I got a new tattoo. My mom hates it.
I do not acknowledge negative comments about my body. Because it’s mine and I exist for myself. But my mother’s distaste for my tattoo sparked a train of thought. I began to think about the tattoo stigma as it currently exists in today’s Western world. In a 2010 article entitled “More Than Skin Deep: Perceptions of, and Stigma Against, Tattoos,” writers explored the growing popularity of tattoos over the years. Benjamin Martin writes, “A 2007 Harris Poll reported that over 40% of Americans ages 25–40 had at least one tattoo, as compared to 3% 20 years ago, and about 0.5% 50 years ago.” These statistics clearly show the steep increase in tattoo popularity in recent years. Despite this recent growth of the tattoo community, there remains those who find tattoos physically unappealing as well as many people who associate tattoos with deviance and criminality. Though people are allowed to have negative opinions regarding tattoos, the stigma goes much deeper, as it draws from values of prejudice and discrimination.
A stigma is a mark. Much like a tattoo. The difference is that a stigma is always considered a mark of shame or discredit, while tattoos can be marks of pride, symbolism, or anything really. Tattoos are referred to as a controllable stigma, meaning that individuals have the choice to have their body adorned, possibly inviting the negative opinions coming from judgmental people. In the mind of those with disdain for tattoos, this element of choice further validates their outlook. Said individuals continue to spread their negative beliefs surrounding tattoos because they feel justified by the decision factor. While these individuals seem harmless, as they’re just voicing their distaste, that couldn't be further from the truth. These unwarranted comments about people’s bodies begin to cross the line and steer toward the direction of discrimination. People’s personal opinions very clearly show bias and begin to invalidate tattooed individuals. Workopolis performed a study in which asked individuals questions about their opinions regarding tattooed people. They asked “nearly 5,000 people . . . if they take a person less seriously if the person has tattoos. Forty-nine percent said “No,” leaving half (51%) of respondents who either do take someone less seriously for having tattoos, or might, depending on the situation and how many tattoos the person has.” This study displays that tattooed individuals are subject to being perceived negatively because of their body adornment.
The stigma surrounding tattoos as it currently exists has created many harmful stereotypes. Historically, society has had a complex and in flux set of beliefs surrounding tattooed individuals. In today’s Western world, many negative beliefs continue to be recycled and new stereotypes are conjured up. Along with the contemptuous opinions and poisonous stereotypes are racism, misogyny, and classism directed at those having tattoos. The seemingly harmless negative opinions and stereotypes mentioned above have seeped into the Western society and have intertwined with preexisting ideas of misogyny, classism, and racism, creating a noxious cocktail of discrimination.
Race, gender, and class have been subjects of research for a long time. The academic focus surrounding tattoos increases as tattoos become more common. What is left to be explored is the relationship that exists between the above mentioned subjects.
Racism exists in many different forms in relationship to tattoos. Said racism exists both within the Western society and the tattoo industry itself. Racism within the tattoo industry is a threat to people of color, as there is a lack of representation for people of color within the tattoo industry, a lack of education when it comes to tattooing dark skinned clients, as well as racist imagery within common tattoo designs often referred to as “flash.” This multilayered racism combined with the tattoo stigma is especially harmful, as there is a lack of safe spaces for tattooed people of color both within and outside of the tattoo industry. Additionally, the stigma surrounding tattooed individuals is heightened when it comes to tattooed people of color. Artist and writer Angelina Ruiz states in Allure, “[racism exists] both in terms of who is hired at tattoo shops and the images shown in many artists’ portfolios. The latter can be especially prevalent on Instagram, where many artists only post photos of finished tattoos on lighter skin tones or even desaturate their images so their entire feed is in black and white.” At surface level, one is able to spot the relationship between tattooing and racism and with further research it becomes even easier to identify.
As racism plagues the tattoo industry and harms tattooed people of color, a similar plight is experienced by tattooed women and tattoo artists who are women. Tattooed women, particularly those with visible or heavy tattoos, face intense judgment compared to that of heavily tattooed men. Additionally, the tattoo industry continues to be dominated by white men. While the number of woman tattoo artists grows, said women are often working under or receiving permission from men. Additionally, woman tattoo artists and tattooed women are constantly receiving negative, unwarranted comments about their bodies. In Salon, associate professor Beverly Yuen Thompson writes, “the message that heavily tattooed women receive from the public is loud and clear: they are mutilating their bodies and making themselves ugly.” While tattoos are described as adornment, there are many individuals who view them as unattractive, unnecessary, mistakes. Oftentimes, said people do not hesitate to share their opinions with these tattooed women. By asking a few tattooed women or woman tattoo artists about their experiences, one is able to identify the rampant misogyny that continues to exist within the world of tattoos.
Along with the racism and misogyny that have infiltrated the tattoo community is classism. Tattoos originally existed as marks of status and were reserved for the upper class. The invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891 completely changed that. The new machine made tattooing much less costly and it was now accessible to the working and lower class. This sparked a surge of sailors getting inked. Following this, tattoos were brought to rural America through circuses. Tattooed individuals in said circuses were referred to as “freaks,” cementing the tattoo as the mark of the outcast. Tattoos became very popular among circus, lower class, and working communities and thus were stigmatized by the rest of society. There was now an association between tattoos and being of the lower class. This association continues to exist today. Featured on The Data Lounge is an anonymous question: Tattoos — Are They An Indication of Social Class? Here are some of the responses.
“Tattoos are indicative of the Trash class.”
“My company will not hire anyone wth a visible tattoo, tongue piercing, snake bites, and ear lobe plugs. It is a definite sign of white trash.”
“Tattoos are for military and lower class.”
“Every one with tattoos is not trash, but every piece of trash has a tattoo. So yes, they are indicative of social class.”
“Tattoos are for TRASH.”
Along with these comments are hundreds of others containing the same rhetoric and ideologies. With very little research, one is able to see that the association between class and tattoos that first developed in the 1890’s continues to thrive today. This line of thinking is extremely damaging, as it surrounds tattooed individuals and lower class individuals with negativity. The association between being lower class and being tattooed upholds antiquated stereotypes and frames being of the lower class as a bad thing.
So then, in what context are tattoos socially acceptable? Is it all about who wears them? The answer is yes.
While the tattoo stigma affects individuals whom are heavily tattooed, there is a divide that exists between those who are excessively judged for their adornment and those who are not. Celebrities, those belonging to the upper class, and white men often escape the judgment that is experienced by people of color, lower class individuals, and women. For those belonging to socially accepted and well off groups, tattoos exist as fun, decorative pieces of art meant to flatter the body. For those who are discriminated against for their identity or status, tattoos exist as another target. While tattooed individuals belonging to marginalized groups are incessantly defending their identity as well as their choices, socially accepted people with tattoos are uplifted for those same decisions. Said socially accepted people are able to exist fairly comfortably with their adornments which is a luxury that does not exist for marginalized groups.
Socially accepted groups being able to exist without intense scrutiny has created an extremely unhealthy environment within the tattoo industry and the Western society in general. The lack of judgment among these groups has allowed them to exist happily among groups of other well off individuals, among marginalized groups, and within the tattoo community. Said acceptance among similar individuals has sparked the pushing out of marginalized groups from the tattoo community, a community built by said marginalized groups.
On Medium, Novelist Honest Lewis writes:
“[My statements] are punches up at people who have commoditized a culture that they didn’t even know existed — couldn’t know existed due to their privilege and the class isolation created by that privilege. They are punches up at people who didn’t realize things are earned rather than bought — who couldn’t possibly know that because of their favored place in our false and failed meritocracy, a system that misinformed them of their inherent worth and value and place. People who might know and understand the damages of cultural appropriation but who are incapable of applying that concept within the confines of their own race because the only white people they know are white people like them: neat, clean, traditionally educated, gainfully employed, and generically creative. This transformation from outsider art to insider art carries with it all the damages of appropriation — the lack of understanding, the disrespect of class and culture, and perhaps most insidiously the concept of ownership. This is poor criminal culture that’s ownership has become a commodity of the well-off.
Like Lewis states, tattooing has experienced a complete transformation. And that’s it. The death of tattoo culture. The commodification of a society created by those who don’t fit in. The gentrification of the mark of the lower class.
In today’s Western society, it is impossible to exist as a stranger to cultural appropriation. It is also extremely simple to point out cultural appropriation within the designs of the tattoo community. But this appropriation goes deeper. The entire community has been stolen and commodified by those who shamed tattooed individuals in the first place. Tattoos once existed as a mark of the outcast. Now they exist as a form of exclusivity, shunning the outcasts who built the tattoo community from the ground up. One is able to spot upper class individuals such as celebrities sporting tattoos and receiving appraisal. While those belonging to marginalized groups are vilified and tormented for their personal choices.
The double standard that exists among heavily tattooed upper class individuals and heavily tattooed marginalized groups is proof that the level of judgment one receives depends on their other identities. There is a degree of discrimination that always exists for people belonging to marginalized groups, whether it be regarding their physical appearance, their decision making, or their level of decency as a human being.
As stated above, discrimination is unfortunately inescapable for individuals belonging to marginalized groups. Said discrimination increases when the individual is tattooed. Women, people of color, and those belonging to the lower class are heavily exposed to prejudice and having body adornments further increases their exposure. While there is very little research regarding race and class and their relationship to tattoos, I was able to extract some information about said relationships as well as some explanations as to why marginalized individuals with tattoos face more scrutiny than their counterparts.
Garrett Pekarek writes for the American Sociological Association, “literature suggests that visibly-tattooed individuals of color may face heightened stigmatization as they possess at least two of Goffman’s (1963/1986) categories of stigma: physical differences and ethnic or racial minority status.” Because people of color exist as a marginalized group, they are subject to racism and discrimination at all times. Research proves that having visible tattoos increases the stigmatization of an individual. It is difficult not to identify the relationship that exists between racism and tattoo stigma. Furthermore, while people of color face more conflict in regards to their tattoos, “the prevalence of tattoos is relatively similar across ethnic groups . . . with 21% of European Americans and 21% of African Americans possessing a tattoo.” Though white individuals and black individuals are tattooed at the same rate, black individuals with tattoos experience more bias than white individuals with tattoos. People of color are constantly brought and kept down by the Western society and the tattoo stigma is only another form of discrimination.
Along with people of color, women are subject to heavy judgment when it comes to their tattoos. Kristin A. Broussard and Helen C. Harton address this in their 2018 article “Tattoo or taboo? Tattoo stigma and negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals.” Broussard and Harton write, “this prejudice against women with tattoos may stem from sexist beliefs based on tattooed females’ violation of traditional gender norms.” Misogyny continues to run rampant within the Western society today. This is only further showcased when examining the popular opinions of women with tattoos. Comments include promiscuous, unintelligent, less caring, unattractive, and a slew of others. Because misogyny still exists as a driving force in Western society, these beliefs developed hundreds of years ago have combined with the modern tattoo stigma and created a toxic environment for tattooed women. Tattooed women are questioned for their choices and judged for their adornment. There exists a desire in the Western society to control women’s bodies and women making decisions about their own bodies is something that this society does not accept. Rather than a tattoo on a woman being seen as a piece of adornment that flatters the body, it is seen as a mutilation and a mistake.
Among marginalized individuals who are alienated because of tattoos are members of the lower class. There is a long association between being of the lower class and having tattoos because of the history of tattooing. Recently, this association has become weaker as tattoos have grown in popularity. Instead, members of the middle and upper classes have stripped tattooing away from individuals belonging to the lower class. Lorie Kathleen Riley of Loyola University Chicago writes “The growing pop-culture status of tattooing has helped re-conceptualize tattooing as apolitical and thus less deviant than when practiced by marginalized groups such as prisoners, gang members, and the working-class . . . the client base has expanded to include a wide variety of middle to upper-class populations.” An art that was once shunned by the upper and middle classes is now being gentrified and appropriated by them. Additionally, there still exists the tattoo stigma for members of the lower class. Tattooed individuals who have spent time in prison, come from low income families, or have a history of drug dependency are still viewed as low class people. Instead of tattoos existing as a form of art, they exist as another target for those belonging to the lower class.
The discrimination of tattooed people belonging to marginalized groups is inescapable, as the identities that they were born with are still perceived negatively by the Western society. This negative perception combined with the tattoo stigma creates an environment that is unenjoyable and even unsafe for marginalized groups.
So what now?
Knowing that individuals belonging to marginalized groups, specifically those with visible tattoos, are constantly subject to discrimination, it is important to attempt to thwart this as much as possible. One must begin by exploring their own prejudices and asking the questions:
Am I contributing to the tattoo stigma?
Am I contributing to the discrimination of those belonging to marginalized groups?
Following this, individuals must attempt to dismantle the tattoo stigma completely. With the growing popularity of tattoos, this process has already begun. As more and more people get tattoos, tattooed individuals will soon become the majority and the tattoo stigma will become obsolete. While the tattoo stigma is phasing out, Gretchen Larsen et al. write “contributing to the literature on stigma management is important, as the consequences of prolonged stigmatization can have a deleterious effect on the social integration and psychological status of the stigmatized individual. If stigmatized individuals are unable to manage and cope with stigma, they are destined to suffer.” Despite the Western society moving away from the tattoo stigma, there still exists the stigma surrounding marginalized individuals. Because of this, people must actively work against stigmas and attempt to erase them within themselves and each other.
Additionally, the tattoo industry must provide marginalized groups with safe and welcoming spaces. There must be representation for people of color and women within the industry as well as the reversal of the gentrification of the industry that has harmed so many members of the lower class. Members of marginalized groups built the tattoo community that exists today and it is unacceptable to continue pushing them out. There is a lack of woman tattoo artists, artists of color, and independent artists belonging to the lower class within the tattoo industry. Those who are currently dominating the industry, primarily white men, should step aside and allow those belonging to marginalized groups to have the spotlight for once.
Finally, members of marginalized groups must reclaim the spaces that they’ve been shoved out of. More women need to be tattooing. More people of color need to be tattooing. More lower class individuals need to be tattooing. And all of these individuals should be getting tattooed, despite societal beliefs.
This research was hard work. As there is a gap in the literature exploring marginalized groups and the tattoo stigma. Additionally, within the little resources that are available, there exists a great deal of hate. As a tattooed AFAB, lower class, person of color, it was upsetting to read about so many individuals that had negative perceptions of tattooed individuals belonging to marginalized groups. But I love tattoos. I love my tattoos. And I love the art of tattooing. Perhaps the love marginalized groups possess for tattooing can overcome the hate from the bigoted losers with clean skin.
Broussard, Kristin A., and Helen C. Harton. “Tattoo or Taboo? Tattoo Stigma and Negative Attitudes toward Tattooed Individuals.” Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 158, no. 5, Sept. 2018, pp. 521–540.
Case, Deana. “Tattoos and Social Status.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, tattoos.lovetoknow.com/Tattoos_and_Social_Status.
Larsen, Gretchen, et al. “A Deviant Art: Tattoo-Related Stigma in an Era of Commodification.” Psychology & Marketing, vol. 31, no. 8, Aug. 2014, pp. 670–681.
Lewis, Honest. “Tattoos and the Class War.” Medium, Medium, 5 Sept. 2017, medium.com/@honestlewis/tattoos-and-the-class-war-9e98c8d701fe.
Martin, Benjamin A., and Chris S. Dula. “More Than Skin Deep: Perceptions Of, and Stigma Against, Tattoos.” College Student Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, Mar. 2010, pp. 200–206.
Pekarek, Garrett. “Skin Deep: Race, Visible Tattoos, and Social Perception.” Conference Papers — American Sociological Association, Jan. 2019, pp. 1–35.
Riley, Lorrie Kathleen. The Social Worlds of Tattooing: Divergent Sources of Expertise. p. 66.
Ruiz, Angelina. “The Black Lives Matter Movement Will Change the Future of Tattooing.” Allure, www.allure.com/story/black-lives-matter-tattoo-industry.
“Tattoos — Are They An Indication of Social Class?” The DataLounge, www.datalounge.com/thread/17304784-tattoos-are-they-an-indication-of-social-class-.
Workopolis. “Research Reveals How Your Tattoos Affect Your Chances of Getting the Job.” Workopolis Blog, 26 Oct. 2017, careers.workopolis.com/advice/research-reveals-how-your-tattoos-affect-your-chances-of-getting-the-job/.
Wuh, Sarah. “Tattooed and Tabooed: Delving into Today’s Tattoo Stigma.” Drops of Ink, www.lhsdoi.com/21094/features/tattooed-and-tabooed-delving-into-todays-tattoo-stigma/.