TATTOOS: PERCEPTIONS OF IDENTITY AND DEVIANCE
Jaclyn Marie Karr
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 2003
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
? A I \
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Jaclyn Marie Karr
has been approved
Karr, Jaclyn M. (M.A., Sociology)
Tattoos: Perceptions of Identity and Deviance
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Candan Duran-Aydintug
Tattoos have been an interesting topic for centuries; however, they have not
been studied in the field of Sociology extensively. Although anthropological
knowledge is important, the aim of this study is to have a better understanding
of tattooed people and their interactions in United States society, using the
theoretical framework of Strykers identity theory, Beckers labeling theory and
perceptions of deviance. In-depth interviews are used in order to get a deeper
understanding of respondents and their interactions with tattoos. Identity
salience seems to increase with the amount of tattoos. Identity commitment
seems to be related to the amount of tattoos that the respondent has, whereas
their social groups members have similar amounts of tattoos. Respondents at
all levels note the negative labeling that goes along with having tattoos, and
management varies with the amount of tattoos that one chooses to obtain. The
aspect of stigmatization emerged as results were analyzed.
This abstract accurately represents the context of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to my family for their understanding and support while I
was writing this. My moms strong sense of self has taught me to be strong and
uncompromising in the face of tough times, and I owe my strength to her. Kurtis
has taught me that we stand by one anothers side even through the hard times
and come out loving each other when everything is said and done, and our bond
is so important to me. Preston reminds me to not forget the fun things in life and
that excitement is what you make of it. I remember my dads enthusiasm
knowing that I was going to graduate, and thinking of him has helped motivate
me to do better, and I hope I have his approval. My family has been through
some tough times, and I keep them in mind as I try to succeed and do my best in
hopes of making them proud. I love them all, and think of each of them every
day. To Candan and Andrea, you have become my family too, and I could not
have made it this far without your inspiration, understanding, love, and support.
To all of those who have been patient with me during all of my stress and
craziness; I know that this has affected many peoples lives, and I appreciate
their understanding. And last but not least, to Cade for not only inspiring me,
but also for pushing me when I did not believe I could make it another day. He
has made me put my head down and move forward towards accomplishing my
goals, offered the encouragement that I needed, and gave me the drive and
motivation that I had forgotten was in me.
I could not possibly ever give enough thanks to my advisor, Candan Duran-
Aydintug, for she has remained calm during my hysteria, and been
understanding, patient, and has remained confident in me even when I forgot to
during these last two years. She has kept me motivated and inspired me to
complete my Masters program. Many more countless thanks go to Andrea Haar
as she has also been understanding, calm, positive, and supportive during these
last two years as I have reached to further my education. These two women are
amazing and without them I do not think that I would have made it through,
honestly, thank you. I would like to thank Richard Anderson for keeping a
positive attitude and helping to evoke a smile, and his assistance with my
project. Special thanks to Reyna Ulibarri for helping me through this process;
she has shared all of the moments of class, research, and stress with me. I thank
her for her assistance during this process. And of course, I would like to thank
all of my research participants for volunteering their time, and truly sharing
some of their experiences with me, as I know that some of them were very
personal. I think of them all the time and it brings a smile to my face thinking of
their kindness and amazing stories.
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE.....................................3
Tribal Tattoo History.....................................6
History in the United States..............................9
Perceptions of Deviance...............................14
Sample and Sample Characteristics........................16
4. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION......................................19
Identity Salience and Commitment.........................19
Perceptions of Deviance..................................30
5. CONCLUSION AND FUTURE RESEARCH
A. INTERVIEW SCHEDULE GUIDELINE.................51
Tattoos have been a part of different societies for a long time; however, they
have not received a lot of research attention in the field of Sociology. Although
tattoos have been a part of different cultures and societies, there have been several
developments and changes made as the process was brought to the United States.
Changes in design, style, color, and process have all been important as Americans
helped to develop tattooing as an art form and incorporate it into society.
Anthropological studies have researched tribal tattoos, and tattoo history has been
studied extensively by historians, but this current study focuses on tattoos in current
American society. This research aims to help expand on the little research done on
tattoos in American society. People who decide to get tattooed may go through a
number of different issues in their head while deciding how important this is to them,
how committed they want to become, and how they may be perceived by the general
public. This research is lead by identity theory and labeling theory with perceptions
of deviance in order to explore interactions, feelings, and perceptions about tattoos
by those who are tattooed. I felt it was important to include both heavily tattooed and
non-heavily tattooed people in the sample in order to see what kinds of differences
may exist, and where the change from a person who has a few tattoos, and a tattoo
collector is established. Tattoo collectors, defined by Vail (1999) are people who
become heavily tattooed, as differentiated from those who acquire and wear only a
few tattoos (pg. 261). Interestingly, as tattoos have been examined as a societal
phenomenon in other parts of the world, it seems that tattoos are examined in the
United States in a more individualistic sense. Individuality goes along with the ideals
of American culture; therefore, in order to explore the world of tattoos and
interactions with tattoos in the United States, it seems appropriate to start exploring
through individuals interactions before moving into a larger, societal view. Tattoos
can be examined in relation to groups, including gangs, prisons, and other affiliations
of tattoos, but with there being such a wide range of people getting tattooed in the
United States, it seems that individuals need to be taken into consideration as well,
and not just assumed to be part of a specific group.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Body modification has roots in history and society, playing different roles
and being part of a subculture that is not mainstream. Body modification includes
different practices such as scarification, piercing, cutting, binding, inserting implants
and tattooing (Featherstone, 2000; Mercury, 2000; McNab, 1999; Polhemus, 2004);
however, they are not necessarily all practiced together. McCarron (1999) identifies
different levels that people use to analyze tattoos, which is one style of body
modification, including the element of pain, the meanings of the tattoos, recognizing
the struggle with perceptions between natural and unnatural, along with good and
evil. Body modification and politics become an interesting topic as people in this
subculture struggle to claim their own bodies and identities (Pitts, 2003). Although
some people perceive body modification including self-mutilation in negative ways,
these practices have become more intriguing and have become an interesting part of
the media as a provocative and controversial subculture (Pitts, 1999). Klesse (1999)
discusses body modification and racialized representation through discussing non-
mainstream otherness along with identification through modification. He brings
the body as a project to the forefront noting the struggle with stereotypes and
discrimination among people who employ various methods of body modification.
Turner (1999) recognizes the stability of tattoos as a lasting part of human society as
he discusses the need to understand traditional tattooing within the context of a
theory which connects human embodiment to social processes, especially processes
of production and reproduction, because tattoos measured the progress of individuals
through the life-cycle (p. 40). Turner (1999) traces societal traditions and customs,
and notes how tattoos have been an important part of several societies. But tattooing
can also be viewed through fashion and identity as Sweetman (1999) discusses body
projects in relation to fashion and expression noting both the level of permanence
and pain. Body modification encompasses a wide span of topics, and tattoos are one
of these. Tattoos are not only a part of the culture in the United States, but have been
a cultural interest in different societies. Tattooing has increasingly become more
popular and is being discussed in both history and popular culture.
The interests and popularity of tattoos has changed over time not only from
the oldest tattooed body found to date, which was discovered in the Tyrolean Alps
dating back to 3300 B.C. (Miller, 2004), but also since its American beginnings.
Tattoos have been noted and have begun to inspire research in different areas
including anthropology and the art world; the Food and Drug Administration has
taken an interest (Henkel, 2004), as well as children looking at tattoos as a form of
self-expression rather than rebellion (James, Eng, Shapiro, 2003), along with
psychiatric implications (Raspa, Cusak, 1990), and college students thinking about
obtaining tattoos (Armstrong, Owen, Roberts, Koch, 2002). Tattoos may be analyzed
in several ways, and the reasons for obtaining them vary drastically. From biker
tattoos, to gang tattoos, to tribal tattoos, to mastectomy tattoos, to Japanese tattoos,
the list goes on and on, but a common element is that there is an interest. Women
find confidence in their mastectomy tattoos, while prison tattoos are earned and
indicate status (Chinchilla, 1997). Tattoos are not only being put on lower-class
individuals, in-fact many celebrities are also now taking part in this process (Gerard,
2001) in varying degrees. But one may take interest without actually being tattooed.
Magazines and books can be found at local bookstores that display tattooed men and
women with varying degrees of tattoos and styles. Entire books have even been
devoted to displaying the art of tattoos, some focusing on women, time period, or
other specifics (Webb, 2001; Webb, 1976; OSullivan, 1993; Wroblewski, 1989;
Schiffmacher and Riemschneider, 2001). Although some state that tattoos are a fad
(Stevenson, 1996; Sweetman, 1999), it is also clear that this fad has been around
for thousands of years, and many styles, techniques, and interests are here to stay.
Tribal Tattoo History
Tribal tattoo designs may be analyzed from several standpoints, including
tribal traditions, historical tattooing, and tribal tattooing in American society.
Tattoos, and especially tribal tattoos, have come to be used spiritually and as
protection in cultures around the world (Sloss, 2000, pg.7). Body modification
including tattooing and scarification are not traditions created by Americans, but
have been a part of tribes and cultures from other parts of the world. Tattoos have
been studied for some time in anthropology, as Buckland (1888) studies differences
in tattooing between tribes, genders, colors, methods, meanings, age of first
tattooing, who does the actual tattooing, status, and more, noting how this is not
standard, but changes between different groups of people.
Bell (1949) explores tattoos through the people of Tanga, who belong to a
Melanesian tribe, where tattooing is performed by select females onto both men and
women. In Tanga, women are slightly more likely to have tattoos than men, and
most people are only tattooed above the neck, while certain designs seem common.
Children are not tattooed in Tanga, as they commonly are in other Melasian tribes.
Although they are a sign of adult status, not everyone is required to be tattooed. It
seems that although the tradition is common and popular, there are no certain set
rules as to when one should be tattooed or how heavily; however, the designs on
women were noted as more complex. Haddon (1905) explores tattooing among the
people of Borneo, and finds variations among design, location, who was getting
tattooed, and who was performing the tattoos. Interestingly, he finds that the sign of
a dog was important to these people with their beliefs. Barton (1918) follows up
some of Haddons research, and finds that objects may not have a correlating
meaning that represents anything to do with the named object of the tattoo. Meanings
and tattoos may be more complex than naming objects. Mathur (1954) finds that
women among the tribes of Dudhi get tattooed; these women find importance with
status and identification through tattooing. Hage, Harary, and Milicic (1996) explore
tattooing, through gender and social stratification in Polynesia and Fiji with previous
work, and extend it to nuclear Micronesia.
Tribal tattoos take on new form and meaning with modem designs. Sloss
(2000) notes the influence of artists such as Cliff Raven and Leo Zulueta in the mid
nineteen hundreds in the rise of popularity of modem tribal tattooing while turning
away from color and gaining insight from original Pacific Island tattooing. Tribal
tattoos have changed over time, but their importance and popularity seem to be a
lasting design through history. Gilbert (2000) traces the importance and influence of
tattooing through history beginning with the origins in ancient history and Polynesia,
moving through discovery with Prince Giolo and Joseph Banks, then moving from
the Pacific Islands to North America, South America, England, France and Italy, and
he includes a discussion of specific areas such as the influence in the circus, religion,
professionalism, and contemporary contributions. Gilberts review shows the
importance of tattooing through history, but it also shows the change of tattooing
over time as it moved through different areas of the world, and how American
influences changed tattooing with technical precision, new design, and modern
Tattoos are not limited to tribal cultures in history, and have had importance
in other societies. Sinclair (1908) discusses how gypsies were the primary tattooists
and considered the experts to tattoo people in oriental cultures including Syria,
Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt, and Persia. Tattooing was an old custom among these
countries dating to ancient times, and Sinclair (1908) explores tattoos in regards to
tradition, design, gender, age, and the general process, but notes that careful study is
needed. None the less, tattoos in history from ancient times present an interest to
many, and anthropologists have documented some of the process from ancient to
civilized (Transactions of the Anthropological Society of Washington, 1882), as well
as document tattoos in different cultures, including roles of status. Tannenbaum
(1987) uses Shan tattoos to examine amoral power with Buddhist and animist
practices. Tattoos have been an important cultural element, and can be traced to
nearly all parts of the world at some point in time (Caplan, 2000).
History in the United States
Although tattooing was an important cultural element before being
introduced in American culture, it was also greatly transformed in this society.
Tattooing reemerged in Western Europe when William Dampier brought Prince
Giolo from the South Seas to London in 1691 (Krakow, 1994), but tattooing in the
United States began in the late eighteen hundreds with Captain James Cooks
exploration of the South Pacific. Through the voyages of the Royal Navy in the
Polynesian Islands, tattooing was introduced to Americans, and a new segment of
tattoo history began (DeMello, 2000; Karkow, 1994). The tattoo machine was
introduced in the late nineteen hundreds, and Samuel OReilly patented the first
electric machine in 1891 (Krakow, 1994). This changed the process from the slow,
extremely painful process done by hand to a less painful, quicker and cheaper
method. At this time, tattooing appeared to be a fad, and military men and lower-
classes were typically the ones getting tattooed, but tattoos continue to be an
important part of American culture. Although tattoos were first brought to the United
States worn by men, women also became interested and also began getting tattooed.
Mifflin (1997) traces the history of women and tattoos. Women who were tattooed
around the turn of the nineteenth century were often circus women, and photos
reveal the daring women of this time (Mifflin, 1997; Govenar, 2003). This was a
pretty risky venture for women at this time, even more unacceptable than it was for
There appears to be an interest in women and tattoos, as there has been some
recent research on this topic. Hawkes, Senn, and Thom (2004) examine factors that
influence attitudes toward women with tattoos, and find that women are viewed more
negatively than men in regards to having a visible tattoo. This is certainly in
congruence with conservative gender attitudes toward women. Atkinson (2002)
notes the large number of women being tattooed, and examines women and their
tattoos, in relation to conformity and resistance towards cultural gender perceptions,
examining how they feel tattoos deviate from or conform to their femininity. Women
and tattoos seem to be a complicating matter because there are many different things
to consider, but one thing to note is that many women are feeling beautiful in their
tattooed skin (Braunberger, 2000). Tattoos are also related to masculine identity and
perceptions of deviance from social order (Steward, 1990). DeMello (1993) observes
the social status related to prison tattoos both in regards to status inside and outside
of prison, and in relation to society, noting the lower status of prison tattoos and
tattooists. Then, there has been some research done on those who become serious
about tattoos, and are called tattoo collectors, as they negotiate this subculture and
become deeply involved in it (Vail, 1999). The process of becoming and being
tattooed, and the cultural and social aspects are discussed by Sanders (1989), while
Atkinson (2003) examines these issues in Canadian culture, but references American
society, and talks about a variety of issues including how to analyze the topic
including deviance, identity, social construction, and tattoos in different social
aspects. Irwin (2000) discusses research on tattoos; how it has been viewed and
perceived in a deviant manner, examines how tattoos have changed in recent
decades, and ultimately how these perceptions of deviance have been pushing into
new boundaries, while more individuals, and different groups of people are getting
tattooed and are using them to help create their identities, while still navigating
relationships with other people including family, employers, and others, and trying to
avoid labels of a deviant subculture. As anthropologists have over time explored
body modification, it has become clear that this contemporary social practice is an
important part of society and has different elements to consider (Vale and Juno,
Interactionism began with influences by people such as William James, John
Dewey, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and had an impact on George Herbert Mead.
James examined the feeling of the self through interactions with others. Dewey
stressed the process of thinking in humans. Simmel pushed forward thought through
social group affiliations. Weber examined social actions and behavior. Mead brought
together concepts concerning the individual and society, and many others borrowed
his ideas to create diverse theoretical perspectives in symbolic interactionism. Turner
(1991) discusses how two schools developed within symbolic interactionism, the
Chicago and Iowa schools, which he feels are somewhat inappropriate, but still
discusses their distinctions. Herbert Blumer from the Chicago school took over
Meads position. Blumer is known for his interest and critique of deductive theory
and emphasis on building sociological theory, while Manford Kuhn, the principle
figure in the Iowa school, is known for his focus on quantitative measures and
positivistic approach. However, symbolic interactionists all place emphasis on
humans creating and using symbols (Turner, 1991).
Studies on identity theory are often indebted to work by Mead and Cooley.
As perceptions of identity have changed over time, perceptions about identity have
become a large part of symbolic interactionism. James, Cooley, Mead, Simmel, and
Weber are important to note when discussing symbolic interactionism, and have had
an impact on Strykers identity theory. Research guided by identity theory has shown
the robustness and effectiveness of identity theory (Deaux and Martin, 2003; Hitlin,
2003; Hogg and Ridgeway, 2003; Hogg, Terry, and White, 1995; Large and
Marcussen, 2000; Nuttbrock and Freudiger, 1991; Stets and Burke, 2000; Stryker
and Burke, 2000; Thoits, 1991; Thoits, 1992). Stryker (1980) discusses identity
salience by noting how the self is comprised of several identities that may be evoked
in different situations. Stryker states, Discrete identities may be thought of as
ordered into a salience hierarchy, such that the higher the identity in that hierarchy,
the more likely that the identity will be invoked in a given situation or in many
situations; this probability of invocation is what defines identity salience (p. 60-61).
Tattoos may or may not be an important part of identity depending on the visibility,
the number obtained, and a number of other factors, which I am exploring with the
participants. Another component of Strykers identity theory is commitment.
Commitment is where social structure and the self meet (Stryker 1980). One is
committed when they identify to a greater degree with a role and a group that is
consistent with that role. If one identifies to a greater or higher level to a given
group, then this in turn increases the hierarchy of salience. I am interested in
knowing how those who are tattooed to varying degrees are part of social groups that
have members who are also tattooed at the same level as the participant, and how
important this aspect is to the individuals who are tattooed. In addition to analyzing
identity, while reviewing the literature, it seems that perceptions of deviance may be
an important aspect to examine while trying to understand links to identity and social
constructions that affect interactions and perceptions that are part of the tattoo world.
Perceptions of Deviance
Becker (1997) studies deviance through social constructions. Labeling theory
and perceptions of deviance have been shown to be an important theoretical
framework in symbolic interactionism and Sociology (Wells, 1978; Horwitz, 1979;
Link, Mirotznik, and Cullen, 1991; Matsueda, 1992; Rosenfield, 1997; Lemert,
1951; Conover, 1976; Krohn and Akers, 1977; Scheff, 1974). Becker explains
deviance in a different manner than with tattoos, but notes how it is important to
recognize that deviance can be analyzed in different ways, and that although
ambiguous, he defines it as a measure that deviates from the norms of the major
social group. Becker (1964) examines different areas of deviance from drug addicts
to convicts to gamblers, but the common element is the social groups creation of
rules, and then the stigmatization of those who deviate from those rules, resulting in
the label as an outsider. Matza (1969) also examines deviance and encounters the
difficulty of a definition, but recognizes it as ambiguous and says that it is straying
from the standard. In order to relate this to tattoos, a few things must be taken into
consideration. There is no actual measure of deviance that can be used to tell when a
deviant act is committed, but rather a standard. Tattoos might be perceived as deviant
by the majority of society, but can only be measured by perceptions. In this study,
deviance is understood through the labels given by the participants and the negative
statements made about tattoos. There may also be a threshold in which a certain
amount of tattooing is acceptable that may overflow into an amount that is not
acceptable and will therefore be seen as deviant, which is explored through this
Sample and Sample Characteristics
Participants were found for this project by using a convenience sample
technique and also with the help of a key informant. The key informant was selected
as a person that I know, who knows several people who have tattoos in varying
amounts and visibility. The key informant gave me information to contact tattooed
people. Sixteen participants were interviewed. Fourteen interviews were transcribed,
but two were lost due to equipment malfunction. The age range was 22 to 53 years
old. There were eight men and eight women interviewed. Education ranged from
some high school to some college graduate school. Income levels varied from zero to
twenty thousand up to over one-hundred thousand dollars annually. Ethnicity as
perceived by the participants included five Caucasian males, four Caucasian females,
one Caucasian-Welch, one Puerto Rican male, one Caucasian-Polish female, one
Spanish-Indian male, one Hispanic female, one Hispanic male, and one female who
In-depth interviews were conducted with the sixteen participants. An
interview guideline (Appendix A) was used in order to explore the participants
identity salience, identity commitment, and perceptions of deviance. An interview
guideline was used due to the flexibility of asking questions in relation to what is
being discussed by the participant, as opposed to an interview schedule. Probing was
used as necessary, and a conversational flow was maintained. Since these concepts
have not been used extensively in the literature in regards to tattoos and research in
regards to tattoos, this measure allowed for the researcher to explore issues as they
occurred in the interview that may have not been expected. The questions asked were
open ended. Questions were formed by using Strykers (1980) concept of identity
salience and commitment, and Beckers (1997) concepts of labeling and deviance.
After choosing the topic and writing a proposal, the research was submitted
to and approved by the human subjects committee. Participants were located and
asked if they would be willing to participate. With those who agreed, interviews
began at the end of 2004 and completed early 2005. Groups were formed, which
included gender and number of tattoos the individuals had, and participants were
found who met the requirements. Sixteen participants were interviewed total. After
participants verbally agreed to an interview, a time and date were selected by the
participant. Participants were free to ask any questions they had about
confidentiality, the research, or any other things they wanted to talk about, and I was
open to discussion with them. Several asked about my interest in tattoos and also the
field that this study was in relation to. A consent form was signed at the beginning of
the meeting for the interview, and then the interview began. All of the interviews
were audio taped and transcribed. After all of the interviews and transcriptions were
completed, a data analysis was performed in order to identify common themes or
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Identity Salience and Commitment
Using Strykers (1980) identity theory, information provided by participants
was analyzed to measure salience and commitment. From participants responses,
salience seems to be higher among those who are more tattooed or more visibly
tattooed, and lower among those who are less tattooed or less visibly tattooed;
however, there is some level of identity salience at all levels. It also seems that the
standard for commitment varies, as some who are heavily tattooed have several
friends who are not tattooed, while people who are not as heavily tattooed have many
friends who are tattooed. Overall, commitment has to do with the level that the
individual is tattooed at, where people are committed to group affiliations, while
their level of tattoos is similar among the other group members.
Identity salience, as previously described, is analyzed by the ties of the tattoo
or tattoos to the persons sense of self and identity. Those who have a smaller
amount of tattoos seem to exhibit somewhat of a lesser degree of identity salience,
although are not completely detached from their tattoos. Salem (27) has one tattoo
and discusses how her tattoo represents balance and how she tries to achieve this in
her life, so her tattoo represents a balance in the universe that she is trying to create
within her own life. She tells me that her tattoo is important part of her, and says, I
think it is a big deal to put something like that on your body that you can never take
off..and she talks about how she spent years thinking about the tattoo design. She
says that although she cannot see herself without her tattoo that she does not think it
would change her as a person and says I cant say exactly what it did for me outside
of maybe the experience of actually getting it, but I dont know if I could say
specifically what the experience did for me. So in some ways she feels it is an
important part of her, but there is a level of detachment from it being on her
compared to part of her.
There also seems to be an intermediary view when the respondent discusses
how it does represent them, but seems a bit unsure of the permanence of importance
or ties to the self. Ezekiel (25) says that his tattoo represented him when he got it,
then says he got it based on looks, but then pulls the representation into his current
life and belief system, which is also contradictory as he describes how his tattoo is a
symbol for longevity, and says that his current life is led by religious beliefs and that
longevity does not necessarily have to be on earth, but he will live on after his human
death. He continues to go back and forth with how it does and does not represent
On the other hand, sometimes identity salience is low and the respondents do
not feel like their tattoo(s) are tied to them. Rose (42) who has one tattoo says that I
dont really feel like it represents me... .1 dont think it really makes me who I am.
Rose even mis-identified what the tattoo is at the beginning of the interview, which
may have just been a slip of the tongue, but seems representative of her lack of ties
However, tattoos may be a social event with certain people. Steven (22) talks
about his first tattoo being a rite of passage in his tightly knit social group in high
school, and then discusses how his two tattoos are more of a reflection of him
versus a representation of him. He talks about how he has changed one of his tattoos
a few times, and says, I find something I like and then it gets done and its not to
my satisfaction so I end up changing it and changing it. So, as in other aspects of his
life, he is constantly working on making things different and better, although as with
tattoos it may not be a factor that he is deeply tied to. Steven says he doesnt keep
putting meaning into his tattoos and doesnt think of them too much, and thinks he
would be the same without them.
This is not to ignore the fact that some people do feel tied to their tattoos.
Jayson (26) who has two tattoos and has spent less than five hours getting tattooed,
told me that his tattoos are just a part of me, but then later went on to tell me that
he doesnt necessarily think that he would be a different person without his tattoos,
nor do they represent him as a person. Even though, he does state that he could not
imagine himself without them because they are something you place [d] on you that
will always be there, and its the same as like having a mole.. .or freckles.
Listening to respondents who have only one or two tattoos, one can hear
some variance as to how closely they are tied to their tattoos. While some are not tied
to them at all, others are tied but do not have a high identity salience. Stryker (1980)
discusses how identity salience is one specification of the concept of self (p. 81).
The respondents identity salience is on the lower side in this first group of people
who have one or two tattoos, as they do not reflect the concept of self when
describing their tattoos.
Identity salience seems to retain an unstable level as a few more tattoos are
incorporated. Chrys (24), who has three tattoos, feels like her tattoos are very
meaningful to her as she relates them to her spiritual beliefs, and says how its a
way to basically express myself, and then more of a memory thing for me, but I
dont think it changes my attitude or who I am. She later says how her tattoos make
her more self-confident, which implies having something rather than being
something. Chrys does state that they represent her outgoing attitude towards life and
Then, on the other hand, Ralphie (27) who also has three tattoos, talks about
his tattoos being really, really important to him. He also discusses his tattoos as
being a landmark of memories. Ralphie talks about wanting to have art on his body
for a long time, and expresses how important his tattoos are, how much they mean to
him, and how they represent him, in his attitude and with friendships, but when he
discusses how he might be a different person, he says, Im sure my personality is
who I am, you know no matter what, rather I have tattoos or not, but as of now they
represent so much of my life from past to future that I just couldnt see myself
without them. So here again, it seems to be that identity salience is at a mid-level
where he acknowledges their importance, but at the same time they are not
incorporated into his being as a person on a continuous level. The concept of self still
maintains a certain amount of separateness, although it is apparent that the
participants feel connected to their tattoos, and use them as a memory marking point,
which incorporates the self into the body art. As Turner (1991) discusses the
emphasis of symbolic interactionism on the creation and usage of symbols, it is
apparent here that the symbols are meaningful, but do not seem to cross into
interactions at a higher or significant level, permeating the meaning of self with
Although salience seems to become increasingly higher with the number of
tattoos up to this point, I found that identity salience does not necessarily become
greater, although in some cases it did. Venus (31), who has five tattoos, describes it
as a spur of the moment, passing event or thing to do. She talks about how only one
tattoo was planned in advance, while the others were at times when she randomly
decided it was something she wanted to do. Venus describes how her friends were
into tattooing and so she got one too, but says it wasnt like sentimental, but says
that she likes them. To her, they represent her daring or outgoing side, and she says
she cannot picture herself without them because theyve been there so long now.
Identity salience was not extremely high for her, and this seems clear as she
obviously notes them as an object she has by saying, its art like you would wear a
pair of earrings, you dont necessarily have to like everybodys earrings... She also
equates tattoos to clothing saying that they arent that important. It is important to
note that there was a social aspect to it though, as she talks about doing this with
friends and as part of a group, which brings an element of identity salience and
commitment into a group affiliation.
At this point though, tattoos become to take on a higher identity salience for
others. Sasha (53), who has five tattoos, starts telling me stories about her
experiences in a tattoo shop and while completing a tattoo photo journalistic essay.
Through these experiences she explains the importance of her tattoos. She weaves a
picture through her stories by talking about how she found her strength as a woman
and how she has marked significant life events through her tattoos. Sashas tattoos
seem to be an integral part of her as she talks about sharing her tattoos as a part of
her with others and says, its that moment of being honest, and one-hundred percent
exposed, thats who you are. Here she expresses how her tattoos expose her as a
person, and do not seem to represent something that she has. When she discusses
how her tattoos represent her, she explains, I think my tattoos lay aspects of myself
naked to the public and later expresses that she could not imagine herself without
tattoos. Sasha says I think the process that I went through has made the difference
while talking about getting the tattoos and the events that went along with them.
Sue (24), who has six tattoos when considering several have been combined
into one, also has a high degree of identity salience. He discusses his tattoos in the
form of stories as well, but he tells personal life stories, whereas Sasha told several
stories about others. Sue tells me about how tattoos incorporate his life from close
personal relationships to innermost feelings to career ambitions and more. He
explains that they really do represent him and his tattoos are the story of his life, he
says my story is up to the point, up to my, Im 24 now, its right there with me so,
and itll grow with me. Sue discusses how he likes others to feel comfortable and
people are open to their own interpretations of his tattoos. He expresses how he loves
his tattoos and says that they are his babies, and they have become a part of him
that he doesnt see them as on him, he says you just forget about them, theyre a
part of you, theyre a part of me. He goes on to say that he does think that he would
be somebody different without them and says, I seriously think that I wouldnt be so
happy. In agreement with Sasha, he admits that he is exposing himself completely,
but says he is okay with that. Hogg, Terry, and White (1995) discuss identity theory
by noting reciprocal relations between self and society (p. 256). Sasha and Sue
both bring in components of society that relate to the self, and are incorporated into
their tattoos. Identity salience becomes stronger for these respondents than was seen
with the participants who had less tattoos.
Up to this point, identity salience has been becoming greater with the
increasing amount of tattoos; although it is also clear that more tattoos do not
necessarily mean a greater level of salience as with the case of Venus. Going into the
last group of respondents, a larger amount of tattoos is analyzed and a greater degree
of visibility appears.
Delphine (36) has seven tattoos, two of which are on her wrists so they are
more visible than some of the tattoos of people previously noted. Delphine also
discusses her tattoos through stories of family and work. She believes her tattoos do
represent her and her interests in reading fantasy books. Delphine embraces the idea
that some people may not talk to her because of her visible tattoos, but uses it as a
sign that she doesnt want to be judged from appearances, but rather her personality
and if they do not talk to her because of her tattoos, they are both better off
anyways. She relates her tattoos to who she is and says, I am my own person, I am
very independent, I really dont care what you think of me, but when they talk to me
Im extremely friendly... and then she later goes on to talk about how she would
not be the same person without her tattoos and they are a part of her self expression.
Delphine feels that her tattoos are very much a part of her and says, these are a part
of me, and to be totally honest with you, I dont even see them anymore.. .because
its just me, its a part of me.
Another woman, Cherry (29), who has nine tattoos including her wrists and
her eyebrows, discusses her tattoos through her life and through working in the tattoo
industry. Although she feels that her tattoos are very important to her, she also feels
that they may not be very representative. Cherry tells me that she definitely
identifies as a tattooed person, and talks about how she could not be without tattoos.
She once was photographed and had the tattoos brushed-out of the picture for
anonymity, and she says she felt so naked. Now, comparing herself with tattoos,
she says, I no longer feel that naked, I no longer feel that vulnerable. I did find it
interesting that there was a bit of hesitance in her identifying with her tattoos when
she notes that she does not think she would be someone else, but she admits that she
might be at a different point in her life and that her life would be different without
tattoos. She seems to recognize that her tattoos are an important part and that she
identifies by them, but at the same time she keeps a slight amount of distance
between them and her personal self. Stryker (1980) talks about the hierarchy of
identity salience, and it seems that both of these women identify themselves in part
by their tattoos, and clearly incorporate them into their lives where they impact
interactions with others, considering the higher degree of visibility.
There seems to be an extreme or higher level to identity salience when
visibility becomes a major aspect. Up to this point, all respondents discuss how they
are able to cover their tattoos when necessary. I was able to interview Oliver (39)
who has tattoos all over his body including his face and hands. While interviewing
him, it became glaringly obvious that his tattoos were a major part of him, and
identity salience was very high. Oliver typically did not talk about his tattoos
directly, but instead told me life stories to a greater degree than any other of the
participants. As others would incorporate their tattoos into stories and tell me what
they symbolized, Oliver told me stories and almost expected that I would see the
link, but often I would have to directly ask and then he would go into greater detail
and explain. His tattoos are highly spiritual and religious, coinciding with his beliefs,
and bringing about different stories throughout his life. He talks about a lifestyle that
he leads and how his tattoos are a part of this type of lifestyle. Oliver recognizes that
there are not many people who choose to get tattooed in such a visible degree as he
does, and says, a person like me is only three percent of the population. Oliver
compares his tattoos to a birth mark or children. He says its part of who I
am.. .theyre like children, I know when they were birthed.. ..I wouldnt be the same
person if I didnt have any tattoos. He feels that his tattoos are very personal and
says that he is a very personal person who keeps to himself. He says tattooing is very
natural, and through his stories, tattooing as a part of him and his life clearly
emerged. Stryker (1980) discusses how the higher the identity in the hierarchy of
identity salience, the more likely that the identity may be invoked given a situation.
Here it seems that Olivers interactions and identity are largely connected to his
tattoos, and that they are not separate, so this identity is often at play in his roles and
interactions with others, and with his beliefs with his life course.
Commitment is another aspect of identity that can be analyzed; however, I
found that there seems to be a connection between the amount and visibility of
tattoos and commitment. It seems that many of the participants reported that many of
their friends had at least one tattoo, while some like Sasha reported that none of her
friends had tattoos and she seemed to have a higher level of identity salience. Oliver
reported that all of his friends had tattoos, while Rose reports that some of her
friends have tattoos. It seems that most people socialized in a group of people that
had some exposure to tattoos, but it did not seem to make a crucial impact on their
social group, or who they associated with, although a link was identified. None of the
respondents said that they would only associate with tattooed or non-tattooed people.
Stryker (1980) discusses a link between identity salience and commitment, where
people who are more committed also exhibit higher levels of identity salience, and
there was some support of this. Also, Stryker (1980) talks about commitment as the
degree that ones relationships to specified sets of other persons depend on being a
particular kind of person, one is committed to being that kind of person (p. 61). He
discusses how if it is important that one maintains ties to a group, then they will act
and identify as a member of that group. In this study, it seems that there is a tie
between salience and commitment, as Stryker (1980) notes in his hypotheses, as the
salience and commitment increase in related patterns. In this study, those who were
less tattooed exhibited lower amounts of identity salience, and many respondents
were committed to a group with similar amounts of tattoos. Overall, it may be more
likely that those who are more heavily tattooed are more likely to have a higher level
of commitment with people who also are more heavily tattooed, but it does not
necessarily mean that they are constricted to any set standard. From the respondents
answers, it seems like there is a slight pattern of increasing commitment along with
increasing amounts of tattoos, which does not mean that it was a strict rule, as a few
people who showed signs of higher or lower levels of identity salience did not
exhibit the same level of identity commitment.
Perceptions of Deviance
Perceptions of deviance are a social construction of a given society, as
Becker (1997) discusses. Participants were asked about how they feel others think or
feel about their tattoos and tattoos in relation to the general public. There seems to be
some mixed responses to this. I became interested in how respondents do not
necessarily come straight out and say that others judge tattooed people, but in a
round about way they would start by telling me about how tattoos are generally not
accepted in the work place, and then later go on to say how it is becoming more
accepted, but that is still seen as an act of deviance. This is discussed at all levels of
people being tattooed, and respondents, typically respondents with lower amounts or
fewer numbers of tattoos, would sometimes talk about how they do not think they are
treated differently, but that our society is not accepting of this practice. I also find
that there seems to be some gender difference in perceptions of deviance.
Most respondents discuss how they cover their tattoo(s) at work. This seems
to be somewhat standard; however, a certain level of acceptability in the workforce
seems to be allowed. Salem (27) has one tattoo which is on the upper part of her
back between her shoulder blades, and she tells me that there has not been any work
related problems due to her tattoo because of where its at, but acknowledges that a
stigma exists when she says theres a certain sector of society that...theres a
stereotype, I think that can exist with it, for sure.. .like maybe those people drink and
smoke or they party, that kind of thing. She recognizes that a stereotype exists but
also thinks that there is a slow progression to where its becoming more socially
acceptable. She admits that she will probably not tattoo other places than her back,
and tells me briefly that her mother has made comments about her having a tattoo
and how this is not very proper since she has a child.
Ezekiel (25) discusses how he works in the banking industry and tattoos must
be covered when he is at work for a professional appearance, but he does not worry
about this since his tattoo is on his upper-arm in a coverable spot according to dress
code. He said that he could not tell if he has been treated differently by people due to
his tattoo, but feels that the general public is extremely judgmental and hypocritical
towards people with tattoos and he goes on to say that women and more heavily
tattooed people are more shocking to the public, and says that visibility is an issue.
Rose (42) repeatedly tells me about how her tattoo is in a discrete place that
is easily coverable. Although she says that she does not think her tattoo is judged
negatively by others, she believes it is because of the placement and size. She talks
about how she believes that people, and especially women, are stigmatized by others
and she voices her fear for their ability to obtain a decent job or reactions that they
will receive from society. Rose shares that I still look and cringe because I know
that society doesnt accept tattoos, so like for a female when they start getting all
their arms covered.. .theyre not going to be looked at as a woman. Rose even talks
about hiring for a company she once worked for and tells me that she hired a man
who had his arms tattooed, sleeved, and she had to tell him to keep them covered
while at work. She thinks that younger people are more accepting, but says people
in my generation are against tattoos. She believes that people who are tattooed get
looked at differently and may be passed over with opportunity because of the social
Steven (22) has both of his tattoos in coverable places, one on his arm and
one on his ribs, and he says that he worries that more visible tattoos may be limiting
from a job. He also notes that people in society may see tattoos and make
stereotypical judgments about people who are tattooed, but says it never ever
matters to me unless I am being judged by somebody thats higher on the ladder than
me. He worries about career options and judgments in the work atmosphere, and
notes that people may judge tattooed people as degenerate. This issue keeps him
from getting more tattoos or in more visible places. He thinks that older people or
religious people may judge more critically, and says that women who are tattooed
may be judged in negative connotations relating to sexual practice, whereas men will
be judged as criminals.
Jayson (26) says he only worries about covering his two tattoos at work
because he needs to be portrayed as clean cut. He does not seem to believe there is
as heavy stigmatization from the public because he thinks its pretty common now
but says that heavily tattooed people, are a bit more picked-on by some of the
public because he thinks that having a couple smaller tattoos is more acceptable
than a larger or more visible amount. It is interesting to hear some of these comments
as these people have only one or two tattoos, but are obviously aware of the social
connotation of deviance that label tattooed people, especially more heavily tattooed
Becker (1997) discusses rules and values that come into play when
examining deviance. Although values may be incorporated into rules, a value may
not necessarily imply a rule. In the above accounts, respondents discuss how they are
aware that tattoos may be seen as deviant, which indicate values of employers, but
the respondents do not discuss actual rules. This makes policy ambiguous, and it
seems that respondents generally did try to cover their tattoos in a work or
These perceptions of deviance continue to be noted by people as the number
of tattoos increase. Ralphie (27) notes he made a rule for himself that he would keep
his tattoos in places that he could keep covered and hidden, so he would still be able
to look professional for work with customers. He says he loves showing off his
tattoos, but has concerns about their acceptability, although he says I think tattoos
are getting a little more accepted these days. Ralphie discusses how he believes that
people in society do frown upon tattoos, and goes back to talk about work
situations a couple of times. He states how he needs to be able to hide his tattoos at
work so he does not have somebody that kind of will look at it all wrong and goes
on to say with me being in management Ive got to be able to take care of all the
customers, no matter what they believe in, so I do try to be able to keep them hidden
underneath the clothes. He also talks about how the owners and higher officers in
the fast-food industry that he works for do not like tattoos and even made a comment
to another employee outside of work about their tattoos being inappropriate in any
situation. He also believes that society is more accepting of men having tattoos than
women. Although some employers mandate that tattoos be covered while at work,
this is not always the situation.
Chrys (27) seems to have an odd borderline situation with work. She tells me
that in her customer service position at work, she dresses professionally and covers
the one on her back and hip, but allows for her ankle to show at times. She notes how
she works in a corporate environment and recognizes the need to be semi-
professional, but says that most people do not even notice the tattoo. She feels it is
more important that you can prove to them that you can do the job. Chrys does
discuss how management may perceive you as a specific stereotype personality
and then says, So I think you wind-up proving yourself a little more than somebody
else that doesnt have them. She notes that it may be even harder for women and
they are forced to work even harder to prove themselves, and that this may become a
greater issue as one moves up the corporate ladder and is dealing more directly with
upper levels of the company. While discussing perceptions of deviance, Chrys also
noted that a woman is supposed to be more feminine and they dont always think
tattoos are feminine speaking about perceptions of the public. She goes on to say
that tattoos may be perceived as a sign of instability, especially for women, and that
this includes different aspects of life such as emotional, physical, marital, etc. She
says there is a stereotype of tattoos that implies deviance with people being from
the street, or hoodlums. Interestingly, Chrys told me that Catholics may be inclined
to get tattoos of religious significance tattooed on them; while another respondent
had thought people who had religious affiliations would not get tattooed.
Venus (31) discusses how she hides her tattoos at work, at church, when
going to her grandmothers house, and at a fancy kind of social event or something
like that where its not appropriate. She tells me how she has strategically located
her tattoos so that they are easily coverable, but notes that one does come down her
arm a bit, but she is still able to cover it. She notes that she does not want her tattoos
in more visible places because she doesnt know what job she will have in the
future. She tells me that she is a Christian and has a religiously symbolic tattoo on
her back, which I wonder about since she tells me that she covers her tattoos at
church. There seems to be a pride in her religion, but also an ironic twist that she
does not show it in that setting. Venus says that tattoos are becoming a lot more
accepted as celebrities are becoming more tattooed and the public is becoming more
accustomed to them, but still says that most employers are not accepting, and it is
more acceptable for men. She notes two aspects of deviance when talking about how
tattoos are related to socially deviant groups like bikers but also about a social
hierarchy within the tattoo community. Venus says, I think that people with better
work look down on people with crappier work. So, there is a structure of acceptance
at different levels.
With increasing amounts of tattoos, I continue to find the same issues related
to perceptions of deviance, but I also ran into some differences in opinions than
before with stigmatization. Sasha (53) told me she found more stigma of women
against other women who are tattooed; however, there is a certain mentality of men
who if youve marked your body.. .1 would be approached by older men who thought
I was a biker babe. Sasha recognizes a level of women labeling other women, and
also men labeling women, but does not mention women labeling men, which is
common among the respondents. She says that this is due to the older stigma and
social stigmatization and thinks that tattoos are becoming much more accepted
among new generations, although it is still more negative for women. I asked her to
expand on women labeling other women as deviant because of tattoos, and she told
me that she has cleared a womens locker room shower due to her tattoos. She tells
me how the women in the showers exited the showers and locker room as she
entered, and Sasha feels it is due to her tattoos and the negative perceptions that go
along with them. We discuss the size and content of her tattoos, and she admits that
because of their prominence and content they may have been threatening.
However, she does not only tell me about negative labeling and deviant perceptions,
but she also discusses positive responses and experiences that she has encountered.
She talks about how she has mostly received positive responses, and tells me an
example about Native Americans in regard to her tattoo which incorporates cultural
artifacts and symbols, and she also says that she believes the content has allowed
non-tattooed people and strangers to be open and ask her about them. She discusses
how she has mostly had blue-collar jobs and her tattoos are generally covered, but
even if they are showing she has not ran into any problems, but notes that she is
respectful of others and covers them in appropriate situations. She recognizes the fact
that women are perceived in a derogatory manner, and overall notes that there are
still problems with negative perceptions, but thinks that changes are being made.
While Sasha had earlier mentioned that older generations sometimes label
negatively, she later tells me about how the younger generation on a college campus
she attended labeled tattoos with a greater amount of stigmatization than the rest of
the community. From her responses, I gather that deviant labels are applied from
different groups of people, but at the same time it is not by all as she has also
encountered some positive experiences. Sasha explains that all kinds of people now
get tattooed, from all economic classes, all races, old and young which brings out
the fact that tattooed people are not all a homogenous group. She does think that
prejudice labeling occurs within the medical field, which is something that should be
Sue (24), who is tattooed on both of his arms (one of them sleeved) and on
his legs, talks to me about job experiences. He tells me that he does not like to cover
or hide his tattoos and generally seeks out jobs that are open to this. Sue has not
encountered too many problems at work, but that is due to the jobs that he has had,
including retail work, college campus work, and high school drum line teaching. He
recognizes that his tattoos may hinder his ability to get certain jobs, but feels that
they are not places that he wants to work for. This is a new aspect to the perceptions
of deviance in relation to jobs as other respondents often discuss hiding their tattoos,
but Sue discusses avoiding jobs like this that discriminate and seeks out employment
with more accepting employers. He also spoke to me extensively about negative
labeling by his father. Sue tells me how he delayed the process of beginning to get
tattooed out of respect for my parents and tells me that his father strongly
disagrees with his decision to get tattooed. Sue maintains a relationship with his
father, and tells me that he tries not to talk with his father about his tattoos. He has
ran into situations with past relationships where his tattoos were perceived as a
negative element, and talks to me about how emotionally painful it was to have to
hide his tattoos. Sue feels his tattoos are such an important aspect of him, so he
explains the magnitude of the situation. Sue vows to not go through that again, and
takes pride in his artwork. He acknowledges the fact that traditionally tattoos have
been associated with negative groups including gangs, Asian Mafia, and prison but
says that his tattoos represent positive elements and talks about tribes where tattoos
are a rite of passage. Sue goes on to tell me about how it can be about a woman
coming into society and other instances where tattoos are positive. Sue, like Sasha,
acknowledges that tattoos are often viewed as deviant and are labeled in negative
aspects, but also explains how they have been positive in the past and are in the
Becker (1997) discusses how groups make rules and regulate the level of
enforcement. When considering employment, some respondents are allowed to show
certain amounts of tattoos depending upon their employers, or seek out jobs that
allow tattoos to be visible. Employers may or may not have formal rules set in
regards to tattoos, but values may play a role as management may express their
opinions, or employees may perceive tattoos as something that will be viewed
negatively. It also should be taken into account that it is not only employers that
were discussed but also customers, and in non-work related areas, church and social
events are considered. Although a rule may not be directly stated, it seems that
respondents were concerned about values of others when they discuss perceived
labeling or stigmatization. Becker (1997) also discusses how not all people in a given
group may view an element as deviant, but the perception of deviance plays a role in
how certain situations may be reacted to. Even if employers, churches, or other
affiliations do not specifically state that it is against a rule to have or show tattoos,
respondents seem to be aware of what they perceive as values of the given public,
and decide if they want to hide their tattoos or not. Many of the respondents discuss
hiding their tattoos, while others like Chrys allow themselves to cross an unspoken
boundary by showing one of her tattoos, or people like Sue who chooses to show his
tattoos and be proud of them even if it means his employment options are affected.
Finally, I discuss perceptions of deviance with those who are the most
tattooed people in the sample, and find that they also encounter negative labeling and
stereotypes, but they also discuss how they adapt and deal with these labels.
Delphine (36) discusses her employment issues with me, and adapts a similar
kind of attitude as Sue. Delphine says, If an employer wont hire me because of
what I have on my arm, or because I have too much weight on my body... or
something as equitably as stupid, then I dont want to work for you anyways. She
discusses how there are many different issues in society that are seen as un-
acceptable and deviant, and she stands her ground that she should be judged only on
her work performance and not her experience. Delphine works for a mortgage
lending company, and is one of the highest paid people among my sample. I find it
interesting that her company is more accepting in comparison to some of the other
companies with the other respondents. Speaking about her company, Delphine says,
They look at my performance and not my body art. She tells me that tattooing is
more acceptable for men, and acknowledges the labeling that people assign to her.
Delphine shares with me several instances where she is proud of her tattoos, and it
helps her to filter people that she would not want to be associated with. She thinks
that older generations are the ones that dont understand it, but thinks that
judgment comes from tattooed and non-tattooed people.
Cherry (29) who is tattooed on her wrists, face, arms, back, and legs tells me
about perceptions of deviance where she is treated poorly and also where it may
work to her advantage. She talks to me about how people believe that they can take
liberties with tattooed people that they might not with non-tattooed people. Cherry
was in line at a convenience store in a skirt, when she felt a man stick his foot up her
skirt and lift it up in order to see her tattoos. She corrected him about how rude he
was, but in our discussion says that tattooed people are treated as second class
citizens in different situations. Cherry also tells me that she sometimes makes sure
to display her tattoos in some situations like in a big city on the bus because she
doesnt want to get pushed around. She feels that if her tattoos are showing that
they offer a level of protection because of the negative labels that are applied to
tattooed people, and thinks it has an even greater impact because she is small and
female. She tells me about how many people in professional careers are tattooed,
but that they can cover it up with their clothing including doctors and lawyers. She
discusses how tattoos may be an issue with jobs, but states that she has had
comparatively professional positions and that she just covers her tattoos when it is
required. Unlike some of the other respondents who did not tell me they thought they
have been treated differently because of their tattoos, Cherry tells me that she feels
she and other women more frequently get treated like trash and that perceptions
and labels are a factor that she deals with on a regular basis.
Bob (29) is highly tattooed with his arms sleeved, is tattooed on his ribs, leg,
and neck line, seems to have incorporated negative labeling and stereotypes into his
life. Bob tells me that he covers his tattoos at work, in front of customers, at court,
anytime that I want somebody to take me seriously; I never let them see my tattoos
or I do my best to hide them. He expresses that he is labeled as a deviant, and so has
learned when to cover them and when he can expose them. He admits that some of
the labeling is due to some people who have been tattooed who have performed
deviant acts, and says that the stereotype is not completely inaccurate. Bob, like
Cherry, also notes that tattoos can be used as a defense mechanism. By using
perceptions of deviance, tattooed people have an advantage of seeming scary to
others who hold these stereotypes and label others.
Oliver (39) who is tattooed in highly visible places including his face and
hands also speaks about perceptions of deviance that he encounters all of the time.
He tells me that he has troubles finding jobs. Oliver says that people view tattoos as
inflictions and thinks that there is a stigmatism of being insane for those that
choose to tattoo their face. He talks about how he crossed the line when he made
the decision to get facial tattoos. He can no longer hide them in order to obtain a job,
or if he is in public settings where he may be judged or labeled. Oliver has now
incorporated his tattoos fully into his life and says, I have a different perspective on
life. He tells me how people are cruel and make fun of him because of his facial
tattoos, and how they label and stereotype him, but at the same time this has changed
his perspective on life and his tattoos are highly symbolic to him. I find it interesting
that he tells me that he does not really want people to see his tattoos because they are
personal, especially considering that they are in highly visible places. Oliver explains
to me that he is highly detached from society, and his tattoos are linked to this. He
recognizes that he is not considered part of the norm, and that he is labeled as an
outsider. Oliver says, I dont represent the status quo and explains how he has a
hard time finding a job, and is often stared at in the general public.
This last group of highly tattooed respondents emphasizes the struggle
between deviance and acceptance among general deviant perceptions and tattooed
people. These respondents acknowledge that tattoos may be viewed as deviant and
that they may risk being labeled by people, but manage this stigmatization in
different ways. In fact, it was interesting that this group of tattooed people even
speak about how they use these perceptions of deviance and the label to their
advantage. Erikson (1964) discusses how deviance is not inherent in certain
behaviors, but depends upon the perceptions of people who witness the deviance.
A common element with perceptions of deviance relates to jobs. Many of the
respondents discuss finding and obtaining jobs, and the struggle to hide their tattoos
in order to appear professional. There are a fortunate few who have been able to
expose their tattoos, but even they speak of instances at work and in their personal
time when they hide them. Only one of my respondents is unable to hide his tattoos
if he so desires, and he speaks of several instances where he is continuously viewed
as a deviant and encounters problems in his life due to his tattoos.
Although tattoos are perceived as deviant, those who are tattooed at higher
levels discuss ways of taking advantage of deviant labels and ways that they have
incorporated their tattoos into their lifestyles. For those that have lesser amounts or
fewer numbers of tattoos, there seems to be a level of acceptability that it is okay
within society to have a few small tattoos, and it is not seen as deviant. I do not know
exactly where this line is crossed, and I do think that there are negative perceptions
at all levels, but it also seems to me like size and content have something to do with
it, as many respondents noted these issues. They do not feel that the content of their
tattoos is offensive and believe this works to their advantage.
All of the respondents noted that tattoos are not accepted in American
society; however, they do not want to pin down any specifics, but say that tattoos are
perceived as deviant, but think it is becoming more accepted now than it has been in
the past. Also, all of the respondents agree that tattoos are more acceptable for men
than they are for women. Becker (1997) says it is true in many respects that men
make the rules for women in our society (p. 17). Negative labeling in regards to
tattoos is something that women have had to negotiate (Braunberger 2000; Atkinson
2002; Hawkes, Senn, and Thom 2004), and is supported in this study. As Matza
(1969) explains deviance as straying from the standard, it seems that tattooing and
especially tattooing among females seems to be out of the normal standard in the
United States. The respondents agree that they are less concerned about revealing
their tattoos in personal time in comparison to work time, but do recognize the
labeling of deviance that they are subject to in different public spaces.
While examining tattoos and deviance, the concept of stigmatization was
impossible to ignore. Goffman (1963) discusses stigmatization, and Goffman (1959)
examines presentations of the self in public settings. Many of the respondents discuss
being stigmatized and even use the term stigmatization, and also talk about how they
choose to present themselves to others. When Goffman (1963) discusses stigma, he
talks about the term itself, discredited and discreditable, and passing. Stigma refers to
an attribute that is discrediting. Stigmatization includes a social element where one is
different or an outsider in comparison to normal others. There is a difference
between those who can be stigmatized who are discredited and discreditable, as the
discredited are those who assume or perceive that their differentiating attribute is
known by others, whereas the discreditable does not think that their difference is
known or perceivable. One that passes can navigate social situations without their
stigmatizing attribute being known by others. Goffman (1963) also discusses the
element of what the stigma can be accredited to, either external or internal forces. If
the stigma can be attributed to something within the stigmatized persons control,
then they are more likely to be discredited and stigmatized more harshly.
When taking tattoos into consideration, Goffmans ideas of stigmatization
seem to go along with both Beckers labeling theory and also responses from the
respondents. In a literal sense, tattooed people have their bodies marked. The
discreditable and discredited aspect depends on the location of the tattoo. Oliver,
who had tattoos in very visible places is discredited as he is unable to hide his
tattoos, but the other respondents all talk about being able to cover their tattoos when
need be, so they are discreditable. Also, tattoos are something within the control of
the person, so tattoos may be perceived as accredited to the person in a negative way,
and they are labeled and stigmatized more harshly. Tattooed people pass as they
cover their tattoos for work or other occasions, but if their tattoos are found out about
by another, they may become discredited. It is important to note the element of
perceptions, as this is a social event that relies heavily upon perceptions of both the
stigmatized person and the normal person. If one feels as though they are being
perceived in a stigmatizing fashion, which is enough to change a social situation,
even if the other person is not viewing them this way. Also, a normal person may
stigmatize another in a visible or verbal way to make the stigmatized feel this way.
Respondents discuss being stigmatized and also talk about encounters where they
perceived judgment, and also predict that they may be judged and so they take care
to strategically place their tattoos in places that they can hide. Stigmatization and
labeling have an effect on attitudes that one encounters (Phelan, Link, Moore, and
Stueve, 1997), which in this case may negatively affect one whose tattoos are visible,
which may lead to a deviant label and stigmatization by others in society.
CONCLUSION AND FUTURE RESEARCH
This study finds that identity salience increases along with increasing
amounts of tattoos. Identity commitment seems tied to the number of tattoos of the
respondent, whereas group members that the tattooed person is associated with has
similar amounts of tattoos. Perceptions of deviance seem to permeate the work force,
but are noticed in other aspects of personal spheres including interactions at church,
social events, and personal relationships. While analyzing labeling and deviance, the
element of stigmatization became quite apparent and went along with labeling.
Tattoos seem to be labeled negatively in American society; however, respondents did
say that they believe that changes are being made to incorporate tattoos and they are
becoming more acceptable. Respondents who had lesser amounts of tattoos seem to
report a level of tolerance and acceptance, whereas people who are more heavily
tattooed seem to experience harsher labels and more negative stigmatization.
Considering that there has not been a vast amount of research done in the
field of Sociology, this study is strengthened by its capacity to have a deeper
understanding of ties to identity, and perceptions of deviance and stigmatization due
to the qualitative method used. This research provides support for identity theory,
and is able to detect different levels incorporated into identity commitment.
Interestingly, this study extracted the element that tattooed people are not a
homogenous group, and there are varying groups among tattooed people. Tattooed
people do not all experience the same interactions, and the amount and visibility of
their tattoos should be taken into consideration. This research is limited by the small
sample size and is not generalizable to the general population of tattooed people.
Although Strykers (1980) identity theory incorporates behavioral elements, the
scope of this study was unable to explore actual behaviors of tattooed people.
Future research should take into consideration what has been done in this
study, and use it to guide research to a larger, more representative population.
Gendered interactions, behavior, and stigmatization are all directions that may be
explored in future studies. Groups within the tattoo community may be taken into
consideration when examining tattooed people in the future. The discipline of
Sociology and the research done in the area of tattoos leave a lot of room open for
future studies to dive into, including rebellious elements, employers policies on
tattoos, perceptions of those who are not tattooed, and interactions of those who
work in the tattooing industry. This research explores perceptions of identity and
deviance, but may be taken further by using larger samples, and more
Interview Schedule Guideline
1. Age (birth date)
3. Education (date of graduation, what level or degree)
4. Income (break into 20 thousand dollar categories)
5. Occupation (student/homemaker; full-time/part-time; multiple occupations?)
6. Race/Ethnicity (as you perceive or would describe yourself)
Identity and Deviance
1. Tell me about your tattoos (how many, how much of body is covered and which
body parts are covered or not covered, how much time spent getting tattooed; gaps or
certain parts that you would not tattoo; certain parts that you are willing to cover).
2. Tell me about your first experience of getting tattooed (style, design, age, by whom,
how the choice was made, etc; When and where was it?)
3. Tell me about your last experience getting tattooed?
4. What influenced your decision in getting more tattoos (getting more or not getting
more; what were your thoughts, or logic behind this)?
5. What made you decide to get your first tattoo? Subsequent tattoos?
6. What influenced your style of tattoos, and has this changed over time? (probe for
design, flash/custom, etc)
7. How did you choose your tattooist? What process did you go through in order to find
this person? Have you been tattooed by more than one person? (artist, random?)
8. How do you feel about your tattoo work? (Regrets, change in styles or taste)
9. How do your tattoo(s) represent you?
10. Do you feel like your tattoo(s) are (is) an important part of you?
11. Are there any times that you make sure to cover your tattoos?
12. Are they any times that you make sure to display your tattoos?
13. Can you picture yourself without any tattoo(s)? Do you think that it would make any
difference in who you are?
14. (To those who do not have many tattoos:) Why did you decide not to get more
tattoos, and cover more parts of your body? (How do you feel or what do you think
about those who are more heavily tattooed?)
15. (To those who are more heavily tattooed:) Why, how, or what was, and is your
reasoning for being tattooed as much and as visibly as you are? (Why didnt you stop
after getting just a few tattoos?)
16. Do you have any particular moral, religious, or spiritual beliefs? How are these
beliefs related to your tattoo work?
17. How do you feel about your tattoos being visible to others?
18. Has getting tattoos changed your life in any way? (How?)
19. Is your relationship with family and/or friends any different as a result of your
tattoos? How does your family/friends feel about tattoos? (Two-way influences?)
20. When describing your friends, are they also tattooed or are they not tattooed? Or
equally divided? (Does it matter?)
21. Has there been any work related changes or problems due to getting tattooed? How
accepting or un-accepting is your employer, past employer, or prospective
22. How do you think strangers or other people feel about your tattoo work, and tattooed
people in general?
23. Are tattooed men and women accepted equally? What sort of acceptability or
unacceptability have you seen? By whom? (probe for discrimination by men or
women and towards men or women; by tattooed or non-tattooed people)
24. Do you think any particular kinds of people get tattooed?
25. How do you think that people without tattoos perceive those with tattoos? (Why do
you think that they would think this way?)
26. Do you ever think that you are treated differently because of your tattoos?
27. Do you think that your life has changed in anyway due to your tattoos?
28. If you could change anything about your tattoos, would you and what would it be?
29. Do you think that you will get any more tattoos? Do you think that you will ever
remove any of your tattoos?
30. In helping me take a brief glimpse at the lives of tattooed people, what would you
want to tell me that I have not covered, and tell people about tattoos and being
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