Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Being Unink

The fact that the picture above depicts a sailor getting a tattoo must not have surprised you.
Tattoos have for very long being associated with specific social groups, such as criminals, bikers and other provocative subcultures (1), and sometimes even satanic activity and self-harm. We have all heard of such associations.
But did you know that written accounts of this form of body modification date back to at least 500 BC in China, and the oldest preserved tattoo was found on the roughly 4000 year-old mummy of Ötzi (7)? And that at first they were part of religious and ceremonial rites before acquiring the low social status they had in the last century?
Presently, up to 35% of young people worldwide have at least one tattoo (2), and I believe it is safe to assume that not all of us are Lucifer’s minions, or on a path of self-destruction -at least, I hope not.
Indeed, as pointed out by Forbes (2), the increasing number of middle-class tattooed people suggests that this can no longer be considered as an exclusively marginal act. The tattoo industry and tattoo professionals are now recognized as being part of the art world (3)-ergo the title tattoo artist- which is a prestigious sphere. Lastly, some even consider tattooing a new form of mass consumption or “fashion accessories” (3) accessible to all.
However, there is still a distinction between heavily tattooed people and people who only have a few- the former still considered a entitative subculture, the latter including people from all social classes. How did tattoos become integrated into mainstream society? In other words, why do people get “inked” nowadays?
In a world where individuality is idealized, but conformity is the actual consumer outcome, tattoos have become a way to emphasize one’s distinctiveness and uniqueness in a more permanently engraved way.
As Wilk (3) points out, in a society where homogeneity dominates in our globalized world, some domains remain where one can express their individuality- the body being one of them.
Body and skin are viewed as part of the self. This become even more relevant after body alterations such as tattoos (4) as they can be used as identity markers (5) to define one’s sense of self and individuality.
Consumption is also a way to express uniqueness, with people with a higher need for uniqueness favoring “unique products” (6). And I think it is safe to consider tattoos as unique rather than conventional products.
Reasons and motivations for getting a tattoo are very heterogeneous, and can carry personal meaning. Some are used as symbols to commemorate important events or life transitions, to emphasis a bonding experience or as memorials for loved ones, others are simply aesthetic (5). But the most common motivations are related to self-expression and expression of one’s uniqueness or individuality (2).
The need for uniqueness is a very common human phenomenon. As explained by Snider and Fromkin (2) in their Theory of Uniqueness, people have a conflictual need to be distinct and similar to others, with individual differences in the levels of self-distinctiveness.
Interestingly, studies suggest that people with tattoos score higher on measures on need of uniqueness (1). One could hence hypothesis that getting a tattoo could satisfy this need through the use of the body as a canvas or vehicle of singularity. This is further supported by the idea that tattoos are often personalized (3), and as such used as a natural extension of the self (4).
 “Fashion tattoos” (aesthetic tattoos) are usually discrete, giving the tattooee the possibility to emphasize or diminish their distinctiveness depending on the context or the mood in which they find themselves. The tattoo can thus be instrumentalized to express identity comparably to the use of other identity accessories such as “cars, houses, clothing, and grooming” (3). The tattoo, in this manifestation, can therefore arguably be considered as just another consumer product.
Indeed some researchers consider that tattooing has become another mainstream form of mass consumption (3), more specifically as a form of consuming as “integration”- a terminology used by Holt (3) to define this form of consuming as an act of identity expression.
When considered as just another product in our consumer society, it can be argued that tattoos shift from a deviant act of rebellion or self-harm to an ordinary and socially accepted act of expression one’s distinctiveness and self-identity through a commercial purchase- a permanent, non-refundable, commercial purchase.
So I hope that next time you see a tattooed person in front of you, you will not instinctively cross the road or hide your wallet- the pentacle on their arm may just be the result of an act of unique consumer behavior.
This blogpost was contributed by Mado Hanioti, a master student in social and intercultural psychology at ULB. Mado is currently a research intern with Julia Eberlen.  
(1) Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body image, 4(1), 87-95.
(2) Tiggemann, M., & Golder, F. (2006). Tattooing: An expression of uniqueness in the appearance domain. Body Image, 3(4), 309-315.
(3) Kjeldgaard, D., & Bengtsson, A. (2005). Consuming the fashion tattoo. NA-Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32.
(4) Belk Russell, W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139-68.
(5)Dickson, L., Dukes, R. L., Smith, H., & Strapko, N. (2015). To ink or not to ink: The meaning of tattoos among college students. College Student Journal, 49(1), 106-120.
(6)Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2007). Where consumers diverge from others: Identity signaling and product domains. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(2), 121-134.
(7) Deter-Wolf, A., Robitaille, B., Krutak, L., & Galliot, S. (2016). The world’s oldest tattoos. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 5, 19-24. 

Image retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailors%27_superstitions