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For my blog this week I thought I’d follow up on @charlottejdann’s blog on tattoos and add some personal experiences to the discussion. The media certainly have had their part to play in the negative connotations surrounding tattoos and the types of people with them, however I question the extent to which the media influence those perceptions today. Based purely on my own experience and opinion I believe that tattoos have become relatively common and as we saw in Charlotte’s blog the rise in tattoo studios would certainly seem to support this assumption. In fact, I think a process of normalisation has occurred whereby it is more surprising when someone hasn’t got a tattoo than when they have. Furthermore, the negative connotations and ‘expressed shock’ at the increase in tattooing is, in my humble opinion, typically associated to those of the older, more traditional generation for whom tattooing was a symbol of deviance, rebellion and/or disrepute.
I got my first tattoo when I was just 14; a small black panther discreetly placed on my thigh. My choice of phrase here is not accidental, being just 14 and below the age of legal consent the placement of this tattoo had to be discrete to hide it from my mother. The intentional law breaking and deception of this act would certainly look like deviance to an outside observer. Since then I added two more tattoos to my collection and have another one planned for the near future. Reflecting on this notion of deviance and my own motivation I arrive at a number of conclusions. My first tattoo was, without doubt, an act of rebellion against the expectations placed upon me by family and peers to be a ‘good girl’ and a ‘high achiever’. I don’t in any way regret that tattoo but I can recognise the reason for getting it. My second tattoo was more daringly placed on my upper arm and in hindsight was not thought through or carefully picked but at the same time it was not an act of rebellion. Those of you with tattoos may understand when I say that getting tattoos is like an addiction, you either love them or hate them but once you’ve got one, you want more. It was this ‘addiction’ so to speak that led to my second tattoo. My third tattoo which covers my foot and spreads up my ankle, symbolises the changing direction of my life after the birth of my first child and is by far my favourite to date. In short, the meaning or motivation for each tattoo has shifted over time reflecting my growth as a person and my life experiences.
At the point of my third tattoo I’d entered the world of academia and was establishing my professional identity; an identity that was in some ways at odds with my tattooed body. Wearing a professional suit and heels with a tattoo on my foot and ankle certainly led to some raised eyebrows and disapproving looks from older colleagues. This reaction was nothing compared to the openly disapproving judgements I later encountered from fellow magistrates; not only was I young to be a magistrate but I was also tattooed and had the audacity to display them in court! Linking this reaction back to my earlier statement about deviance, rebellion and disrepute, the simplest thing would be for me to wear a trouser suit in court and hide my tattoos, in essence, conforming to societies expectations of that position. However, my reasons for not doing so are twofold, firstly I am a bit of rebel at heart and secondly, I do not see my tattoos as an act of deviance but one of self-expression. In all other areas of life, I conform to the norms and values of society, I have a career and present myself as a professional, I’m trying to raise my children to be good law-abiding citizens, I pay my bills on time, I put out my rubbish when asked and I try to treat others with compassion and respect. In short, I’ve joined the collective, blended into society and accepted the expectations of me as a woman, a mother, a daughter and so forth. My tattoos therefore are a reflection of self-expression, my little rebellious side that says, “I’m more than one of the collective, I’m an individual”. Each tattoo reflects my journey, where I have come from, what I have experienced, who I am and where I am going. They tell the reader that I am more than just a number, I am an individual embracing self-expression through body art because to me tattoos are not just ink, they are pieces of art symbolising your life journey. For this reason, I agree with Charlotte’s argument that tattooed people cannot be stereotyped as a homogeneous group because tattoos by their very nature make us unique individuals.
Charlotte Dann is a psychology lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Society, researching women’s tattooed bodies. You can find out more and get in touch via Twitter – @CharlotteJD
Whenever I discuss my tattoo research, I always frame it historically, because I think it’s important to consider how we have come to the point we are at with how tattoos are perceived and understood. And you know, it’s good for a laugh.
In the late 1800s, Lombroso researched deviancy and criminality, and as part of this, came to the conclusion that people who had tattoos were criminals and prostitutes. However, this research was conducted on – you guessed it – criminals and prostitutes. Despite the poor correlation that was presented, his research was influential in how we perceive deviancy and deviant bodies, to the point that those negative connotations towards tattooed bodies still ring true today. Tattoos may be ever rising in popularity (figures indicated one in five has a tattoo, and the number of studios rose by around 170% in the last decade in the UK), but tattooed bodies can still be found to be associated with deviancy.
Let’s consider the influence of the media in this. Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of articles that express shock for the fact that ‘normal’ people are getting tattoos, and why tattoos are becoming more popular for women. It only takes a quick gander at the comments left on these articles to see that public opinion hasn’t changed that much, and that these articles perpetuate negative perceptions about tattoos (i.e. they’re not meant for ‘normal’ people). Newspaper articles such as this often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle-class, ‘respectable’ people. The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised, and generally male bodies. Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people, whilst at the same time, normalise the practice of tattooing itself.
The media does not do a good job in quelling negative connotations regarding tattooed people, as they tend to focus more on the extremes – the eye-catching headlines, the things that make you wince and tut, not the everyday person who is tattooed. In recent years, newspapers have reported on tattooed teachers as being ‘inappropriate’ for children, on young adults who get cheap ‘joke’ tattoos on holidays in Magaluf, and present morality tales such as those who regret their tattoo choices. In addition, they also frame our understandings of ‘who’ this ‘normal’ tattooed person is (look – even Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby have them!)
I think what we need to do is question the idea of what a ‘normal’ body is, and really think about the assumptions we make about that body based on frankly outdated perceptions. There is no longer one particular type of person who is tattooed – the availability and accessibility of tattoo studios, designs, and techniques, has meant that you cannot stereotype all tattooed people as one homogenous group.