means of self-expression.


The interviews with those who actually wear tattoos opened up a whole new world to me. The reasons for getting one come from many different levels of themselves. It was thought that one would find a main theme or reason for having ink engraved into your body permanently. Aside from tattoos being some type of an expression, all other reasons are too diversified to compartmentalize into specific categories.
One reason for getting a tattoo is to remember something (whether it was a fleeting moment or a deep happening) such as, a person, an animal, an event, something sad or something happy. A tattoo is a permanent way to remember, an expression of life or a means to assert ones independence or individuality.
There are many other reasons, including women getting tattoos for the beauty, the aesthetic value of having beautiful art on their body. New beginnings, such as adulthood, divorce, marriage, death, birth, etc. warrant a tattoo for some people.
Some people actually appreciate the pain saying that it is temporary pain for a permanent effect. “If it was easy everyone would do it”, one interviewee said, so the pain sets them apart from the rest of society.
One of my online interviews said that usually the reason “isn’t as emotional or meaningful as many might hope or think”. This person got tattoos to remember the city she lived in or to mark happy or sad times in her life. Therefore, many of her tattoos did not have a great meaning.
Another said her tattoos are symbolic of various things, mainly belief structures. She said she gets tattoos “to remind myself of various things, that period of my life, my mind set at the time, or just that I shouldn’t take shit from people”. Someone else said that they get tattoos to be different from most people, not because they wanted to be noticed, but “because they are a window to your personality”. They also remind them of their past, which they thought of as a good thing.
A female interviewed online said that hers is a very personal design. She looked for six years to find the right one, and then altered it to fit her. She is working on designs for three more tattoos that are also very meaningful to her. One will be a ladybug because her mother used to call her “her little ladybug”. She is going through some rough times with her family and getting this tattoo will remind her that she and her mom still love each other even through all of this. She thinks of tattoos “as accentuating an already beautiful form – the human body”. She felt the “art was already in me; it’s a mark on my eternal soul that I wanted to share with those around me. It’s not adding or subtracting from me, it’s simply bringing an element of myself to the surface”. Tattoos are an expression of life for her.
Another online interview of a female found that she got her first tattoo at age 16 as a birthday present for herself. She was “instantly addicted” and got her second one two days later. Her reason was because she loved the way tattoos look. She now has some that memorialize those that she has lost. She finds tattoos “a lot like fashion” and that people get them to feel good about themselves. She is a sailor by trade but had to live on land for a few years, so she got her arm tattoo because she “wanted the ocean with me no matter how far the water was!” and because she worked in male dominant positions and “wanted to be perceived as tougher than your average, high maintenance girl”. She stated that she has grown “older and wiser” since then and no longer wants to carry that perception. However, the tattoo still remains as a memory of that time in her life.
Memorial tattoos are quite popular. An online interview with another female was about her memorial tattoo. She had always wanted a tattoo and the passing of her father was her excuse to get one. Her father was an avid gardener so she got a small rose with the stem bending around to “cradle the words ‘Daddy’s girl'”. It is a yellow rose because her power color is yellow. This tattoo also represents a reclaiming of her independence after a divorce from a man who would not let her get a tattoo.
A gentleman wrote online that he “was actually pleased by the adrenaline rush” that made him woozy while sitting seven hours being tattooed.
There were those that compared it to art in other forms. One online interviewee said that she got her tattoo “because I wanted to wear my art, not just hang it on the wall”. Another stated:
For many of us, asking why we like tattoos, or even asking why we like a certain design, is like asking someone why they like a certain Mozart piece, or a certain Van Gogh painting, etc. Tattoos are one of many forms of art – and personally, I think about the coolest medium (i.e. living skin) that I can imagine.
Jolene had always talked about getting a tattoo and just never did until going through a “messy, ugly divorce”. At that time she was learning about herself and who she wanted to be, and she was depressed and worried so she began exploring spirituality. She is Native American so tattoos came as a “natural way for me to explore and ultimately express these issues.”
Her first tattoo was to cover scars on her stomach. She was ashamed of them, so the tattoo enabled her to cover the scar and to “honor my body and forgive it for being less than perfect”. Now, instead of being ashamed of her body, she could be proud of it because of the meaning the tattoo holds for her. She chose to have a tribal sun tattooed encircling her navel.
She states:
I chose a tribal sun for my stomach pieceit encircles my navel and for me, the sun is the source of lifeand my stomach/womb has been a source of life as well, despite its visible imperfections. My next piece was an ankle wrap which is very colorful and has the word “Justice” written in runes. Justice is the Latin meaning of my name, and also a significant source of strength in my life to me it means karma it goes around my ankle and has no beginning or end like karma it keeps coming around. My next two pieces were a ring with my children’s birthstones in it, and a crescent moon on my left breast. Moons being the symbol of the goddess, and the left side of our bothes being associated with our feminine energies, and my breasts being the source of food for babies plus, I was in a car wreck and almost lost that breast so I honor that breast and thank it for performing miracles, feeding babies despite its flaws and the damage that has been done to it. My fifth piece is a full back mural. It incorporates a stained glass panel of the sun and the phases of the moon, depicts a goddess pouring water (emotion) from a pitcher into a pool of water, a hummingbird (my Native American animal guide and a symbol of the element of air) a tiger lily (which reminds me of creative energies and the element of fire) growing out of a field (element of earth) and the runes which spell out “I am Woman, I am Life.” My final piece is my engagement ring from my second marriage.
She has more than one tattoo because she felt she “needed more than one story to help tell about the me who is on the inside”. She felt that she had taken back control of her body. She had been taking it for granted and had forgotten that it is connected to her soul. She believes her body should reflect who she is on the inside.
A 21-year-old male college student said that he got his first tattoo at age 18. In the beginning he wanted to get it because his dad did not want him to, but when he got to the tattoo studio and saw the beauty of the artist’s work, he had more of an urge to get one. He now has the Chinese symbol for “gates to heaven” in the middle of his back because “if the gates to heaven are behind me then that means I’m already in heaven and the tribal wings I have around that is my wings for when I’m in heaven”. He has a tribal shield around his left nipple, over his heart, to protect him from people that may try to hurt him, “mainly females”. “TRIP” tattooed on his lower left arm is his nickname for all to see who he is without him having to tell them. The tattoo on his lower back has his zodiac sign incorporated into it. He also admitted to getting more than one tattoo, not only because he liked the way they look, but because of the pain.
During the researcher’s evening observing at the tattoo studio she interviewed a gentleman and his wife. He was getting his first tattoos; she already has three. The researcher watched as he got his done and he allowed her to interview him during the process. He is a 28-year-old construction worker and father of two children, one boy and one girl. He was getting a portrait of his daughter on his left forearm and his son on his right forearm. He said he promised his daughter he would have her tattooed on him because then he “always got her on me”. His children would be “on me forever”. He wants everyone to see them.
His wife is 25 years old and got her first tattoo when she was 18. Her father drew it and she had just had her son, so she put her son’s name into what her father drew. She will have it forever to remember her father and her son. Her other tattoos consist of one on her chest that is a butterfly with “Mimi” on it (what her nephews call her), and one around her right wrist that is made up of her niece’s, nephew’s, and son’s initials. She said the bracelet effect is feminine and “no one knows what it really is”. She likes that hers can be hidden from others, but that she can see them.
My interview with Tony, a 21-year-old employee of the tattoo studio, is the final entry. He is studying to be a body piercer and also works with the mentally handicapped at the Resource Center in his town. He got his first tattoo just before he turned 21. His friend was leaving for college and they both wanted something that represented their friendship, so they got a broken heart tattooed on both wrists. He said that he has always wanted something on his wrist so he can see it. He also has a lion, his zodiac sign, tattooed on his left forearm. The tattoos make him feel stronger. He stated:
It is a constant reminder of not only relationships that I have, but also things that people loose in life, things that can mean to me just open and endless possibilities. I put things on my body that reminds me of myself, who I am, where I came from, plus the things that I want to do in life – learn and the things that I go through. It’s almost like an empowerment. The world of body mods is a very beautiful thing. It was around before civilized culture was. You have the tribes in Africa and the Indians here in the Americas that all their art is very beautiful to me. We as human beings are almost reclaiming that – it’s just a more technological society (today).
As for the researcher’s own experience of entering into the world of the tattooed, she too has an outward expression of her inner self for all to see. Like most of the people that she read about or interviewed, the meaning of what she has inked on her body is much deeper than the visual image that can be seen. It is not there to be pretty, but is a reminder to her, every time she looks at it, of her beliefs and the intentions she strives to live. Her tattoo is a chameleon to remind her that the only thing in life that is constant is change. The colors that she chose each have a symbolic meaning and representation. The infinity symbol on its back represents that there is no beginning and there is no end, and that life holds endless possibilities. The OM symbol signifies God, Creation and the Oneness of all Creation. It represents the unmanifest and the manifest aspects of God. The eyes of the chameleon are a symbol that means “spirit of all creation” honoring all that is, seen and unseen. The spider has been her animal totem since her vision quest four years ago. Its symbolic meaning is far too lengthy to delve into here. The tattoo is on her foot to remind her of being grounded and staying true to Mother Earth. It also reminds her that life is all about the journey that one walks and not about the destination.
The pain that she experienced getting the tattoo reminded her of what one sometimes needs to go through in life to be true to one’s beliefs and oneself. It may feel painful for a while, at times almost unbearable, but if one trusts and has faith that all will turn out exactly as it needs to be for the highest and best for all involved, one can live in love without fear.


Since ancient times, people worldwide have gotten tattoos. Why would that be? Possibly because of the changes previously discussed, the depressing times, and the crisis that the world is in now. People have the perception that so much is out of their control. Making their mark on the only thing that we have some control of (our body) is a way of easing our anxiety about the world situation, a way of having some control over something. Also, in times of crisis people tend to look for spiritual meaning in life, a meaning that they can hold on to forever, something larger and more powerful than the material world.
According to my data, tattoos are a form of self-expression, a way to touch the depths of one’s feelings and bring those feelings out for one’s own observation or for the observation of others. Tattoos are a way of expressing thoughts, beliefs, triumphs and trials, and a way of memorializing a loved one, possibly to the extent of feeling control over death by immortalizing their memory forever on one’s body to carry with one throughout one’s life.
Respondents say tattoos are a way of connecting to that inner self that gets lost in the sea of the material world. Tattoos are a reminder of one’s roots, one’s ancestors, and the time when everything meant something or had a purpose. There is so much in today’s society that is without purpose and without a connection to give meaning to life and the way it is lived. Interviewees said that tattoos can connect the spiritual inner self to the material world that one lives in, or they can separate one from the material world and take one to a place within oneself that longs to be experienced and expressed.
In this fast paced, technological society where everybody is becoming a number, being tattooed is a way of remaining a person, something capable of feeling and expression. It is possibly another coping mechanism that helps an individual get along in the world as it is today. A person’s tattoo may look exactly like someone else’s, but the feeling and meaning of what it represents to each one of them is entirely different. No one or no thing can take that away from them, not even the worldly powers that control everything else in society.
Tattoos can represent or express anything the person wearing it wants it to without getting “permission” from society to do so. It is a freedom from the many societal restrictions. In the world of crisis today that is commanded by fear, one’s body is the only space that is sacred. The only true haven and refuge that one has is one’s inner self, one’s inner reality, and one’s inner essence. Tattooing is a way to bridge the gap between one’s inner reality and the outer reality of the world one must live in.
In conclusion, the reasons for getting a tattoo and the meaning behind what is visibly seen are as varied as the people involved. Whether a person gets a tattoo “just because he likes how it looks” or because it symbolizes something for them, the tattoo is a form of self-expression. The purpose of wearing this art on one’s body rather than hanging it on a wall signifies a total commitment to what it stands for. It is the most permanent form of self-expression, with no escape from it. It is everywhere they go, they carry it with them, and it is a part of them. It is connected to one’s mind and one’s body for their time spent here on earth, and connected to their spirit, their inner essence forever.


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Johnson, Frankie J, Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2007




branding in the art world...

Contemporary Visual Artists | Branding In The Art World | Academic Exploration | The Tattoo Concierge Guide  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
In the world of mass consumption, art itself has become a commodity. The history of contemporary art is now written depending on art’s integration in the art market while its relation to its authence gets to be highly influenced by this market. We are now facing a new type of reception of the contemporary art that is becoming more and more popular, while the success associated with the art world gets to be similar (on a reduced scale, though) to that associated with other cultural industries. Artists have become celebrities; the art world itself is extremely spectacular, while both insiders and outsiders are strongly fascinated by its aura. For example, Damien Hirst’s retrospective exhibition held in Tate Modern London in 2012 has been the most popular solo show in the history of the institution, attracting record-breaking visitor numbers, as well as Jeff Koons’ retrospective at Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014, which was the most visited exhibition in 83 years of museum existence, or that of the same artist held at Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2014-2015 which reached 112000 visitors in its first 17 days. In this context, numerous press clips, magazine articles, TV documentaries and academic research try to investigate a series of issues related to this subject, by pointing out the spectacular character, the relation between contemporary art and market economy, particularities of the art world and the value of the art work, PR and marketing strategies and other more. Our interest in this context is related to the “branding” phenomenon that is associated with contemporary art, more precisely to the figure of the contemporary artist. Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami are only some of the names that have been referred to as brands. In the same time, Larry Gagosian, Jay Jopling are called branded dealers, Charles Saatchi, Francois Pinault, Bernard Arnauld are seen as branded collectors, while Tate Modern, Guggenheim or MoMa are branded museums. Still, while the mentioned institutions have invested a lot in an institutional branding process, the artists’ branding is a consequence of the strategies that are marketing individual personalities as products and of the particular functioning of the art system. Consequently, the present article will question the celebrity status of contemporary artists, the branding mechanisms integrated in the art system, the relationship between the celebrity status and that of a brand and the values associated with the contemporary artists’ brands. Two theoretical directions – the theory of the art worlds (Danto, 1964), (Bourtheau, 1998), (Dickie, 1975) (Becker, 2010), the institutional theory of art (De Duve, 1989), (Dickie G., 1984) – constitute the background for this research and provide the tools for the use of the brand term in connection with the figure of the contemporary artist


We consider that the world of art presents itself as a vast socio-economic systemic network. A.C. Danto is the first to give a definition to the philosophical notion of “the art world” that includes the communities of interpreters – critics, art curators, artists and collectors – within galleries and museums to suggest that it is impossible to understand conceptual art without the help of this art world. G. Dickie’s theory (Dickie G., 1975) states that a work of art becomes art only if it gets the status of potential candidate to the appreciation of the social institution called “the art world”. Therefore, any artifact may become art as long as “the art world” decides to call it art: “The work of art, in its classifying meaning, is (1) an artifact, (2) a set of aspects which were given the status of candidate to appreciation by a person or persons acting in the name of a certain social institution (the art world). Returning several years later to the problem of the status of a work of art, Dickie (Dickie G., 1984, p. 34) gives the following solution: a work of art is an artifact created to be presented to a public belonging to the art world and the art works are art as a result of the positioning or place occupied within this world which is functioning as a system. Howard S. Becker describes the art world as an ensemble of networks cooperating in order to confer aesthetic value to the works of art and examining the careers, activities and achievements of the producers of the art works leading to the analysis of the artists’ personal reputation as a social process: “The theory states that reputation is founded on the art works. But in reality, the reputation of artists and of their art works derives from the collective activity of the art worlds.” (Becker, 2010). Nowadays, aestheticians, theoreticians, dealers, collectors, the public and other professionals of the art world cooperate in order to construct the artists’ reputation
Raymonde Moulin discusses the theory of the art system, concentrating her analysis on the specificity of the actual artistic configuration which resides in the interdependence between the art market, where economic transactions are made (responsible for the financial reputation of the art works and of the artists) and the cultural field, where we operate with the homologation and hierachization of the artistic value. Her study, L’artiste, l’institution et le marché, “proposes a sociologie analysis of the construction of artistic values, stuthes the different categories of actors operating in the construction of the artistic values and establishes the sociologie portrait of the artist, the central character of the art world.” (Moulin, 2009, p. 45). The economic and social mechanism of the construction of values within contemporary art is based on the articulation of the network of international art galleries with the network of international cultural institutions; the internationalization of the contemporary art market cannot be dissociated from its cultural promotion. This way, Moulin’s research concentrates on the two main pillars of the artistic system: the art market and its actors – gallerists, collectors, art dealers – on the one hand and the museum as the main cultural actor, on the other

The gallery is the key institution within the contemporary art system, the first level that holds the “monopole” over the artist’s works. As Moulin says, the art galleries can choose two versions in maximizing their profits: they can store the relatively low price purchased works and wait to sell them to selected clients, or, they can create a temporary favorable situation by rapidly selling a big number of works and quickly raising their prices. The second strategy has been dominating the contemporary art market (for approximately 30 years now). Therefore, the very conception of the art market brings the necessity of a short term strategy and of a permanent renewal of the market. This shortening of the valorisation time generates the extension of the action space, a social and geographic extension (the international recognition of the art work and the artist’s value) that compensates the temporal dimension
Within this system, the “leader” galleries are those which direct a dominant tendency: “Disposing of the monopole of a certain tendency, the leader gallery establishes a promotion strategy. In order to create the request in the favor of a new artistic movement, the commercial marketing and the advertisement techniques are combined with the ones of the cultural diffusion. The possibility of success of a promotion strategy, within a limited period of time, depends on the gallery’s financial support and cultural reputation. The financial means and the cultural reputation are interdependent.” (Moulin, 2009, p. 47) This way the leader galleries are the ones owning the necessary means to launch and promote an artist or an entire artistic movement, being able (from an economic point of view) to mobilize, on an international level, an important network of galleries operating on different private markets. Today, a “continuous innovative swirl” is the principle standing at the basis of the art market’s functioning, says Moulin, this standing as a cause for the leader galleries to be in a permanent state of renewal of their offer or of searching for new artists to be promoted. After the 2nd World War, Leo Castelli is the archetype prototype of the leader art dealer. The American and international art markets have been profoundly influenced by the choices Leo Castelli has made and by the establishment of some important artistic movements: Pop Art, minimal art, conceptual art
Next to the galleries, collectors act both as economic agents and as cultural actors in order to impose certain contemporary artists on the international art market: “The great collectors collaborate with gallerists who ensure the artists’ promotion. They are the first buyers. They purchase early, at relatively reduced prices, a large number of pieces belonging to each of the representative artists within the artistic movements they are interested in. The massive insertion of a new tendency in a reference collection contributes, before joining a museum collection, to the establishment of an artistic movement. The great collector, often a member in a museum Board, facilitates the institutional recognition of the artists he / she supports”. (Moulin, 2009, p. 52). The collectors present their collection to the public either by organizing exhibitions or by opening private museums (such as Guggenheim Museum in New York, Bilbao, Venice, Ludwig Museum in Köln, Budapest or Vienna, the François Pinault Foundation, Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana Venice, Charles Saatchi Gallery London). In this way collectors are assuming the roles of all the actors that belong to the art world and market, except that of the artist: they can take on the role of the dealer – they are buying and selling works, they can organize exhibitions adopting the role of a curator, they are opening contemporary art museums – managing the role of a cultural agent: “at the crossroads of the economic and the cultural space, collectors contribute to the institutional recognition of the artists and to the hierarchization of the aesthetic value. As they arbitrate, they have a decisive influence on selected artists and on the development of their careers”. (Moulin, 2009, p. 56). Hence, “the art world is subject to the impulses and strategies of some persons owning enormous financial capital, capable of making judgments regarding museums’ orientations and, implicitly, regarding the art market on an international scale. Among the most powerful and influential collectors stand the advertising man, Charles Saatchi, the German manufacturer, Peter Ludwig and the company owners François Pinault and Bernard Arnault. They all have created their own important collections exerting a determinant power over the art market, owning auction houses, museums and foundations, magazines and, eventually, TV channels” (Chalumeau, 2002, p. 124)
Due to the accelerated circulation of the art works, a secondary art market has been established at international level. Through art fairs and auction houses, it essentially contributes to the rise in prices and to the multiplication of sales. The great public sales constitute the most covered pole of the market. The auction houses and the contemporary art fairs are always accompanied by large promotional actions and marketing activities which contribute to the increase of visibility and to the media coverage of the contemporary art. Following New York’s Armory Show model, the big art fairs were launched at the beginning of the 70’s – Art Cologne in 1969, Art Basel in 1970; today we face an extremely large expansion of these institutions – within a vast international perimeter (Art Miami, SH Contemporary Shanghai, Frieze London, FIAC Paris, ARCO Madrid, Istanbul Contemporary, jus to give a few examples). Art fairs are places for orientation, confrontation and exchange, essential for the art dealers who discover here the market trends and test their own orientations. Within these fairs, the artists already benefiting from cultural recognition present their works in different galleries, the transactions made in such ways to increase artists’ quotation on the market. Also, the sale through auction houses multiply year after year adding extremely high financial value to the candidates seeking artistic professionalization. As Olav Velthuis mentions, “Social scientists have called auctions “tournaments of value” or “status contests”. At stake in such tournaments is not only an economic transaction but also the establishment of the artists’ rank and the status and fame of the collectors who can afford to buy their work” (Velthuis, 2007, p. 123). Hence, collectors are buying values as much as they are buying art and there are at least two reasons for their acquisitions. They either purchase a piece of art because they are strongly connected to that work intellectually or affectionately, they love it, they dialogue with it, they feel represented by it, or because they consider it an investment, and more than that, a status marker. The social recognition and the self-expression benefit provided by owning a work of art signed by a famous artist will endorse the collector’s status. Therefore, art fairs and auction houses contribute essentially to the artists’ status and its transformation to a celebrity
Within this network, artistic events such as the international biennials (the Venice Biennale with a history starting from 1895 or Documenta Kassel inaugurated in 1955, to give jus two examples) constitute, on one hand, moments of artistic sociability and privileged places for communication within the art sphere and on the other hand, they have an important validation function: “they participate in establishing a hierarchy of aesthetic values and constitute the mandatory stages of an artistic career, both from the point of view of the author’s reputation and of the prices of the art work.” (Moulin, 2009, p. 61) The international art magazines belong to this network, too; the international distribution of critical texts written by professional journalists or of certain advertising announcements inserted by the galleries in their pages create the proper conditions for art’s standardization and for its actors’ cosmopolitism. Still, the most powerful institution within the cultural network is considered to be the contemporary art museum; it is complementary to the gallery on the art market and fundamentally contributes to the recognition and confirmation of the artists’ status


We have emphasized the systemic existence and functioning of the art market, in order to justify the maximal insertion and the use of strategic mechanisms of marketing and advertising, as well as the use of the brand as a signifier of the social status, artistic recognition and celebrity
Nowadays the artist’s figure is built on a cultural stereotype, a product of the dominant representations, subject to ideological, political and economic determinations (Athanassopoulos, 2009, pp. 99-106). The increasing impact of mass-media starting with the 50’s-60’s had as a result, at the end of the 70’s, the appearance of a new type of artist: the young, mobile and entrepreneur artist, an essentially liberal figure aware of the market conditions that center on the celebration of individualism and of the cult of private personality. The diverse figures of the contemporary artist transform the cultural challenge into a springboard for public recognition and notoriety: instead of making visible the contradictions within the cultural industry, the artist makes her / himself visible by using them: “The artists of the new vanguard belonging to the Reagan years are described as successful people in terms of gross financial value. On the one hand, the mediated “celebrity persona” of the artist will progressively move the interest from the work of art to the artist’s lifestyle. On the other hand, the personal mythology is exalted to even becoming a fetish, as a series of painters, such as Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Keith Haring attained a celebrity that crossed the borders of the art world. This environment will determine the artists to create not only their work of art, but also a specific personality as a tool for presenting their art, as a signifier for their art that could compete with the biggest celebrities worldwide” (Athanassopoulos, 2009, p. 101). The “celebrity persona” reveals this transformation of the artist as an individual, as a total living work of art, delivered to the voyeurism of the consumption society
From a historical point of view, to a certain extent, the modern image of the artist had already contained the strategic development of the artist’s profile. Duchamp was the first to introduce the concept of the artistic activity as a strategy instead of that of pure creation. During the 40’s-50’s, artists were not yet preoccupied by their public image but once the gallery became an institution of promotion (such as Art of This Century, New York) art immediately started to be mediatized and to gain more and more popularity. Pollock’s celebrity, due to Life magazine and Hans Namuth’s photography have been the extrinsic effect of the artistic process itself. For New York artists of this time, the building-up of their own image seemed unreasonable and this explains their disregard of Salvador Dali who had always been so careful in delivering an extremely provocative public image, who was constantly present as a personality, as an acting individual and as a discursive figure. Then, Beuys, builds his own image on the model of “the prophet who addresses his disciples”, placing in the center of his creations a real personal mythology which will become an integrating part in the understanding of his work, by investing it with a particular aura: “between minimalism, ironic deconstruction and the invention of a personal symbolism, he gains the role of a leader, more by the way he lived a certain artistic character, by the way he enforced himself at the institution’s frontiers as a prophet of the art and as a visual artist, than by his works of art” (Heinich, 2005). The first artist though who, during the 60’s-70’s directly integrates the culture of promotion and self-promotion into his work, is Andy Warhol. From him on, celebrity becomes an integrant part of the artistic vocabulary and decisively interferes with the process of production, presentation and reception of the work of art and implicitly of the artist: “I am flashed, therefore I am.” Once with Andy Warhol the opportunity is given to transcend the so-called anonymity of the work of art by the artist’s spectacular transformation into a celebrity. Dissolved in a universe of mass consumption, his artistic personality returns, as the ultimate artifact of The Factory, to establish the artificial rarefactof the trivial and confirm the art’s status as a luxury merchandise: Warhol’s “brand image was to rise from that of a fashionable product to that of a product with a celebrity status and Warhol’s art was obviously seen as part of the celebrity culture that could be tapped in order to achieve this goal.(Gibbons, 2005, p. 143)”
After Warhol, the artist’s figure becomes more and more abstract, more and more immaterial and, under the effect of the increasing collision with the performing arts industries, it becomes merchandise destined to speculation. It is considered an artistic material and product quasi-independent of the savoir-faire notions and of the concrete aesthetic practice. Therefore, raised to the rankof art, it simultaneously poses as ultimate subject and object of the art work. This is why the artist feels the vital necessity to maintain and develop the capital of image, his / her brand, by appropriating the new techniques of the performances culture and integrating the media mechanisms of the celebrity status. Hence, the exchange value of the work of art – identified with the artist’s image – becomes merchandise and the artist – brand. Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami’s activities are strategically built on the Warhol model: “Koons seems to agree with a general perception of himself as a second-generation Warhol, an ultra-cool celebrity artist who either makes icons out of ready-made banal products of popular culture, such as vacuum cleaners, or makes representations of ready-made icons of popular culture such as the Pink Panther or Michael Jackson. Like Warhol, Koons acquired a celebrity persona in several ways, through the shock of the banal, through the representation of celebrities and through the construction of a distinctive personality and image”. Koons supported the idea of marketing himself as much as his work, attracting media attention and creating a persona that has often been described as “well spoken, good-looking, sex symbol, media superstar” (Gibbons, 2005, p. 147)
Within this context, of an excessive media culture and of an expansive art market, branding becomes a functional strategy in the artists’ emergence on the market, in their establishment and in the creation of the contemporary artist’s status of celebrity. The same branding process is nowadays inserted in the functioning of the contemporary art institutions. A very interesting study written by Don Thompson (Thompson, 2008), discusses the branding phenomenon within the contemporary art. He envisages branded galleries, branded auction houses, brand collectors, brand artists, brand museums, all functioning in a world of art governed by economical reasons where the value of art is dependent on the brand’s efficiency and spreading: “The value of art has more to do with artist, dealer or auction house branding and with collectors ego than it does with art. The value of one work of art compared to another is no way related to the time or skill that went into producing it, or even whether anyone else considers it to be great art. The market is driven by high status auctions and art fairs that become events in their own right, entertainment and public display for the ultra rich”. (Thompson, 2008, p. 246). Similar to the branding used in advertising, the branding used in contemporary art (applied to the figure of the contemporary artist) produces commercial value and brings on the consumer level (mainly art collectors) the necessity to acquire and to own the particular artist’s work of art as a supreme guarantee of the lifestyle the person aims to reach. In the same time, the permanent renewal of the artistic scene, the continuous turmoilwhich brings to the forefront of attention new works of art and artists requires the use of branding as a mechanism to consolidate the value of the art work on the market: “Of the thousands artists who had serious gallery shows in New York and London during the 80’s, no more than 20 were offered in evening auctions at Christie’s or Sotheby’s in 2007. Eight of ten works purchased directly from an artist and half the works purchased at auction will never again resell at their purchase price. […] High prices are created by branded dealers promoting particular artists, by a few artists successfully promoting themselves, and by brilliant marketing on the part of branded auction houses.” (Thompson, 2008, p. 27)
Promotion and branding are part of the contemporary artist’s identity and the success on the art market can only be the result of a deliberate strategy involving a new type of attitude towards “the conventional thinking over the work of art and over the artist” and of a different relationship with the art world and most of all with mass-media and the public. As R. Moulin says, the strategy of the newcomers involves a collaboration with one (or more) leader gallery (brand gallery – Gagosian, Gladstone, Haunch of Venison, Yvon Lambert, etc.) which assures their launching and promotion on the market, the acquisition from a great collector (brand collector – Saatchi, Pinault, Arnauld, etc.) – which gives them an international passport – then, the diversification of the galleries, dealers and collectors they collaborate with. An important aspect in the building up of their celebrity persona and their brand is the use of advertising and marketing strategies and a lot of media exposure in articles and professional magazines (Art Press, Frieze, Flash Art, Artforum, New York Magazine, etc.), pages in catalogues (Art Now, 100 Contemporary Artists, etc.) and tabloids. The receiving of an important award (Turner Prize, Prix Marcel Duchamp), the participation in major branded cultural events (the Venice Biennial), the insertion of their works and important major exhibitions in brand museums (Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, MoMa, Guggenheim, etc.) follow. The more the artist’s works are presented in galleries, the more they are purchased by collectors, his / her market share will increase and the rhythm of selling as well: “If the artist can create enough work to show simultaneously at several galleries and art fairs, the greater buzz produces higher prices. Each show, each fair, each mention in an art magazine, each critical appraisal produces more talk, more visitors and more jumping on the bandwagon. As critic Robert Hughes says of New York collectors: Most of the times they buy what other people buy. They move in great schools, like bluefish, all identical. There is safety in numbers. If one wants Schnabel, they all want Schnabel, if one buys Keith Haring, two hundred Keith Härings will be sold.” (Thompson, 2008, p. 42) And the supreme attribute of branding and of the sign of the artist’s celebrity and recognition will be, within this context, the necessity to buy Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, or Jeff Koons, and so the denomination of the work of art and the positioning of the artist’s figure on the first place. The artistic success involves the strategic construction of the celebrity persona and the promotion as a brand simultaneously with the integration within the frame of the international circuit of the valorization of the work of art


Although the use of branding strategies within the art world is often applied to contemporary artists (but also to art dealers or collectors, galleries, auction houses or museums), it has been constantly criticized and considered speculative, artificial and inconsistent (Hughes, 1992) (Lewis, 2009). The world of commerce has gained a monopoly on the art world, and a small group of powerful dealers, massively rich collectors and celebrity artists control both the art market, but also the future history of contemporary art, by enforcing the brand names as the ultimate values within the art system. Due to the systemic functioning network within the art world, the art market has become in the 21st century a cultural phenomenon in itself; therefore it cannot be anything but considered. The art world is extremely dynamic and highly globalized, thus in constant change. There is no other international recognition for contemporary artists than the one supported by the art market / the art system. The multiplication of instances and financial players that build up the system, bring both value and permanence to the works of contemporary artists, acting and re-acting within this socio-economic network. The branding process is thus instrumental and used for building up the credibility and trust needed within the system and in its relation with both the art world and the contemporary society.

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2. Becker, H.S. (2010). Les Mondes de l’Art. Paris: Flammarion.

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4. Chalumeau, J.-L. (2002). Les theories de l’art. Paris: Vuibert.

5. Colbert, F. (2007). Marketing Culture + The Arts. Montreal: HEC.

6. Danto, A. C. (1964). The Artworld. Journal of Philosophy, no. 61, 571-584.

7. De Duve, T. (1989). Au nom de l’art: pour une archéologie de la modernité. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

8. Dickie, G. (1975). Art and the Aesthetics: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca: Cornel University Press.

9. Dickie, G. (1984). The Art Circle. New York: Haven Publications.

10. Gibbons, J. (2005). Art & advertising. London / New York: I.B. Tauris.

11. Heinich, N. (2005). Etre artiste. Paris: Klincksieck.

12. Hughes, R. (1992). Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists. New York: Penguin Books.

13. Lewis, B. (Director). (2009). The Great Contemporary Art Bubble [Motion Picture].

14. Moulin, R. (2009). L’artiste, l’institution et le marche. Paris: Flammarion.

15. Thompson, D. (2008). The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. London: Aurum Press.

16. Velthuis, O. (2007). The art market in the 1990s. Reconciling art and commerce. In M. Schavemaker, & M. Rakier, Right about now. Art & theory since the 1990’s (pp. 121-131). Amsterdam: Valiz Publishers.

Anamaria TOMIUC | Senior lecturer, PhD | University of Art and Design Cluj-Napoca




prison tattoos, race, and heroin addiction...

Skin And Self-Indictment | Tattoos, Race And Addiction | Body/Art Discussions | Peer Reviewed Journals  | The Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice
In decadent phases, the tattoo became associated with the criminal – literally the outlaw – and the power of the tattoo became intertwined with the power of those who chose to live beyond the norms of society. Kathy Acker Empire of the Senseless | The tattoo can be understood as a self-inflicted wound–at once a mark that abjects the bearer, and an assertion of control over abjection | Juliet Fleming “The Renaissance Tattoo”
TATTOOS ARE PERMANENT MARKINGS made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment. In the quotation above, Juliet Fleming describes the tattoo as a “self-inflicted wound;’ and indeed the word tattoo is taken from the Samoan word tatau, meaning “open wound.” Skin, flesh, body: none are synonymous, but they are all inseparable from one another. Flesh precedes in a sense the body, while skin covers flesh. Although this essay focuses on prison tattoos, it should be noted from the outset that the tattoo, in any environment, is typically seen as unnatural. I suggest that in literature, and my focus here is on contemporary literary texts, the tattoo is always represented as unnatural. George Burchett, one of England’s best-known tattooists for more than fifty years, writes in the opening pages of Memoirs of a Tattooist:
Only heaven knows exactly when the first man, or half man, first added some natural ornament to his body, or a woman to hers. Not long after, I feel sure, the first primitive attempt was made at putting a permanent decoration, or magic sign, on the skin. If so, it would be a proud claim for tattooing that it was one of man’s first conscious acts which distinguished him from the rest of the animal kingdom. (10)
Similarly, Pasi Falk writes of tattooing:
The irreversible reshaping of the body and its permanent marking manifests the stable and static character of relations in society. It also indicates a specific relation to the body as raw material-clay to be moulded and a surface to draw on. This does not imply contempt for the body nor does it express particular adoration of the “natural” body image. The body is an unfinished piece of art to be completed. It must be transformed from nature to culture. (99)
While any division between nature and culture needs to be distinguished from the idea of naturalness, in which nature is turned into a cultural, artificial construction, it is interesting to note that both Burchett, who left school at twelve, and Falk, a professional sociologist, agree on the essential unnaturalness of tattooing–its orientation toward the cultural rather than the natural, its fundamental disdain for naturalness. In literary texts the tattoo is always used to depict a (Western) character’s movement away from the natural toward the cultural or from the real to the artificial.
In their essay “Pain and the Mind-Body Dualism: A Sociological Approach;” Gillian Bendelow and Simon Williams suggest that “At the hermeneutical level, pain and suffering give rise to the quest for interpretation, understanding and meaning” (87). In Angela Carter’s postapocalyptic novel Heroes and Villains, Marianne looks at the most striking of her husband’s tattoos:

She parted the black curtains of his mane and drew her hands incredulously down the ornamented length of his spine. He wore the figure of a man on the right side, a woman on the left and, tattooed the length of his spine, a tree with a snake curled round and round the trunk. This elaborate design was executed in blue, red, black, and green. (85)
Marianne has no interest in interpreting the tattoo; it is the act of being tattooed that engages her. She asks her husband “‘Was it very painful?”‘ and follows this with “‘Why did you let him mutilate you so?”‘ (86). In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, however, Ishmael has no interest in the pain that the heavily tattooed Queequeg must have suffered. His interest lies elsewhere:

And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume. (480)

Ishmael is interested only in the meaning of the tattoos, what it is they might signify. Carter’s protagonist focuses on the act of tattooing and ignores meaning, while Ishmael focuses on hermeneutics at the expense of the physical act of tattooing. Both, of course, are thoroughly artificial distinctions. Although Marianne has no interest in hermeneutics, this is not the case for the reader, who recognizes the conventionally misogynistic interpretation of the Biblical narrative and integrates this depiction into an overall response to the novel. Generally, however, readers of literary texts endorse Ishmael’s perspective: they interpret tattoos, or attempt to, and construct an artificial distinction between the act of being tattooed, which is negated, and the meaning of the tattoo, which is privileged. This polarization is also inevitable when considering prison tattoos, by which I do not mean here only those done in prison. I also mean those professionally done outside prison but which are privileged by the narrative gaze within texts set in prison.
However, I also want to suggest that it is a mistake to speak of prison tattoos as if they were all the same. I want to discriminate quite emphatically here between the tattoos of inmates who are in prison because they were, or still are, addicted to drugs (usually heroin) and the tattoos of those who are in prison because they are criminals–that is, those who commit crimes, but not so that they can satisfy their addictions. Overall, I want to suggest that the tattoos of addict inmates are designed to dramatize their abjection, while the tattoos of criminal inmates are designed to demonstrate their agency. Additionally, I note the assumption that the body is a site upon which the state can codify its property and inscribe its judgments into the skin has been formally, and universally, abandoned. The Nazi death camps, discussed later, are a monstrous exception to this development. A number of scholars, including Jane Caplan, Clare Anderson, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Ian Stewart, Abby Schrader, and Steven Connor have traced the history and practice of branding or tattooing criminals. Considerable evidence indicates that both the Romans and the Greeks tattooed slaves, deserters, and criminals, and certainly criminals, at least, were routinely, universally, and forcibly tattooed until well into the nineteenth century. However, my interest here is to consider a number of contemporary narratives, primarily North American, which are set in prisons or which depict characters that have spent considerable time in prisons. Specifically, I want to discuss the depiction of voluntary tattooing within modern prisons.
It is clearly, at the very least, an interesting irony that when the State loses the power to tattoo those it judges to be criminals, they then tattoo themselves. In his The Book of Skin, Steven Connor writes: “The abolition of compulsory tattooing of prisoners in the French penal service during the nineteenth century was followed by a huge increase in the activity of voluntary tattooing” (81). Contemporary, voluntary penal tattooing is inseparable from issues of agency, ownership, and abjection. I need to note here that I use the word abjection in two ways: firstly, in the sense used by Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982). As Juliet Fleming notes: “Tattoo’s uncanny power to affront (and so arouse) the liberal subject is a power of horror that largely coincides with the special effect identified by Julia Kristeva under the name of ‘abjection”‘ (63). In this sense, of course, all tattoos, inside prison or outside, on the bothes of criminals or addicts, are capable of producing this special effect. Kristeva’s notion of abjection has much to do with self-hatred, a mark, I will argue, of the junkie; however, she is also much preoccupied with borders: “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There I am at the border of my condition as a living being” (3). Fleming writes of the tattoo: “Lodged on the border between inside and outside, the tattoo occupies the no-place of abjection” (64). The link between abjection and criminality is stressed by Kristeva:

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior … Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject. (4)

However, with specific reference to addict inmates, I also use the word in its more conventional sense, “being of the lowest degree, lacking self-respect.”


In William Burroughs’s Junky (1953), Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight (1995), and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), most of the characters have spent time in prison; nearly all are junkies. In these books, tattoos are invariably of the most primitive kind and are depicted as, in addition to whatever specific interpretive significance can be attached to them (usually little), visible markers of the hatred junkies feel for themselves and for their own bothes. The body in these texts is always a source of shame and horror. Tattoos in these novels do not decorate addicts’ bothes; rather, they visibly emphasize its pathetic corporeality. The central dynamic of these texts is toward the transcendence of the body by the injection of heroin, a use of the needle which mimics the practice of tattooing and stresses the subservient, inessential nature of the body. It is noticeable that tattoos are always represented as a priori; no character is ever described getting a tattoo, but many characters are depicted injecting heroin. The act of injecting heroin is invariably represented as a violation of the body, which has become a clearly apprehended Other in the mind of the junkie.
Junky opens with the narrator entering an apartment full of drug addicts: “[T]he door was opened by a large, flabby, middle-aged queer, with tattooing on his forearms and even on the backs of his hands” (5). In Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, John, a long-term junkie, is described as chopping the air “with his thin, blue-tattooed forearms” (175). In Infinite Jest, set for the most part in a rehabilitation clinic, so many of the resident junkies are tattooed that one character, Tiny Ewell, is driven to construct what he refers to as, a “dermo-taxonomy” of tattooing (175). Tiny’s appraisal of the specific genre of “jailhouse tattoo;” interestingly, rejects Falk’s suggestion, cited above, that tattooing “does not imply contempt for the body.” Instead, Wallace suggests: “Overall searing-regret honors probably go to Jennifer Belbin, who has four uncoverable black teardrops descending from the corner of one eye, from one night of mescaline and adrenalized grief, so that from more than two meters away she always looks like she has flies on her, Randy Lenz points out” (207). Later, he writes: “Ewell’s personal feeling is that jailhouse tattoos aren’t poignant so much as grotesque, that they seem like they weren’t a matter of impulsive decoration or self-presentation so much as simple self-mutilation arising out of simple boredom and general disregard for one’s own body and the aesthetics of decoration” (210). It must be stressed, though, that Ewell’s frame of reference is limited to addicts. Welsh’s Trainspotting depicts another environment full of heroin, prison, and ink; it is one in which the body is first disfigured by tattoos: “He looked seedy and menacing done up in a suit, the wey draftpaks do, indian ink spilling oot from under cuffs and collar onto neck and hands. Ah’m sure Beggar’s tattoos move intae the light, resentful at being covered up” (77). Almost immediately, the body is abandoned completely: “A mosaic shell ay scar tissue and indian ink, ah presume there’s some cunt inside it, is screaming” (77).
Tattooing is not, clearly, a purely symbolic utterance in such texts; pragmatic issues need to be considered. In Permanent Midnight, Stahl’s first visit to a methadone clinic prompts this observation: “Right off, what you noticed about the people waiting were their tattoos and their eyes. The green jailhouse ink and the hard dead stare of the majorly incarcerated” (144). Another dealer has a junkie friend called Felix, who is “a lumbering, jug-eared tattoo victim he knew from the joint” (266). In the fiction of Jean Genet, much of whose work is set in prisons, the symbolic and the pragmatic are intertwined. Genet’s male narrators are often transfixed by desire for heavily tattooed criminals, but their colourful flesh merely encases an essential criminality–and it is this essence which Genet’s narrators really wish to possess; the heavily inscribed flesh is the only available conduit.
Falk writes of modernity and tattooing that “irreversible body-marking became closely associated with stigmatization” (102). In addict-inmate narratives, the body becomes a surface upon which, socially, and conventionally, the junkie announces his marginalization, but, philosophically, one upon which he utters his contempt for the flesh. The junkie’s attitude to his body is effectively Cartesian. Tattooing neatly parallels the junkie’s principal non-custodial activity: the injection of heroin, the piercing of the flesh with needles. Conflated, indeed paradoxical, issues emerge here. The junkie, constantly threatened with imprisonment, voluntarily surrenders his freedom immediately upon release from prison, this time to heroin. The needles of the prison tattooist, or, more usually, the prisoner’s safety pin and ink, are exchanged for the junkie’s own needle; in the former case the body is used as a declarative surface, and in the latter case the body is again used-this time to service the mind. Not only is the addict physically enslaved to heroin, but he is, it can be argued, enslaved to drugs because of an extravagant belief in the mind/body dichotomy. The junkie typically treats his own body as though it were a slave to his consciousness. The injecting user does, of course, actually pierce the flesh; he stabs himself, mutilates himself, violates his own body. A contempt for the body, even a hatred of it, is indeed, I would argue, a pervasive topos of addict-inmate narratives. The mind is the master in junk narratives, where the body is the slave. Tattoos in such narratives are one manifestation of this distaste for the flesh, but their depiction is proleptic in that inscription announces a desire to transcend the flesh, ultimately to abandon it. It is a striking feature of addict-inmate narratives that the tattoos are always so poorly executed, so lacking in finesse or artistry of even the most rudimentary kind that no specific, interpretive significance can be attached to them. They just are! Here, it is the act of being tattooed that is privileged; in criminal-inmate narratives, however, the act of being tattooed and the specific meanings of individual tattoos are both of significance.


While the tattoos inflicted upon the criminal by the State proclaimed judgment, ownership, and the impossibility of rehabilitation, contemporary, imprisoned criminals’ tattoos announce agency, group solidarity, self-evaluation, and the pre-eminence of the convict’s own body as a commodified object in a world where conventional material possessions are largely absent. Inmate agency is clearly an issue in the relationship that incarcerated criminals have with their tattoos. Douglas Kent Hall writes: “The prison tattoo is also a statement that the convict, though resigned to the reality of prison life, still clings to his right to do what he will with his own body, his own mind. The skill of the tattoo artist, and the finished work of the wearer’s body, provide the freedom of creative artistic expression” (7). Later, he writes: “Jerry, a lifer, who has gradually tattooed most of his body, explained it this way: ‘Sure, they got rules against tattooing. The man, he’s got rules against every fuckin’ thing. They’ll bust your ass any chance they get. But this is my body. It’s my novel, man, my poem, and I’m just gonna keep writin’ on it”‘ (8). Additionally, I suggest that if the addict-inmate’s tattoos are Cartesian, in that they dramatize the mind/ body dichotomy, then the criminal-inmate’s tattoos are, although secular, Berkleyean, in that they are designed to be perceived. Hall writes: “A convict in California confessed that his tattoos give him the feeling that he is onstage” (11). Criminal-inmate tattoos are, in essence, panoptic, flourishing and multiplying precisely because of the inmates’ awareness that they are being constantly surveyed, by the authorities and by each other.
Like Tiny Ewell, I, too, am impelled to construct a taxonomy of the prison tattoo, as it is depicted in contemporary prison narratives. I want to suggest that there are at least six categories to the sub-genre: these are the commodified tattoo, the female tattoo, the Nazi tattoo, the religious tattoo, the memento mori tattoo, and the gang tattoo. However, before discussing meaning at all, the act of tattooing should be considered. It needs to be acknowledged that the solicitous request of Marianne’s “Did getting that tattoo done hurt?” is unlikely to be heard very often within prisons. Nevertheless, even in a world where nearly everybody is tattooed, the act of being tattooed, irrespective of meaning, has value, of the kind Pierre Bourtheu would certainly see as symbolic value. In prison, respect is accorded to those inmates who boast the largest, the most colourful tattoos and, especially, to those tattooed on the penis or the face, places which are particularly sensitive areas, where the tattoo is known to cause the most pain; they are places, too, where it is known they will cause the most offence and horror, both to inmates and to straights. When they are well executed, tattoos have value in prison. However, this value is not economic.
In his introduction to Bourtheu’s Language and Symbolic Power, John B. Thompson writes, “One of the central ideas of Bourtheu’s work […] is the idea that there are different forms of capital: not only ‘economic capital’ in the strict sense (i.e. material wealth in the form of money, stocks and shares, property, etc.), but also ‘cultural capital’ (i.e. knowledge, skills and other cultural acquisitions, as exemplified by educational or technical qualifications), ‘symbolic capital’ (i.e. accumulated prestige or honour), and so on” (14). In much the same way, Juliet Fleming suggests:

For although we say, with horror, “a tattoo lasts forever”—as if, within our cultural or psychic economy, permanence were a recognized evil–most tattoos last only as long as the body endures, which is to say not as long as ink on paper. It may be that disapprobation of tattoo’s permanence has a political, as well as a psychic, dimension. For where classical economic theory recognizes three types of property: the intellectual, the real or immobile (land) and the moveable (chattels), tattoo announces itself as a fourth type: a property that is at once mobile and inalienable. (66-67)
As Foucault has suggested, prison and capitalism are intertwined at the deepest levels:

There is an economico-moral self-evidence of a penalty that metes out punishments in days, months and years and draws up quantitative equivalences between offences and durations. Hence the expression, so frequently heard, so consistent with the functioning of punishments, though contrary to the strict theory of penal law, that one is in prison in order to “pay one’s debt.” The prison is “natural;” just as the use of time to measure exchanges is “natural” in our society. (233)
But the pain of the tattoo, even its very existence, has no measurable, economic value; the tattoo is a gratuitous gesture, confrontationally, even aggressively, lying outside the economic model upon which the prison is built. Pain is not as quantifiably measurable, as are, for example, years. However, pain and time can actually be linked in what could be perceived as yet another category of prison tattoo: the tattoo which itself is about being in prison: “He is short, compactly put together and there are two teardrops tattooed just under the outer corner of his left eye. Looking at him I think about the legends I have heard: each teardrop stands for a year spent in prison or in some instances, for a person you have killed” (76). The very gratuitousness of the tattoo is a form of freedom. However, while the tattoo has no economic value–it cannot be sold, or bartered–yet still it is perceived as the “property” of the tattooed criminal. This property, significantly, cannot be stolen, even in a world of thieves. In a world of necessary, inescapable suffering, the unnecessary pain of the tattoo is a statement of contempt and defiance, as well as one of solidarity and communality.


The tattoo as commodified, purchased object has the least interest and significance within the genre of prison narratives. In Eve’s Tattoo, Emily Prager writes of the tattoo parlour: “On three walls were Scotch-taped hundreds of illustrations of the tattoos Big Dan offered: skulls with fire flaring from the eye sockets, swastikas festooned with roses, panthers on the attack, hearts with blanks for cherished names, snakes and dragons, mermaids and madwomen” (4). Similarly, in Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, the narrator notes the tattoos he sees on his patients are of two kinds, “store-bought from one of the tattoo shops on Dyer Street, or homemade. The former were fine lined, black and gray, often elaborate or brightly coloured and chosen from one of the patented patterns (‘mild to wild’ in the catalog)” (62). In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Dick’s tattoos are not evaluated in the same way as are his partner in crime Perry’s. Dick’s tattoos are seen as lacking in imagination, as is he:
The tattooed face of a cat, blue and grinning, covered his right hand; on one shoulder a blue rose blossomed. More markings ornamented his arms and torso: the head of a dragon with a human skull between its open jaws; bosomy nudes; a gremlin brandishing a pitchfork; the word PEACE accompanied by a cross radiating rays of holy light; and two sentimental concoctions–one a bouquet of flowers dedicated to MOTHER-DAD, the other a heart that celebrated the romance of DICK and CAROL. (25)

Throughout prison narratives it is made clear that such tattoos are evaluated, at best, as neophytic: the tattoos of an apprentice–precisely because they are store-bought and not bespoke they attract little in the way of narrative gaze. However, even then such tattoos are worth more than the self-mutilation masquerading as tattoos on the bothes of addict inmates.
The tattoo category “Women” is not without surprises. Overall, and perhaps parenthetically, it is noticeable that the absence of women is a burden borne very lightly by convicts. Often, in fact, women are not seen as the elusive, absent, and desirable Other of which crime has deprived the convict but, rather, the reason he is there in the first place. The following comment from Kansas in Jimmy Lerner’s You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish is exemplary of the attitude to women in prison narratives: “‘This bitch back in Kansas musta dropped a fuckin dime on my convict ass–y’unnerstan’ what I’m Saying?’This reference to the apparent treachery of a woman triggers a fresh outcry from the convict choir on the Group W bench” (14). Women are usually associated, in one way or another, with the Fall–prison offers an interesting, secularized version of the Edenic myth. Kansas has female tattoos on his body which are, again, exemplary of the genre: “His colossal chest boasted a single massive canvas: the Grim Reaper slashing down with his scythe at a naked prostrate woman. The woman, with long dark hair and breasts the size of mutant cantaloupes, bore a strange resemblance to the bare–breasted motorcycle girl on Kansas’s back” (48).
In The Tennis Partner, the narrator writes of a striking jailhouse image that I had seen on several patients now. It was that of a woman, a chicana, who, like a Hindu goddess, had many forms. The original mold must be housed somewhere in the penal system of West Texas, passed on from one inmate generation to the next. In some versions she was clothed, but most of the time her chest was bare, and her nipples pointed upward in the gravity–defying manner of a young teen. Her pubic hair was a wild, dangerous tangle. (63)
This is how women are usually represented in the prison tattoo: sufficiently powerful to require the male to depict his ability to subjugate them, yet simultaneously powerful enough to remain outside his control: “Her pubic hair was a wild, dangerous tangle.” Ironically, these ostensibly women-centred tattoos are aggressively displayed on the bothes of men who are much, much more comfortable in the presence of other men.

In prison, convicts’ bothes are often their only actual possessions, and, therefore, these bothes are never uncontested or unproblematic, nor are they even personal. Skin colour in prison is often as much a political statement as it is a personal one, and the implications of this for both white and African-American inmates can be immense. H. Bruce Franklin notes in Prison Writing in 20th-Century America:

By 1994 the incarceration rate for African-American males had soared to seven times that for white males […] African-Americans were [between 1992 and 1993] imprisoned at a rate (1,947 per 100,000) six times greater than whites (306 per 100,000) and more than twenty times the international rate of imprisonment (96 per 100,000), bringing the number of imprisoned African Americans (626,207) to almost half the total number of prisoners in all thirty–six of these nations [in the survey the author cites] combined (1,338,176). (17)
Similarly, Auli Ek, in Race and Masculinity in Contemporary American Prison Narratives writes: “Statistics also show a racial imbalance in the prison population: at midyear 2001, for example, there were 4,848 sentenced black male inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States” (2). Race, itself inseparable from skin colour, is a crucial aspect of American prison life; indeed, it is the most significant; the nature of an inmate’s crime(s) has far less importance in a prison yard than the colour of a convict’s skin. It is surprising, then, to read in Katherine Fishburn’s book on nineteenth-century American slave narratives: “Just as it had taken time to systematize slavery (from the concept of limited indenture to that of slavery for life) it took time to invent the concept of race” (4). Later she comments that “Race, for all its enduring, material, political and psychological consequences […] is but an illusion” (44). Not in American prisons it isn’t! Ek writes that “Race, however, more than poverty, is the primary facet of otherness in prison narratives” (11). Race in prison is no illusion. He continues, “in addition to bodybuilding, tattoos are commonly used to construct the prisoner body. By marking his body with tattoos, the prisoner defies the institutional marking of the body that unifies prisoners by making wearing prison uniform mandatory, and by doing so also negates the prisoners’ individuality” (104).
The most recent, and the most notorious, instance of the compulsory tattooing of prisoners occurred in the Nazi death camps. In essence, these tattoos were not punitive, they were worse–they functioned as measures of codification, reducing individuals to numbers and dramatically proclaiming that these tattooed bothes belonged, literally, to the State, not only in life but also, as a horrified world discovered, in death. Strikingly Nazi iconography and emblems are among the most ubiquitous images found in American prison tattoos. In Prager’s Eve’s Tattoo, the protagonist has the identity number of a female death camp victim tattooed on her arm, in order, as she tells her lover, “‘I’m going to keep Eva alive. She’ll go on living, here, with me”‘ (11). With ironic detachment, Prager’s narrator writes of her tattooist: “On his bicep, the full insignia of the elite Totenkopf, or Death’s-Head Squadron of the SS, was perfectly inked with its lightning bolts and skull, and then along the forearm, swastikas and iron crosses, ending on top of his hand with ACHTUNG” (6-7). Hall writes: “Racism separates most prison populations. Many biker tattoos reflect ideas spawned by the Aryan brotherhood, the old prison gang started at San Quentin. These include White Power, 100% White, Pure White, A.Y.M.; the dual lightning bolts of the Nazi SS, the swastika, and the word Germany” (10-11).
In Russell Hoban’s novel Angelica’s Grotto (2000), the protagonist Harold Klein, an elderly art historian, berates several men with swastika tattoos and ends up in hospital as a result. Understandable though Klein’s anger is, it is almost certainly misplaced, even in England, and would be even more so in America. The American Nazi prison tattoo is not, I would argue, anti-Semitic; it is largely ignorant of history but still manages to operate on several levels of signification. The Nazi prison tattoo is designed to shock and repel, certainly, but, more importantly, it is a marker of both hatred for African Americans and a concomitant proclamation of white solidarity, and even supremacy. It should be noted that in a prison system such as America’s, where a disproportionate number of convicts are black, the act of being tattooed with Nazi iconography requires considerable physical courage, and this is understood by the entire prison population. Lerner writes: “Yard Rats award big points to fish with swastika tattoos” (178). What is remarkable about Eve’s tattoo in Prager’s novel is that it is an attempt to reclaim precisely the historical specificity of the Nazi death camp tattoos, of which the Nazi prison tattoo is shockingly unaware. In American prison narratives, Nazi tattoos have nothing to do with the Holocaust and everything to do with race, skin colour. In Lerner’s You Got Nothing Coming …, the Jewish narrator’s cell mate is Kansas: “A skinheaded giant with a three–inch blue swastika tattooed on his neck” (14). In Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight (1995), the narrator notes of his new drug dealer “(sixteen years inside, twelve on methadone): He had more ink than Satan: calves, neck, and arms a near solid catalog of tattooed Aryan brotherhood icons: Swastikas, Iron Crosses, barbed wire, doe-eyed naked beauties astride s.s. lightning bolts” (165). A later drug dealer has a “jail green ARYAN BROTHERHOOD on his neck” and a “faded, flaming swastika tattooed on his forearm” (153). When Lerner suggests to Kansas that during a toilet paper shortage they use some of the pages of the numerous Nazi tracts he has hidden in their cell, Kansas’s response is almost comically ignorant: “‘No fuckin’ way. You’re talking about writings that are practically sacred, like them Dead Sea Scrolls they found”‘ (102).
While Nazi tattoos proclaim a universal contempt for black skin, the gang tattoo announces commitment to a very small and highly specific community. Breyton Breytenbach, a South African writer, is constantly aware of the crucial importance of tattoos to prison gangs: “Normally you only rise through the ranks by committing specified acts of violence: sticking a knife into a warder, for instance, is worth instant promotion to ‘colonel’ and the insignia will be tattooed on your shoulder” (272). Similarly, he writes, “[Y]ou recognize them [gang members] by the distinctive tattoos around the neck–a miniature gallows, a bow tie, a pair of dice (because they also ‘walk with the number, i.e. belong to a number gang) or by the etched star on the shoulder” (273). Leon Bing writes of his meeting with Sanyika Shakur/a.k.a. “Monster Kody;” perhaps the most notorious member of the Los Angeles gang the Crips: “There is a tattoo on the left side of his throat–beautifully scripted dark blue letters with graceful serifs spelling out ‘Eight–Tray Gangsters. His brother, Li’l Monster, has the same tattoo on his forearm” (244). As here, the gang tattoo can often be a racial signifier. In his novel One Shot, Lee Childs writes, for example, of a man newly arrived in prison: “The guy he made eye contact with was a Mexican. He had gang tattoos […] The friends were all stocky little guys, all with the same tattoos” (56). The gang tattoo is, unlike the Nazi tattoo, also highly insular, preoccupied with a particular territory, a tightly defined topography. Essentially, such gang tattoos, unlike Nazi tattoos, have their antecedents in the guild or craft tattoo; they emphasize incorporation and community; perhaps paradoxically, the presence of a gang tattoo is the closest most contemporary African American prison narratives approach to the communal spirit of the slave narrative. Logically enough, given the capitalist model upon which the penal system is based, the bothes of prisoners who are tattooed with Nazi iconography or with gang tattoos are continuously working, proclaiming the attitudes of their owners on such issues as racial hatred and ethnic solidarity.
In their essay “Religious Tattoos and Transportation to Australia;” Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Ian Duffield writing of the middle of the nineteenth century note: “The importance of convict tattoos’ adjustability is that, while the state attempted to anatomize convict bothes through the process of description and inscription, many of those bothes were being adapted by enterprising subjects of power. In this, religious tattoos played a striking role” (130). Religious tattoos are also, perhaps surprisingly in the later years of the twentieth century, still pervasive within the prison community. In The Tennis Partner, Verghese writes: “Religious figures abounded: the Virgin of Guadalupe above the buttocks. So that the sodomist’s penis would shrivel at the sight of the mother of Jesus. One of my patients–a murderer, in handcuffs, being treated for heart–valve infection–had a giant Christ on a crucifix on his chest” (63). In Permanent Midnight, Jerry Stahl notes of another testee at the methadone clinic: “He laid his head on the desk, crying, so that the tattooed angel on the back of his neck spread her wings for the ceiling” (91). Hall writes:
A younger man, a Hispanic from southern Colorado, offered this story about his full-back Guadalupe: ” I was tripping once and I got an idea about the virgin, how she had protected me, kept me alive, stuff like that. I saw her clear, like in a dream. I got psyched and told this guy about it and he started the Guadalupe. I wanted the whole back. And roses.” (11) It is noticeable, though, that the specifically religious tattoos are almost always inscribed on the bothes of Hispanics; such representation, therefore, tends to be offered in the language of Orientalism, of the exotic, the anachronistic.

When evaluating the tattoos of numerous nineteenth-century Australian convicts, Maxwell–Stewart and Duffield observe that many of these tattoos affirm the possibility of bodily transcendence. Conversely, the culture of tattooing among contemporary criminals, at least as depicted in a variety of narratives, suggests that the overwhelming majority of them believe that there is nothing to them but bothes. In the contemporary prison narrative, criminal inmates reject the transcendental consolations of Christianity. In Me Book of Skin, Steven Connor suggests: “Contemporary mortification does not aim to put the body in proleptic memory of its death, but to transfix the body in its presence” (90). What modern, secular America offers in the place of conventional religious tattoos is the memento mori motif. Probably the most ubiquitous tattoo in American prison narratives is the skull, sometimes without but more usually with a bunch of roses. Hall observes that “in prison tattoos, skulls abound” (11). In The Tennis Partner, the narrator says of one of his patients: “On his right bicep he had ‘Born to The’ tattooed elegantly in an Old English font; the other arm had skulls and crossbones” (62). Hall also writes: “Flowers, the rose being the most common example, signify beauty, or the unfolding of the soul. The rose itself mirrors divine perfection” (12). Good writers, of course, can use conventions for creative purposes. Capote writes, for example, of Perry’s tattoos:

While he had fewer tattoos than his companion, they were more elaborate–not the self-inflicted work of an amateur but epics of the art contrived by Honolulu and Yokahama masters. COOKIE, the name of a nurse who had been friendly to him when he was hospitalized, was tattooed on his right biceps. Blue-furred, orange-eyed, red-fanged, a tiger snarled upon his left biceps; a spitting snake, coiled around a dagger, slithered down his arm; and elsewhere skulls gleamed, a tombstone loomed, a chrysanthemum flourished. (24-25)
Capote chooses to end his ostensibly objective survey of the tattoos here: he doesn’t finish on the cat or the tiger or the dagger but on the skull and the tombstone. His neutral description of the tattoos is actually proleptic, anticipating the deaths that give the book its title.
Wallace offers an exemplary image, combining the skull and roses in Infinite Jest:
At the height of his obsession this one synthetic-narc-addicted kid came in who refused to be called by anything but his street name, Skull, and lasted only like four days, but who’d been a walking exhibition of high-regret ink–both arms tattooed with spiderwebs at the elbows, on his fishy–white chest a naked lady with the same kind of overlush measurements Ewell remembered from the pinball machines of his Watertown childhood. On Skull’s back a half m. long skeleton in a black robe and cowl playing the violin on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below; on one bicep either an icepick or a mucronate dagger, and down both forearms a kind of St Vitus dance of leather-winged dragons with the words–on both forearms–HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR BLUEYED BOY NOW MR DETH!? The typos of which, Tiny felt, only served to heighten Skull’s whole general tatt-gestalt’s intended effect, which Tiny presumed was primarily to repel. (ao8)
Although Hall cites an inmate’s interpretation of his own skull tattoos unquestioningly, I see no particular reason for assuming his reading of the ubiquity of skull tattoos is correct: “‘Death is no big deal; explained a biker with at least a hundred various-sized skulls on one arm. ‘Most guys in here are just as good as dead. We eat, we sleep, we shit. But what’s that? They already took our life”‘ (12). For Hall, the skull is always juxtaposed with the rose, but there is no sound logic for separating the skull from the rose and then suggesting that each of them means something different, like some inky chiasmus. The memento mori prison tattoo seems to me more genuinely subversive than the Nazi prison tattoo, for example, because it is essentially an act, not of defiance, which must by definition acknowledge the superior strength of the enemy, but an act of revenge. While the tattooed skull speaks of death, so does the rose. Here, teleology is inscribed into the flesh. One has happened; the other will happen. The beauty of the rose is ephemeral, transitory; it, too, will the. The criminal’s tattooed skin reminds him, personally, that his suffering body will find release, in death, not transcendence, while the very same tattooed skin tells his jailers that their authority is provisional, limited, because they, too, must also the.

works cited

McCarron, Kevin, English Stuthes in Canada

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Gustafson, Mark. “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond.” Written on the Body. Ed. Jane Caplan. London: Reaktion, 2000.

Hall, Douglas. Prison Tattoos. New York: St Martin’s, 1997.

Hamish, Maxwell-Stewart, and Ian Dufield. “Skin Deep Devotions.” Written on the Body. Ed. Jane Caplan. London: Reaktion, 2000.

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Prager, Emily. Eve’s Tattoo. London: Chatto and Windus, 2002.

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Shakur, Sanyika. Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. New York: Grove, 2003.

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Kevin McCarron | Rochamptom University | KEVIN MCCARRON is Reader in American Literature at Roehampton University, London. He has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and has contributed chapters to nearly fifty books on subjects including tattooing, cyberpunk, popular music, horror fiction, dystopian literature, drug addiction, alcoholism, and blasphemy. He is the author of William Golding (1995; second edition 2006) and The Coincidence of Opposites: William Golding’s Later Fiction (1996), and he co–authored Frightening Fictions (tool), a study of adolescent horror narratives.




prison tattooing as visual argument...

Hard Cases | Prison Tattooing As Visual Argument | Tattoo Concierge | www.TattooConcierge.com | The Artists Choice

As I moved through the prison with my cameras, I became fascinated with the tattoos. I saw thousands of them…. A few times, I encountered Justice. She was patterned after the traditional figure, blindfolded and holding her simple scales. I questioned a convict in the gym about his blind Justice, a statuesque figure draped so both full breasts fell free of her gown. “This is as far as it goes,” he said, shifting a thirty-pound dumbbell from his right hand to his left and starting to count out a set of slow curls. I asked what he meant. “I mean, man,” he grunted, “there is no fucking justice. The bitch’s a whore.” | Douglas Kent Hall (46)
The penitentiary offers an intriguing opportunity to engage the rhetoric of the everyday, to investigate how people make arguments–particularly for specific identities and social selves–in the absence of significant (or even any) face-to-face dialogue. The penitentiary also offers an intriguing opportunity to explore the body’s role in visual argumentation. Although visual argument is increasing in popularity and focus among communication scholarship, the role of the body in visual argumentation, particularly the operation of tattooing as visual argument, remains unexplored. Given daily contact with the bodies of others, understanding the ways that bodies argue visually is important to understanding the operations of rhetoric in our lives.
Claiming the body as a site for visual argument is not without difficulties and is quite possibly a contentious argument in itself. Scholars traditionally celebrate argument as belonging to the classical public sphere–a wide-reaching construction unhelpful for understanding argumentation as it functions in nonpublic communities. In particular, because the body cannot be fully public (1) and is understood as the antithesis of deliberative discourse, the belief that argument is public axiomatically excludes the body as a site for argumentation. (2) Furthermore, the almost exclusive attention paid to public qualities of argument has obscured the ways in which argument might function in nonpublic but still social settings like the penitentiary.
This essay points to some of the ways in which bodies function as argument, operating by way of claims supported by evidence and reasoning. My primary purpose is to explore prison tattooing in men’s penitentiaries (3) as visual argumentation. Owing to the limited choices available to prisoners for expression, argumentative or otherwise, prisoners (4) must use nontraditional avenues for social communication. My second purpose is to expand visual argumentation theory by calling on Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca to show how argument functions in the unique social construct of the penitentiary.
I begin by briefly discussing penitentiary culture. I then turn to visual argumentation and contextualize this body of scholarship within sociological and ethnographic literature on prison tattooing. Lastly, I explore the particular arguments that prison tattooing makes. This analysis is illustrated with prison tattoos (5) and informed by prisoners’ narratives, which explain their experiences with incarceration in a way no outsider’s perspective ever could. In so doing, this essay addresses the issue of social arguments in nonpublic spheres, coherently explains why tattoos are so predominant in the penitentiary, and lends a public voice to individuals who are denied one.


As panopticon, the penitentiary is an institution that works to exert total control over the lives of those within its system, a mission easily discerned from its physical structure (Goffman 72). Once having been particularized individuals with autonomy and agency, prisoners are faced with becoming indistinguishable members of a group with no freedom to act. Removing personal possessions that designate identity has acute and wide-reaching effects. (6) Compounding the psychological effects of physical strictures, the prisoner’s status as subordinate is reified constantly through the penitentiary routine. As one prisoner recounts, “the only decision I can make is what time I go to sleep, and when I go to the loo, and what time I decide to eat my food…. [T]he biggest decision I’ve got is the fact that I can take my life or I can keep living” (qtd. in Medlicott 167). Because penitentiary life is so totalizing, so degrading, small privileges or moments of autonomy acquire special importance.
One of the penitentiary’s primary functions is the elimination of a public sphere for those within its walls, which drastically limits prisoners’ ability to construct individual and communal identities, including the arguments that affirm these identities and the means for communicating them. In an environment in which the typical deliberative tools (language) for communicating individual and group identity are foreclosed, to what do people turn as an avenue for communication? In such an environment, body art (in the form of prison tattooing) becomes the means for social argumentation. With no opportunity for public interaction, this argumentation cannot be verbal and is therefore visual–accessible and understandable virtually instantaneously.


To explore prison tattooing as visual argumentation, first we must consider both argumentation in general and visual argumentation specifically. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric offers a valuable framework through which to engage prison tattooing as visual argumentation. Three interconnected themes emerge from current scholarship on visual argumentation: the enthymematic construction of visual argumentation, the context needed for visual argumentation to function, and the holistic nature of visual argumentation.


The most important and foundational feature of visual argument is its enthymematic nature. (7) Like photographs, prison tattoos argue enthymematically. However, the cultural knowledge needed to read the visual arguments of prison tattoos is much more specialized, making these tattoos significantly less accessible than either photographs or verbal arguments.
Bodies argue enthymematically through a process of decoding, which Richard Sennett describes in The Fall of Public Man:

Decoding means you take a detail of behavior as a symbol for an entire character state. Just as, say, the color of a scarf or the number of buttons undone on a blouse may symbolize a woman’s sexual looseness, so small details of appearance or manner can symbolize a political stance. These details seem to indicate what kind of person espouses the ideology…. In this case, you have decoded what he means by how he looks. (238)
Sennett’s description clearly delineates decoding as an enthymematic process. As visual argument, prison tattoos operate by decoding: audiences decipher what prisoners mean to say by how they, or their tattoos, look. For example, consider the claim that fellow prisoners or penitentiary guards might deduce about the prisoner depicted in Figure 1: this prisoner is a member of a neo-Nazi group. The missing major and minor premises, filled in by the audience, are that members of neo-Nazi groups have swastika tattoos, and that this prisoner has a swastika tattoo (clutched in the outstretched talons of an eagle in flight) on his upper left chest. Or take a more common claim: this prisoner is a violent or disreputable person. The missing major and minor premises are that violent or disreputable persons are covered in tattoos, and that this prisoner is covered in tattoos. This claim, that the prisoner must be a violent or disreputable person, is both argued and answered in the same moment, through the same device: his tattoos.
Despite the simplicity of the arguments proffered above, decoding can be a complicated process. Although “some aspects of prison gang tattoos can be decoded by outsiders, other features function as a secret language that is reserved for members only, and still other elements reflect relatively [personal] information” (Phelan and Hunt 294). “A prison gang tattoo,” Phelan and Hunt elaborate, “might convey some public attributes (e.g., machismo), information intended for the ‘own’ or ‘wise’ (e.g., criminal specialization or deeds accomplished in the service of a gang), and private meanings understood only by the wearer and perhaps his/her closest associates (e.g., nicknames, or family history)” (294). If audiences are to decode the message intended, they require the rhetor’s context.


Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca state that the “central principle” in argument settings where only a few premises are available “is always adaptation to the audience and to the propositions it admits” (461). Because a penitentiary is unquestionably an environment in which few premises and avenues for argumentation are available, context plays a critically important function.
Beyond classifying argumentation as social (because argumentation needs at least two parties, it is conceived as social rather than explicitly public), Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca state that the “indispensable minimum for argumentation appears to be the existence of a common language” (15). Their contention here mirrors Stephen Toulmin’s assertion that a successful argument must operate in a field to which both or all parties adhere (34). Context, an umbrella term that unites the ideas of “common language” and “argument fields,” is especially important to visual argumentation because of the process of decoding. Because visual communication operates by way of a symbolic code that is more abstract than language, visual arguments depend even more fully on context for successful operation. Further, although the form of visual argument is holistic, its content (because enthymematic) is incomplete without an audience’s participation. The interpretive accuracy of such participation–filling in the enthymematic gaps–relies on context.
Linda Scott explains how context functions in visual argumentation: “The sender … crafts the message in anticipation of the audience’s probable response, using shared knowledge of various vocabularies and conventions, as well as common experiences. Receivers of the message use this same body of cultural knowledge to read the message, infer the sender’s intention, evaluate the argument, and formulate a response” (252-53). The above enthymematic argument, that this prisoner is a member of a neo-Nazi group because he has a swastika tattoo, clearly illustrates Scott’s point: the prisoner crafts a message (selects a swastika tattoo and decides on its placement) in anticipation of the audience’s probable response (assuming he is a member of a neo-Nazi group), using shared knowledge of vocabularies that the audience will use to infer his intent (he upholds “white power” values), evaluate his argument (as a member of a neo-Nazi group he is likely to engage in violent behavior toward minority or ethnic communities), and formulate a response (avoid the prisoner because his values are repellent or welcome him because they are laudable).
Although less obviously, prison tattoos also can “guide the order of argumentation via the arrangement of the visual elements…. such that the selection of style can suggest an intended evaluation” (Scott 253). For example, larger and more prominent (on the neck or hands, not upper arm or back) tattoos call to be read and evaluated first. Further, prominent placement of community-oriented tattoos argues for a prisoner’s level of commitment to community affiliations: “Large and ornate tattoos are intended to attract more attention and announce the features to which the wearer is most committed. For instance, tattoos worn on the face and neck are the most visible, and thus suggest a higher level of commitment than tattoos on other less visible parts of the body” (Phelan and Hunt 283). Figure 1 illustrates the eye-catching attraction of large, ornate tattoos. The visual dominance of his Harley Davidson chest tattoo proves the prisoner’s high commitment to biker affiliations. One’s eye is drawn to this tattoo over other, smaller ones, such as the star on the prisoner’s right hand. The latter, though small, is significant in a different way: its importance comes from placement instead of size. Because this tattoo cannot be hidden when the prisoner is clothed, it proves his unflinching commitment to the values it symbolizes.
Successful argumentation demands appropriate evaluation of one’s audience in context: “Argumentation which an orator considers persuasive may well cause opposition in an audience for which ‘reasons for’ are actually ‘reasons against'” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 20). This is particularly true in visual argumentation, and especially when both audience and context are bounded by an insular and isolationist institution such as a penitentiary.

The same enthymematic argument may be interpreted differently in different contexts. Prison tattoos are read by both prisoners and guards. Wearing a gang tattoo suggests to prisoners “that the individual has agreed to all of the moral obligations that … [gang] membership entails,” and at the same time “suggests to correctional officers that the individual wearing such a tattoo might be actively seeking to prove himself. This leads ‘wise’ correctional officers to approach such an inmate with increased caution, thereby attempting to limit the opportunities an inmate might have to demonstrate his worthiness for full gang membership” (Phelan and Hunt 286). Thus, prison tattoos are not meant to be equally addressed to, nor will they mean the same thing to, all audiences.


One of visual argumentation’s distinctive features is that claim and grounds are not separate elements but are fused together in a holistic, inseparable unit in which both are “argued and answered in the seeing experience that [the visual argument] structures” (Barbatsis 79). That visual arguments readily can be made, interpreted, and evaluated is an important consideration among populations with high illiteracy rates, as in a penitentiary. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca restrict argumentation to the “discursive,” with the caveat that this “by no means implies that the technique in question is the most efficacious way of affecting minds” (8). Indeed, their holism may mean that visual arguments are more, if not the most, efficacious.
Cameron Shelley remarks: “Visual arguments are useful for their ease of comprehension and their emotional impact” (53). Both attributes stem from visual argumentation’s holistic qualities. Because claim and grounds are perceived together, it is more difficult to pick them apart, making refutation a thornier process (cf. Lake and Pickering). As a “sequence of bits” (Fleming 14), a verbal argument offers itself and its components up for scrutiny and dissection in a way that visual arguments, in which all elements are fused in a single image, do not. When an audience does not possess the necessary context for interpretation, a visual argument is not merely disproved or discarded; it may be completely misunderstood or even unnoticed.


Tattooing certainly is not associated primarily with penitentiaries, as evidenced by the tattoos we see on people walking down the street, shopping in the grocery store, even sitting beside us in church. Nonetheless, prison and mainstream tattooing are similar in important respects. Both symbolize an aspect of character or identity that is of great importance to their bearers. Both also signify one’s position within a community (Chao 331; Sanders, “Marks” 397). Phebe Chao suggests that tattooing generally “leaves a lasting display of [a person’s] identification with and place within some desired tribe” (328). Prison tattooing, however, is shaped uniquely by the restrictive, nonpublic nature of the penitentiary context and, as an argumentative practice, proffers arguments expressly tied to this context.
In particular, prison tattoos communicate “an individual’s past accomplishments, present status, and possible future behavior” (Phelan and Hunt 292). Prison tattoos thus embody–literally–at least four interrelated claims about a prisoner’s status: autonomy, masculinity, social status as convict, and community membership.


First, prison tattooing argues for a prisoner’s autonomy. In a context in which individuals are stripped of independence and freedom, this argument is particularly noteworthy. One prisoner serving a lifetime sentence exemplifies this argument: “Sure, they got rules against tattooing. The man, he’s got rules against every fuckin’ thing. They’ll bust your ass any chance they get. But this is my body. It’s my novel, man, my poem, and I’m just gonna keep writin’ on it” (qtd. in Hall, “Marked Men” 8). Arguing for autonomy and against authority, illegal tattoos identify a prisoner “as uniquely individual and as unconcerned with the approval or disapproval of those who are unmarked and unknowledgeable” (Sanders, “Memorial” 153). Arguing for autonomy is taken very seriously by penitentiary staff and comes with high costs: “Inmates’ bodies are also considered to be the property of the state. Get a tattoo and you can be charged with ‘altering and defacing state property'” (Lerner 127). A prisoner’s willingness to risk such consequences makes the argument for autonomy highly successful.
Size and detail communicate the claim to autonomy in an unusual way in the penitentiary: “The more detailed and beautiful the tattoo, the longer and riskier was the process of making it” (Lichtenstein 53). The elaborate “sleeves” (tattoos covering a person’s arm from wrist to shoulder) depicted in Figure 1 speak to this prisoner’s autonomy. Their sheer size means that these tattoos would have taken many hours to complete; their intricate detailing and delicate shading are complex elements that could not have been rendered quickly. These tattoos make clear that this prisoner is a man of his own making, not bound by regulations or disapproval. As photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein observes, such tattoos prove “the convict’s ability to break the rules. This, above all else, is the most respected skill in the regulated world of the maximum security prison” (53).


Prison tattooing also argues for a prisoner’s status as masculine. Such arguments are very important in a penitentiary, where to be highly masculine is to be someone to be respected, not abused. In the penitentiary, masculinity is not simply about occupying a particular sociocultural position, but about personal safety and physical survival.
Gresham Sykes points out that the gender singularity of men’s prisons triggers concerns over prisoners’ status as masculine: a “society composed exclusively of men tends to generate anxieties in its members concerning their masculinity” (118). Establishing one’s masculinity is more difficult in the absence of its opposite–women’s femininity–and the burden of doing so shifts even more fully onto the available markers: “Proof of maleness, both for the self and for others, has been shifted to other grounds and the display of ‘toughness,’ in the forms of masculine mannerisms and the demonstration of inward stamina, now becomes the major route to manhood” (Sykes 127). “Prison is a place,” James Harkleroad asserts, “where the worst insult of all is to refer to another man as a female. Any man a convict does not like is referred to as a ‘bitch,’ ‘whore,’ or some other derogatory slang term for a woman. Prison is a place where if you get raped nobody has any sympathy for you. As a ‘man’ you are expected to protect yourself” (163). Another prisoner explains: “You’ve got to make a decision whether you’re going to end up being the one they push around all the time, considered a punk, or if you want to be known as a loner doing your own time…. You can be respected for being a loner, but you better be able to back up your shit because they’re going to give you a hard time” (qtd. in Hall, In Prison 8). In short, hypermasculine behaviors are the source of prisoners’ ability to withstand the penitentiary: “As a response to the label prisoner, with all its connotations of weakness, conformity, and the relinquishing of power, manliness (or a version of it) becomes the primary means of adaptation and resistance” (Jewkes 61).
Tattoos are an extremely important argument for one’s masculinity. First, tattooing is associated most commonly with men: women face much stronger cultural resistance and generally are tattooed less than men (Braunberger; Mifflin). That tattooing is very painful further associates it with masculinity: to be masculine is to be tough, to be able to withstand pain (Bell 55).
Prison tattoos also bespeak willingness, if not a propensity, to engage in violence. The popularity of this argument is demonstrated in the copious scholarship devoted to investigating and connecting tattooed persons with violent and other antisocial behaviors. North American culture generally associates tattoos with violence and other antisocial behaviors, so prison tattoos–particularly with aggressive or violent imagery such as skulls or knives–argue for a prisoner’s masculinity vis-a-vis his imputed toughness. This inference provides tattooed prisoners with a defense mechanism. Roger Hawkins and John Popplestone argue that tattoos operate as “a particularly versatile variety of exoskeletal defense” employed by “people who predict external attack and who arm themselves by emphasizing appearances” (500). “Certain tattoos inspire fear and respect and give the wearer an abrasive edge,” Hall notes: “In prison, that edge becomes reason enough for acquiring them” (“Marked Men” 10).
The prisoner in Figure 1 illustrates this argument for masculinity. His numerous tattoos demonstrate his toughness and ability to withstand pain, a coding reinforced by their violent imagery as well as his own size and stature. In particular, the swastika and Harley Davidson tattoos speak to his willingness to “back up his shit” by engaging in the violence and brutal (mis)conduct for which neo-Nazi groups and biker gangs are infamous.


Third, prison tattoos argue for a prisoner’s social status as convict–a critical argument inside the penitentiary. Prisoner narratives repeatedly emphasize the difference between an inmate and a convict: “To put it simply, an inmate is a model prisoner…. A con will look on from a distance, but an inmate will go over and stand next to the Man” (qtd. in Hall, In Prison 9). To identify as a convict is to claim a hardcore identity that is honorable within the code of the penitentiary. To be a convict is to be unassailable by outside influences, to be “righteous” (Hall, In Prison 9).
Tattoos argue for the prisoner’s status as convict through a number of compositional conventions. Prisoners do not have access to professional inks and must make do with materials at hand (pen inks or melted plastic, Styrofoam, or paper ash combined with liquids to make an ink), rendering tattoos monochromatic. In addition, tattoos often are applied by hand picking, that is, placing ink on the skin and repeatedly piercing the skin with a sharp object until a design or word is created. This method of application, seen often in the letters tattooed across the knuckles to spell a word, is unrefined and produces a ragged image that is easily identifiable as a prison tattoo. Hand-picked tattoos are “by far the most common method of applying tattoos” in juvenile penitentiaries (DeMello 10). Although hand picking is not uncommon, tattoos in adult penitentiaries are more routinely applied with machines. The star tattoo on the prisoner’s right hand in Figure 1 is clearly recognizable as handpicked, in contrast to the intricate sleeves and Harley Davidson chest piece.
Machine-made tattoos in prison, however, differ greatly from the tattoos executed with the machines commercially available to professional tattoo artists outside the penitentiary. Because they use unsterilized needles or other sharp objects, prison tattoo machines risk spreading HIV and could be used as weapons. Therefore, they represent illicit contraband within the penitentiary. (8) Machines, like inks, must be cobbled together using items to which prisoners have access: guitar strings, paper clips, staples, rubber bands, batteries. Prison machines utilize only one needle, rendering prison tattoos visually distinguishable by their fine lines.
A prisoner’s collection of tattoos also argues for his stares as convict. Bearing both hand-picked and machine-made tattoos demonstrates a history of juvenile and adult incarceration (shown in Figure 1). Similarly, a profusion of tattoos demonstrates a lengthy history of incarceration, identifying the prisoner as a repeat offender (also shown in Figure 1). Such arguments are especially important in a context in which prisoners are transferred, often and randomly, from one facility to another, where they interact with strangers unfamiliar with their status. (9)
Tattoos indelibly mark a prisoner as prisoner, a social position feared and despised by the majority in society. “A woman I know,” ex-prisoner Richard Stratton recounts, “when she learned I had spent most of the eighties locked up in various maximum and medium security prisons, asked to see my tattoos. So closely do we associate tattooing with imprisonment that we expect anyone who has done serious time to bear the proof in pictures on his limbs, chest, back” (6). Margo DeMello describes why prisoners may choose not to get a tattoo, or refuse to tattoo a fellow prisoner:
There is, among convicts, a type of honour system related to who should be tattooed and who should not which relates directly to age. Older convicts feel that younger prisoners should not get tattooed if they don’t already have any tattoos, and many tattooists in prison will simply refuse to be the first to tattoo a new prisoner…. An “honorable” prison tattooist doesn’t want to be responsible for helping to ruin a young prisoner’s life, particularly if that individual is going to be getting out of prison any time soon. (12)
Although in prison a tattoo may be an “argument for,” in society a tattoo is typically an “argument against.” Largely through personal experience, prison tattoo artists recognize that these differing contexts code tattoos very differently. Stratton describes his own decision not to be tattooed: “What held me back was the belief–call it superstition–that if I got that too, if I went under the needle and had the symbol of my crime inked beneath my skin, I would never get out of prison, never outlive the sentence, never rejoin straight, unadorned society…. The tattoo would be a surrender to prison life” (6). Because tattoos acquired on the inside will be interpreted on the outside as reasons to disaffiliate from, not hire, or otherwise discriminate against, their bearers, tattooing is chosen by those who feel that their relationship with criminality or incarceration will be a long one.


Fourth, prison tattoos operate as epideictic discourse, arguing for specific values and a particular kind of community. According to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, epideictic discourses “promote values on which there is agreement” (53). Epideictic argument does not exhort to change or action, but rather strengthens individual and/or community commitments to shared cultural values (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 52-53). Discussing Chicano murals in Chicago, Margaret LaWare suggests that “visual epideictic presents particular claims about the community it addresses, about how it should view itself” (144). Prison tattooing functions similarly as visual epideictic, moving community values from the margin into the center, presenting claims about the community it addresses.
Prison tattoos argue for a group affiliation and the values upheld within the group, including loyalty, traditional codes of masculinity premised on aggression and violence, and the authority of community leadership structures. Indeed, such tattoos argue principally for a prisoner’s place within a community neither structured nor governed by “the Man.” The visual presence of tattoos gives these values argumentative primacy: just as prison tattoos are literally “in your face,” so too are the values for which they argue. Both the Harley Davidson and neo-Nazi tattoos worn by the prisoner in Figure 1 make clear his community affiliations. The former establishes his status as a member of a particular biker community while the latter expresses his membership in neo-Nazi groups; both also demonstrate his commitment to the values of these groups.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca assert that epideictic discourse is not controversial because it promotes adherence to already accepted values. This is certainly true but, as with all else in rhetoric, this truth depends on context. Outside of its particular context, epideictic discourse may not be a celebration of community but an invitation to violence: “Because national prison gangs, such as the Bloods, Crips, and Mexican Mafia, have close regional affiliations, to declare an allegiance to Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio can provoke a gang fight and cost an inmate his life” (Lichtenstein 52). Prison tattooing reminds us that affirmation of a community’s shared values is not without weighty, possibly dangerous, consequences.


The visual argumentation of the body is also the social argumentation of the body, derived from the body’s visual presence in social space. Tattooing is a uniquely important mode of argumentation in the penitentiary because of the social control exerted in this space: tattoos enable prisoners to make claims and express values that otherwise could not be articulated. Given its restrictions and high illiteracy rates, visual communication is the most effective and least fallible means of arguing in this community. More broadly, this analysis points to the importance of nontraditional avenues for communication for individuals who have been barred from the public sphere or feel disenfranchised. Analysis of prison tattoos reveals how visual images can constitute arguments proffered in ordinary, casual interactions, without conversation.
Phelan and Hunt observe that “identity does not just happen. Rather, identity is an ongoing process that emerges from individuals’ interpretative and communicative efforts” (278). Tattoo arguments are critical to the processes by which prisoners create both individual and social identities in a context where community and communication are fractured at best. Because identity is not merely performed but also argued, if one’s identity is to be accepted one needs to mount a convincing claim to that identity, a claim that will be accepted by one’s intended audience.
Although it is one way to argue visually for an identity, prison tattooing is not an infallible way. Investigating prison tattooing as visual argument draws our attention to the primacy of interpretive context. Just as those who speak different languages may have difficulty understanding one another, new prisoners or outsiders may have difficulty interpreting and evaluating the arguments of prison tattoos because they lack the requisite cultural knowledge. The arguments of prison tattoos cannot be decoded without an understanding of the penitentiary context. Thus, prison tattooing also points to an encumbrance inherent in visual argumentation: without the proper contextual background, visual argument dissolves into euphuistic imagery.
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Toulmin, Stephen E. The Uses of Argument. Updated ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

(1) For an incisive discussion of the ever-present tension between the public and private body, see Gerard Hauser.

(2) Scholars such as Susan Bordo, Christine Harold, Gerard Hauser, and Kathleen Tangenberg and Susan Kemp call our attention to the ways in which bodies operate rhetorically in nonrational ways. However, greater understanding is needed of the ways in which the body’s rhetorical operations are rational.

(3) Because the literature on prison tattooing regards male prisoners and men’s prisons almost exclusively, my investigation is confined to the phenomenon in men’s penitentiaries.

(4) I recognize that prisoner is a contested term and that there is significant debate over the nomenclature used to describe incarcerated individuals. Whether innocent or not, sentenced justly or not, individuals in a penitentiary lose their status as such and are made to inhabit a highly particular, degraded subject position. I have elected to call them prisoners because this term calls this subject position to mind most fully.

(5) Figure 1 is taken from Douglas Kent Hall’s In Prison. Although I visit a penitentiary regularly, I have chosen to use a photograph from the public domain to avoid compromising my position as an instructor.

(6) See Christy Camp’s evocative description of the intake process where she was incarcerated.

(7) Gretchen Barbatsis, Cori Dauber, and Cara Finnegan discuss the enthymematic character of the visual argumentation of photographs.

(8) A 2001 Department of Justice study found that incarcerated populations had a rate of AIDS infection five times higher than nonincarcerated populations (Krebs 19-20).

(9) Phelan and Hunt use Goffman’s term moral career to describe prisoners’ tattooing activities, comparing prison tattoos to curriculum vitae: “Just as academic vitae announce the prestige of institutional affiliation, prison gang tattoos often include symbols of the facilities where inmates have done their time” (285).

Melanie Joy McNaughton, Department of Speech Communication, University of Georgia