At Tattoo Concierge we believe that just as in any form of art, there is no limit to sources of inspiration. Equally there is an eclectic range of topics that may help guide an educated decision around your own compositions. The following articles have been compiled for those wishing to explore some broader fields of study


artistic experience and the neural mechanisms

The Science of Art | A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience | We present a hypothesis of human artistic experience and the neural mechanisms that mediate it. Any supposition of art (or, certainly, any aspect of human nature) has to ideally have three mechanism. (a) The logic of art: whether there are universal rules or principles; (b) The evolutionary rationale: why did these rules evolve and why have they got the form that they do; (c) What is the human brain circuitry involved? Our paper begins with a quest for artistic universals and proposes a list of ‘Eight laws of artistic experience’ – a collection of heuristics that artists either consciously or unconsciously position to optimally titillate the visual locations of the brain. One of these doctrines may be a psychological phenomenon called the peak shift effect: If a rat is rewarded for discriminating a rectangle from a square, it will respond even more vigorously to a rectangle that is longer and skinnier that the prototype. We suggest that this principle explains not only caricatures, but many other aspects of art. Example: An evocative sketch of a female nude may be one which selectively accentuates those feminine form-attributes that allow one to discriminate it from a male figure; a Boucher, a Van Gogh, or a Monet may be a caricature in ‘colour space’ rather than form space. Even abstract art may employ ‘supernormal’ stimuli to excite form areas in the brain more strongly than natural stimuli. Second, we suggest that grouping is a very basic principle. The different extrastriate visual areas may have evolved specifically to extract correlations in different domains (e.g. form, depth, colour), and discovering and linking multiple features (‘grouping’) into unitary clusters – objects – is facilitated and reinforced by direct connections from these areas to limbic structures. In general, when object-like entities are partially discerned at any stage in the visual hierarchy, messages are sent back to earlier stages to alert them to certain locations or features in order to look for additional evidence for the object (and these processes may be facilitated by direct limbic activation). Finally, given constraints on allocation of attentional resources, art is most appealing if it produces heightened activity in a single dimension (e.g. through the peak shift principle or through grouping) rather than redundant activation of multiple modules. This idea may help explain the effectiveness of outline drawings and sketches, the savant syndrome in autists, and the sudden emergence of artistic talent in fronto-temporal dementia. In addition to these three basic principles we propose five others, constituting a total of ‘eight laws of aesthetic experience’ (analogous to the Buddha’s eightfold path to wisdom).

‘Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?’
Pablo Picasso



If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art—our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture—would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys — be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn’t follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism — a common denominator underlying all types of art. We recently proposed such a mechanism (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998), and we now present a more detailed version of this hypothesis and suggest some new experiments. These may be the very first experiments ever designed to empirically investigate the question of how the brain responds to art. Many consider art to be a celebration of human individuality and to that extent it may seem like a travesty to even search for universals. Indeed theories of visual art range from curious anarchist views (or even worse, ‘anything goes’) to the idea that art provides the only antidote to the absurdity or our existence—the only escape, perhaps, from this vale of tears (Penrose, 1973). Our approach to art, in this essay, will be to begin by simply making a list of all those attributes of pictures that people generally find attractive. Notwithstanding the Dada movement, we can then ask, Is there a common pattern underlying these apparently dissimilar attributes, and if so, why is this pattern pleasing to us? What is the survival value, if any, of art? But first let us clear up some common misconceptions about visual art. When the English colonizers first arrived in India they were offended by the erotic nudes in temples; the hips and breasts were grossly hypertrophied, the waist abnormally thin (Plate 1).1 Similarly the Rajasthani and Moghul miniature paintings were considered primitive because they lacked perspective. In making this judgement they were, of course, unconsciously comparing Indian art with the ideals of Western representational art—Renaissance art in particular. What is odd about this criticism though, is that it misses the whole point of art. The purpose of art, surely, is not merely to depict or represent reality—for that can be accomplished very easily with a camera—but to enhance, transcend, or indeed even to distort reality. The word ‘rasa’ appears repeatedly in Indian art manuals and has no literal translation, but roughly it means ‘the very essence of.’ So a sculptor in India, for example, might try to portray the rasa of childhood (Plate 2), or the rasa of romantic love, or sexual ecstasy (Plate 3), or feminine grace and perfection (Plate 4). The artist is striving, in these images, to strongly evoke a direct emotional response of a specific kind. In Western art, the ‘discovery’ of non-representational abstract art had to await the arrival of Picasso.

His nudes were also grotesquely distorted — both eyes on one side of the face for example. Yet when Picasso did it, the Western art critics heralded his attempts to ‘transcend perspective’ as a profound new discovery—even though both Indian and African art had anticipated this style by several centuries! We suggest in this essay that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules or principles (we call them laws) to titillate the visual areas of the brain. Some of these laws, we believe, are original to this article—at least in the context of art. Others (such as grouping) have been known for a long time and can be found in any art manual, but the question of why a given principle should be effective is rarely raised: the principle is usually just presented as a rule-of-thumb. In this essay we try to present all (or many) of these laws together and provide a coherent biological framework, for only when they are all considered simultaneously and viewed in a biological context do they begin to make sense. There are in fact three cornerstones to our argument. First, what might loosely be called the ‘internal logic’ of the phenomenon (what we call ‘laws’ in this essay). Second, the evolutionary rationale: the question of why the laws evolved and have that particular form (e.g. grouping facilitates object perception). And third, the neurophysiology (e.g. grouping occurs in extrastriate areas and is facilitated by synchronization of spikes and direct limbic activation).


All three of these need to be in place—and must inform each other—before we can claim to have ‘understood’ any complex manifestation of human nature — such as art. Many earlier discussions of art, in our view, suffer from the shortcoming that they view the problem from just one or two of these perspectives. We should clarify at the outset that many aspects of art will not be discussed in this article — such as matters concerning style. Indeed it may well be that much of art really has to do with aggressive marketing and hype, and this inevitably introduces an element of arbitrariness that complicates the picture enormously. Furthermore the artistic ‘universals’ that we shall consider are not going to provide an instant formula for distinguishing ‘tacky’ or ‘tourist’ art, that hangs in the lobbies of business executives, from the genuine thing—even though a really gifted artist could do so instantly —and until we can do that we can hardly claim to have ‘understood’ art. Yet despite these reservations, we do believe that there is at least a component to art—however small—that IS lawful and can be analysed in accordance with the principles or laws outlined here. Although we initially proposed these ‘laws’ in a playful spirit, we were persuaded that there is enough merit in them to warrant publication in a philosophical journal. If the essay succeeds in stimulating a dialogue between artists, visual physiologists and evolutionary biologists, it will have adequately served its purpose.


The Essence of Art and the Peak Shift Principle

Hindu artists often speak of conveying the rasa, or ‘essence’, of something in order to evoke a specific mood in the observer. But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean to ‘capture the very essence’ of something in order to ‘evoke a direct emotional response’? The answer to these questions, it turns out, provides the key to understanding what art really is. Indeed, as we shall see, what the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object. As the physiologist Zeki (1998) has eloquently noted, it may not be a coincidence that the ability of the artist to abstract the ‘essential features’ of an image and discard redundant information is essentially identical to what the visual areas themselves have evolved to do.

Consider the peak shift effect — a well-known principle in animal discrimination learning. If a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle (of say, 3:2 aspect ratio) and rewarded for the rectangle, it will soon learn to respond more frequently to the rectangle. Paradoxically, however, the rat’s response to a rectangle that is even longer and skinnier (say, of aspect ratio 4:1) is even greater than it was to the original prototype on which it was trained. This curious result implies that what the rat is learning is not a prototype but a rule, i.e. rectangularity. We shall argue in this essay that this principle holds the key for understanding the evocativeness of much of visual art. We are not arguing that it’s the only principle, but that it is likely to be one of a small subset of such principles underlying artistic experience. How does this principle—the peak shift effect—relate to human pattern recognition and aesthetic preference? Consider the way in which a skilled cartoonist produces a caricature of a famous face, say Nixon’s. What he does (unconsciously) is to take the average of all faces, subtract the average from Nixon’s face (to get the difference between Nixon’s face and all others) and then amplify the differences to produce a caricature. The final result, of course, is a drawing that is even more Nixon-like than the original. The artist has amplified the differences that characterize Nixon’s face in the same way that an even skinnier rectangle is an amplified version of the original prototype that the rat is exposed to. This leads us to our first aphorism: ‘All art is caricature’.

(This is not literally true, of course, but as we shall see, it is true surprisingly often.) And the same principle that applies for recognizing faces applies to all aspects of form recognition. It might seem a bit strange to regard caricatures as art but take a second look at the Chola bronze—the accentuated hips and bust of the Goddess Parvati (Plate 1) and you will see at once that what you have here is essentially a caricature of the female form. There may be neurons in the brain that represent sensuous, rotund feminine form as opposed to angular masculine form and the artist has chosen to amplify the ‘very essence’ (the rasa) of being feminine by moving the image even further along toward the feminine end of the female/male spectrum (Plate 4). The result of these amplifications is a ‘super stimulus’ in the domain of male/female differences. It is interesting, in this regard, that the earliest known forms of art are often caricatures of one sort or another; e.g. prehistoric cave art depicting animals like bison and mammoths, or the famous Venus ‘fertility’ figures. As a further example, look at the pair of nudes in Plate 5, a sculpture from Northern India (circa 800 AD). No normal woman can adopt such contorted postures and yet the sculpture is incredibly evocative—beautiful—capturing the rasa of feminine poise and grace. To explain how he achieves this effect, consider the fact that certain postures are impossible (and unlikely) among men but possible in women because of certain anatomical differences that impose constraints on what can or cannot be done. Now in our view what the artist has done here is to subtract the male posture from the female posture to produce a caricature in ‘posture space’ thereby amplifying ‘feminine posture’ and producing a correspondingly high limbic activation. The same can be said of the dancer in Plate 6 or for the amorous couple (Plate 7). Again, even though these particular, highly stylized anatomical poses are impossible (or unlikely) it is very evocative of the ‘Sringara Rasa’ or ‘Kama rasa’ (sexual and amorous ecstasy) because the artist is providing a ‘caricature’ that exaggerates the amorous pose. It is as though the artist was been able to intuitively access and powerfully stimulate neural mechanisms in the brain that represent ‘amorousness’.


A posture space might be realized in the form of a large set of remembered postures of people one has observed. (Whether one might expect such a memory mapping to exist in the ‘dorsal’ stream of visual processing, which connects with the agent’s own body representations, or the ‘ventral’ stream, known to be used for face perception, is an interesting question; perhaps the answer is, both). There is an obvious need to connect these posture representations to the limbic system: it is quite imperative that I recognize an attack posture, a posture — or body position — which beckons me, or one which indicates sadness or depression, etc. The sculptors of Plates 5 and 6 relied on this represented posture space in creating their works. The sculptor knows, consciously or not, that the sight of those postures will evoke a certain sort of limbic activation when the posture is successfully represented in the posture space system—he tells a story in this medium, we might say. Until now we have considered caricatures in the form domain, but we know from the pioneering work of many physiologists (Zeki, 1980; see also Livingstone and Hubel, 1987; Allman & Kaas, 1971; Van Essen & Maunsell, 1980) that the primate brain has specialized modules concerned with other visual modalities such as colour depth and motion. Perhaps the artist can generate caricatures by exploiting the peak shift effect along dimensions other than form space, e.g., in ‘colour space’ or ‘motion space’. For instance consider the striking examples of the plump, cherub-faced nudes that Boucher is so famous for. Apart from emphasizing feminine, neotonous babylike features (a peak shift in the masculine/feminine facial features domain) notice how the skin tones are exaggerated to produce an unrealistic and absurd ‘healthy’ pink flush. In doing this, one could argue he is producing a caricature in colour space, particularly the colours pertaining to male/female differences in skin tone. Another artist, Robert, on the other hand, pays little attention to colour or even to form, but tends to deliberately overemphasize the textural attributes of his objects, be they bricks, leaves, soil, or cloth. And other artists have deliberately exaggerated (‘caricatured’ or produced peak shifts in) shading, highlights, illumination etc to an extent that would never occur in a real image. Even music may involve generating peak shifts in certain primitive, passionate primate vocalizations such as a separation cry; the emotional response to such sounds may be partially hard-wired in our brains.


A potential objection to this scheme is that it is not always obvious in a given picture what the artist is trying to caricature, but this is not an insurmountable objection. Ethologists have long known that a seagull chick will beg for food by pecking at its mother’s beak. Remarkably, it will peck just as vigorously at a disembodied beak with no mother attached or even a brown stick with a red dot at the end (the gull’s beak has a vivid red spot near the tip). The stick with the red dot is an example of a ‘releasing stimulus’ or ‘trigger feature’ since, as far as the chick’s visual system is concerned this stimulus is as good as the entire mother bird. What is even more remarkable, though, was Tinbergen’s discovery (Tinbergen, 1954) that a very long, thin brown stick, with three red stripes at the end is even more effective in eliciting pecks than the original beak, even though it looks nothing like a beak to a human observer. The gull’s form recognition areas are obviously wired-up in such a way that Tinbergen had inadvertently produced a super stimulus, or a caricature in ‘beak space’ (e.g. the neurons in the gull’s brain might embody the rule ‘more red contour the better’). Indeed, if there were an art gallery in the world of the seagull, this ‘super beak’ would qualify as a great work of art—a Picasso. Likewise, it is possible that some types of 19 V.S. RAMACHANDRAN AND W. HIRSTEIN art such as cubism are activating brain mechanisms in such a way as to tap into or even caricature certain innate form primitives which we do not yet fully understand.


At present we have no idea what the ‘form primitives’ used by the human visual pathways are, but we suggest that many artists may be unconsciously producing heightened activity in the ‘form areas’ in a manner that is not obvious to the conscious mind, just as it isn’t obvious why a long stick with three red stripes is a ‘super beak’. Even the sunflowers of Van Gogh or the water lilies of Monet may be the equivalent—in colour space — of the stick with the three stripes, in that they excite the visual neurons that represent colour memories of those flowers even more effectively than a real sunflower or water lily might. There is also clearly a mnemonic component of aesthetic perception, including, the autobiographical memory of the artist, and of her viewer, as well as the viewer’s more general ‘cognitive stock’ brought to his encounter with the work. This general cognitive stock includes the viewer’s memory of his encounters with the painting’s etiological forebears, including those works that the artist himself was aware of. Often paintings contain homages to earlier artists and this concept of homage fits what we have said about caricature: the later artist makes a caricature of his acknowledged predecessor, but a loving one, rather than the ridiculing practised by the editorial cartoonist. Perhaps some movements in the history of art can be understood as driven by a logic of peak shift: the new art form finds and amplifies the essence of a previous one (sometimes many years previous, in the case of Picasso and African art). [2] Another manifestation of this principle can be seen in the florid sexual displays of birds—that we find so attractive. It is very likely, as suggested by Darwin, that the grotesque exaggeration of these displays, for example the magnificent wings of the birds of paradise, is a manifestation of the peak shift effect during mate choice—sexual selection caused by birds of each generation preferring caricatures of the opposite sex to mate with (just as humans lean toward Playboy pinups and Chippendale dancers). Indeed we have recently suggested (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998) that many aspect of morphological evolution (not just ‘secondary sexual characteristics’ or florid ‘ethological releasers’ and threat displays) may be the outcome of runaway selection, based on the peak shift principle. The result would be not only the emergence and ‘quantization’ of new species, but also a progressive and almost comical ‘caricaturization’ of phylogenetic trends of precisely the kind one sees in the evolution of elephants or ankylosaurs. Even the quirks of fashion design (e.g. corsets becoming absurdly narrow, shoes becoming smaller and smaller in ancient China, shrinking miniskirts) become more comprehensible in terms of this perceptual principle. One wonders, also, whether the striking resemblance between the accumulation of jewellery, shoes and other brightly coloured objects by humans and the collections of bright pebbles, berries and feathers by bowerbirds building their enormous nests is entirely coincidental.

Lastly, consider the evolution of facial expressions. Darwin proposed that a ‘threat gesture’ may have evolved from the real facial movements one makes before attacking a victim — i.e. the baring of canines, etc. The same movement may eventually become divorced from the actual act and begin to serve as a communication of intent — a threat. If the peak shift principle were to operate in the recipient’s brain it is easy to see how such a ritualized signal would become progressively amplified across generations. Darwin had a difficult time, however, explaining why gestures such as sadness (instead of joy) seem to involve the opposite movement of facial features—e.g. lowering the corners of the mouth—and he came up with his somewhat ad hoc ‘principle of antithesis’, which states that somehow the opposite emotion is automatically linked to the opposite facial movements. We would suggest, instead, that the principle of antithesis is, once again, an indirect result of the recipient’s brain applying the peak shift principle. Once the organism has circuitry in its brain that saysKis normal and J is a smile, then it may follow automatically that L is the expression of the opposite emotion—sadness. Whether this particular conjecture is correct or not we believe that emotional expressions analysed in terms of the peak shift effect may begin to make more sense than they have in the past. Another layer of complexity here is that even the perception of complex postures or actions may Perceptual Grouping and Binding is Directly Reinforcing One of the main functions of ‘early vision’ (mediated by the thirty or so extrastriate visual areas) is to discover and delineate objects in the visual field (Marr, 1981; Ramachandran, 1990; Pinker, 1998; Shepard, 1981) and for doing this the visual areas rely, once again, on extracting correlations.


For instance if a set of randomly placed spots A is superimposed on another set of randomly placed dots B, they are seen to mingle to form just a single enormous cluster. But if you now move one of the clusters (say, A) then all the dots are instantly glued or bound together perceptually to create an object that is clearly separate from the background cluster B. Similarly if cluster A is made of red dots (and B is of green dots) we have no difficulty in segregating them instantly. This brings us to our second point. The very process of discovering correlations and of ‘binding’ correlated features to create unitary objects or events must be reinforcing for the organism—in order to provide incentive for discovering such correlations (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). Consider the famous hidden face

Initially seen as a jumble of splotches, once the Dalmatian is seen, its spots are grouped together — a pleasing effect, caused perhaps by activation of the limbic system by temporal lobe cortexrequire the observer to somehow internally re-enact or ‘rehearse’ the action before it is identified. For instance, patients with apraxia (inability to perform complex skilled movements resulting from damage to the left supramarginal gyrus) often, paradoxically, have difficulty perceiving and recognizing complex actions performed by others. Also, there are cells in the frontal lobes thought to be involved in the production of complex movements but which also fire when the animal perceives the same movements performed by a the experimenter (di Pellegrino et al., 1992). This finding — together with the peak shift effect—would help account for Darwin’s ‘principle of antithesis’, which would otherwise seem completely mysterious. Such cells may also be activated powerfully when viewing dynamic figural representations such as the ‘Dancing Devi’ (Plate 6). or Dalmatian dog photo (Fig. 2). This is seen initially as a random jumble of splotches. The number of potential groupings of these splotches is infinite but once the dog is seen your visual system links only a subset of these splotches together and it is impossible not to ‘hold on’ to this group of linked splotches. Indeed the discovery of the dog and the linking of the dog-relevant splotches generates a pleasant ‘aha’ sensation. In ‘colour space’ the equivalent of this would be wearing a blue scarf with red flowers if you are wearing a red skirt; the perceptual grouping of the red flowers and your red skirt is aesthetically pleasing — as any fashion designer will tell you.


These examples suggest that there may be direct links in the brain between the processes that discover such correlations and the limbic areas which give rise to the pleasurable ‘rewarding’ sensations associated with ‘feature binding’. So when you choose a blue matte to frame your painting in order to ‘pick up’ flecks of blue in the painting you are indirectly tapping into these mechanisms. How is such grouping achieved? As noted above, the primate brain has over two dozen visual areas each of which is concerned with a different visual attribute such as motion, colour, depth, form, etc. These areas are probably concerned with extracting correlations in ‘higher dimensional’ spaces — such as ‘colour space’ or ‘motion space’. In a regular topographic map — e.g., in area 17 — features that are close together in physical space are also close together in the brain (which is all that is meant by ‘map’). But now think of non-topographic maps — say a map of ‘colour space’ — in which points that are close together in wavelength are mapped close together in the colour area of the brain even though they may be distant from each other physically (Barlow, 1986). Such proximity along different feature dimensions may be useful for perceptual grouping and ‘binding’ of features that are similar within that dimension. This argument sounds plausible, but why should the outputs of separate vision modules—space, colour, depth, motion, etc.—be sent directly to the limbic system before further processing has occurred? Why not delay the reinforcement produced by limbic activation until the object has actually been identified by neurons in inferotemporal cortex? After all, the various Gestalt grouping processes are thought to occur autonomously as a result of computations within each module itself (Marr, 1981) without benefit of either cross-module or ‘top down’ influences — so why bother hooking up the separate modules themselves to limbic regions? One resolution of this paradox might simply be that the serial, hierarchical, ‘bucket brigade’ model of vision is seriously flawed and that eliminating ambiguity, segmenting the scene and discovering and identifying objects do indeed rely on top down processes — at least to some situations (Churchland et al., 1994). The visual system is often called upon to segment the scene, delineate figure from ground and recognize objects in very noisy environments — i.e., to defeat camouflage — and this might be easier to accomplish if a limbic ‘reinforcement’ signal is not only fed back to early vision once an object has been completely identified, but is evoked at each and every stage in processing as soon as a partial ‘consistency’ and binding is achieved. This would explain why we say ‘aha’ when the Dalmatian is finally seen in Fig. 2—and why it is difficult to revert back to seeing merely splotches once the dog is seen as a whole: that particular percept is powerfully reinforced (Ramachandran and Blakeslee, 1998). In other words, even though the grouping may be initially based on autonomous process in each module (Marr, 1981), once a cluster of features becomes perceptually salient as a ‘chunk’ with boundaries (i.e. an object), it may send a signal to the limbic centres which in turn causes you to ‘hold on’ to that chunk to facilitate further computation. There is physiological evidence that grouping of features leads to synchronization of the spikes (action potentials) of neurons that extract those features (Singer and Gray, 1995; Crick and Koch, 1998) and perhaps it is this synchrony that allows the signal to be sent to the limbic pathways. (This, by the way, may be one reason why musical consonance often involves harmonics—for example, a C-major chord—which, for physical reasons would tend to emerge from a single object, whereas dissonant notes are likely to emerge from two or more separate objects.) The key idea, then, is the following (and it applies to many of our laws, not just grouping). Given the limited attentional resources in the brain and limited neural space for competing representations, at every stage in processing there is generated a ‘Look here, there is a clue to something potentially object-like’ signal that produces limbic activation and draws your attention to that region (or feature) , thereby facilitating the processing of those regions or features at earlier stages. Furthermore, partial ‘solutions’ or conjectures to perceptual problems are fed back from every level in the hierarchy to every earlier module to impose a small bias in processing and the final percept emerges from such progressive ‘bootstrapping’ (Ramachandran et al., 1998). As noted above, consistency between partial high-level ‘hypotheses’ and earlier low-level ensembles also generates a pleasant sensation — e.g. the Dalmatian dog ‘hypothesis’ encourages the binding of corresponding splotches which, in turn, further consolidate the ‘dog-like’ nature of the final percept and we feel good when it all finally clicks in place. And what the artist tries to do, is to tease the system with as many of these ‘potential object’ clues as possible—an idea that would help explain why grouping and ‘perceptual problem solving (see below) are both frequently exploited by artists and fashion designers.

The notion that art exploits grouping principles is of course not new (Gombrich, 1973; Arnheim, 1956; Penrose, 1973), but what is novel here is our claim that the grouping doesn’t always occur ‘spontaneously’; that out of a temporary binding a signal sent to the limbic system to reinforce the binding, and this is one source of the aesthetic experience. For example, in Fig. 3, there are two possible stable organizations, one with hourglasses, and one with closure and most people find the latter 23 V.S. RAMACHANDRAN AND W. HIRSTEIN Figure 3 Gestalt grouping principles. The tokens can be grouped either on the basis of ‘proximity’ (which produces hourglasses), or ‘closure’. The latter organization is more stable and pleasing to the eye. organization more pleasing than the former because the limbic activation is stronger with this closure-based object-like percept. When artists speak of composition, or grouping, they are probably unconsciously tapping into these very same principles. One obvious prediction that emerges from this theory is that patients with Kluver- Bucy syndrome — caused by bilateral amygdala destruction — should not only display problems in recognizing objects (visual agnosia) but also in segmenting them out from noisy backgrounds, an idea that would be relatively easy to test experimentally.

Isolating a Single Module and Allocating Attention

The third important principle (in addition to peak shift and binding) is the need to isolate a single visual modality before you amplify the signal in that modality. For instance, this is why an outline drawing or sketch is more effective as ‘art’ than a full colour photograph. This seems initially counterintuitive since one would expect that the richer the cues available in the object the stronger the recognition signal and associated limbic activation. This apparent objection can be overcome, however, once one realizes that there are obvious constraints on the allocation of attentional resources to different visual modules. Isolating a single area (such as ‘form’ or ‘depth’ in the case of caricature or Indian art) allows one to direct attention more effectively to this one source of information, thereby allowing you to notice the ‘enhancements’ introduced by the artist. (And that in turn would amplify the limbic activation and reinforcement produced by those enhancements). Consider a full-colour illustration of Nixon, with depth, shading, skin tones and blemishes, etc. What is unique about Nixon is the form of his face (as amplified by the caricature) but the skin tone—even though it makes the picture more human-like — doesn’t contribute to making him ‘Nixon like’ and therefore actually detracts from the efficacy of the form cues. Consequently, one would predict that a full colour photo of Nixon would actually be less aesthetically pleasing than a sketchy outline drawing that captures the essential ‘Nixon-like’ attributes of his face. The idea that outlines are effective in art is hardly new. It has been repeated ad nauseum by many authors, ever since David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel (1979) originally pointed out that this principle may reflect the fact that cells in the visual pathways are adequately stimulated by edges and are indifferent to homogeneous regions. However this would only explain why one can get away with just using outlines — not why outlines are actually more effective than a full colour half tone photo, which, after all, has more information. We would argue that when the colour, skin texture, etc. are not critical for defining the identity of the object in question (e.g. Nixon’s face) then the extra redundant information can actually distract your limited attentional resources away from the defining attributes of that object. Hence the aphorism ‘more is less’ in Art. Additional evidence for this view comes from the ‘savant syndrome’ — autistic children who are ‘retarded’ and yet produce beautiful drawings. The animal drawings of the eight-year old artist Nadia, for instance, are almost as aesthetically pleasing as those of Leonardo da Vinci! (Plate 8).We would argue that this is because the fundamental disorder in autism is a distortion of the ‘salience landscape’; they shut out many important sensory channels thereby allowing them to deploy all their attentional resources on a single channel; e.g., in ‘visual form representation’ channel in the case of Nadia. This idea is also consistent with the ingenious theory of Snyder (Snyder and Thomas, 1997), that savants are able to ‘directly access’ the outputs of some of their early vision modules because they are less ‘concept driven’: the conceptual impoverishment that produces autism also, paradoxically, gives them better access to earlier processes in vision. And finally, we would suggest that the ‘isolation’ principle also explains the efflorescence of artistic talent that is occasionally seen in fronto-temporal dementia in adults: a clinical phenomenon that is currently being studied intensively in our laboratory.

These ideas allow us to make certain novel predictions: If you put luminous dots on a person’s joints and film him or her walking in complete darkness, the complex motion trajectories of the dots are usually sufficient to evoke a compelling impression of a walking person—the so-called Johansson effect (Johansson, 1975). Indeed, it is often possible to tell the sex of the person by watching the gait. However, although these movies are often comical, they are not necessarily pleasing aesthetically. We would argue that this is because even though you have isolated a cue along a single dimension, i.e., motion, this isn’t really a caricature in motion space. To produce a work of art, you would need to subtract the female motion trajectories from the male and amplify the difference. Whether this would result in a pleasing work of kinetic art remains to be seen.
Contrast Extraction is Reinforcing Grouping, as we have already noted, is an important principle, but the extraction of features prior to grouping — which involves discarding redundant information and extracting contrast—is also ‘reinforcing’. Cells in the retina, lateral geniculate body (a relay station in the brain) and in the visual cortex respond mainly to edges (step changes in luminance) but not to homogeneous surface colours; so a line drawing or cartoon stimulates these cells as effectively as a ‘half tone’ photograph. What is frequently overlooked though is that such contrast extractions — as with grouping — may be intrinsically pleasing to the eye (hence the efficacy of line drawings). Again, though, if contrast is extracted autonomously by cells in the very earliest stages of processing, why should the process be rewarding in itself?We suggest that the answer once again has to do with the allocation of attention. Information (in the Shannon sense) exists mainly in regions of change—e.g. edges—and it makes sense that such regions would, therefore, be more attention grabbing — more ‘interesting’ — than homogeneous areas. So it may not be coincidental that what the cells find interesting is also what the organism as a whole finds interesting and perhaps in some circumstances ‘interesting’ translates into ‘pleasing’.

For the same reason, contrast along many other stimulus dimensions besides luminance, such as colour or texture, has been exploited by artists (for instance, colour contrast is exploited by Matisse), and indeed there are cells in the different visual areas specialized for colour contrast, or motion contrast (Allman and Kaas, 1971). Furthermore, just as one can speak of a peak shift principle along very abstract dimensions, contrast can also emerge in dimensions other than luminance or colour. Notice that the boundary between the two types of texture (vertical vs. horizontal lines) is clearly visible on the upper pattern (A), but is masked by the luminance boundaries on the lower (B). (Based on M.J. Morgan; personal communication). A B instance, a nude wearing baroque (antique) gold jewellery (and nothing else) is aesthetically much more pleasing than a completely nude woman or one wearing both jewellery and clothes, presumably because the homogeneity and smoothness of the naked skin contrasts sharply with the ornateness and rich texture of the jewellery. Whether the analogy between luminance contrast extracted by cells in the brain and the contrast between jewels and naked skin is just a play of words or a deep unifying principle is a question that cannot be answered given what we know about the brain. But we do know that the attention grabbing effect of contrast must be a very important principle in nature, since it is often used as a camouflage device by both predators and heir prey. For instance, in Fig. 4A, a texture border is very visible, but in Fig. 4B it is almost ‘invisible’, camouflaged by the colour (black/white) borders that grab the lion’s share of your attention. At first the two principles we have just considered seem antithetical; grouping on the basis of similarity is rewarding, but if so how can contrast (the very opposite of grouping) also be rewarding? One clue comes from the fact that the two mechanisms have different spatial constraints; grouping can occur between similar features (e.g. colour or motion) even if they are far apart in space (e.g., the spots on the nose and tail of a leopard). Contrast, on the other hand, usually occurs between dissimilar features that are physically close together. Thus even though the two processes seem to be inconsistent, they actually complement one another in that they are both concerned with the discovery of objects—which is the main goal of vision. (Contrast extraction is concerned with the object’s boundaries whereas grouping allows recovery of the object’s surfaces and, indirectly, of its boundaries as well). It is easy to see then why the two should be mutually reinforcing and rewarding to the organism.



Symmetry, of course, is also aesthetically pleasing as is well known to any Islamic artist (or indeed to any child looking through a kaleidoscope) and it is thought to be extracted very early in visual processing (Julesz, 1971). Since most biologically important objects — such as predator, prey or mate are symmetrical, it may serve as an early-warning system to grab our attention to facilitate further processing of the symmetrical entity until it is fully recognised. As such, this principle complements the other laws described in this essay; it is geared towards discovering ‘interesting’ object-like entities in the world. Intriguingly, it has recently been shown experimentally that when choosing a mate, animals and humans prefer symmetrical over asymmetrical ones and evolutionary biologists have argued that this is because parasitic infestation —detrimental to fertility — often produces lopsided, asymmetrical growth and development. If so, it is hardly surprising that we have a built-in aesthetic preference for symmetry.


Another less well known principle relates to what AI researchers refer to as ‘the generic viewpoint’ principle, which is illustrated in Fig. 5A and B and Fig. 6A and B. In Fig. 5A most people see a square occluding the corner of another square, even though it could theoretically be Fig. B seen from a unique view point. The reason is One square is seen as occluding the other. It is hard to see A as B viewed from a unique vantage point. The brain ‘prefers’ the generic view. Figure 6 The flat hexagon with radiating spokes could be a cube but is never seen as one. The ‘generic’ interpretation is again the brain’s preferred one. Figure 7 The brain’s abhorrence of ‘suspicious coincidences’ (a phrase used by Horace Barlow). Figure B is pleasing, but A is distasteful to the eye. A B that there is an infinite set of viewpoints that could produce the class of retinal images resembling A, but only a single, unique viewpoint that could produce retinal image A, given the objects in B. Consequently, the visual system rejects the latter interpretation as being highly improbable and prefers to see A as occlusion. (The same principle applies to 6A and B; A could depict an outline of a cube seen from one specific vantage point, but people usually see it as a flat hexagon with spokes radiating from the middle.) These examples illustrate the universal Bayesian logic of all perception: your visual system abhors interpretations which rely on a unique vantage point and favours a generic one or, more generally, it abhors suspicious coincidences (Barlow, 1980). For this reason, Fig. 7B is pleasing, whereas 7A is unattractive (palm tree and hills). So if an artist is trying to please the eye, he too, should avoid coincidences, such as those in 7A and 6B. Yet one must be cautious in saying this since every now and then—given the perverse nature of art and artists—a pleasing effect can be produced by violating this principle rather than adhering to it. For instance, there is a Picasso nude in which the improbability of the arm’s outline exactly coinciding with that of the torso grabs the viewer’s attention — and is arguably attractive to him!


We hasten to add that the principles we have discussed so far certainly do not exhaust all types of artistic experience. We have hardly touched on the purely symbolic or allegorical aspects of some types of paintings or sculpture, or on surrealism and modern abstract art (e.g., minimalists such as Kandinsky), not to mention ‘counter’ art such as the Dada movement. Also very puzzling is the question of why a nude hidden by a diaphanous veil is more alluring than one seen directly in the flesh, as pointed out by Ernst Gombrich (1973). It is as though an object discovered after a struggle is more pleasing than one that is instantly obvious. The reason for this is obscure but perhaps a mechanism of this kind ensures that the struggle itself is reinforcing — so that you don’t give up too easily — whether looking for a leopard behind foliage or a mate hidden in the mist. On the other hand, we suspect that surrealist art really doesn’t have much to do with visual representations per se but involves playing with links between vision and semantics, thereby taking it closer to the metaphorical ambiguities of poetry and language than to the purely visual appeal of a Picasso, a Rodin, or a Chola bronze. For example, in his erotic masterpiece ‘Young virgin autosodomised by her own chastity’ (1954), Dali has used the male penis to represent the female buttocks and genitalia. The medium and message ‘resonate’ since they both pertain to sex but they are also in subtle conflict since they depict ‘opposite’ sexes! The result is an image pleasing on many levels simultaneously. This playful, whimsical, aspect of art, often involving the humorous juxtaposition of complementary— or sometimes even incongruous—elements, is perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of our aesthetic experience, one which we have hardly touched upon in this essay. Another aspect of art that we have not dealt with is style, although one can see how once a style or trend is set in motion the peak shift principle can certainly help amplify it.

Art as Metaphor

The use of visual metaphors in art is well known. For instance, in Plate 9, the languorous, sensuous pose of the woman mimics the tree branch above — the curves match her curves and perhaps the tree’s fertility is a metaphor for her youthfulness. (Just as in Plate 4, the fruit in the tree echoes the curve of the breasts as well as the abdomen.) There are countless examples of this sort in both Eastern and Western art and yet the question is rarely raised as to why visual ‘puns’ or allegories should be aesthetically pleasing. A metaphor is a mental tunnel between two concepts or percepts that appear grossly dissimilar on the surface. When Shakespeare says ‘Juliet is the sun,’ he is appealing to the fact that they are both warm and nurturing (not the fact that they both reside in our solar system!). But, again, why should grasping an analogy of this kind be so rewarding to us? Perhaps the use of a simple concrete example (or one that is easily visualised, such as the sun) allows us to ignore irrelevant, potentially distracting aspects of an idea or percept (e.g. Juliet has nails, teeth and legs) and enables us to ‘highlight’ the crucial aspects (radiance and warmth) that she shares with the sun but not with other women. Whether this is purely a device for effective communication, or a basic cognitive mechanism for encoding the world more economically, remains to be seen. The latter hypothesis may well be correct. There are many paintings that instantly evoke an emotional response long before the metaphor is made explicit by an art critic. This suggests that the metaphor is effective even before one is conscious of it, implying that it might be a basic principle for achieving economy of coding rather than a rhetorical device. This is also true of poetic metaphors, as when Shakespeare says of Juliet, ‘Death, that has sucked the honey of thy breath’: the phrase is incredibly powerful well before one becomes consciously aware of the hidden analogy between the ‘sting of death’ and the bee’s sting and the subtle sexual connotations of ‘sucking’ and ‘breath’. Classifying objects into categories is obviously vital for survival, e.g. prey vs. predator, edible vs. inedible, male vs. female, etc. Seeing a deep similarity — a common denominator as it were — between disparate entities is the basis of all concept formation whether the concepts are perceptual (‘Juliet’) or more abstract (‘love’). Philosophers often make a distinction between categories or ‘types’ and ‘tokens’ — the exemplars of a type — (e.g. ‘ducks’ vs. ‘that duck’). Being able to transcend tokens to create types is an essential step in setting up a new perceptual category. Being able to see the hidden similarities between successive distinct episodes allows you to link or bind these episodes to create a single super-ordinate category, e.g., several viewer-centred representations of a chair are linked to form a viewer independent abstract representation of ‘chairness’.

Consequently, the discovery of similarities and the linking of superficially dissimilar events would lead to a limbic activation—in order to ensure that the process is rewarding. It is this basic mechanism that one taps into, whether with puns, poetry, or visual art. Partial support for this view comes from the observation that these mechanisms can go awry in certain neurological disorders. In Capgras syndrome, for instance, connections from the visual ‘face region’ in the inferotemporal cortex to the amygdala (a part of the limbic system where activation leads to emotions) are severed so that a familiar face no longer evokes a warm fuzzy emotional response (Hirstein and Ramachandran, 1997). Remarkably, some Capgras patients are no longer able to link successive views of a person’s face to create more general perceptual category of that particular face.We suggested that in the absence of limbic activation—the ‘glow’ of recognition—there is no incentive for the brain to link successive views of a face, so that the patient treats a single person as several people. When we showed our Capgras patient DS different photos of the same person, he claimed that the photos were of different people, who merely resembled each other! One might predict, therefore, that patients like DS would also experience difficulty in appreciating the metaphorical nuances of art, but such a prediction is not easy to test.


An Experimental Test

We conclude by taking up the final test of any theory: does it lead to counterintuitive predictions that can be tested experimentally? One approach—albeit a laborious one —would be to do ‘psychophysics’ on artistic experience: show people different types of pictures to see what they find pretty. The principles outlined above are difficult to test individually, but we believe that the very first one — the peak shift principle — can be tested directly. To do so one could measure the galvanic skin response (also known as skin conductance response, SCR) of naive experimental subjects to photos and drawings or caricatures. When you look at any evocative picture, the image is extracted by the ‘early’ visual areas and sent to the infratemporal cortex — an area specialized for detecting faces and other objects. Once the object has been recognized, its emotional significance is gauged by the amygdala at the pole of the temporal lobe and if it is important the message is relayed to the autonomic nervous system (via the hypothalamus) so that you prepare to fight, flee, or mate. This in turn causes your skin to sweat, producing changes in its electrical resistance — a skin conductance response. So every time you look at your mother or even a famous face such as Einstein’s or Gandhi’s, you will get an SCR, but not if you look at an unfamiliar face, or a chair or a shoe (unless you happen to have a shoe fetish!). So the size of the SCR is a direct measure of the amount of limbic (emotional) activation produced by an image. It is a better measure, as it turns out, than simply asking someone how much emotion he feels about what he is looking at because the verbal response is filtered, edited, and sometimes censored by the conscious mind—so that your answer is a ‘contaminated’ signal. Indeed there are patients with damage to the inferotemporal cortex who cannot consciously recognize their mother, yet will still register a larger SCR to her face than to unfamiliar people (Bauer, 1984; Tranel and Damasio, 1985; 1988).
Conversely, we have shown that another type of patient has the opposite problem: he consciously recognizes her, but gets no emotional/limbic response to her and hence creates the delusion that she is some sort of impostor (Hirstein and Ramachandran, 1997). These examples suggest that measuring SCR somehow allows you to directly access those ‘unconscious’ mental processes. The responses we get to art objects may similarly be only partly available to conscious experience. You may deny you are attracted to a chap for all sorts of socio-cultural reasons but your hidden attraction to him may manifest itself as a large SCR to his photo (or sometimes, it may spill over when you dream during REM sleep)!

Our experiment, then, is quite simple. Compare a subject’s SCR to a caricature or even just an outline drawing of, say, Einstein or Nixon to his SCR to a photo of Einstein or Nixon. Intuitively, one would expect the photo to produce a large SCR because it is rich in cues and therefore excites more modules. One might find, paradoxically, that the drawing actually elicits a larger SCR, and if so, this would provide evidence for our ideas on the peak shift effect — the artist has unconsciously produced a super stimulus. As a control, one would show photos which have been morphed to look strange to ensure that it was not merely the strangeness of the caricature which was producing the larger SCR. Similarly, one could also compare the magnitude of an SCR to caricatures of women (or indeed, to a Chola bronze nude or a Picasso nude) with the SCR to a photo of a nude woman. It is conceivable that the subject might claim to find the photo more attractive at a conscious level, while registering a large ‘unconscious aesthetic response’—in the form of a larger SCR—to the artistic representation. That art taps into the ‘subconscious’ is not a new idea, but our SCR measurements may be the first attempt to test such a notion experimentally. Another ‘experiment’ on art could take advantage of the fact that many cells in the inferotemporal cortex of monkeys respond selectively to monkey (and human!) faces — sometimes selectively just to a single face (Tovee et al., 1996). Again, one could try confronting the cell with a drawing or caricature of the particular monkey (or human) face it was responding to. Would the cell respond even more vigorously to a ‘superstimulus’ of this kind?


In summary, we have identified a small subset of principles underlying all the diverse manifestations of human artistic experience. There are undoubtedly many others (cf. the principle of visual repetition or ‘rhythm’), but these eight principles are a good place to start. We shall call them ‘the eight laws of artistic experience,’ based on a loose analogy with the Buddha’s ‘eight-fold path’ to wisdom and enlightenment. One, the peak shift principle; not only along the form dimension, but also along more abstract dimensions, such as feminine/masculine posture, colour (e.g. skin tones) etc. Furthermore, just as the gull chick responds especially well to a super beak that doesn’t resemble a real beak, there may be classes of stimuli that optimally excite neurons that encode form primitives in the brain, even though it may not be immediately obvious to us what these primitives are. Two, isolating a single cue helps the organism allocate attention to the output of a single module thereby allowing it to more effectively ‘enjoy’ the peak shift along the dimensions represented in that module. Three, perceptual grouping to delineate figure and ground may be enjoyable in its own right, since it allows the organism to discover objects in noisy environments. Principles such as figure–ground delineation, closure and grouping by similarity may lead to a direct aesthetic response because the modules may send their output to the limbic system even before the relevant objects has been completely identified. Four, just as grouping or binding is directly reinforcing (even before the complete object is recognized), the extraction of contrast is also reinforcing, since regions of contrast are usually information-rich regions that deserve allocation of attention. Camouflage, in nature, relies partly on this principle. Five, perceptual ‘problem solving’ is also reinforcing. Hence a puzzle picture (or one in which meaning is implied rather than explicit) may paradoxically be more alluring than one in which the message is obvious.

There appears to be an element of ‘peekaboo’ in some types of art — thereby ensuring that the visual system ‘struggles’ for a solution and does not give up too easily. For the same reason, a model whose hips and breasts are about to be revealed is more provocative than one who is completely naked. (E.g., in Plate 6 the necklace just barely covers the nipples and the dress is almost sliding off the hips.) Six, an abhorrence of unique vantage points. Seven, perhaps most enigmatic is the use of visual ‘puns’ or metaphors in art. Such visual metaphors are probably effective because discovering hidden similarities between superficially dissimilar entities is an essential part of all visual pattern recognition and it would thus make sense that each time such a link is made, a signal is sent to the limbic system. Eight, symmetry — whose relevance to detecting prey, predator or healthy mates is obvious. (Indeed, evolutionary biologists have recently argued that detecting violations of symmetry may help animals detect unhealthy animals that have parasites.) One potential objection might be that originality is the essence of art and our laws do not capture this. But the flaw in this objection becomes apparent when you consider the analogy with language. After all the ‘deep structure’ of language discovered by Chomsky has enormously enriched our understanding of language even if it doesn’t explain Shakespeare, Valmiki, Omar Khayyam or Henry James. Likewise, our eight laws may help provide a framework for understanding aspects of visual art, aesthetics and design, even if they don’t necessarily explain the evocativeness or originality of individual works of art.

In conclusion, we suggest that a great deal of what we call art is based on these eight principles. We recognize, of course, that much of art is idiosyncratic, ineffable and defies analysis but would argue that whatever component of art is lawful—however small — emerges either from exploiting these principles or from a playful and deliberate violation of them. We cannot resist concluding with a joke: A young man brings his fiancée home to introduce her to his father. His father is astonished to note that she has a clubfoot, a squint, a cleft palate and is hunchbacked, and can hardly conceal his dismay. Noticing his father’s reaction, his son calmly tells him, ‘Well Dad, what can I say? You either like a Picasso or you don’t.’
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does getting a tattoo constitute an ideology?
It would not, perhaps, if an individual modified his or her body in total isolation from society. However, when people modify their bodies by tattooing, piercing, or scarring, they do so with the knowledge of—or in the indirect presence of—a large and rather loose network of people who are also modified, as well as, within the larger context of a non-modified—at least self-consciously so dominant culture. When such a network, however loose, exists, it is a social phenomenon that merits notice
This presentation will look at how this phenomenon has been addressed by individuals within the modded (i.e., modified) community. The explanations and justifications cited by members of this community to define, explain, defend, or laud their practices can be considered ideologies. An ideology is a worldview, a component of an individual or a group identity, a way of defining in-group and out-group, and a way of dealing with crises that confront matters of identity. Yet, an ideology also has the following components: it is articulated, conflictual, subjective, and public. In what follows, my intention is to explore how people with post-modified bodies1 strategically use their modifications in discourse; and to investigate how modification ideologies function. My intention is not to define a single and coherent ideology that can be applied to every modified person in the world, rather I will explore how some individuals within the on and off line community of (or the Body Modification ezine) use their modded identification in times of crisis. I say on and off line because although much of this community is virtual there is a good amount of these people that hang out together offline.
Much of this is evidenced on BME members’ IAM or personal membership pages and also in the proliferation of many local BME inspired events that range from ritual flesh-hook suspensions to bbqs and parties. It is also worth noting that the subjects of this presentation are either from the U.S. or Canada. I chose the examples used in this paper because they use themes that are common in the BME community and because I think they offer up interesting points of entry in considering the larger body-art modification community. For a thorough discussion of the post-modified body see Matthew C. Lodder’s web page to download a copy of his master’s thesis “The Post-Modified Body: Invasive Corporeal Transformation and its Effects on Subjective Identity. In addition to the coining of the helpful phrase “post- modified body,” Lodder diligently and insightfully explores modification on its own terms as a personal choice, rather than as an indication of social malaise or personal pathology. This allows for an interesting analysis of the self, identity, and the body.

What is Ideology?

Ideology has several definitions and uses. This presentation relies heavily on sociologist Ann Swidler’s definition of ideology in her book Talk of Love: How Culture Matters, which explores how people use different cultural scripts or metaphors for their love relationships and how such usage alters in times of crisis. Swidler views ideology as a specific modality of culture in relation to empowerment (95). So before defining ideology, it will be necessary to briefly describe what she means by culture. Culture, for Swidler, is made up of the following: “[t]rained capacities to think and feel”; it helps to “internalize skills, styles, and habits”; it is used “to delineate group boundaries”; and “offers ideas and images that constitute a view of the world” (73-75). Most importantly is how culture works. The model she proposes is the “‘identity’ model. The fundamental notion is that people develop lines of action2 based on who they already 2 A line or strategy of action is best understood by reference to Swidler’s notion of culture as a repertoire or toolbox. In other words, it’s the culture one has internalized and uses in approaching everyday situations think they are” (87). This is of utmost importance in a discussion of body modification as an ideology. Especially, if we consider what has been said of postmodern identity as plastic and reflexive, no longer is identity ascribed, it is achieved or chosen. This makes for a more self-conscious sense of identity. The collective culture of body modification is loose and difficult to pin down, at times. Rather than offering up some systematic worldview, the general subculture revolves around identification. Since a self-identified and coherent culture of an explicitly named and self-referential “modified culture” is emerging (somewhere between parallel and collective behavior, see Bainbridge, p. 368-369), but not necessarily formalized and organized politically—in comparison to black, queer, or feminist culture, for example—the most obvious cultural marker is the modified body. Although, it can be argued that sub-groups within the larger modified body phenomena are clearly defined and self-aware: e.g., modern primitives. This lack of formalization—or status as an organized social movement—makes their subcultural identity of central importance, especially when that identity is put into question, or is used explicitly to pathologize one’s cultural or personal experience. Broadly speaking, Swidler likens ideology to a worldview. More specifically, she uses it in contrast to the terms of common sense and tradition. “An ideology is an articulated, self-conscious belief and ritual system, aspiring to offer a unified answer to problems of social action” (96). However, we must not be misled by the term system. It should not be understood so much as a logically consistent model—even Swidler admits Such as internalizing the concept of time, without such a cultural notion, how would one be able to navigate the corporate, 9-5 culture?; Lines of action are “ways actors routinely go about attaining their goals. … Culture affects action by shaping that repertoire of routine, natural styles, skills, and habits that together organize and sustain a strategy [i.e., line] of action” (82).

Instead, we might consider it to be a set or collection of cultural signs that become a “unified answer” when engaged. Ideologies (especially, subcultural ones) are less coherent in themselves than made coherent as a result of being engaged around specific identity issues or power struggles. In her essay “Culture in Action” Swidler notes of ideologies that “rather than providing the underlying assumptions of an entire way of life, they make explicit demands in a contested cultural arena” (279). Underlying assumptions are left primarily to common sense and tradition. Common sense is “unselfconscious as to seem a natural … part … of the world;” and tradition presents itself as “fixed” and an “expected [part] of life” that “establish[es] expected forms of conduct, even when people consciously feel quite disaffected from those traditions” (96). For Swidler, then, ideology is not only an articulated system of signs, but also a self-awareness that coheres around a specific social problem. Her definition also implies an oppositional nature because it is contrasted with common sense, which Swidler derives from hegemony or the “dominant conception of the world” (94-95). However, she does little to infuse an explicit notion of conflict within her definition of ideology. Conflict will be important to our discussion, however, because it fosters a sense of crisis, which is needed to in order to help create the social space necessary to engage ideology. In An Introduction to Ideology, Marxist and critical theorist Terry Eagleton examines the origins of the term ideology and how it has been used in various ways since its springing forth from the head of Enlightenment thinker and French revolutionary Antoine Destutt de Tracy while imprisoned during the Reign of Terror. Eagleton addresses such a lack of conflict in the sociological use of ideology. Although, he agrees with the sociological point of view that ideology “provides the ‘cement’ of a social formation … which orients its agents to action” he emphasizes that such a usage “too often [has a] depoliticizing … effect, voiding the concept of ideology of conflict and contradiction” (222). Eagleton’s insight and analysis of the many faces of ideology will be helpful here. In addition to emphasizing conflict, Eagleton notes other necessary characteristics of ideology: it is subject and action oriented, universalizing, and naturalizing. Subjective is not to be considered synonymous with private. Ideology is subjective in that it is “subject-centered” or identity-based. The utterances “are to be deciphered as expressive of a speaker’s attitudes or lived relations to the world” or the dominant culture (Eagleton, 19). This could be considered an engaged subjectivity.

This quality of engagement points to the universalizing or “making public” quality of ideology. Universalizing, Eagleton explains, is the processes of making “values and interests which are … specific to a certain place and time” and projecting these onto “the values and interests of all humanity” (Eagleton, 56). I would like to nuance this term a bit, especially the “all humanity” part. First and foremost it is the tendency to engage the public. The immediate public, at times, may also be the lived world or universe, so that it could be considered “all humanity” as far as the subject is concerned. Secondly, the scope of the engagement will necessarily expand past the specific place, time, and individual because it is engaging the values and interests of the dominant society. A consequence of engaging the lived world is the tendency for proponents of an ideology to naturalize their interests. Naturalizing is an attempt “to identify [beliefs and interests] with the ‘common sense’ of a society so that nobody could imagine how they might ever be different” (Eagleton, 58). For purposes of this presentation, naturalizing has less to do with completely supplanting existing notions of what is considered natural or God given, than a re-alignment or re-framing of pre-existing notions of what is natural. The most important consequence of all these characteristics is that they are necessarily action-oriented. In Eagleton’s words ideological discourses “must be translatable … into a ‘practical’ state, capable of furnishing their adherents with goals, motivations, prescriptions, imperatives, and so on” (47). This action oriented-ness is also implied in Swidler’s reference to culture as influencing a person’s line of action by providing certain cultural tools, which incidentally shape what kind or type of action is possible. Finally, it is important to return to one of the points Swidler has made about ideology: that it is “articulated” or uttered. Swidler studies how people talk or articulate their positions on love and marriage. Beyond this talk, though, she also has a lengthy section on semiotic codes.3 Her description mostly revolves around behavior. Her study, taken as a whole, then, would tend to look at articulation as something both verbal and non-verbal (i.e., bodily or behavioral)4. Eagleton describes the discourse aspect of ideology as follows: Ideology is a matter of ‘discourse’ rather than of [mere] ‘language’ … It represents the points where power impacts upon certain utterances and inscribes itself tacitly within them. … the concept of ideology aims to disclose something of the relation between an utterance and its material conditions of possibility, when those conditions of possibility are viewed in the light of certain power-struggles central to the reproduction … of a whole form of social life” (223).
3 “A semiotic code is a self-referential system of meanings in which each element in the system takes its meaning not from its inherent properties or from some external referent, but from the meanings created by the code itself” (Swidler, 162). [e.g. normative gender: people are assigned gender based on genitalia and expected to act as either male or female and all action is understood within this framework , as well.]

4 In the book Semiotics for Beginners published both online and in print Daniel Chandler, lecturer in Dept. of Theatre, Film, and Television Studies at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, breaks semiotic social codes into the following categories: verbal, bodily, commodity, and behavioral.

Eagleton’s description of the discourse or articulation of ideology gets to the center of the conflictual aspect of ideology: power-struggle. This points to the understanding that discourses and semiotic codes are social constructs that constrain and facilitate power by defining proper and improper action. Considering these characteristics: ideology (especially an emergent subcultural one) is an identity-based and centered, self-consciously chosen use of culture that articulates an active and conflictual engagement of the dominant culture. Although, this definition is useful, it is seemingly static. In other words, it seems that ideology is somehow always “on” or always on the tip of a subject’s tongue. It is necessary, then, to return to Swidler in order to nuance the function of ideology and view it as something that is turned “on” or engaged at certain times while turned “off” or not engaged at others. Swidler talks of settled and unsettled lives (personal) and periods (social). Her point is that “we cannot look to the characteristics of the ideology alone for a full understanding of its causal significance” (103). Rather, she wants to draw our attention to the greater social context. She posits that ideologies tend to be engaged in times of crisis. I want to extend her argument to include that the reality of unsettled times and crises is grounded primarily in the perception of individuals or groups, rather than primarily in material reality (Smith, 1998; for subcultural perception of outside threat p. 152; for perceptions and beliefs being “real in their consequences” p. 173). For material reality always needs to be perceived or interpreted in order to be understood. Perception is the lived experience of material reality and cannot be thought of in terms of being unreal and thus degraded as false (Eagleton, 22). So, it is exactly with this understanding of unsettled times or unsettling experiences both perceived and material that ideologies as defined above become engaged. That ideologies are self-conscious and articulated points to the interdependence between one’s identity and ideology. It is exactly over issues of identity and the body that body modification is engaged as an ideology in the larger Western context.

Identity is a common theme in the articles on BMEzine. There are many reader editorials that discuss crises that develop when their modifications confront social norms or vice versa. In one posting, a soon-to-be-modded high school student is annoyed and perplexed by his school’s policy, which mandates that bandages be worn over all facial piercings if students wish to avoid expulsion: [E]verybody has the right to do what they wish to their body. A nose ring should not affect anybody’s rights to anything. A tattoo should not have an affect [sic] on your future. By suspending and expelling our children from school due to their modifications, we are telling them that … they must change their appearance and look more “normal” to satisfy others, and not themselves. We, the students, do have ONE weapon,. This is a new act passed by Congress regarding freedom of expression in the form of things such as clothing, piercings, etc. The second is the good old First Amendment [or freedom of speech]. There are many things that make this excerpt interesting. One is that the student is identifying with the modded community even though he is not yet modded. This quality, if isolated, speaks to the power of identity within the body modification community. Within the framework set forth in this paper, it is evident that this student responded ideologically toward this attack on modified students. The student clearly articulates, an oppositional, subjective-engagement of dominant culture and attempts to naturalize body modification with rights language. For example, he states that “[E]verybody has the right to do what they wish to their body,” as well as a direct reference to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Suddenly, this issue is not just about an individual or a group of students at a specific school, but about the rights of an entire populace organized or cohering around the issue of body modification. As an emergent ideology, body modification must still rely on the language of common sense and other traditions. The student borrows heavily from rights language and from the common-sense adage that people should be themselves. (Consider Carl Elliott’s references to scripts of authenticity yesterday.) This student’s articulation of a body modification ideology came about because the subject’s lived world (i.e., school) became hostile to his desire to become modified. This example represents how ideologies are engaged in unsettled times.

Culture Work

Another example of how a body modification ideology can emerge in unsettled times is presented in a 2002 article by Shannon Larratt, the editor and founder of BMEzine, entitled “Body Modification as a Form of Class Consciousness and Class Warfare” ( The title recalls Marx’s argument that the proletariat must become aware of itself as a class before it can move toward social change. Larratt also alludes to an unsettled period for the modified community, thus creating a social environment ripe for ideological engagement. An important aspect of this excerpt, as well, is that it represents what sociologist Richard L. Wood in his study of community organizing within churches located in Oakland, California describes as “culture work.” This consists of “building skills, generating a vision, and engaging participants’ emotional lives” (Wood, 163). Larratt begins by informing his audience of the crisis: “No one likes to admit it, but there is a war for survival going on between those who choose to lead public modified lives, and those who believe this lifestyle is wrong. … this … war is being fought, and [I] will propose plans of counterattack that strengthen our collective stance without alienating the generally neutral mainstream population.” This statement brings us back to an important aspect of ideology: “that it is an articulated, self-conscious belief … system, aspiring to offer a unified answer to problems of social action.” What Larratt goes on to suggest is highly self-conscious and offers a unified answer to a specific social problem that centers on identity and empowerment. When encountering a person who is rude and disrespectful, for instance, a modded person should “… not ignore the advice of first turning the other cheek and attempting to resolve the confrontation with [kindness] and polite manners. Don’t be surprised if by doing that you shatter that person’s misconceptions and make life more pleasant for the next modified person.” This example of culture work by Larratt exemplifies some of the earlier comments on culture: that culture trains us to think and feel; it helps us to internalize new skills, styles, habits; is used to determine group boundaries; and provides a worldview. It is exactly through an explicit shaping of culture that ideology tools people to engage in specific ways in unsettled times. Having addressed how individuals conduct themselves, Larratt moves on to encourage something more oppositional. He suggests that modifiers join together and form public campaigns: “[W]e need to be vigilant and responsible in dispelling these myths through even-handed public information campaigns of our own, along with ensuring that members of our community behave responsibly and safely when interacting with the general public, so as not to provide ammunition against ourselves.” Such a call to action hints at what Eagleton thinks is essential to ideology: that it be politicized. Public campaigns would suggest a move toward formalized political action. If such a call to action is heeded then it could easily move the modified community from a mix of parallel and collective behavior into a social movement. Perhaps, with the right political opportunity—which could come about with state and federal attempts at regulating and defining acceptable body modification practices—this loose community could become a social movement (McAdam, 697). Larratt ends his article with the imperative: “solidarity of the modified.”

Suggestive Data

Recently, I attended a tattoo convention in Nevada where I conducted 42 surveys. All of these people were modified with over 80 percent having multiple types of modifications—mostly tattoos and piercings. Although, what I am about to propose is simply suggestive and not representative of the larger modified community, the survey provided some interesting data. Almost 70 percent of the participants strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “My modifications help me to express who I really am.” When the participants were asked if their modifications represented “a deeply felt personal significance” in their lives over 75 percent strongly agreed or agreed. Within the context of this exploration of body modification as ideology, it has been noted that identity is key. This data suggests that people that are modified consider it an integral part of their identity. People use culture based on who they think they are. It is interesting to consider what could happen if modified individuals ever really did act in solidarity, or were forced to, for some political reason. Of course, this possibility was beyond the scope of my survey, however. I have taken two examples from BMEzine to illustrate what happens on an individual level. Each one of these people were confronted as a modified person and had to respond. Another interesting point to consider is whether or not just having a modified body may represent an ideological discourse in itself.

Issues surrounding modification deal with the body as an intersection of the private and the public. In this sense, the body is a battleground on which the individual struggles with social norms in an attempt at self-definition and self-empowerment. A reader editorial on BMEzine invokes martial metaphors to describe this struggle: “Getting this piercing done was supposed to be my own, private guerrilla warfare—there [are] a lot of situation[s] in every day life which force us … to do things we don’t like [so] if I’m forced to take out my earrings … it doesn’t mean that I’ll give up easily. This little tongue bar became my statement of who I am—I’m still modded and I want to be modded in spite of adversities!” In the collection of essays The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory, Arthur W. Frank writes that the body is “the intersection of … institutions, discourses, and corporeality” (49). This intersection can be thought of as a battleground. On this battleground, cultural scripts (i.e., ideological discourses used by an individual or group), institutions (e.g., social norms), and corporeality (marked with identity) collide. Within the subculture of body modification, an agent acts against societal norms, in an attempt to change and alter those norms by scraping, poking, and cutting into the dominant culture’s naturalized or “natural/normal” body. Body modification inscribes the body with a message that conflicts with dominant culture or is in opposition to it. Even though some forms of body modification may be thought of as becoming the norm, it would still be unusual to see a CEO of a major insurance or law firm, for example, with a facial tattoo. Just consider the scandal that surrounds cyclist David Clinger who was kicked off his Webcor-sponsored team for his Maori-style facial tattoo. Because modifying the body is an identity-centered, self-conscious articulation of opposition upon the surface of what Larratt terms “public skin” (which is already inscribed with notions of being “natural” or “God given”) it can be considered an ideological discourse. Modification of the body “aims to disclose something of the relation between [itself] and its material conditions of possibility, when those conditions of possibility are viewed in the light of power-struggles central to the reproduction … of a whole form of social life” (Eagleton, 223). Such power struggles are evident when dominant culture seeks to restrict modification. Such attempts consequently create unsettled times, which foster ideological engagement. In a BME editorial, Tuan5, a tattooed and pierced advocate of body modification describes his years as a “cop.” This occupation, it seems, entails a high degree of embodiment of social norms; the duty of a police officer is to enforce the norms of society. To some degree, these norms become laws—or they may operate just outside official law (e.g., police officers often look for “deviant” types). Tuan notes that in 1989, “an instructor who came in from the … gangs division … gave a two hour lecture on tattoos, [their] meaning and how you could identify the criminal element by them.” Tuan’s comments support the notion of the body as battleground and how the post. None of the names used in this section are real; pseudonyms are used in order to protect the writers’ identities.
It demonstrates that people’s bodies are controlled and monitored, even forcibly coerced to conform to what is considered “normal” or “natural.” Modifications can be seen as deviant or even criminal. Tuan’s modified body comes to speak for itself as an ideological discourse. Tattooing and piercing are flashpoints of individual assertion and instances of control over one’s body—even though, ultimately, one could be targeted as criminal by the “authorities.” Another example of resistance through modification can be seen in the story of Andrea, a woman who has sought to redefine a body that was the scene of violence and abuse. Sociologist Victoria Pitts notes this method of reclaiming the body in her extensive analysis of body modification: “women who have been victimized by violence or oppression can ‘reclaim their sexuality [and body] … by having a nipple or labia piercing; this becomes a reclaiming ritual’” (11). As a young girl Andrea was raped by her mother and her schoolteacher. These extreme acts of violence against Andrea led her to initiate such reclaiming rituals. She reestablished control, ownership, and definition over her own body, thus gaining a sense of individuality and autonomy. Andrea claims that she was able to: “stitch [her] shell back together with a few pieces of metal.” This process continues for her today. She reminds herself of the connection between her mind and body through piercing. These flashpoints upon the surface of the contested body, which have intense and life-altering implications, are driven by themes of renewal and self-discovery common in body modification discourse. Andrea posted on the BME website in response to proposed legislation sponsored by Bill Heath, a Republican representative in the Georgia State House of Representatives. Heath’s bill proposed banning all female genital modification, including piercing. According to a news report, “The bill [HB1477] would make such mutilation punishable by two to 20 years in prison. It makes no exception for … religious or cultural custom. … Even [consenting] adult women would not be allowed to get the procedure” (Fox News online: March 24, 2004). The proposal of this bill created an unsettled period in which Andrea’s own identity became threatened. It also threatened to delegitimize her body modification practice by defining it as criminal and mutilative. Although, Andrea already used body modification self-consciously, this legislative threat propelled an ideological use of the body and body modification discourse. Of interest in Andrea’s posting is her use of “rights language.” In making her argument, she states, “It seems that there are people out there who choose to undermine this natural freedom.” She is referring, of course, to the freedom to modify or control one’s own body and appearance. Her claim that modification is a “freedom” taps into a value that could be considered sacred within American culture. The use of rights language as a cultural script within body modification ideology is rampant in the reader editorials posted on BMEzine. In this way, one can detect the ideology’s borrowings from the individual-rights tradition, and, more interestingly, it shows an alignment with the civil rights movement disclosing a tendency to naturalize body modification. An interesting argument could be made here as there is a legal tension between what she says of “natural freedom”—which rings of “natural rights”—and does in the free exercise of such rights. Going back to works by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson while in the House of Representatives in Virginia, we can see the use and implication of the notion of Lockean natural rights. Such rights actually supercede any legislation and government, especially when it comes to matters of conscience (see Witte 2000, on “conscience” in First Amendment). Yet, when looked at through the lens of an exercise of such conscience, which is arguably where Andrea is speaking from, we see some precedent for Federal and State restrictions. The most recent Supreme Court ruling on free exercise of religion (see Hammond 1998, for matters of conscience as legal foundation for religion in his review of Supreme Court cases) in Oregon Employment Division v. Smith (1990) the Court upheld Oregon law over free exercise. The case dealt with peyote use by members of the Native American Church.


In conclusion, I believe this exploration of body modification clues us into the seriousness of body modification to people that are modified. By using a Swidlerian framework it becomes clear that some body modifiers use their modified identity as an ideology in unsettled times. Such explicit use of modified culture and the aspects of tradition and common sense scripts or strands that such a modified ideology borrows from provide a glimpse into what may become a more coherent and consistent body modification worldview that is progressive and in line with the human rights tradition. I have not made it my business here to explore the modified subjects’ intentions behind their modifications, rather I feel it is more important to explore how modified subjects live in an environment that is potentially hostile to them. Such an exploration of this tension discloses the very real struggle for power over definition and acceptance of alternative identities and body practices that exist in the Western world. Although, I have used sociological theory to help elucidate this self-conscious use of cultural identity, I believe that the evidence that body modifiers should be taken seriously is embedded in their very own narratives. In other words they are not merely dolls that we as academics can manipulate with our theoretical play. This is not to say that we should not point out the multiple readings their modifications inspire, but rather that we should take a “both/and” approach. We can take them seriously and uphold their dignity as well as critically consider their identities and practices within the larger social context. Such an approach is after all possible as evidenced in Victoria Pitt’s work In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. We must keep in mind that such a body modification ideology is dynamic and transformative. I want to leave you with an interesting theme that emerged in my survey. When given an open ended question about whether or not being modified has affected their worldview or beliefs, over 30 percent responded by stating that it had made them more accepting and less judgmental. This also showed up in two test runs of my survey conducted with BME members. Again, this data is not representative, but I believe it points to an area of exploration of modification that is sometimes neglected: its meaning and the real effects it has in people’s lives.
AP Newswire from Atlanta, Georgia, “Genital piercings for women were banned by the Georgia House Wednesday as lawmakers considered a bill outlining punishments for female genital mutilation,” Fox News Online, March 24, 2004
Bainbridge, W.S. The Sociology of New Religious Movements. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners
Featherstone, Mike, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner, eds. The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, “For a Sociology of the Body: an Analytical Review,” by Arthur W. Frank (1991). London: Sage Publications, 1991.
Hammond, Phillip E. With Liberty for All: Freedom of Religion in the United States. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Larratt, Shannon. “Body Modification as a Form of Class Consciousness and Class Warfare,” from
Lodder, Matthew C. “The Post-Modified Body: Invasive Corporeal Transformation and its Effects on Subjective Identity” an unpublished thesis (2003).
McAdam, Doug, et al., “Social Movements,” Handbook of Sociology. Smelser, Neil, ed. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1988.
Pitts, Victoria. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Smith, Christian, Michael Emerson, Sally Gallagher, Paul Kennedy, and David Sikkink. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 1998.
Swidler, Ann. Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Swidler, Ann. “Culture in Action: symbols and Strategies,” in American Sociological Review, 51. 1986
Witte, Jr., John. “Forging the First Amendment Religion Clauses” in Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Essential Rights and Liberties. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. (p. 57-86).
West, Cornell. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism.” Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982.
Wood, Richard L. Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
*All anonymous “readers editorials” or postings used in this essay were from BMEZINE




a personal exploration of script work
By Ina Saltz, author of “Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh” | MY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE WORLD OF TATTOOS began in the most unlikely of ways. I was traveling cross-town on the M86 bus when I spotted an interesting-looking young man with a large text-only tattoo on his right forearm; it spelled out “happy” in a typeface which I instantly recognized as Helvetica. The fact that it was in lower-case letters and so tightly kerned that the letters were touching was especially intriguing to me as a designer and a typophile. I had never seen a tattoo quite like this one—sans serif! Not being in the habit of talking to strangers in New York City, I debated mightily before approaching him…but my curiosity finally got the better of me. “Are you a graphic designer?” I asked. Why, yes, he was. “And would you mind if I took a photo of your tattoo to show my students? I teach typography at City College.” No problem. I whipped out my digital camera and managed to get one shot and to grab his proffered business card before I jumped off at my stop. That evening I uploaded the photo and went to the Web site on his business card to send him the image with a proper thank you message. Imagine my astonishment to find our entire conversation recounted on his blog! As often happens when encountering something new, having seen one typographic tattoo, I now started to see them everywhere (it was August and a lot of skin was visible). Always searching for interesting topics for my column in STEP Inside Design (a professional magazine for graphic designers), I seized upon the notion of documenting this new style of tattoo: unadorned words rather than images. Fortuitously, not far away, a huge tattoo convention was happening that very weekend. I called my editor, who arranged for a press pass.
The circus-like atmosphere of the tattoo convention was an eye-opening experience for me…a hundred or so people being simultaneously tattooed; electric needles buzzing, almost drowned out by blaring rock music; tattoo competitions on the big stage; and a very eclectic crowd. I had no trouble finding examples of typographic tattoos for my article; in fact, I started to realize that this typographic tattoo thing was pretty widespread. Even after my article on typographic tattoos was published in the January 2004 issue of STEP Inside Design, I continued to see these tattoos everywhere: I seemed to have developed a “third eye” for these marks and an instinct for who might have one. If I saw any evidence of a tattoo, or I thought someone just might have one, I no longer hesitated to approach them: in fact, I became quite brazen! Almost all were eager to show me their tattoos, and lost no time in exposing various body parts to give me a close-up look (however inappropriate that might have been at the moment). Wherever I went (to a party, to the beach, to an opening or some other professional event) I discovered a typographic tattoo or someone who knew someone who had one. At the same time, there appeared to be a hyperactive public and media awareness of the tattoo world: two nationwide reality television series about tattoos debuted almost simultaneously; new upscale tattoo Web sites proliferated; and a glossy and luxe tattoo magazine, Inked, packed with high end advertising, launched its premiere issue. The timing seemed right for my very specialized look at typographic tattoos.
As I began to attend other tattoo conventions and follow the tattoo subculture, I noticed certain patterns. Most of the people I photographed were young, had gotten their tattoos recently, were educated in or already practicing in the creative arts, and were quite well-informed about their choice of typestyle. This was a newly defined stratum of the tattooed. These affluent, culturally aware, sophisticated, and highly educated young people were choosing to adorn themselves with tattoos consisting of typographic messages rather than imagery. Increasingly, the typography of the tattoo became the image itself. The words serve as a literal text as well as figurative art, revealing intimate beliefs, life’s challenges, and value systems.

The texts of the tattoos were not at all what I expected; there were literary passages, poetry—even Shakespeare and Dante. Words have power. Words are precise and specific. That is one reason why so many of the newly tattooed have chosen to express their most deeply felt beliefs in the form of text. Words of devotion, words of defiance, words of pain, words of love…all are expressions of inner emotions made visible (and readable) on skin. Whether borrowed from literature, poetry, song lyrics, prayers, motivational phrases, names of loved ones, or popular culture, words in all their glorious forms serve as inspiration for tattoos created out of letterforms. Adding fuel to this trend is the fact that many younger tattoo artists are often design school grads with a broad knowledge of typographic choices. They have studied letterforms, and have been trained in the nuances of letter design. Both the tattooed and those tattooing them are responding to our visually driven culture. Patrons of tattoo parlors, sensitized to the differences amongst various typefaces by the availability of many fonts on their computers as well as by our highly graphic and typographic ubiquitous daily media experiences, often design their own messages. They understand the implications of their choice of lettering style—the forms of the letters themselves have the power to amplify the meaning of the text. The typographic tattoo trend described is also being driven in part by the new elite: celebrities in the world of sports, film, modeling, and music who have gotten “message” tattoos and made them even more socially acceptable. These boldface names include Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, David Beckham, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, Diddy, Jon Bon Jovi, Nelly, Charlie Sheen, Tommy Lee, Melanie Griffith, Pink, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Sean Penn, Dennis Rodman, and almost every player in the NBA. It became clear that the people who were getting these typographic tattoos were quite different from those who were traditionally associated with tattooing. I was surprised to find that no one had yet documented this trend. Having a lifelong passion for and involvement in the design and use of letterforms, I thought that a lengthy exploration of this phenomenon would be a worthy undertaking. Perhaps a bit of background would now be in order.
I WAS A VERY EARLY AND AVID READER. I remember being fascinated by the letter forms themselves as far back as second grade, where I often daydreamed while gazing above my teacher’s head at the lowercase and uppercase letters of the alphabet displayed atop the blackboard: aA bB cC, etc. I loved making up stories about each of these letters, which seemed to have distinct personalities and lives. For example, the capital B was a buxom lady carrying a bag of groceries. The capital letter I was a soldier, standing at attention. At age ten or eleven, somehow I acquired a broad-edged dip pen and some ink, and I loved to doodle with it, making shapes that had thick and thin strokes by holding the broad edge of the pen at different angles. I didn’t know until my first year of art school, at age sixteen, that the broad-edged pen was the classic tool used to create letterforms. Calligraphy (from the Greek, kalli graphos, or “beautiful writing”) was a required course at Cooper Union, where I was finally properly instructed in the techniques of letter-making…it was an art form that I hadn’t known existed, and it quickly became my favorite form of artistic expression. I loved letterforms as an artist because they were beautiful images in their own right. I loved letterforms as a reader because they made words and sentences, they conveyed meaning and they were the instruments which “embodied thought”…what could be better? Our letters had a grand and glorious history; without them, how could civilization progress? My calligraphy teacher, Don Kunz, only allowed us to write “important” texts, as our calligraphic efforts were worthy of nothing less. He taught us that by studying the interconnected shapes of the letterforms we could learn universal principles of art, principles that applied to every artistic field: balance, harmony, rhythm.
So it is not surprising that I gravitated toward a career which allowed me to express my talents using letterforms (or typography) as a major creative tool: editorial design. For over twenty years, I worked in some pretty intellectually heady environments, as a “visual journalist,” that is, as a magazine design director, whose job it was to amplify and clarify the meaning of the written word for the reader, using type and image. Also, while still in my twenties, I was elected President of the Society of Scribes, a calligraphic organization whose members nationwide numbered more than two thousand at one point. From 1976 until 1996, I taught calligraphy to adults in Cooper Union’s Extended Studies evening program, and I continued to practice calligraphy, doing many personal and professional projects.
FAST FORWARD to August, 2003, the time of my encounter on the cross-town bus. By now, I had become a full-time professor of design, a design writer, and a frequent speaker at design and publishing conferences. My interest in that Helvetica tattoo was purely academic at that point, but I could not have foreseen how this tattoo would alter the course of my life.
What began as a simple act snowballed into a book, the first to exclusively document the phenomenon of typographic tattoos. Although I had initially planned to write about the history and appropriateness of the letterforms used to convey a particular message, (which is why I chose to include only Latin letterforms) I found myself drawn to the stories behind the tattoos, the individual and unique motivations for making such a permanent commitment. Ultimately these stories dictated the structure of the book, divided by the themes of the tattoos: love and self-love, religion and politics, homage, celebration or exorcism, memorialization, exhortation, and remembrance. I decided the stories behind the tattoos needed to be told in order to understand why people chose to put themselves through the pain and suffering that even the simplest tattoos require.
Interviewing my subjects, I discovered that their reasons for getting tattooed ranged from whimsical and impulsive to profound and deeply considered. Some tattoos were motivated by personal tragedy; others by joy. Whether tattoos were obtained to excise personal demons or to mark a rite of passage, these personal revelations fascinated me, and so the book became a different journey from the one I had expected. These narratives aroused my sympathy and compassion, subsuming my original intention simply to analyze typographic forms. Certainly, the process of producing “Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh,” (Abrams Image, 2006), transformed my sensibilities, dispelled many of my stereotypical notions, altered the ways in which I interacted with others, and sparked insights about the human condition.
I brought these stories and body art to light so that readers might consider their own beliefs and power to transform their bodies, souls, and perhaps even the world around them. Interestingly, a number of my subjects, who often were the first in their families to get a tattoo, thanked me for legitimizing their choice of expression through my work, for making it more acceptable within their familial or societal circle. Tattoos may be more mainstream than ever before, but in some segments of society they still carry a stigma. I often find myself proselytizing (for lack of a better word), trying to convince people that, indeed, tattoos can be, and, increasingly, are, intellectual, literary and “highbrow.”
“Body Type” is currently in its third printing and has turned out to be a cult hit, especially amongst designers and type aficionados worldwide, and keeps popping up in many design blogs. I regularly receive fan mail and photos sent to me from all corners of the globe (the latest is from Tasmania). I hear about “Body Type” sightings in far-flung international bookstores as well as all the major chains and specialty bookstores, and Urban Outfitters chose to feature it in their 100 stores nationwide. Since “Body Type” was published, I have been interviewed on Access Hollywood, Fox News and CBS News, among others. “Body Type” has been recognized by the New York Public Library and the American Library Association, which both recommend it for young adult readers. I have had two shows of my photography from “Body Type,” accompanied by a great deal of newspaper and magazine publicity. I have judged tattoo competitions, and Inked magazine has published a six page story on my continuing work on “Body Type,” Volume Two. So I have become inextricably linked to the tattoo world, and I am continuing to collect typographic tattoos for the second volume of “Body Type,” which will be published in 2009. It is amazing how many wonderful typographic tattoos continue to find their way to me!
TRADITIONAL TATTOO LETTERING is generally one of the following: a variation of simple capitals, using a single or mono-line; a script-based style; or a “gothic” (blackletter) form. A popular twentieth century lettering style, military in its origins and usually attributed to tattoo artist Norm Collins, is Sailor Jerry lettering, consisting of an outline with filled-in double-stroke verticals. Hand-lettered and customized versions of lettering styles often reveal the personality of the tattoo artist, just as a person’s handwriting expresses his individuality. These forms may be embellished with elaborate flourishes, a common companion in the tradition of calligraphy and the lettering arts.
But the newer forms of tattoo lettering are based on typefaces widely available on computers and online. These fonts have very specific shapes, and, though they were not designed to be used for tattoos, many adapt well, as long as the artist is skilled enough to reproduce the design details faithfully.
A lettered tattoo is no easy task for the tattoo artist, though it may appear simpler than an elaborate pictorial tattoo. In fact, many artists do not take the trouble to document their typographic work, believing that lettering requires less “talent” on their part . . . however, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as type design is a profession which requires tremendous skill and training, with an eye for harmony and subtlety, the rigors of tattooing letter forms quickly exposes the artist’s level of expertise, since there is little room for error.

Some typographic forms are especially difficult to execute well: the narrow, compressed, sans serif forms of the frequently tattooed Harley-Davidson logo, for example. The spaces inside the letters (counter spaces) as well as the spaces between the letters (kerning) cannot be allowed to fill in with an errant slip of the needle. Small forms with serifed details (serifs are the parts of the forms that extend beyond the end of the stroke) are also a challenge, as the serifs and stroke weights must be precise and consistent in order to appear cohesive. The smaller the letterforms, the more difficult it is for the artist to stay true to the design. Longer texts are also more difficult, since they require the ability to sustain a consistent typographic tonal weight or color throughout the passage. It is critical to take into account the shape of the body part as well as the shape it will create as it moves; a well-designed tattoo will follow these natural shapes. This can be difficult in the case of longer passages that need a consistent baseline (the line where the type “sits”); type is generally read along a straight line, but the body has no true straight lines.
In the case of text tattoos that wrap around a body part, such as an upper arm or an ankle, careful planning is necessary to ensure that the quote fits around the circumference perfectly, while maintaining consistent height, stroke width and weight, letter-spacing, and word spacing. There are other reasons why text-based tattoos, or, as I have documented and named these tattoos, “body type,” have become so ubiquitous. One is the overall mainstreaming of tattooing, which has made tattoos more acceptable in all societal strata, especially amongst young people (a recent Harris poll finds that thirty-six percent of all eighteen to twenty-nine year olds have at least one tattoo). Those getting tattoos are statistically more highly educated, making their choice of body type more likely. They also tend to be more culturally sophisticated, and to have professional occupations.
For my book, “Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh,” I interviewed and documented over three hundred people with typographic tattoos; almost every single person had a college degree (or was in the process of getting one), and many of my subjects had advanced degrees. I continue to see this pattern as I continue my research on volume two (I have interviewed and documented over two hundred additional subjects with typographic tattoos as of this writing). Another factor driving the popularity of text tattoos is that in our increasingly celebrity-driven culture, all young people are strongly influenced by their role models: sports stars, actors, models, “celebutantes,” and rock stars, many of whom have multiple tattoos. Text tattoos are extremely popular with all of these groups (the most common text tattoo is the name of a loved one, or of oneself). It is well known that Angelina Jolie, for example, has eleven substantial tattoos, most of which are comprised of text (in several languages). Even Lindsay Lohan has four tattoos, two of which are text tattoos.
Many find the specificity of word tattoos appealing because of the importance of precise interpretation. Body type is not symbolic, pictographic or iconic: it is exactly what it says. If you want to tell the world about your devotion to Sting, what better way than to inscribe his lyrics permanently on your most valuable possession: yourself? While that is only one example, the motivation for typographic tattoos represents the full panoply of human emotion and desire. From the mundane to the spiritual, from love to hate, from celebration to catharsis, these word tattoos serve to inform and proclaim the wearer’s intentions.
I was drawn to study text tattoos through my love of typography as an art form. As I questioned those who had chosen to express their tattoos through words, some were, like myself, aficionados and students of the art of the letterform, educated in the graphic arts. Yet I was amazed to find so many others with no creative training who knew the names of typefaces (most often because of the availability of fonts on their computers) and who had given considerable thought to the design implications of their typographic choices. They understood that the effect of their tattooed message could be amplified and enhanced by their typeface decisions. These stories continue to fascinate me; they are an intriguing glimpse into the psyche of individuals who have chosen to “wear their hearts on their sleeves,” literally as well as figuratively. Though I myself have no tattoos (for many reasons, including a phobic fear of needles), I expect to be documenting tattoos for many years to come. Stay tuned for “Body Type Two: More Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh,” which will be published in 2009.



societal changes and acceptability of tattooing
Many a dangerous temptation comes to us in gay, fine colours that are but skin deep’ Matthew Henry (1662-1714)

The Unrecognized Art: An Introduction |Tattooing has existed in the world for many centuries and has spread to all the corners of the earth from ancient Egypt to New Zealand, from North America to Siberia, from Greenland to the Pacific Islands, from Alaska to Japan and many countries in between, Skin Deep (April 1999:3). More recently there has been a dramatic increase in the number of men and women getting tattoos. In particular there are now far more women getting tattooed nowadays than ever before. I believe this change in society is significant in itself and one for further investigation. Interestingly, there has been little or no sociological research into the subject of tattooing. This dissertation aims to provide an introduction and insight into what for some would seem the ‘exotic’ world of tattooing, and hopefully encourage further investigation into this subject.
Initially I endeavour to illustrate that there is a connection between identity, appearance, fashion and tattoos. Fashion acts as a means by which people can communicate an individual or group identity. Appearance can be altered through various different means today and having tattoos can actually alter an individuals social interaction as well as altering appearance and portraying identity. Gender is a constant theme of this dissertation. I believe it is very interesting to note that many people in contemporary society are taking an interest in tattooing, and the amount of women with tattoos is particularly significant. I shall be asking why more and more women are getting tattooed at present. In addition to the most important and common question of all regarding tattooing, that is, why a person decides to get a tattoo, I shall be asking why. I will be examining if there are different reasons between the sexes for getting tattooed. I will also be discussing tattoo design and placement and if there are any differences in design choice or placement of the tattoo between men and women. I will also investigate whether the masculinity or femininity of the bearer is affected by having a tattoo. Lastly, I shall discuss social class and any effect class may have on who gets a tattoo and who does not.

In order to examine these questions I have reviewed literature on stigma, appearance through fashion and gender, appearance announcing identity and identity as a member of a subculture. I then discuss the methodology including selection of the sample, issues of access, interviewing, aspects of questionnaire structure, ethical issues and methods and coding of the analysis. Hopefully, this dissertation will serve to clarify any misconceptions the reader may have about tattooing. Who knows, maybe after reading this dissertation you may feel the urge to get tattooed!

Chapter One – The Body As Canvas: Tattoos Inscribing Identity

In all societies from tribal to western cultures the body is dressed whether it be with clothes, jewellery or paint. Dress and adornment play symbolic, communicative and aesthetic roles in the presentation of the self. According to Wilson (1985:3) dress is ‘unspeakably meaningful’. The earliest forms of clothing or means of covering the body were adornments such as body painting, jewellery, scarifications, tattoos, masks and constricting of the neck and waist. Many of these practices served to deform, reform and modify or sculpt the body in a desired way. It was not just women who practiced these modifications but men and children too. There appears to be a widespread human desire to stretch the limitations of the body in aid of appearance.
Wilson believes dress in general serves to fulfil a number of aesthetic, social and psychological functions, tying them together and expressing them all simultaneously. This is true just as much in relation to modern dress and fashion as it was of ancient dress and particularly relevant when discussing tattooing for the purpose of this dissertation. Fashion is considered to be essential to the world of modernity and mass communication. Wilson (1985:12) visualises fashion biologically as a kind of connective tissue of our cultural organism. It is in this way that fashion acts as an outlet for the expression of individual or group identities. However, a paradox exists between expressing one’s own individual ‘unique’ identity by way of dress (in copying a particular style), thus following others. How can one project the image of a unique identity, for example, by purchasing a pair of the newest mass produced Nike training shoes?
Appearance matters greatly to most people and as a result there exists many tools available to shape, modify and perfect it. Altering appearance can be achieved by the use of cosmetics, clothing, exercise, body piercing, scarification, tattooing or even surgery. In our everyday encounters we are subconsciously visually scanning people we come into contact with in order to make sense of possible interactions that could arise at any given moment. So our perceptions of others and in fact ourselves is central to our understanding of part of the social world that is human symbolic interaction. Uniforms serve as an adequate example of identities that are announced and displayed visually for all to see. Stone (1962:93) provides an example of a policeman’s uniform as unmistakably announcing his identity and shaping people’s interaction accordingly. Tattoos operate in similar ways to uniforms, they display an individuals membership to a particular group in society that have tattoos, however within this group there is wide differentiation. Having tattoos can sometimes ostracise the individual from other members of society who see the people with tattoos as deviant, however they can also open up a new world of people with a common interest, a select group. Clothing and adornment are significant according to Steele (1985:45) because of their intimate connection with the self. Clothing projects a particular image of the physical body, the individual’s self-awareness and his or her social being. Steele states that recent anthropological studies suggest that clothing and adornment function to improve on nature, make the body more beautiful and in some way more human. Tattoos share an even greater intimate connection with the self, as they are very personal and unique between individuals. Tattoos are an expression of an individual’s personal and inner identity that is displayed on the skin and becomes part of who the person is or would like to be. Just like clothing, tattoos for some individuals serve to beautify the body and improve on nature’s mass production of the plain human body.
Tattoos can be aesthetically orientated just as clothes can but can also communicate and express national identity or patriotism. Wilson (1985:179) believes that in earlier times dress could signal direct nationalist or political rebellion. In the sixteenth century, for example, the English prohibited the Irish from wearing their traditional dress. In the eighteenth century after the battle of Culloden and the pacification of the Scottish Highlands the Highlanders were forbidden to wear the kilt and the plaid. In this way becoming tattooed with nationalist emblems such as the thistle, lion rampant, shamrock, British bulldog etc. is a way of expressing belonging to a specific culture or people that can never be taken away. Being stripped of what may be seen as oppositional dress in some instances will not suffice as the tattoo acts almost like a birth mark and cannot be removed without surgical treatment. In the nineteenth century fashion became one of the many elaborate forms of classification in industrial culture. It was no longer adequate to be recognised as a member of a particular class. Individuals began to immerse themselves in a process of self-announcement as dress became a means by which individual personalities could be displayed. Initially dress symbolised masculine or feminine and then a variety of secondary information was presented depending on the interests of the wearer. Tattoos share a similarity with this concept of fashion displaying gender and announcing identity. However, where fashionable clothes can be removed or changed when one wishes to move with the times, tattoos cannot. Tattoos announce an identity that will remain constant and be displayed until the individual dies or has the tattoo(s) removed. It is this important factor about the endurance of tattoos that makes most people think extensively before choosing to be tattooed or not.
Grumet (1983:488) notes that a major reason for the unhappiness that many individuals experience is simply that tattoos reflect bygone identity struggles which may no longer be relevant. One’s quest for self-definition at eighteen years old is likely to be completely different at forty years old. Tattoos also tell a story of past or present identity, a journey of sentimentality and memories. Increasingly more women are being tattooed nowadays much to the disgust of some people. This could quite possibly be because visually violating male/female gender categories can be seen as threatening to a potential observer. The observer’s sense of personal identity and social hierarchy can be challenged; thus creating a response that can be abusive in nature (Chapkis 1986:129). In the case of women who have tattoos it has been reported that tattoo placement is of the utmost importance. Having tattoos in certain places on the body can attract unwanted attention and in some instances verbal abuse. Sanders (1988:414) interviewed one woman who was tattooed on her right bicep. The woman expressed her regret when she was wearing a sleeveless dress and the tattoo was visible. She felt she was no longer as feminine as she was prior to getting the tattoo and subsequently some people thought of her as deviant and ‘loose’. According to Sanders (1988:415) men are less inclined than women to define the tattoo primarily as a decorative and intimate addition to the body. The male tattoo is more of an identity symbol, a public announcement of interests, associations and a display of freedom from normative constraints of everyday society. Sanders advocates that the tattoo most importantly of all represents masculinity.
This claim however remains to be substantiated. Chapkis (1986:129) believes that feminism has been built on a confrontation between sex appropriate behaviour and gendered appearance. Women who experienced their imposed gender role as ill fitting began to challenge the role rather than blaming their anatomy. In this way it is perfectly understandable that women should be tattooed if they so wish. However, it is one thing to walk into a tattoo studio and be tattooed in what may only be an hour or two and another to completely alter societies preconceptions or misconceptions about tattooed women. One would think that society’s present thoughts and ideas about tattooed women should be more relaxed due to the increased number of women being tattooed. I shall be investigating if this is true or not, however it is important to note that tattooed individuals are still regarded as a minority although vastly increasing in numbers. No research has been conducted regarding numbers of tattooed women over a period of years so it is impossible to establish accurate numeric comparisons. However, the tattooing of women remains a significant subject to investigate.
Schur (1984:68) states that sociological and feminist critiques of ‘the cult of female beauty’ have particularly emphasised the fact that physical appearance is much more central to evaluations of women than it is to evaluations of men. The beauty norms used to evaluate women and determine how attractive/unattractive they are remain excessively narrow and unrealistic which can lead to women feeling deficient with regard to their appearance. This pressure by society and indeed the media through television and magazines could quite possibly lead to some women rejecting pressure to look or dress a certain way and incline them towards being tattooed. The idea of being judged by one’s physical appearance may seem to be an example of injustice in its basic form, however, the use of appearance as an indication of character is widely practised as I have previously mentioned. A vast amount of research produced in the past twenty years supporting the widely held belief that appearance counts. According to Sanders (1988:395) a person’s physical appearance affects his or her self-definition, identity and interaction with others. Goffman (1959:24) believes that people use appearance to categorise each other, thus aiding in the anticipating and interpretation of behaviour and helping to co-ordinate social activities.
Sanders suggests that how closely one meets society’s criteria for beauty regarding physical appearance is very important. Being defined as physically attractive has an enormous impact on our social relationships. Jones (1984) Cited by Sanders (1988:395) found that attractive people are thought of more frequently, defined as being more healthy, given greater appreciation for their work and are found to be more appealing to interact with. It has also been found that attractive people are more inclined to establish relationships and enjoy more pleasant sexual interactions than those who are not as physically appealing. Their chances of economic success are greater and they are generally perceived as being of high moral character. In addition to this attractive people have more positive self-definitions due to the frequency of their pleasant interactions. They express greater feelings of overall happiness and possess higher levels of self-esteem according to Berscheid (1973) et al cited by Sanders (1988:396).
A great number of studies carried out over the years have repeatedly confirmed a body halo effect, that is the more attractive a person is perceived to be, the more likely he or she will be attributed with other positive characteristics such as wisdom, intelligence, generosity etc. Finkelstein (1991:49) advocates that being influenced by the physical features of an individual is a basic fact of sociation. Finkelstein also believes that physically distinctive individuals will be socially differentiated perhaps to the point of exploitation and can be regarded with intolerance. Reading character from physical appearance is still common in today’s society even though our understanding has developed enormously. Physical abnormalities and deviations can occur naturally aswell as being self inflicted and are not believed to be visitations of the devil or signs of impending disaster anymore. However, there still exist some stereotyped images about people who have tattoos. This dissertation focuses on tattooing as a form of permanent body alteration and adornment in contemporary society. Choosing to adorn one’s body in this way changes the individual’s experience of his or her physical self and can alter social interaction (depending on if the tattoo is visible or not). Goffman (1963:65) states that perceptibility of a particular stigma, in this instance tattoos, has an important bearing for individuals in everyday social interaction. In relation to tattoos the level of which the tattoo is visible in everyday encounters will quite possibly shape the way in which people react to the individual. Due to the historical nature of tattooing in the West the tattoo is mainly defined as an indication of the bearer’s alienation from mainstream norms and social networks (Grumet 1983:485).
Sanders (1988:397) suggests it is voluntary stigma that symbolically isolates the bearer from mainstream society. Since this deviant labelling is self inflicted it is thought especially discrediting to engage in this practice. The world of the tattooed and self-stigmatised individual appears to exist as a vast and ever growing subculture in society. Subcultural theories can be used and applied to explain the so-called deviance in terms of the subculture of a specific group. These theories argue that certain groups develop norms and values that in nature are different to those held by other members of society, Hebdidge (1979:102). For example, some groups of criminals may develop norms that encourage and reward criminal activity. Other members of society may believe that such activities are immoral and could strongly disprove of them. Getting tattooed is still frowned upon by many people today especially by employers. Due to tattooing’s past image and the stereotypes attached its reputation has not been very favourable i.e. criminals in Japan used to be tattooed as a sign they had committed a crime and during the war prisoner of war camps used to tattoo numbers on prisoners. Criminals and prisoners are quite often depicted in films as having tattoos. Martial arts films love to show heavily tattooed mean-looking Yakuza gang members dealing in drugs, guns and killing people.
This raises the question how is getting a tattoo related to becoming part of a subculture? It is easiest to answer by providing an example of tattoos as membership of a particular section or regiment of the armed forces. Coe et al (1993:199) state that tattoos identify males who are members of highly co-operative groups such as the military and that tattooing is frequently done socially and as a process of male bonding. Males who are members of a particular group tend to acquire similar or identical designs on a specific part of their body i.e. marines often get a blade overlain by a skull on their left shoulder. This common practice among members signifies the seriousness of an individual to join the group. In the case of tattoos pain is the connection and commonality between the members. Each individual goes through the pain of acquiring a tattoo as a show of masculinity and commitment to the group in this rights of passage practice. As well as the pain an individual endures while obtaining a tattoo, the mark of the group is present for the rest of the individuals life. In this way joining a group and having a group tattoo shows lifelong commitment between members. The most striking example of group tattoo membership is the Yakuza gangsters. These Japanese men are part of an organised crime syndicate not unlike the Mafia in Italy. Richie (1980:80) states that Yakuza members can be instantly recognised by their full body tattoos containing traditional iconography such as various flora and fauna, religious motifs and assorted heroes and folk figures, see over for examples. For the Yakuza ‘the tattoo is a symbolic costume’ according to Raz (1992:219). These gangsters are on a quest for group identity as opposed to personal identity. However, there is a connection between personal identity and group identity. In striving to join a particular group the individual’s personal identity exists as a member of that particular group and his or her actions and beliefs are adopted in alignment with that of the group. Just as fashion through cosmetics or clothes can enhance or displays gender, so too can tattoos. Due to very little research being conducted regarding gender and tattoos I shall endeavour to gain an insight into possible explanations of why more and more women are getting tattooed nowadays. In addition to this I believe it is of the utmost importance to find out why both men and women decide to get tattoos.
This is very important as Weber cited by Albrow (1990:99) states, one can explain changes in society with reference to what people do and why they do it. I will be investigating if the reasons are different between the sexes. For example, one could hypothesise that some women get tattoos to enhance their femininity and men get tattoos to enhance their masculinity or display possible group alignment. Many people believe that men are not concerned with their appearance or at least not as much as women are i.e. some men are described as having rugged good looks, a natural and rough beauty. However, this is not entirely true, in recent years there has been more emphasis placed on men’s appearance. For example, special skincare products have been formulated and advertised for the male population and special aftershave gift sets now also include various skincare lotions and potions. More and more men seem to be taking an interest in their appearance than in previous years. This could have a significant affect on tattoo styles. In the past tattoos of snakes, skulls, lovehearts and daggers etc. were very popular especially for sailors and men in the military (Coe, Harmon et al 1993). More recently the popularity of such designs is decreasing and more and more men are choosing contemporary designs and Celtic or tribal bands around the bicep etc. as an alternative to symbols of death and violence, p.t.o. for examples. This concept of changing tattoo styles is another interesting topic that I will be examining in my research. I have endeavoured to explain some themes related to tattoos such as stigma, appearance through fashion and gender, appearance announcing identity and identity as a member of a subculture. In the third chapter I intend to find out in more detail through questionnaires and interviews with tattoo artists, why people get tattooed and if the reasons differ between the sexes. I intend to find out if tattoo placement and design is different between the sexes and if so why this is the case. I will be attempting to find out if more women are being tattooed nowadays and if so why? Finally I will be examining the connection (if there is one) between social class and those who get tattooed.

Chapter Two – Designing A Tattoo Study

This dissertation focuses on important questions surrounding the art of tattooing and aims to answer the most important question of all – why get a tattoo? To answer such questions I needed to choose appropriate methods of gaining the knowledge and insight that was required. For the purposes of my research I decided upon structured interviews with tattoo artists and questionnaires that were to be completed by both tattooed and un-tattooed respondents.

Selection of the Sample

I decided to select my sample through my own personal experience and knowledge of places that I term as tattoo conscious areas. Tattoo conscious areas are basically places where there is a likelihood of seeing tattooed individuals. I knew from my own experience that the local gym has many (mainly male) clients who were tattooed and the rock night-club where I work has many patrons with tattoos mainly because of the heavier music policy of the club. I decided to distribute the majority of my questionnaires through the rock nightclub in a small town in central Scotland and the local gym, as these places would yield the highest proportion of tattooed individuals. I chose not to interview patrons in the nightclub as the music was too loud and it simply was not practical. Questionnaires were also distributed in both the Edinburgh and West Lothian tattoo studios. Approximately fifty questionnaires were distributed in total amongst the two studios, the nightclub and the gym. Ten untattooed individuals completed a questionnaire with these individuals being selected from the gym and the nightclub. From the forty tattooed individuals who completed a questionnaire, twenty-two were male and eighteen were female.
McNeil (1985:15) raises the issue of representativeness and whether or not the group of people or situation one is studying is typical of others. If they are then one can safely conclude that what is true for the particular group studied is true of others. If the group is thought of as not entirely representative then one cannot claim that one’s conclusions have any relevance to anybody else. The questionnaires were not designed to be representative of society as a whole because this was not possible with such a limited distribution and constraints of time and money. The nightclub, gym and tattoo studios were in my opinion tattoo conscious areas and the questionnaires could be completed efficiently in these places. Standing in the street and asking people if they had a tattoo or not was not a viable option to me as it simply was not practical and could arouse suspicion or make people very defensive or aggressive. How representative the sample actually is can be debated: however, as will become apparent tattoos are not confined to a certain class or type of people anymore.

Issues of Access

Issues of access have to be dealt with in a very appropriate and careful manner as research can be terminated before it has begun when permission has not been granted. The gatekeepers with whom I had to negotiate access with were the head tattooist in the Edinburgh studio and the tattooist in the small town studio. My boss at the nightclub and the receptionist at the gym had also to be consulted. Access was negotiated with relative ease. In the instance of the nightclub I have been a DJ there for three years now and know all the barstaff and doormen well. I have known the boss for an even greater amount of time as I used to work for him when he owned a local mobile disco company. I consulted my boss and asked him if I could distribute my questionnaires from the DJ booth in the nightclub when people came to request songs. He said he wouldn’t see it as a problem as long as I still did my job. People were more than happy to complete the questionnaires and spoke to me about tattoos and tattooing for some time when they came to the booth. This did create a slight problem as I still had a job to do and on more than one occasion had to dash to the CD players to change the CD. The doormen and barstaff also showed great interest in my research and completed questionnaires and gave their opinions. Ethnomethodology indicates that researchers need background understanding to make sense of quantitative data. Cicourel (1964:111) states that ‘a detailed analytic knowledge of common-sense meanings as used in everyday life becomes fundamental for the construction of fixed-choice questionnaires’. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of clientele in the nightclub have tattoos. There are only two well-known and established nightclubs in the town, the other being a dance super club. The rock nightclub is the only place for rockers to go for miles around and many do have tattoos.
The other main area of questionnaire distribution was the local gym. Again access was no problem as I am a known face and have frequented this gym for five years now. I negotiated access with the receptionist at the gym and was granted it. I informed the receptionist that I knew many of the men at the gym and I didn’t think that they would object to answering my questionnaire. In fact I was later informed by some of the men that completion of the questionnaire was a welcomed break in their rigorous weightlifting session and it gave them an opportunity to take a proper rest in between exercises. It is very important to bring to attention the fact that the gym seldom receives any female clients as they are more inclined to attend the hi-tech room facilities. The gym is another tattoo conscious area and tattoos are particularly common amongst the bodybuilders and weightlifters. It is difficult to say why many men who bodybuild have tattoos but I believe the answer lies in the art of body sculpting whether it be by moulding the body into a particular shape by lifting weights or decorating the body with tattoos again changing it visually. For some time I have been contemplating doing my dissertation on tattooing and when I got my second tattoo in a studio in Edinburgh I spoke to the young tattooist working in the studio about interviewing him at a later date. This laid the essential groundwork almost one year before I was to interview him. When I was having my second tattoo done (one year ago) I talked to him and found out he frequented the rock nightclub now and again. This provided us with a common talking point and I met him two months later when he came to the club. My cousin then had two tattoos done by this tattooist and I was present on both occasions getting myself better known by the artist. Thus, the issue of access was being dealt with for a number of months and trust and friendship was being formed between the tattoo artist and myself.

Interviewing the Tattoo Artists

‘When I went to conduct the structured interview with the young Edinburgh tattooist I was surprised to find that a woman, who used to mind me as a child on occasion, had become a tattoo artist and was working from that studio. She recognised me instantly and agreed to take part in a structured interview. This provided me with the opinions of a female tattoo artist. Before I carried out the two taped interviews it was suggested that I ask the head tattooist who owned the studio. I did so and he agreed to let the other two artists take part in my research. The head tattoo artist was not asked to take part as he was so busy. After the interviews the young male tattooist suggested that I spoke to a friend of his who owned a studio in a town in central Scotland. He also agreed to be interviewed and I visited his studio directly after interviewing in the Edinburgh studio. I mentioned that I knew the young Edinburgh tattooist and this immediately facilitated conversation which lasted some time. As luck would have it this tattoo artist also visited the rock nightclub and more areas of common interest were identified. Access was instantly granted to anything I wanted from a loan of tattoo magazines, books etc.
‘to dropping in anytime to hand out questionnaires in his studio or simply for a coffee and a chat. Through the young Edinburgh tattooist I met the town tattooist: thus a snowballing effect had initiated and granted access for me. Due to the overwhelming demand for tattoos of late, tattoo artists have very busy schedules. Snowballing in this case is particularly useful when desirable subjects may be skeptical of the intentions of the researcher according to Hedges (1979:242), Arber (1993:74). The snowballing effect did not stop here. The town tattooist phoned another female tattooist from the West of Scotland and asked here if she would speak to me. She agreed and I asked her if I she would mind if I sent her a copy of the structured interview. She didn’t see any problem with this and the body piercer from the town tattooist just happened to live in the same area as this woman’s studio so he handed in the interview papers. I enclosed a SAE for postal return. Access would have been far more difficult if I hadn’t known any tattoo artists or even if I had no tattoos myself. In addition to already having tattoos, snowballing proved a useful method in building rapport between myself and the tattoo artists and is widely used in research according to May (1997:120). If I had not been a known face at the gym I would have not perhaps been treated the same and perhaps the men would have been less inclined to complete the questionnaires.

The Questionnaire

The questions in my questionnaire were devised in a way that introduced the respondent to both myself and the research that was being conducted. The research topic of tattoos was then introduced asking the respondent to describe how many she or he had and where they were placed on the body. All the time the questionnaire was leading up to the important and interesting question of why did you decide to get tattooed? The questionnaire needed a logical flow introducing new themes within the topic of tattooing such as gender, class, etc. The questionnaires had to contain both closed and open-ended questions. For example closed questions such as gender – male or female, age range 18-25 etc. and increase or decrease in the number of women being tattooed nowadays compared to the past. Open-ended questions ranged from why did you decide to get tattooed? to what do your friends and family think of your tattoos? Closed structured questions, according to Newell (1993:101) have the advantage of being less time consuming for the respondent to complete. However, it must be brought to attention that such questions have the disadvantage that they force the respondent to choose between the answers previously provided. This did not prove to be a problem in my research as all my closed questions had only two or three possible answers that existed.
Ranges in questionnaire answers can be very useful if a question is liable to be of a sensitive nature, for example, how much money do you earn in a year? Or age? Ranges such as £10,000 – £15,000 per year regarding earnings or 36-45 or 56 and over regarding age can be less inhibiting. I used age ranges in my questionnaire, as I believed exact age was not crucial. The questionnaire was piloted on my family and friends. Approximately ten questionnaires were distributed to my uncle, cousins and friends. At the time the questionnaires did not give rise to any joke answers or problems such as questions which may be interpreted as offensive in any way.

Ethical Issues and Issues of Confidentiality

‘Ethical issues and issues of confidentiality are of great importance in any research undertaken by sociologists. Questioning people about their tattoos may not seem to unearth any sensitive feelings or uneasiness on the part of the researched. However, it is important to note that if a person regrets their tattoos or their tattoos reflect a past identity that has now been discarded then the person may become upset. I was aware of this problem before conducting my research and luckily I did not encounter it. Confidentiality should always be assured to anyone partaking in a study or research. Although some people may enjoy having their photograph or name mentioned in the research it is not everyone who would want this. This is especially true if the person is involved in illegal activities; however having a tattoo is not illegal as long as the person is over eighteen years old. One girl did complete the questionnaire putting her age down as under eighteen and having a tattoo. I asked her how old she was when she got the tattoo done and she replied fifteen years old. I assured her that the questionnaire was confidential and her name would never be mentioned as the tattooist who done the tattoo in the first place could get into trouble with the authorities. On interviewing the three tattoo artists I assured them that their names and studios would not be mentioned in the research unless they so desired. Sensitive questions are an important consideration in any research and I had hoped that my questionnaire would not give cause for complaint or insult any of the respondents. From all the questionnaires that were completed I received one complaint from the owner of the Edinburgh based tattoo studio. He believed the question on tattoos increasing or decreasing a women’s or man’s femininity or masculinity was offensive. He stated that it was this stereotypical image of people with tattoos that one was trying to change. I spoke with the tattooist and we both came to an amicable agreement that the questionnaires closed questions on tattoos affecting men’s and women’s masculinity or femininity should include increase, decrease or do not affect. Once the questionnaires were amended with or do not affect the tattooist was satisfied.
‘The three structured interviews with the tattoo artists were all conducted in the two separate studios. A micro cassette recorder was placed on a table in between myself and the artist during the interview. The questions were asked from a guide sheet prepared prior to the interviews (see appendix for copy of questions). The interviews were structured yet carried out in an informal and relaxed manner not unlike a regular chat. Nachmias and Nachmias (1996:239) outline the importance of making the respondent feel at ease thus perhaps facilitating greater flow of conversation and information. Although interviews proved very useful to me and were essential to my research, the understanding gained through participant observation provided valuable guidance in both interviewing and interpretation.

Methods of Analysis

‘My analysis was guided through my own background knowledge of the context of tattooing. This was achieved through participant observation. Participant observation played an important role in setting the scene for my research and laying the foundations for the preparation of my whole project. Through past experience of being tattooed I have learned first hand the process by which people go through from initially choosing a clean and reputable studio to design and placement of the tattoo itself. Participant observation was most prevalent during my research when I was being tattooed myself. During the course of this dissertation I received my third tattoo and once again experienced first hand the tattooing process from design choice to the finished product. I was not too apprehensive about conducting my interviews with the tattoo artists as I had previously visited studios and knew they were not places to fear. The immaculate tattoo studio has replaced the image of the seedy tattoo parlour. There has been a movement away from the word parlour, and its connotations, to studio, emphasising and recognising the artistry in tattooing. Tattoo studios often resemble food take-away shops, thus one enters and purchases a tattoo to take away. The one difference being that the meal only last ten minutes and the tattoo last forever.

Coding the Analysis


Mason (1996:107) advocates the importance of using a system of sorting, organising and indexing data that is consistent across the whole data set in any research. The same system was used when analysing questions in the questionnaires. All the possible answers were looked at and where necessary the respondents were subdivided by gender and whether or not they had a tattoo. A tally was made of how many males and females with tattoos answered the prospective possibilities. The next stage was to look for groups of answers with a connection or common theme. Unique responses were not regarded as significant. The interviews with the tattoo artists and the questionnaires proved very successful indeed and covered all the questions that needed to be answered for my research on tattooing. The next chapter focuses in detail on the main questions of this dissertation and derives the answers from the research that was carried out.

Chapter Three – Decoding The Marks On The Body: an analysis of tattoo choice

Tattooing could be seen as a process in which individuals pass through various barriers. From my own experience of being tattooed (three times now) I can describe firsthand what it is like to get a tattoo. One must initially pass through the outer barrier of the studio that is of course the door. Then one must look at the tattoo flashes (design boards) on the walls and decide what design it is that is desirable unless one already has an idea in mind. One must then talk to the tattoo artist about the viability of the design and where it is to be placed. Once this has been settled the issue of cost may perhaps be raised as this is a purchase just like any other. The next thing a person normally asks is if the tattoo can be done that day. It depends on how busy the studio is at that time and what time the client enters the studio as there may be a whole studio full of people waiting to be tattooed first. This brings one to the next barrier that must be overcome – that is one’s patience. It is not uncommon to wait in a studio all day to be tattooed i.e. anything from one or two to five or six hours. It all depends on how intent and keen the client is on being tattooed that day. Courage has to be built up and that courage may not last two or more days if one has to come back. An interesting observation regarding tattoo studios is the style of music that is played. In Edinburgh heavy rock music was played but in the town studio a variety of music was played from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to punk and heavy rock. This was done to put the customer at ease and dispel the myth that tattoo studios are full of bikers and play loud heavy metal music all the time. In the town studio the client could choose his or her own music to listen to whilst being tattooed. This makes for a better tattooing environment for the artist working on the relaxed client who may not squirm or move around as much in a more relaxed state.
The pain barrier is perhaps the final obstacle to be overcome in the process of being tattooed. Second to asking the question of cost is the question of pain and does it hurt? On a personal level the degree of pain will vary between individuals as everyone’s pain threshold is different. However, one thing is universal and that is it does hurt! The process involves a needle vibrating in and out at an incredible speed dipped in ink creating an indelible mark on the skin that will withstand all the elements and remain there for a lifetime. Why on earth do people go through this perhaps stressful (to some) and painful (to all) process? At the beginning of this dissertation I stated that there was a connection between tattooing and fashion. On interviewing three tattoo artists it has become clear that differences and similarities exist regarding tattoo and fashion trends in tattooing. I would like to emphasise that unlike popular trends in clothes, hairstyles, piercing etc. tattoos capture fashion at a particular moment in time like a snapshot of tattooing in a certain era due to their permanence. All three tattoo artists believe that tattoos have undergone a change from the early designs of swallows, anchors, snakes and daggers etc. to more artistic and sometimes unbelievably detailed designs ranging from complex Celtic, tribal and contemporary pieces to portraits. Any photograph can be replicated exactly onto skin, see illustrations overleaf. Tattooing has borne witness to the artistic capabilities of certain individuals who have pioneered cutting edge designs, thus pushing the boundaries of what is possible to the very limit in the world of tattooing. One of the tattoo artists thought it was very interesting to note that ‘old school’ tattoos such as the previously mentioned swallows, skulls, snakes and daggers etc. may never have gone completely out of fashion but merely become less or more prominent at a certain time. If this is true then the indelible mark of the tattoo will never go completely out of fashion although fashion is ever changing. One of the tattoo artists believed that the tattoo designs would go full circle and move from anchor, love heart and name scroll etc. to gothic, tribal, Celtic etc. and back again.
Old school designs such as love hearts etc. are also being done nowadays in a contemporary style, p.t.o. for examples. To a great extent tattoo fashion is only limited by the imagination of the people. These people may enter tattoo competitions displaying their unusual and artistic designs for all to see. In turn readers of tattoo magazines such as Savage or Skin Deep may see photographs of the award winning tattoos from the conventions and competitions all over the world and want the same design done in their local tattoo studio. Tattooing is at the forefront of technology now with numerous websites on the Internet dedicated to the tattoo fans displaying all the weird and wonderful designs possible. This is undoubtedly far removed from the stereotypical images of old depicting seedy, dirty tattoo parlours strewn with the unsavory members of society. Tattoo parlours have been renamed to tattoo studios emphasizing the artform, thus creating a more professional image of tattooing in moving with the increased professionalism of many tattoo artists today. Perhaps one of the most important and interesting questions of all is the question – why did you decide to get a tattoo? The answer to this question depends on the individual and reasons can be extremely varied indeed. The tattoo artists gave many reasons why they thought their clients got tattooed. Some people are not happy with the way they look and are bored of looking at plain skin, some do not want to conform to the rest of society so do something extravagant to get away from the mainstream i.e. get tattooed. Many people get tattooed to express individuality, “a desire to demonstrate a personal and unmistakable identity” Schiffmacher and Riemschneider (1996:15). One tattooist believed that “some younger adults’ parents are not very nice to them so they do something a bit extravagant, a bit naughty like get a tattoo” (tape 1:022). In this instance the shock value is the main reason and the tattoo artist himself got tattooed mainly for this reason. Originally in western society Lundry and Dubouis-Bonnefond (1988:63) state that tattoos were used as a rite of passage into highly co-operative groups such as the army, navy and French Foreign Legion etc. showing that a boy had made the transition into adulthood and was now a man.
Nowadays all the tattoo artists believed the main reason for being tattooed was fashion. Many famous pop stars and actors have tattoos and people see them on these influential people and want the same. Questionnaire respondents were asked why they decided to get a tattoo, thirty-nine respondents answered this question (twenty-one males and eighteen females) with the results being very varied indeed. The most common answer (five males and nine females) was because tattoos looked good, that they were aesthetically pleasing and that they simply liked them. The next most common answer varied between the sexes: for men four got a tattoo because of their friends influence, four because of friend’s influence in the army and four because they appreciated the artwork that goes into tattooing. Women’s next most common answer to why they got a tattoo was because they felt like a change (two females) and because the tattoo was a birthday present (two females). One male got tattooed because he was bored of plain skin, one on impulse, one to achieve an image and one to see how sore it was, an indication that he could stand the pain. The remainder of female respondents answered the following – friends’ influence (one female), cover-up of unwanted tattoo (one female), admiration of the artwork that goes into tattooing (one female), attractiveness of tattoos (one female) and on impulse (one female).
In summary, male respondents were more likely than female respondents to get a tattoo because of a friend’s influence and in particular instances because of army friendships. Female respondents gave a variety of reasons why they got tattooed as one can see but none are as numerically as significant as the answer relating to how tattoos look good, an admiration of the art and the attractiveness of tattoos. Many respondents were not truly aware of why they got tattooed and perhaps there still exists somewhat of an air of mystery surrounding the question – why? One thing is certain: tattoos can be bright and colourful, amusing and uplifting adding a degree of pzazz and flare into life and onto an otherwise plain body. I stated previously that more and more women were getting tattooed nowadays and questionnaire answers confirmed this. When asked – do you think more women are getting tattooed nowadays than in the past? Respondents were unanimous on their answer. Ten untattooed respondents answered yes with no one answering no. Forty tattooed respondents answered yes with no one answering no. When asked why they believed more and more women were getting tattooed nowadays the results were a little varied. Untattooed respondents were very widespread in their answers – three thought tattoos were a beauty statement, one male thought it was due to fashion, one thought to show strength and one male did not know why. One female thought more women were getting tattooed to strive for equality (because men had tattoos so women could too), one female thought tattoos were a beauty statement and one female did not know why.
Tattooed respondents were slightly more definite as to why they thought more women were getting tattooed nowadays. Nine males gave fashion as the reason, six thought tattoos were more socially acceptable nowadays and two males thought that more women were getting tattooed to demonstrate total equality. One male thought women have less inhibitions nowadays, one male thought tattoos are more artistic than macho nowadays and one thought more women got tattooed so they could reveal it in nightclubs. One male did not know why and one male said he thought more women were getting tattooed because they (tattoos) were ugly, although I think he may have misinterpreted the question. Eight tattooed female respondents gave fashion as their reason for the increase in women getting tattoos, three thought tattoos were more socially acceptable nowadays and three respondents did not know why. One female thought tattoos expressed individuality and one female believed women were stronger now and could do anything men could do. One female respondent thought that the smaller more intricate designs of today enticed more women to get a tattoo as opposed to the larger designs that men have. One respondent thought more women were getting tattooed because they seen their friends with them. In summary of the findings, fashion seems to be the most common reason why more women are being tattooed nowadays. Tattoos are being seen as more socially acceptable now and have become another part of women’s make-up just like earrings, bracelets etc. One of the tattoo artists believed that women have just extended their facial make-up onto their bodies in an adornment and beautification process. All three tattoo artists believed that society has become more open to women having tattoos but it still depends on what design is tattooed for the tattoo to be classed as visually suitable or not. In looking closely at what designs most women choose, for example, the dolphin or oriental symbol one can see that feminine designs are common and most women prefer them to gothic or large patriotic ‘male’ tattoos, see overleaf for more examples. I previously touched on the notion of tattoo design and placement and how this could differ between the sexes. Closer examination through the questionnaire and interviews with the tattoo artists has found that tattoo choice and placement on the body does in fact differ between men and women.
I shall outline the most popular tattoo designs and styles which women get and compare them to the one’s men choose. According to the tattoo artists women tend to choose smaller more intricate and feminine designs to men. It is not to say, however, that men never get teddy bear or butterfly tattoos but these type of tattoos are not as common as others are. Women are more likely to choose less fierce or threatening animals than men, for example, dolphins, unicorns, butterflies etc. Cute cartoon characters and lovehearts tend to be popular for women today but the most popular tattoo of all is the Chinese or Japanese symbols. The tattoo artists believed they could do these tattoos in their sleep they are so popular (tape 1:045). It was suggested to me by one of the artists that the popularity of these tattoos is due to the media influence and in particular to the influence of female pop groups such as the Spice Girls or the All Saints etc. Women see these pop icons with tattoos and want the same. The media is a powerful influence especially where tattoos are concerned. One of the tattooists is currently tattooing a full tribal armpiece on a male who had seen the design on the actor George Clooney in the film Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Of course the tattoo was painted on the actor for the film and not really tattooed. The image of women with tattoos as being butch or deviant is slowly changing and it is becoming increasingly more acceptable for women to have tattoos. Tattooists are reporting greater numbers of women being tattooed and many designs are being seen as aesthetically pleasing and feminine such as tribal ankle bracelets, cute animals i.e. dolphins, flowers, lovehearts etc. p.t.o. for examples of these designs.
According to one of the tattoo artists men can choose almost anything (with the exception of lovehearts on their buttocks or other effeminate designs (tape 1:438)) but they tend to choose more aggressive or patriotic tattoos than women. Men can choose traditionally masculine tattoo designs such as snakes, lion rampants, panthers, devils, oriental tattoos, skulls, tribal and Celtic etc. see examples overleaf. One of the tattooists stated that men still get cartoon character tattoos just like women but size differs between the sexes. Men get tweety bird, thumper etc. but very large ones. For example, a man would get a large thumper (approx. 5 or 6 inches) on the shoulder compared to a woman who would get a small thumper (approx. 2 to 3 inches). The most popular style of tattoos for men today is the tribal or Celtic designs. This could be attributed to the talent of tattoo artists today, better equipment, better equipment and a current surge in the popularity of tribal styles in the West through the media i.e. tattoo magazines, films and popstars such as Robbie Williams who recently got a tribal armpiece tattooed. Tattoo placement varies between men and women. The most common places for women to get tattooed are the shoulderblades, ankles, hip and stomach according to the tattoo artists. The questionnaires also reflected this choice of site on the body. When asked why women chose to get tattooed in these places more so than the arms, chest, legs etc. the tattoo artists believed this was because tattoos on the shoulderblades etc. could be hidden by most clothing and shown when required. For example, by wearing a shorter t-shirt in a nightclub etc. to make the tattoo visible. Men’s tattoos tend to be mostly located on the arms and the shoulders according to the tattoo artists and questionnaire respondents, although men can get tattooed everywhere. Men like to show off their tattoos more than women do and this is reflected in the places they get tattooed. This displaying of tattoos is particularly prominent in Japan among the yakuza gangsters. These men like to show off their tattoos in bathhouses and during festivals etc. displaying their allegiance and connection with the syndicate to which they belong, Richie (1980:37). Two questions were asked to respondents regarding tattoos affecting their femininity and masculinity. Forty respondents answered these two questions, twenty-two were male and eighteen were female. The questions were as follows:- do you think tattoos increase, decrease or do not affect a woman’s femininity? And do you think tattoos increase, decrease or do not affect a man’s masculinity? Seven tattooed male respondents said no effect, no effect and ten tattooed female respondents said the same. Six males said it depends on tattoo placement and design and tattoos can increase a woman’s femininity and increase a man’s masculinity. Four female respondents said tattoos decrease or do not affect a woman’s femininity and increase a man’s masculinity.
Two untattooed male respondents answered decrease to a woman’s femininity and no effect to a man’s masculinity. Three untattooed male respondents said no effect to a woman’s femininity and increase or no effect to a man’s masculinity. Two untattooed female respondents said no effect to both a woman’s femininity and a man’s masculinity In summary, a significant number of tattooed and untattooed male and female respondents said that tattoos have no effect on a man’s masculinity or a woman’s femininity. No one said that tattoos increased a woman’s femininity and decreased a man’s masculinity, however one tattooed male respondent said decrease to femininity and increase to masculinity and two tattooed female respondents answered the same. Thus, there is mixed beliefs about whether tattoos affect the bearer’s femininity or masculinity but the majority of respondents in this study said tattoos had no effect regarding this issue.
I believed that social class should be given some consideration regarding who gets tattooed. Schiffmacher (1996:20) states “In the Western world tattoos are mainly associated with those belonging to a lower social class – criminals, sailors, whores, soldiers, adventurers, perverts and the like – and at the other end of the scale with the eccentrics of high society, the rich and aristocratic, intellectuals, artists and all those who make life more colourful”. Tattoos have had somewhat of an ill reputation over the years being associated with charlatans and the like. However, as will become apparent social class does not determine who gets a tattoo and who does not. Forty tattooed respondents answered the class question – do you think tattoos are confined to a particular class of people? Twenty-eight respondents answered no, seven respondents answered yes and five respondents answered that they used to be confined to a particular class but not now. Ten untattooed respondents were asked the same question on class. Eight respondents answered no, one answered they used to be but not now and one respondent did not know. In summarising the views on tattoos and social class one can state that tattoos are not confined to a particular class in society anymore. The three tattoo artists were asked the same question on class. One artist believes that anyone gets tattooed nowadays from working to upper class, for example, he has tattooed doctors, lawyers, etc. One artist stated that the clients in the studio were from all social classes but in particular most clients were working class. He believed this was due to the location of his studio and believed if he was located in a city he would get more of a diverse range of classes frequenting the studio.
In today’s society tattoos are not confined to a particular social class, age or type of person as long as they are over eighteen! It is interesting to note, however, that tattoos on a persons forearms or hands are not generally acceptable in most higher paid employment so those persons with tattooed forearms or hands will be more likely in manual jobs or the armed forces.

Marked For Life? – A Conclusion


Tattooing has now become mainstream and has resurrected its image, yet there has been little or no research conducted into this artform. Tattooing has not been taken very seriously, whether as artform, subculture or social ‘problem’, which may have been in part responsible for its lack of investigation. Tattooing has been hindered by stereotypes and falsifying myths that have tarnished its reputation. Hopefully, this dissertation has provided a greater insight into tattooing and dispelled some of the stereotypes that society has constructed.
In contemporary society people are very much concerned with their appearance and identity. Tattooing in particular is enjoying an immense and ever growing popularity as I have endeavoured to illustrate. Tattoos are no longer confined to a particular social class. There are tattoo designs and styles available to appeal to every possible taste. Identities, alignments and interests are proclaimed for all to see on the body of the tattooed individual. Of course tattoos are not to everyone’s taste but to those who have a genuine interest in the art tattoos can bring a great amount of joy and pleasure. Fashion has had a significant impact on tattooing over the years just as it has affected clothing styles. There has been a noticeable change in the designs people are getting nowadays compared to fifty or so years ago. Tribal, Celtic, oriental and contemporary tattoos are now very popular compared to very simple designs such as skulls, roses, hearts and animals etc. of the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. This change in style has been mainly due to the introduction of better equipment and to the customer demands for particular new designs.
Tattoos share a similarity with fashion displaying gender and announcing identity. This identity can be of an individual or group orientated nature. Just recently I observed four young men all getting football badges tattooed on their persons. Two got a Rangers badge and two got a Hearts badge. In this instance the men were displaying group membership of their favourite team and group membership of the tattooed population, p.t.o. for examples of these tattoos. Just as Steele (1985:45) believes clothing can project a particular image of the physical body, the individual’s self-awareness and his or her social being, so can tattoos. Tattoos have become a means by which individuals can express their personal and unique inner identities by displaying them on their skin. Amongst sociological theorists, Goffman’s ideas have been especially useful regarding appearance and how people use appearance to categorise each other, in turn interpreting behaviour and helping communication. Just like clothing, tattoos are a means of decorating nature’s mass-produced plain human body. Regrets – they’ve had a few The stereotyped view of tattoos is that they later become a source of regret. In my research I wanted to transcend this stereotype. It is true that some people wish they had not been tattooed in the first place or wish that they had chosen a different design but this is not applicable to everyone. My focus was especially on why people chose to have a tattoo of a particular kind in the first instance.
People are now constructing their own identities through various means whether it be by dress, jewellery and adornment such as piercing, tattoos and perhaps more extremely plastic surgery. People’s appearance no longer needs to be fixed as it was before. Numerous tools exist that can serve to alter a person’s appearance and image, thus projecting an identity they are happy with. Gender has been of great concern in my research and therefore an area I shall focus on for the remainder of this conclusion. The noticeable increase in the number of women being tattooed at present urges one to ask why this may be the case. Fashion was stated as the most common reason why an increased number of women are being tattooed. In addition, tattoos are being seen as more socially acceptable and have in many instances become another part of a woman’s make-up just like a piece of jewellery. Women are now challenging stereotypical essentialist gender roles regarding appearance. Women need no longer adhere to such narrow cultural norms of what is seen as beautiful or attractive as this idea of what is physically or sexually appealing is being redefined as we enter into the twenty first century. Men and women alike find tattoos aesthetically pleasing, contrary to Sanders’ (1988:415) view that men are less inclined than women to define the tattoo primarily as a decorative and intimate addition to the body. Sanders also believes that for men tattoos above all represent masculinity. However, it seems that tattoos are no longer so closely identified with masculinity anymore. Perhaps in previous years the tattoo designs of skulls, snakes and daggers etc. were particularly masculine at the time, but changing styles have altered views and many males and females do not see tattoos as having any affect on masculinity or femininity.
This dissertation has aimed to spark interest in the world of tattooing and possibly initiate further research on the subject. Greater resources would be required to conduct an increased number of in-depth interviews with more tattooed and untattooed respondents and tattoo artists. In turn, more time and money would also be required. It would also be interesting to interview older people, as I believe they would highlight differences between the generations. A cross-cultural comparison could also be done between two or more countries examining any possible differences that may be present in relation to various cultural and religious practices and approaches to tattooing.
In conclusion, tattooing is not for everyone but I hope that this dissertation has provided a greater understanding of the subject. More importantly if after reading this dissertation you are thinking of getting a tattoo remember – a tattoo is for life and not just for Christmas!
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1. Example of questionnaire
2. Example of structured interview with tattoo artists
1. Questionnaire:- I am a Sociology student from the University of Stirling and currently conducting a study on tattoos and appearance for my final year’s dissertation. Your completion of this questionnaire would be greatly appreciated. I thank you in advance.
Q1. Do you have a tattoo?
Yes / No (please circle)
(If no please go to question 6).
Q2. How many tattoos do you have?
Q3. Please describe your tattoos and where they are placed on your body.
Q4. Why did you decide to get tattooed?
Q5. What do your friends and family think about your tattoos?
E.g. did they act differently towards you once you got your tattoo(s)?
Q6. Do you think more women are getting tattooed nowadays than in the past?
Yes / No (please circle)
Q7. If yes, why?
Q8. Do you think tattoos increase, decrease or do not affect a woman’s femininity?
Increase / Decrease / No Effect (please circle)
Q9. Do you think tattoos increase, decrease or do not affect a man’s masculinity?
Increase / Decrease / No Effect (please circle)
Q10. What do you think about people with tattoos?
Q11. Do you think tattoos are confined to a particular class of people?
Q12. Are you male or female?
Male / Female (please circle)
Q13. Age under 18
56 and over (please circle)
Thank you for completing this questionnaire. Would you be willing to take part in a more in-depth interview at a later date? If so, please leave your name and telephone number or contact address below. Thank you.
2. Structured Interview:-
Q1. Why do you think people decide to get a tattoo?
Do you think impulse purchasing is quite common?
Q2. Do you think there has been an increase in the number of women getting tattooed nowadays compared to 10 or 20 years ago? If so, why?
Q3. Has there been an increase in the number of tattoo studios in Scotland in recent years?
Q4. Has there been an increase in clients coming to your studio for tattoos?
Q5. Do you think the clientele has changed over recent years?
Q6. Are there many female tattoo artists in Scotland?
Q7. Do women choose different designs to men?
Q8. What do women tend to choose?
Q9. What do men tend to choose?
Q10. Are tattoo styles changing?
Eg.. are tattoos related to a particular fashion?
Q11. Where do women tend to get tattooed?
Q12. What is the most common place for women?
Q13. Where do men get tattooed?
Q14. What is the most common place for men to get tattooed?
Q15. What is the most common age of clients in your studio?
Q16. Are most of your clients from the same class in society i.e. middle, working or upper class?
Q17. Do you think society’s attitudes are changing towards men and women with tattoos?




consumption has become a mass consumer phenomenon
172 Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005


As tattoos have gained in popularity, it can be expected that the reasons for why people get tattoos have shifted as well. This paper explores consumers’ motivations for getting a fashion tattoo and the meaning associated with its consumption. Through phenomenological interviews with fashion tattooees, the themes ‘art/fashion’, ‘personalization and biographing’, ‘contextual representation of self’, and ‘meanings?’ are related to existing consumption theory. Having a tattoo has gradually become a mainstream consumption practice that can be found among people from all walks of life. Once associated with sailors or with biker culture and considered as a somewhat deviant behavior performed in opposition to the mainstream society, it has now transformed into a mass consumer phenomenon (DeMello 2000). In fact, it has been argued that to some extent tattoos are now considered so mainstream that they are almost passé (Sweetman 2000). These days, getting a tattoo has become more comparable to other consumption practices where people seek to beautify their bodies according to current fashion norms. Therefore, people are not necessarily getting a tattoo in order to express affiliation with a certain life style or a specific subculture. In this article we will examine consumers’ motivations for getting a fashion tattoo and the meanings associated with its consumption. The emergence of tattooing as a mass consumer phenomenon has received scant attention in consumer research. The major contributions to research on tattoo consumption practices has been made from a subcultural/post-subcultural perspective with a focus on ‘spectacular’ consumers such as heavily tattooed women (Goulding and Follet 2002; Patterson and Elliot 2004) who in one way or another define themselves in opposition to mainstream society (DeMello 2000). Furthermore, there is a tendency in prior research to consider tattoo consumption as a socially disvalued activity (Sanders 1985) where tattooees are considered to constitute a subculture in its own right (Velliquette, Murray, and Creyer 1998). The purpose of this paper is to investigate the consumption practices underlying tattoo consumption as a mass phenomenon. That is, our empirical focus is primarily on consumers who have few tattoos and no intentions of having any more (all informants bar one had only a single tattoo). We thus focus on what Goulding et al. (2004) refer to as fashion and aesthetic tattoos, where the tattooees acquire the tattoo to beautify their bodies while paying less attention to the symbolic or ‘tribal’ meaning. According to Goulding et al., these tattooees are driven by peer group referents and fashion trends but unlike more heavily tattooed people, they do not define themselves as member of a tattoo sub-culture.
Our findings are organized in a number of themes, some of which are different than from identified in other studies and others confirming previous research on tattoo consumption. We discuss our findings and previous research in relation to poststructuralist consumption theory, specifically Holt’s (1995) typology of consumption practices in order to illuminate the variety of practices of this emerging consumption phenomenon.


Tattoo consumption has emerged as a consumption phenomenon of the global cultural economy and one which has become a relatively conspicuous one (Sweetman 2000). Under conditions of late modernity, the body has come into focus and is considered as malleable and hence something that can be modified and improved. In this way, the body becomes an excellent site for expression of self identity, a phenomenon Baudrillard (1998) discusses as ‘investing in the body’. The mass consumption of tattoos is one result of this increased interest in the body. In the late modern age it has been claimed that individual identities have become reflexive articulations of imagined biographies (Giddens 1991). As such, identities have become fluid in that there is a constant rearticulation taking place. Bauman (2001) goes as far as claiming that the identity strategy of today is less about committing oneself to one identity than it is about keeping possibilities for identity change open. It is somewhat paradoxical that while body expression on the one hand is part of a reflexive identity negotiation, it is characterized on the other hand by a higher degree of permanence and hence something that closes off the possibilities for identity change. One way to explain this possible paradox, however, is that body expressions are attempts to anchor self-identity in order to obtain some stability in contemporary consumer culture (Sweetman 2000). The phenomenon of tattoo consumption illustrates the postmodern breakdown of the mind-body dualism (Firat and Venkatesh 1995) by pointing to the stylization of the body as an integral part in the construction of self-narratives. As body modifications– such as tattoos–feature in popular representations (such as ads, movies, music videos) and among both generalized and immediate Others’ of consumers, the body increasingly becomes represented as an integral part of self construction. The body hence achieves new meanings and a new status which consumers learn through socialization. We interpret this to be much in line with the dialogical model of fashion outlined by Thompson and Haytko. The malleability, however, of the body we interpret as being part of a postmodern cultural ideology of the body in which the bodies become “living records of […] life histories and consumption habits” (Thompson and Hirschman 1995, p. 151).


In order to identify tattoo consumption practices, we conducted interviews with fashion tattooees. The purpose of the interviews was two-fold. First of all to investigate how imagery was categorized and typologized by consumers–i.e. what kind of symbols would be appropriate for tattooing–including the symbolism in the tattoo motifs chosen by our informants. Secondly, to look at the practice and experience of acquiring the tattoo. Our overall understanding of the tattoo market was to get beyond a purely subcultural understanding and more towards a market system understanding. Indeed, this perspective includes the symbolic meanings inherent in the tattoo subculture, but we consider this as an influencing factor rather than being the lens through which the field is examined. Our understanding is summarized in Figure 1. Phenomenological interviews were carried out with 14 fashion tattooees who do not subscribe to membership of a subculture as motivation for acquiring their tattoo. In addition, we conducted interviews with two tattoo artists, in order to get an understanding of the service providers’ interpretation of the popularization of tattooing (see also Bengtsson, Östberg and Kjeldgaard (forthcoming)).


In the following we discuss our research findings in terms of four overall themes which constituted the discourse on tattoo consumption among our informants. First we discuss how tattooees categorize imagery in terms of appropriateness for tattooing, evoking an art/fashion dichotomy. Secondly, we discuss the theme of personalization of imagery and meaning, thirdly how tattoos are used for contextual representations of self, and fourthly the (lack of) meaning of tattoo symbols.

Art or fashion

Many tattoo artists consider tattooing as a form of art and in that respect define themselves as artists. This is a shift in discourse compared to the time when tattooing were mostly for bikers and other people from the low end of the society (DeMello 1995). Today, the tattoo industry is increasingly characterized by educated professional tattooists that provide fine art designs, and this has given the tattoo subculture legitimacy within the art world (Sanders 1989, p. 108). One of the tattoo artists we interviewed expressed his ideas about tattoos as art in the following way: “In their [people not tattooed] eyes, I know they think I look terrible. Because if you have no knowledge about the art–just like a man looking at an abstract painting and thinks it looks a mess. But that’s because he hasn’t learned to look at it properly. I think it’s often that way with tattoos as well.” (male tattoo artist) On the other hand, when it comes to fashion tattooees the art discourse seems to be less obvious. Therefore, a dichotomy between art and fashion is constructed as fashion tattooees have to define their tattoos in opposition to the ‘mainstream’ discourse among tattooist who belong to the tattoo subculture. Consider this tattooee’s reflections about the half-moon she has tattooed on her foot as a sign to mark her nine month world tour with a gymnastics team.
”I think that those who have many tattoos may look at it as an art form just like other kinds of art–paintings and stuff. And they like to adorn their body with that. Uh … it’s not like that when you just have a single one done. Then you don’t think art. A half-moon–where’s the art in that? […] it’s just another form of adornment, I mean just like jewelry and clothes and earrings for example.” (female, aged 24) The tattooist and the tattooee both relate to the art discourse but their remarks reflect different practices and identity positions in relation to the categorization. However, they nevertheless acknowledge each others’ positions in the tattoo marketing system (the informant above make references to the tattoo / body modification subculture, other informants make references to other subcultures where tattoos are part of the gear). Among the fashion tattooees there is a reflexive understanding of the tattoo as being non-art and non-subcultural. Since none of the consumers we interviewed were heavily tattooed, they would primarily rely on such a fashion/adornment discourse rather than the artistic discourse. The notable exception, however, are the consumers who construct (literally) their own tattoos. This practice of ‘crafting’ will be elaborated on below.

Personalization and biographing

We found, as with many other consumption objects, that consumers sought to personalize their tattoo consumption (cf. McCracken 1986). One aspect of personalization is the practice of crafting one’s own motif, rather than choosing a pre-made design from the flash cards in the tattoo studio or more broadly from popular culture. One key way of making a tattoo personal, is to link the imagery to the individual biography. One of the tattooees interviewed had a tattoo that was a combination of the sign of his military regiment’s coat of arms and a part from the logo of the university he was attending (cf. Sanders 1988): “Well basically it is my coat of arms. From Jutland’s dragoon regiment up in Holstebro. Then I have removed the escutcheon of King Christian V, the founder of our regiment, and put the apples of the University of Southern Denmark there instead. So I think that was a bit funny. I have always known that I would have a tattoo. But I have never known what it would be. But in this way it became something that is reflecting who I am as a person, but also something that is unique.” (male, aged 29) To this informant the tattoo becomes a way of making aspects of his biography more manifest by marking his body with two readily available images in combination. The tattoo is more personal, both because of the close link he has to the two institutions in question, but also by the fact that he is combining two symbols. The link to biography in this case consists in marking and fixing specific life events. Another aspect of incorporating the tattoo into the personal biography is when the act of getting the tattoo in itself becomes a significant life event and hence part of the story of the self. The quote below illustrates how the specific life time period in which the informants had her tattoo is evoked more generally in terms of identity: “Well, to me it is just like a memory both of the year I spent in Switzerland, but also as a memory about how I once was. Because, that Jane who was in Switzerland is definitely not the kind of person I am today. In fact, I was much more wild and crazy. Very different from today.” (Female, aged 29) Another aspect of personalization concerns the meaning of the image and the way tattooees claim possessiveness over the meaning and make it a natural extension of their self (Belk 1988). The following informant had a tattoo of the death metal band Sepultura on his calf since he had always been fond of the band (Figure 2). “The tattoo has become mine. And even if other people don’t know its meaning, I will still know myself what the tattoo means. I know what it means to me from Sepultura’s part [i.e. what Sepultura intends]. And they have already changed; Tattoo motif from popular culture logotype has a new background which happened after they changed their lead singer. So it’s [tattoo] already different from Sepultura.” (male, aged 20) The informant is utilizing the logotype of a rock band in order to make his body unique. However, we have been told by other tattoo consumers (not part of the study) that having this band’s logo on the calf is popular among fans of the band in particular and among metal fans more generally.
Sepultura is a kind of high cultural capital metal band very much concerned with political issues such as the deforestation of the Amazon and of the right of land to native populations–hence there is more than merely a manifestation of music taste in having the tattoo. Our informant also tells us that he is a ‘socialist’–hence the tattoo enters into this overall and relatively coherent story of his self. Contextual representation of self An important matter to decide upon for tattooees is where to place the tattoo on the body. Prior research has found that most male tattooees place their tattoos in a place where it can be displayed in public, typically on the arm or on the hand.
Female tattooees on the other hand tend to choose a place where only people with whom they are intimate can see the tattoo (Sanders 1988). These differences between men and women regarding placement of tattoos are furthermore confirmed by Watson (1998). For the fashion tattooees, however, it appears to be important that the tattoo can be hidden with clothes in order to be able to act like a ‘normal’ person to people who might have a negative idea about tattoos. “My tattoo is placed so that I can always cover it if I need. If one day I will be a manager for a marketing department, then I want to be able to walk with a short-sleeved shirt and still not show my tattoo. Also because I don’t think it looks nice to have tattoos all over the arms or on the back of the head […]. It can be offensive to some people.” (male, aged 20) “If I would sit in a nice church or some other place down south or whatever, then it would be smart to be able to cover it with a t-shirt or a long-sleeved sweater, so that you almost don’t need to wear gloves or whatever. Well…I like that it is one that you don’t see no matter what [you wear].” (male, aged 25) These informants evoke a cultural understanding of the deviant meaning of tattoos still present despite the popularity of tattooing. They do not reject or resist this cultural order but actually subscribe to it and therefore adopt a more contextual representation of their selves. We believe this a fundamental difference from the findings reported by for example Goulding and Follett (2002) where informants interpret themselves as being in opposition to the mainstream and therefore achieves self-identity by being in opposition and being in the minority. The informants in our study consider themselves as part of mainstream culture and therefore acknowledge the social sanctioning that might occur. The positioning of the tattoo on the body in places that can easily be hidden is therefore not only a matter of the tattoo being intimate but is also instrumental in relation to self expression. The reflexivity about tattoo placement, and the interpretation of its significance is an example of consuming as classification. However, it is classification performed from a different perspective compared with consumers who define themselves as members of a sub-culture.


One fundamental question related to tattooing concerns the meaning of the imagery. For many fashion tattooees, however, having a tattoo is primarily a matter of adornment of the body. As one of our informant noted earlier, the actual choice of symbol is more an unarticulated expression of personal aesthetic preference rather than searching for specific symbols which are expressive of, or shared with, perceived personal traits. The following quote illustrates how the meaning of the tattoo is subordinate to its aesthetic qualities.
R: “It’s a kind of band around the arm. You can see it if you like? It’s just very ordinary.
I: Ok … it’s a tribal…
R: Yes, there is no deeper meaning in it, not that I know of. It was just a motif that I liked.
I: How important was the motif for you?
R: Nothing other than it had to be nice. Other than that it’s not important.” (male, aged 28)
The informant does not attempt to justify the choice of motif in terms of elaborate explanations of the symbolism of his tattoo. We consider this as an expression of the role the tattoo plays in a general bodily beautification also noted by Goulding and Follet (2002). The lack in interest in the motif’s symbolism is furthermore reported by Sanders’ (1988) tattooee informants who generally made reference to aesthetic criteria.


In the following we relate our findings as well as previous research to Holt’s (1995) typology of consumption practices: consuming as integration, experience, classification, and play. Holt’s (1995) classification of consumption practices is based on the principle that consumption objects are consumed by different groups of consumers in a variety of ways. In outlining a typology of consumption practices, Holt identifies four metaphors that can explain various forms of consumption. First, consumption can be categorized by examining the structure underlying the action, i.e. whether consuming primarily is focused on the object per se or on interactions with other people where the object becomes the important resource. Second, the purpose of consumption can be distinguished as whether or not the act is an end in itself or a means to some other end. By combining these two dimensions, the four metaphors ‘consuming as experience’, ‘consuming as play’, ‘consuming as integration’, and ‘consuming as classification’ can be identified.


In the realm of individual identity articulation we are witnessing a kind of hyper differentiation in which the market system is constructing new stages on which to express identity. Tattooing can be viewed as such an extension of the areas in which identity can be expressed. We compare this to Wilk’s (1995) notion of structures of common difference. Wilk argues that in a globalized world, being able to express cultural difference is valorized in the global cultural economy. This does not mean that a homogenization is not taking place. However, what are homogenizing are the stages at which we can express our difference. Wilk (ibid.) highlights areas such as the national flag, food culture, and in the case of his study of Belize, beauty pageants. Essentially, he argues that in the global cultural economy you can (and are indeed encouraged to) express difference. These differences however, are more easily recognized by the Other if it occurs through similar institutions. The global structures therefore are arenas through which cultures can express difference. Although we acknowledge the danger inherent in transferring a macro-sociological/anthropological conceptual framework of globalization to the individual level, we nevertheless find the concept intriguing in explaining the emergence of the fashion tattoo. The fashion tattoo–and other forms of body modification– which primarily is performed to beautify the body could be considered as a new structure through which to articulate individual difference. The very fact that the tattoo practice has become a mass phenomenon indicates that it has been instituted as a commonly acknowledged means through which to express identity–an addition to other instituted structures of identity expression such as cars, houses, clothing, and grooming. The purpose of utilizing the structure, and indeed which kind of imagery to fill it with, can have a variety of motivations which are primarily rooted in the discourse.
The practice of tattooing can vary from identity discourses that revolve around the logic of expressing individual authenticity to one which revolves around a logic of collective belonging to global consumer culture (Kjeldgaard 2003). Nevertheless tattooing is a commonly acknowledged means through which to express identity. When tattoos are consumed for these reasons, we interpret this as an account of consuming as integration. Consuming as Experience: Meanings? As we discussed in the data analysis, the imagery chosen by tattooees seems to lack in signification in many cases. There is simply no signified attached to the signs written on the bodies. We interpret this as a matter of consuming as experience since the act of getting the tattoo is an end in itself and where the individual consumer is primarily engaged with the object. This appears to be a common characteristic among fashion tattooees and it fits well with theorists who suggest that postmodern fashion does not refer to anything but itself (Sweetman 2000). The meaning, as we interpret the findings, resides in the very act of getting the tattoo– an urge to participate in this newfound structure of utilizing the body in a radical way (yet safe due to the mass aspect) for the construction of style. The radicalness emerges in the informants’ elaborate narratives of having the tattoo made–the pain and the patience involved (Sanders 1989; Sweetman 2000). The signified of the tattoo in the cases of our informants therefore resides in the experience itself, one which implies danger and transgression. In a sense, all tattoos refer to the experience of transgression. The transgression involves two things. The historical connection to ’dangerous’ and ‘exotic’ subcultures makes the act of tattooing a transgression. The other transgression involves the act of permanently altering one’s body. The nature of the newly instituted practice of tattooing is hence one of transgression. The fashion tattoo, however, means that it involves taking a risk without going all the way. Many informants expressed anxiety about ‘getting hooked’ and suddenly wanting to have more tattoos made which they did not find desirable (cf.Vail 1999).
Tattoos have traditionally been considered as anti-fashion among cultural studies theorists due to its inscription in spectacular and oftentimes deviant subcultures in which only artisan capitalist market system operate (Hebdige 1979). It is indeed somewhat paradoxical, however, to discuss tattoos in terms of fashion since any permanent body modification is as much anti-fashion as it gets (Sweetman 2000). On the other hand, Craik (1994) argues that improved techniques of tattoo removal have alleviated some of the stigma associated with tattooing and hence paved the way for tattooing to become high fashion. But for heavily tattooed people whose integrating practices are directed towards achieving individuality through what they themselves acknowledge as deviant behavior, it is still likely that tattooing is considered as anti-fashion, non-mainstream and in opposition to the ‘normal’ society. This cultural meaning of the tattoo is still part of practice for some of our fashion tattooees, and hence it constitutes a classifying practice in which the structure of action is interpersonal and the object engagement is instrumental. However, they work strategically with this cultural classification system in that they have a contextual strategy for self-representation. As was noted earlier, the tattoo is not consumed for its deviant qualities–indeed our informants seem to accept the mainstream judgment of the tattoo–but for personal beautification. They work with and hence reproduce existing classificatory systems through their contextual self-representations. However, with the development of the popular fashion tattoo, new ways of classification also take place, as when some our informants discuss tattoos in an art/fashion classificatory system.
As opposed to other types of adornment–whether anti-fashion or fashion–the tattoo, however, lacks the fundamental quality of interchangeability due to its permanency. Hence, the consumer is stuck with the choice of imagery which some consumers also seem to be aware of (choosing personalized motifs). However, the difference remains that the consumer is stuck with his/her final consumption and fashion choice and hence become a ‘sign of the time’. Fashion obsoleteness, however, not only generates the need to craft individual tattoos but also for informants to reflexively personalize the meaning of the tattoo. There is, perhaps, a more intense incorporation of the tattoo into one’s self-definition than with many other consumer objects, partly because the image has become embodied, but also because the image may become out of fashion or indeed redesigned by the organization behind (cf. the example of the Sepultura logo).

Consuming as Play

In our study we did not come across instances of the practice of play–except when tattoos themselves become part of sociality. Heavily tattooed people who define themselves as members of the tattoo subculture generally feel an immediate social bond to other people with tattoos. Whether this constitutes the practice of play is arguable. However, institutionalized events such as tattoo and body modification conventions exhibit exactly the combination of autotelic object involvement and interpersonal structures of action. The subculture of body modification is also to some extent about the practice of play as it is about integration.


By relating consumers’ motivations and practices for acquiring a fashion tattoo to the typology of consumption practices we can conclude that prior research on tattoo consumption has primarily been concerned with consuming as ‘classification’. This study on the other hand incorporates the perspectives of consuming as ‘experience’ and ‘integration’. Furthermore, we also find that tattoo consumption is a practice of classification. However, it is a different type of classification since the classifiers (tattooees) do not themselves consider their tattoo consumption as a sign of sub-cultural affiliation. The study reported in this paper positions itself in consumer research in relation to a number of areas. First of all, it studies the consumption of tattooing in a fashion perspective and as a mass phenomenon rather than as a marginal, sub-cultural and socially disvalued activity (cf. Patterson and Elliot 2004; Sanders 1988; Velliquette and Murray 1999). The tattooees interviewed for this study are not highly involved tattoo consumers but are rather using this kind of body modification as a supplementary form of adornment and for this reason as a supplementary aspect of identity expression. We believe that our results point to other aspects of tattoo consumption than the approaches mentioned before which have the tattoos themselves as a focus. Our study therefore seeks to situate the consumption of tattooing in the wider life world of consumers and thus provides insights into other practices of tattoo consumption (Holt 1995; Holt 1997). By relating fashion tattooees’ motivations for getting a tattoo, and the meanings associated with it, to existing consumption theory, we provide an additional understanding for the various reasons why people partake in this consumption.
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a look at the current acceptability of tattooing

Art for the Amateurs | “My body is not decorated by needles or ink… This child is my tattoo…She is the story of my skin and my heart, written all over me, for anyone, who is able, to read” | A robust, bearded man who does not seem acquainted with any other colors than black takes gargantuan steps besides his undersized, flamboyantly dressed girlfriend. Their only common feature: noticeable tattoos. However increasingly diverse tattooed individuals have become or how much more accepted it is, in the public spectrum they are accustomed to the mixed reactions toward their body art. From a gentle, respectful nod to a disgustingly, disapproving scan, mixed feelings continue to exist about their acceptance, and the significance of a tattoo has yet to reach an overall consensus. Therefore, published writings such as Tim Keel’s “Tattooed” and Deborah Shouse’s “Mark Her Words” attempt to alter the negative perceptions of tattoos to those of more insight, acceptance and support. Shouse and Keel share this goal, but their structure and centralized focus on ethos (authority), pathos (emotion) or logos (logic) distinguishes which writer conducts the more effective argument.
In “Tattooed,” Keel provides factual evidence, statistics and the experiences of others to explain tattoos’ growing popularity and their manner of personal expression. He begins with an introduction about Kobsantsev, the owner of a Kansas City tattoo parlor, who witnesses both an unexpected metamorphosis in his familiar customers, such as university professors, and a flourish in the number of tattoo shops in the area (18). Introducing Kobsantsev’s observation instead of plain explanations efficiently illustrates the growing acceptance of tattoos. The use of a knowledgeable source gives the idea more depth and Keel an authoritative stance from the audience’s perspective. Further strengthening his authority, Keel uses statistical evidence from reputable sources, like the American Society of Dermatological Surgery, to demonstrate the growing percentage of Americans with at least one tattoo within a four year range (18). Placing statistics after the introduction improves Keel’s reliability of information and increases the claim’s validity more than if he solely relied on an individual’s account.
Contrarily, in “Mark Her Words,” Shouse directs an authoritative position which lacks statistical evidence but utilizes her personal experience. She narrates about being a concerned mother to a daughter who believes tattoos possess significance and beauty. In the opening, the use of dialogue and thoughts reveals the skepticism she first feels toward the art. ‘Hilee’s got a tattoo [,]’ Shouse expresses to her other daughter Sarah. ‘Really?’ She reaches for the phone. … I listen to Sarah’s excitement and I tell myself, ‘That is how I want to act next time.’ Then I worry, what if there is a next time?” (708).The feelings expressed set a tone and personality for Shouse as a concerned, yet supportive adult with a different perspective from the younger generation. The conflicting views thus create an element of mystery in the article which the interested audience will continue reading for the solution. Although it also includes a sense of mystery, Keel’s article lacks the suspenseful appeal evident in Shouse’s content and contains rather an explanation about why unfamiliar customers are getting tattooed. Therefore, Shouse strives to reveal the effect — unlike Keel who depends on the causes.
Although both writers take a different approach, logic becomes especially important in providing insight and reasons to support their arguments. Shouse’s use of logic resolves the introduced conflict by favoring one of the contrasting views from the previous telephone conversation. She continues her anecdote with another telephone conversation that occurs the following day. During the call, Hilee asks her mother what scares her most, ‘[v]isible tattoos, face piercing, or scars [.]’ Shouse admits scars frighten her most followed by tattoos and face piercing. Before acknowledging Hilee’s explanation about the significance of tattoos, Shouse digresses into a painful background about her daughter being sexually abused as a child and the self-mutilation she endured to resist suicide. “Her scars are symbols that she was strong enough to stay alive,” indicates Shouse. Happy to have her daughter well, Shouse says, “I look at the marks and I am grateful she knew how to keep herself alive” (708). The statement, as well as her daughter’s background, reveals that Shouse understands Hilee’s actions and gradually begins to trust her explanations.

Shouse then provides Hilee’s meaning of tattoos: “‘I was in pain before and had only misery [self-mutilation] to show for it,’ … ‘Now I choose the pain and have something beautiful and meaningful [tattoo]. … I’m thinking of tattooing ‘Survivor’ in Hebrew around my wrist. That way, I know I will never try to kill myself’” (Shouse 709). Hilee’s comparison of two different mediums of pain clarifies the reason Shouse begins to accept tattoos. She utilizes Hilee’s experience and interpretation of tattoos to show the audience the personal meaning and importance they possess and to dismiss their negative assumptions.

On the other hand, following the evidence and statistics, logic becomes Keel’s central rhetorical technique to provide the causes for the growing popularity and acceptance of tattoos. To capture the audience’s attention preceding his support, he applies a powerful question mainly pertaining to the opposition: “[w]hat motivates a person to go through the painful experience of getting tattooed?” (18).The question helps Keel form an empathetic connection with those who do not understand the purpose of tattoos, and now the audience expects the question to be answered with explanations.

Keel then depends on Kobsantsev’s views to support the significant reasons for getting tattooed. “[T]attoos function in … substantial ways– as a means of remembering or commemorating something significant or transformative in one’s life; as a sort of talisman to gain power; as a way of exercising and expressing control over one’s body after suffering some kind of assault or trauma; or even as a kind of visual timeline charting significant events [,]” Keel defends (19). Presenting various reasons may broaden the audience’s outlook about the meaning of tattoos; however, their appearance in the article is not compelling and functions like a grocery list (The function of a grocery list is to refer back to the items not immediately remembered in an individual’s mind. Usually the forgetfulness derives from the items not having any relation to one another or particular emphasis, thus making a list necessary). Therefore, the numerous reasons and their lack of emphasis are disadvantageous in convincing the reader to accept tattoos. Conversely, Shouse’s reasons focus on one central idea which remains in the mind of the reader throughout the entire passage. Retaining the information helps the audience arrive at a decision that benefits the writer, and this tool is effective in Shouse’s logical approach.

To strengthen the effect of their arguments, the writers focus toward emotional appeal. In “Tattooed,” Keel gathers facts from the World War I and World War II eras about tattoos as an initiation for soldiers. He also presents various examples of individuals who describe the significance of their tattoos (Keel 20). The examples and explanations try gaining sentiment from the audience, however lack strength emotionally. Although the reasons are genuine, they have an unavailing presence in the article. By stating one after the other, Keel does not use pathos as effectively as Shouse. In addition, strictly relying on the opinions of tattooed individuals, who will obviously discuss the positive aspects, gives the article a biased context; consequently, the audience may lose trust in the argument, and the writer may lose credibility. On the other hand, “Mark Her Words” is concentrated on the persuasive approach of emotion. Shouse strengthens the emotional appeal and captures the sympathy of the audience with the feelings of anguish, doubt, fear, pride, and the mother-daughter relationship apparent throughout the passage. Particularly, Shouse’s skepticism represents the negative perceptions that coexist with tattoos. Presenting the opposing views fairly creates a reliable and strong connection with a supporting and opposing audience.

Before the growing popularity of tattoos reached society, the majority of individuals expressing themselves on a personal and creative level was limited. Artists, musicians, or writers, who require further and professional talent, predominantly occupied the instrument for self-expression until the new medium of tattoos entered the spectrum. In “Mark Her Words,” Shouse evolves into an understanding of this medium because her narrative provides an example of the personal significance of tattoos. The logic applied in explaining the meaning of her daughter’s tattoos, as well as the emotional affect it contains, creates an appealing and insightful outlook and eliminates negative perceptions toward tattooed individuals. On the contrary, in “Tattooed,” Keel’s expository approach supports a broad idea that includes biased context and lacks structural unity. The plethora of accounts and evidence appear as an excessive effort by the writer to persuade his audience. Therefore, it is easier and more memorable for the audience to become attached to one centralized and appealing account rather than general information.
Furthermore, Shouse encourages the wide acceptance and significance of tattoos with a metaphor embracing the various forms of self-expression. “My body is not decorated by needles or ink,” affirms Shouse. “This child is my tattoo … She is the story of my skin and my heart, written all over me, for anyone, who is able, to read” (709). The powerful statement captures the overall theme of tattoos, eliminates prejudices and false assumptions, and promotes empathy and individualism. Tattooed individuals are not different; every person has feelings and something worth expressing, but the difference derives in their manner of expression. Whether it is the brand of clothes we wear, the car we drive, or the music we listen to, self-expression appears in every aspect of our lives; tattoos simply offer another opportunity to accomplish it. Without talent or professionalism, the only requirement is the essence of being an individual. In other words, it is the art for the amateurs. With that understanding, professional art forms and materialistic items gain acclaim globally, but what separates tattoos from these mediums? They all share the same purpose; therefore their perceptions should be equally alike.
Works Cited
Keel, Tim. “Tattooed.” The Christian Century 15 May 2007: 124.10. 18-20
Tim Keel’s article explains the growing acceptance and diversity of tattoos by using statistics, factual evidence and individual’s experiences. Keel takes an expository approach in supporting his claim with an emphasis on authority and logic more than emotion.
Shouse, Deborah. “Mark Her Words.” Dynamic Argument. Ed. Robert Lamm and Justin
Everett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. 708-9.
Deborah Shouse’s article is a narrative about being a mother to a daughter who has recently gotten a tattoo. Clashing perceptions arise between the different generations and the narrative serves to show Shouse arriving at a better understanding and appreciation of tattoos. With a strong use of ethos, logos and pathos, she shares her experience hoping that her audience will change their perception of tattoos, as she did, to one of insight and acceptance.
Sulynn Hago’
Dr. Murray
28 November 2007




a history and analysis of counter-culture


Tattoos are more popular than they have ever been; however, the history of tattooing is rich and diverse, with nearly every continent having cultures that at one time practiced tattooing. Christian missionaries largely eradicated tattooing worldwide through religious conversion or abusive coercion. In the United States, tattooing has gone through periods of extreme popularity and extreme stigmatization, with tattooing currently enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity. While the media portrayal of tattooing has greatly changed over the last ten to fifteen years, there are still plenty of people that dislike tattooing (but maybe that’s a good thing). Tattooing creates a community between tattooed individuals, all of which share the common bond and experience of getting a tattoo and being tattooed.

Tattooing, at one time or another, could be found on every corner of the Earth. The aboriginal people of nearly every continent tattooed themselves; some still do. Europeans, for the most part, broke this rich tradition of living art for the entire planet. When missionaries went to far off lands to “civilize” the native people, tattooing was considered a barbaric practice akin to cannibalism and human sacrifice. Much of the history of tattooing has been lost over the years – tribes that peacefully converted to Christianity generally phased out the practice of it; or excessive violence and disease completely destroyed entire tribes and cultures, and with it, a rich history of tattooing.

Charles Darwin was one of the first to witness firsthand how, for many cultures, tattoos were part of a complex social hierarchy; tattoos generally signified one of three things: signs of status, awards for bravery in battle, or a method to attract the opposite sex. When missionaries first went to the South Pacific, they brought with them sailors who became fascinated by the native tattooing. The sailors then went home with tattoos, and tattoos spread from the ports to the poorer parts of the cities. During the Industrial Revolution, when more and more people were attracted to the city, many found that city life was full of “urban competition, anonymity, and loneliness.” Tattoos became an affordable way to create connections with people that were in similar situations, one of the first examples of a modern tattoo community in the West.

But there is much more to the history of tattooing, and that rich history started long before Europeans were sending missionaries to every corner of the globe. It’s generally agreed upon that the discovery of tattoos by many cultures is accidental – usually rubbing a healing herb on a wound, resulting in a permanently colored scar. Many cultures have their own stories of the origins of tattooing; however, the method for applying a tattoo, tapping a needle on a stick with a hammer, was the same all over the world until the late 19th Century with the invention of the electric tattoo machine.

The Many Births of a Worldwide Phenomenon


Most cultures throughout time have invented the process of tattooing independently from other cultures. The Polynesians, however, are one of the most important and influential groups of people in terms of spreading tattooing to the world. The discovery and practice of tattooing in Polynesia is thought to have began around 2000 BCE. From Polynesia, it’s believed to have taken two courses: one course was going northwest to China and eventually migrating to Japan; another path that tattooing took was east. Tattooing spread from Polynesia across the Pacific Ocean (making a brief stop in Hawaii) to the West Coast of North America, from there it went north and across the Bering Strait into Siberia.

In the Pacific islands, tattoos were a sign of status, and those without tattoos were often times the subject of reticule, being called “roteo,” or “white man.” The Maori of New Zealand carved extremely ornate designs, called a “tā moko” into their faces and rubbed red ochre or blue pigment into it. Every moko was unique to each man and reflected his military achievements. The Samoans (along with the Burmese, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians) wore a trouser tattoo which started above the knees upward to the waist, covering everything in between, including genitals and anus. The process of applying the tattoo could take weeks or months, and any outward sign of discomfort was greatly frowned upon. Indonesian tattooing involved thick, black, abstract designs and is the basis for modern-day tribal tattooing. At one time, there were as many tattoo styles in Oceania as there were islands; many have been lost but some are still practiced.

As tattoos migrated across the Pacific Ocean, they changed form and appearance just as those bearing the tattoos changed. Traditional Hawaiian tattoos feature geometric shapes arranged in patterns that were unique to the individual. Traditional tattoos of American-Indians varied just as widely as any other custom of the American-Indians. Along the west coast, stretching from Mexico to the sub-arctic, chin tattoos were found on both men and women, ensuring that one was beautiful and would age gracefully. Beyond the West Coast, almost all tribes tattooed their chiefs and warriors with signs of battle and conquest. Some tribes, such as the Neutral, would cover their warriors’ bodies in symbols like bears and tomahawks, while other tribes, such as the Iroquois, would tattoo totem symbols signifying how many men one had killed. Tattoos were taken very seriously by some tribes – if a chief felt that a warrior hadn’t earned his tattoo, it would be cut off.

The other path that tattooing took from Polynesia was northwest to China. The tradition of Chinese tattooing dates back to 200 BCE and was largely punitive. There were numerous offenses that would result in a facial tattoo with the catch being that if you have a facial tattoo, you weren’t allowed in the city. As a result, after years of punitive tattooing, the tattoo lost its stigmatization, and convicts and military personnel soon started to add their own designs. Around the 16th century, tattoos started to decline in China while at the same time, they were gaining popularity in Japan.

In Japan, tattooing was largely influenced by Ukiyo-e prints and Suikoden, a popular Chinese novel; both of which featured illustrative wood carvings depicting larger-than-life characters with elaborate tattoos. The illustrators of these wood carvings soon evolved into the tattoo artists and became known as the “horishi” or “the tattoo master;” an apt title, as Japanese tattooists were known as some of the best in the world. The horishi were the first tattooists to have a large kit with varying needles, sometimes up to fifty different kinds with shafts ranging from one to up to thirty needles. The full body suit tattoo allowed a poor laborer to compete with the costly, extravagant clothing of the rich by having his own permanent extravagant suit of beautiful tattoos. Museums would pay for the skin of laborers with full body tattoos to preserve and exhibit; some of them still being displayed today.
Tattooing even has a rich history in Europe despite the fact that it was eradicated by Christianity nearly 2000 years ago. Some of the earliest evidence of tattooing in Europe was discovered in 1991 on the border of Austria and Italy. Ötzi the Iceman is an extremely well-preserved, 5000 year old mummy that has over fifty tattoos, believed to be medicinal, on various parts of his body. Different groups in what is now modern-day Western Russia had ornate tattoos dating as far back as 1800 BCE. The Romans, like the Chinese, tattooed prisoners, slaves, gladiators, and soldiers, a practice passed on to the Romans by the Greeks who in turn acquired the practice from the Persians. In 55 BCE, Julius Caesar invaded Britannia to find the natives ornately tattooed with ferocious images. It is even speculated that “Britannia” might mean “land of the painted people” in Celtic.

For many years, tattooing was thought to not exist in the majority of African nations because it was thought that dark ink pigments wouldn’t show on dark skin. It is now known that there was, in fact, tattooing in Africa, but as a result of earlier skepticism, the information that is available is somewhat limited. Ancient Egyptian mummies have been found with tattoos that are believed to be the first non-abstract tattoo design, a depiction of the god Bes, and many African tribes, from the Pygmies to the Bantu, tattooed themselves. Scarification was a much more popular alternative to tattooing in Africa. Girls of the Makalaka tribe in Southern Africa weren’t allowed to marry until their breasts and bellies had been cut 4000 times. Certain tribes of what is now modern-day the Congo would gouge deep spiral patterns into their faces similar to the moko of the Maori.

It was once thought that tattooing originated in the Middle East due to the discovery of tattooed mummies dating back to 3000 BCE. That has since been disproved, but tattooing has nonetheless had a long, culturally significant history in the Middle East. Tattoos were thought of as an “intimate jewelry” and were used to enhance a girl’s lil-hilã, or allure. Even though the Koran prohibits tattooing, tattoos have always been popular amongst pilgrims upon the completion of the hajj to Mecca. Since the Koran also prohibits the depiction of humans or animals, Muslim tattoos were traditionally abstract designs, such as flowers, crosses, moons, or swastikas.

There were also many tribes in South America that tattooed. Evidence of tattooing in South America can be hard to find for certain tribes (as they were wiped out and left no written record), or it can be fairly simple to find for certain tribes (as they have been so isolated that they still continue traditional tattooing practices). Recently, there was a tattooed, female mummy discovered in modern-day Peru. The mummy is very ornately tattooed and since it is a woman, baffling to anthropologists because this particular tribe was thought to be very cruel to its women. There are two styles of tattooing that were prominent in South America. One was a small patch around the mouth; the other consisted of lines extending from the corners of the mouth or chin to the ears.

The One Death of a Worldwide Phenomenon

Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead,
nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.
— Leviticus 19:28
This one verse out of the Bible completely destroyed tattooing around the world. Christianity’s battle with tattoos began in the year 325 when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity for the Romans, and it became an official papal edict in the year 787 when Pope Hadrian I banned tattooing completely. Around the late 15th Century, European explorers, sailors, and conquistadors, began exploring the earth under the flag of colonialism. When Captain James Cook went to the South Pacific, he found the natives tattooing themselves; Cook even coined the term “tattow,” derived from the Tahitian word “tatau.” Cook’s newly created word quickly spread across Europe with tales of Cook’s discoveries. The discovery of the Americas in the late 15th Century and further exploration of Africa in the 1600’s opened the doors of the New World to the Old World.

As word of the tattooed heathens spread through Europe, Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to enlighten all heathens around the world to the fact that the custom of tattooing (along with a number of other customs) which they’ve been practicing for centuries is, in fact, wrong. Catholics, Jesuits, and Protestants went all over the world, from Africa to Micronesia to South America, preaching the word of God and making new converts. As the world was Christianized, the rich tattoo history of countless cultures was all but destroyed.

The severed, intricately tattooed heads of Maori tribesmen became a much coveted commodity in Europe; in essence, degrading one’s moko, a very sacred religious symbol, to “an object of commercial value.” The tattooed heads became so sought after that some would decapitate common slaves, tattoo the faces, and sell them at an exorbitant amount. Some of these bootleg Maori heads are still thought to be unwittingly on display in British museums to this day. However, some islands throughout the South Pacific were too isolated for missionaries to access; thus, traditional tattooing is still practiced today.

Whereas the mission work done in the South Pacific was (mostly) good natured, the mission work done in the Americas was extremely brutal. As Europeans arrived in North America, the natives were greeted with war and European diseases, decimating the Native American population. By the 19th Century, the splendor and tradition of North American tattooing was lo As Europeans arrived in South America in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, missionaries actively set out to eradicate tattooing, believing it to be sent to earth by Satan. One Catholic priest, Franciscan Diego de Landa, led a crusade against tattooing resulting in many deaths. In a practice that might seem hypocritical to some, slaves captured by Catholics were branded and subsequently tattooed. Some Amazonian tribes were able to resist the missionaries due to their isolation, while most tattooing in South America ceased, not out of religious conversion, but rather, out of fear of the Spanish missionaries.

Besides a few highly isolated enclaves in the South Pacific islands and Amazon Jungle, Christianity had spread across the planet, ending tattooing wherever it went. However, there were some large areas of the world where Christianity never caught on. In both China and Japan, missionaries weren’t welcome. Tattooing in China was already very unpopular, though, and tattoos were going out of style in Japan, as the traditional bodysuit became widely associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Traditional tattooing in the Arctic resisted missionaries for years; however, it died out on its own volition by the end of the 19th Century.

But All Was Not Lost…


The real irony of Europeans going to the ends of the Earth in a veritable crusade to abolish tattooing is that at the same time, tattoos were gaining popularity in Europe. The sailors that escorted the missionaries to Polynesia and other South Pacific islands would return home with their own tattoos, leading to an on-again/off-again fad in Europe for the next 150 to 200 years. When tattooed severed heads of Maori tribesmen were brought back to Europe from New Zealand, Europeans flocked to see them. In 1876, the first living, breathing tattooed natives were brought to Europe and North America to be placed on display.

The displaying of tattooed natives of various countries (Alaskans, Hawaiians, Samoans, and Japanese) led to the carnival sideshows and midways. The first carnival freak-show to feature heavily tattooed individuals was the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. The fair embodied humankind’s contrast of savagery and technology by exhibiting both tattooed “savages” along with the latest technological advancements and inventions. Many heavily tattooed individuals, such as Prince Constantine, earned worldwide fame by touring with circuses and creating fanciful stories of being captured by natives and forcibly tattooed.

German immigrant and influential artist, Martin Hildebrandt, using traditional needle and mallet techniques, tattooed many Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, establishing a tradition of tattooed servicemen. In 1870, Hildebrandt opened the first professional tattoo studio in the United States (and possibly the West) in New York City. The invention that forever changed tattooing came in 1891 when self-proclaimed “Professor” Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine, based on Thomas Edison’s electric pen. Tattoos were revolutionized overnight, now being cheaper, less painful, and faster, for artists to administer. The traditional Americana style of tattooing was thus born; characterized by thick black outlines, heavy black shading, and a dab of color. Early influences on American tattooing came from popular tattoos in Europe (military insignia, hearts, roses, banners) and themes relevant to Americans (patriotism).

In the early 20th Century, the displaying of heavily tattooed “savages” in carnival sideshows fell out of popularity, as more and more Americans wanted to see heavily tattooed Westerners. With the help of these carnival sideshows and the 300+ full-time tattooed “freaks,” tattooing was able to move from the ports inland. Tattoos at the time cost between $0.50 and $1.00; with full bodysuits going for about $33.00. The twenty years between World War I and World War II are known as the Golden Age of tattooing, as it was still inexpensive and socially acceptable, due to the patriotism associated with it at the time.

Tattoos began to decline in popularity during and immediately following World War II. Americans finding out that the Nazis forcibly tattooed Jews contributed significantly to the post- WWII decline in tattoo popularity. The government also began to crack down on illegal tattooing. The first legal action taken against a tattoo artist came in 1944 when renowned artist Charlie Wagner was fined for not sterilizing needles; the charges were dropped when Wagner told the judge he didn’t have time to sterilize the needles since he was too busy complying with a 1908 rule against naked tattoos by tattooing clothes on nude pin-ups so men could join the Navy. Soon after, William Irving was fined for tattooing a minor. After World War II, the military began discouraging tattoos, and the price of tattoos went up substantially, both adding to tattooing’s decline in popularity.

It was in the post-World War II period that tattooing took on the stigma as being just for “bikers and convicts.” Many bikers were tattooed with motorcycle logos and Nazi symbols in defiance of the emerging conformist middle-class and the traditional patriotic theme of American tattooing. Chicano gangs and convicts were also tattooing themselves with themes that were culturally significant to themselves and, like bikers, leaving behind the traditional theme of patriotism. Chicano tattoo style eventually turned into its own style of tattooing – fine line style – a style that is still popular today.

In addition to tattooing becoming the mainstay of bikers and convicts, fears of disease drove tattooing back to the underground. In 1961, tattooing was banned in New York City because of an outbreak of hepatitis, with many of the cases being traced back to tattooing. The law declared that only a licensed doctor could tattoo humans. However, the Supreme Court found the ban to be unconstitutional in 1963, when it was decided that a total ban is overkill and guidelines calling for proper sterilization were all that were needed.

Tattoos began to make a comeback in the late-1960’s when celebrities like Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, and Flip Wilson, all got tattooed. Some call the era of tattoo acceptance that started in the late-1960’s (and continues through today) the “Tattoo Renaissance,” as it was (and is) a period marked with “technological, artistic, and social changes.” Those changes were largely brought about by two legendary tattooists – Sailor Jerry and Lyle Tuttle. Sailor Jerry was the first artist to introduce Japanese techniques and fuse them with American designs. Sailor Jerry saw the whole body as a canvas and would link tattoos together instead of haphazardly placing designs on the body. Lyle Tuttle helped write most of the health regulations for tattooing including individual ink cups and sterilization of needles. Tuttle also modified the tattoo machine for quick changing of needle

Tattooing has slowly and steadily been gaining popularity since the late-1960’s, and in the last ten years, it has literally exploded in popularity. As America’s attitude toward tattooing changes, so, too, does the media’s portrayal of tattooed America change. Just watch any news story or read an article on the resurgence of tattooing and you’ll basically see the same three elements. First, it will lump bikers, convicts, and sailors in to one category of low class (despite the wide variety of reasons that these different groups tattooed themselves) and easily discard them as the tattooed trash of yesteryear:
Years ago – perhaps no more than a dozen – the word “tattoo” conjured up images of drunken sailors on shore leave, burly bikers, carnival roustabouts.
Second, it will highlight the fact that it is now white collars and the college-educated being tattooed:
…Far more middle-class teenagers and adults, and especially women are getting tattoos.
And finally, it will only interview respectable members of the middle class, thus silencing the bikers and non-middle class:
[In reference to her ankle tattoos] “I thought they were cool,” said Ms. Giachetti, a customer service representative and mother of two.
Another element that is generally highlighted is the fact that there are now college-educated tattoo artists. In interviews with Muncie-area tattoo artists, Craig Mathis of Lucky Rabbit (who happens to be a college-educated artist) touched upon this: as a more sophisticated crowd of people start to get tattoos (professionals, college-educated, etc.), you get a “more sophisticated crowd of artists – graphic designers, comic book artists, and art majors.” Craig continued that the shops are even beginning to look “more like art galleries… catering to a middle-class family attitude.”

The seemingly recent acceptance of tattooing by the media and society as a whole is generally viewed as a positive thing for the tattooed culture. Dave Rynes of Ground Zero Tattoos (again, a college-educated artist) thinks that “the more it comes into public acceptance, the easier it is for young [people] to get tattooed without being labeled a trouble-maker.” It’s also agreed upon by most that tattooing will eventually fall by the wayside: Craig of Lucky Rabbit says “tattooing is more popular than it’s ever been. Eventually it will be overkill, it’s going to fall eventually.” Dave of Ground Zero concurs, “It’ll be a cycle. Some celebrity will get into something else. Who knows what will grab our attention next?”

One needs to only look as far as the newsstand to see how tattooing has changed considerably in the eyes of the media. The popular, aptly titled magazine Tattoo has changed significantly in the last twenty years. Flipping through issues of Tattoo from the late-80’s and early-90’s, looking past the giant “Adults Only” bulletin on the front cover, one will see crudely-drawn tattoos, bikers, borderline S&M, and full frontal nudity. The articles, written by people, such as Pulsating Paula and Gonzer, compliment the photos well:

There ain’t no doubt about it… the Tattoo Society of New York may not be a full blown international art community, but it sure as hell is well known throughout the east coast for top notch tattoo events.

Many of the topics discussed are rather similar, for example, in one issue: Best in Biker Tats, NYC Biker Tat Contest, and Outlaws MC Club Tats.

Compare that to a recent issue of Tattoo, and it’s like comparing Hustler to Better Homes & Gardens. Similar to the aforementioned media accounts but on a larger scale, the magazine has completely shed its rough-and-tumble biker image, replacing it with a much cleaner, socially acceptable middle-class image. The quality of the tattoos, the type of people interviewed, the caliber of the writing and photography, and even the paper on which the magazine is printed, have all drastically improved in the past twenty years. The genres of tattooing represented in an average issue of Tattoo have also greatly expanded, reflecting the trend of numerous styles that proliferate in tattooing today. The subjects of the articles have also been “middle-classized,” with subjects ranging from tattoo collectors that are yoga instructors and retired postal workers to recent a convention in Italy to the current state of tattooing in Bali.[li]

However, as much as tattooing has been accepted by the media and middle-class, there is still a significant cross-section of the population that still frowns upon tattooing. Not all printed articles about tattooing view it in such a favorable light and some are quite condescending toward tattooing:
If you… believe that 20 years from now you will still think that a small, tasteful rose on your bum… will mark you out as an individual, there’s a treat in store for you this weekend. … I’ve never seen one so attractive that it seems to justify its permanent place in someone’s life.
It’s a fair bet that the average female vicar rolling up her surplice sleeves for her sermon will soon display a forearm engraved with loaves and fishes – or whichever design was most fashionable at theological college.
As is plain to see, not all journalists are as accepting of tattooing as others. And despite the 40 million Americans with tattoos, there are still many who find them unfavorable.

Many Americans think that having excessive amounts of body art could be detrimental to one’s future prospects of employment. A nation-wide survey conducted in 2001 found that 85% of respondents agreed with the statement “people who have visible tattoos… should realize that this… is likely to create obstacles in their career or personal relationships.” Closer to home, a survey of 446 Ball State students and faculty found that 96.9% of respondents answered “yes” to a similar question, “Do you think that having visible tattoos would/does affect one’s potential for getting a job?” In a series of personal interviews with tattooed Ball State students, 18 of 21 respondents also answered “yes” to the same question.

The survey of 446 Ball State students and faculty divided people into two groups (tattooed and non-tattooed) and asked participants to do some word association. The survey provided a list of fifteen words often associated with tattooing and asked participants to choose the three that they agree with most. The top two words associated with tattooing among both tattooed and non-tattooed participants were “artistic” (26.9% among tattooed, 19.0% among non-tattooed) and “experimental” (15.7% among tattooed, 15.0% among non-tattooed).

It’s where the tattooed and non-tattooed participants disagreed that it is interesting. The third most-chosen word associated with tattooing among the non-tattooed participants was “rebellious” with 13.4% of respondents choosing it. The third most-chosen word among the tattooed participants, however, was “normal” with 11.8% choosing it. Compare that to 8.5% of tattooed participants choosing “rebellious” and only 5.5% of non-tattooed participants choosing “normal.” Another interesting discovery from the survey is that 11.2% of tattooed respondents associated the word “sexy” with tattooing compared to only 4.9% among non-tattooed participants. Similarly, 7.2% of non-tattooed participants associated “biker” with tattooing while only 2.4% of tattooed participants did.

In the interview conducted with Craig of Lucky Rabbit, Craig believes that the tattooed community needs some of the population to not like tattooing. Referencing a recent Larry King interview with Judge Judy where she spoke of how kids today are only concerned with their next tattoo, Craig said that, “We need [Judge Judy hating tattoos] because when [she] accepts tattoos, we’ve lost that rebelliousness.” And on the subject of the eighteen year old girl who needs to hide the butterfly on her hip from her dad: “We need that, too; if we lose that, we lose [the] edge.” Dave of Ground Zero echoes a similar sentiment: “The most common things we hear are ‘Dad will cut me off,’ ‘Mom will kick my ass,’ and ‘my girlfriend will break up with me.’ I guess there’s a little stigma still left… People still stare [at me].”

Tattoo Community


But so what if people still stare at tattooed people; that’s part of the reason that we got them in the first place, right? Anyone that has a tattoo can attest to the fact that there are still plenty of people in the world that don’t like tattoos, but what of the people with tattoos? Is there an unspoken bond that brings all of us together? There are certainly many forums for the discussion of tattoos: tattoo conventions, tattoo parlors, magazines, and countless internet message boards. But is there a “tattoo community?” In the interviews that I conducted with tattooed Ball State students and Muncie-area tattoo artists, I found that there is a wide variety of opinions on the state of tattooing in Muncie and the idea of a tattoo community, as a whole.
If someone is going to get a sense of a tattoo community, the first place that he/she would sense it would be where it all starts – the tattoo studio. Camaraderie in the studio depends on a lot of things: atmosphere of the shop, type of artists, type of clientele, and location, to name a few. In a series of interviews with 21 different tattooed Ball State students, seventeen said that they do feel a sense of camaraderie when going to the tattoo studio. Rhiannon C., commenting on the chattiness of artists, said that “a good tattoo artist is personable because it makes the experience that much more memorable.” Greg K. says if you’re a regular customer, “it’s like the local hang out. Everybody knows your name; Cheers and all that.”

Many tattooed people develop a relationship with their tattoo artist, since they spend anywhere from 20 minutes to hours upon hours in each other’s company. Dave at Ground Zero says, “Some people treat you as the poor man’s therapist or the bartender or the barber. People always have a story to tell.” Tattooed Ball State student Rachel E. feels an instant camaraderie when walking into a studio since everyone there has “experienced the pain and decision making process.” Jaime C., another student, echoed the same sentiment, “You instantly have something in common when you walk in… you always have something to talk about.

When asked about tattooing in Muncie, students’ reactions run the gamut, from “a blast” to “I wouldn’t get tattooed in Muncie again.” Charles S. said of the Muncie tattoo scene, “The [shops] in Muncie are great… there’s great camaraderie.” On the other hand, Jessica B. felt that Anderson-area studios, such as Black Rose, were “a lot more personable. I feel more of connection with the guys at Black Rose than at [Ground Zero].”Jade M. felt similarly about shops in Muncie but thought “it could be because the artists here in Muncie have a wide base of students here at Ball State that like getting tattoos. They care more about getting quality artwork than with creating a community so the artists are more stand-offish simply because they can be.”

But is there a community? The numbers of tattooed Americans and tattoo artists have been steadily on the rise for the last fifty years. In 1959, it was estimated that there were 20 million tattooed Americans and about 250 tattoo artists. It’s now estimated that there are 40 million tattooed Americans and over 10,000 artists. In addition, if one breaks it down to age demographics, 36% of Americans age 18 to 25 have at least one tattoo and 40% of Americans age 26 to 40 have at least one. Studies show that men and women are nearly equal in being tattooed: 16% of men compared to 15% of women.

While the number of tattooed Americans has steadily been on the rise, many (if not most) aspects of civic and community involvement have been on the decline. For example, membership levels in civic organizations have fallen to a tenth of what they were in 1962. Similarly, membership in labor unions has declined over 50% since the mid-1950’s while membership in bowling leagues has fallen from 128,000 in 1962 to an estimated 9,000 in 2005. As civic engagement falls and tattoos continue to rise, there arises the possibility of the tattoo studio becoming the new barbershop or community hangout.

Of the 21 tattooed Ball State students interviewed, eighteen of them agreed with the idea of the tattoo parlor becoming the new barbershop (with two saying it depends on the shop). Rhiannon C. says every generation has “a meeting place that defined the generation: the speakeasy, the malt shop, Studio 54. Our generation will be defined by the tattoo studio. Our barber shop is the tattoo studio.” Tattooed student and Ground Zero piercer Alan D. says since you’re sitting there for so long “you have to make small talk of some sort and some people just come into the shop to hang out. It’s definitely more liberal than your traditional barber shop. Amanda S. thinks it depends on the shop but that it could be considered “the counter-culture barbershop.”

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam points out that many of today’s civic organizations are centered in Washington DC and are professionally staffed. They are no longer the member-centered, locally based associations. Putnam asserts that this is part of the reason for the drastic decline in community and civic involvement. Interestingly enough, the tattoo community, whose membership is consistently on the rise, is completely based locally at the studio level and goes up to the regional/national level with tattoo conventions. There certainly isn’t a central headquarters for tattooing anywhere; it’s completely widespread, yet local at the same time. And as for a membership card – all you have to do is roll up your sleeve.
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