More Than Skin Deep: Perceptions of, and Stigma against, Tattoos

Article excerpt

Previous research indicates stigmas can produce feelings of fear, isolation, and discrimination, and that negative stigma has been and still is, associated with tattooing. Due to the rise in tattoo popularity, a method to analyze stigma against tattooed individuals is needed. The Martin Stigma Against Tattoos Survey (MSATS), was created, taken by 210 undergraduate students along with a Big Five personality measure, and subjected to factor analysis and preliminary evaluation of validity. Results supported a single factor solution and the 17-item measure demonstrated a high level of internal consistency with Cronbach's alpha = .92. Items with face validity and significant differences between tattooed and non-tattooed participants on MSATS scores provided initial evidence of construct validity. Perhaps dispelling one myth underlying stigma, no significant differences were found in the GPA of tattooed versus non-tattooed college students.


Although tattooing is ancient, it has just recently begun to rise in public popularity (Hawkes, Senn, & Thorn; 2004). 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. Hawkes (2004) noted that basic psychological processes create a tendency to judge based on appearance, and much stigma has historically been attached to tattoo recipients who tend to be seen as socially deviant. Kruglanski and Webster (1991) found that non-conformists were the target of more negative stigma, especially when there was a drive for a quick conclusion on the part of the perceiver. Historical attitudes toward tattooing in North America have been varied and have usually been related to issues of social class (Braunberger, 2000; Gray, 1994). As increasingly diverse groups of people get tattoos, popular perceptions are often discordant with the individual meanings behind tattoos. Still, tattooing is often seen as a negative behavior.

While sociological and cultural accounts of tattooing exist there are relatively few empirical studies (Atkinson, 2002). One more esoteric theory explains the increase of tattooing as a projection of Jungian psychological elements, which used to be projected onto holy symbols, onto the self as a manifestation of self-expression coinciding with a decline in traditional religious adherence (Mercury, 2000). Another theory, postulated by Hawkes et al. (2004), suggests tattoos produce a feeling of power or control over oneself and reflect self-concept. Of the extant objective studies, a number demonstrate that differences may exist between tattooed and non tattooed individuals (e.g. Bjonberg & Perman, 1964; Howell, Payne, & Roe, 1971).

For example, Howell and colleagues' (1971) research indicated that the tattooed population demonstrated significantly more impulsive and sensation-seeking behavior than the non-tattooed population. Additionally, attitudes toward women and minorities with tattoos have been studied (Brown, Perlmutter, & McDermott, 2000; Houghton, Durkin, Parry, Turbit, & Odgers, 1996 ; as cited by Hawkes al.). However, these studies focused mostly on sexism and racism and not attitudes toward tattoos in general.

Previous research has highlighted several stereotypes about those with tattoos, including being unsuccessful in school, coming from broken homes, having an unhappy childhood, rarely attending church, having poor decision-making skills, usually obtaining body modifications while inebriated, and being easy victim to peer pressure (e.g., Armstrong, 1994; Roberts & Ryan, 2002; Owen & Koch, 2004). Furthermore, tattooing has been viewed by many as an impulsive or irresponsible behavior and has been associated with psychiatric disturbances in some literature (Eksteen & Jankowski, 2006; Hawkes et al., 2004; Lane, 2004). Bulrich (1983) stated that western society at that time tended to view tattoos as undesirable. …


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