Academic journal article College Student Journal

To Ink or Not to Ink: The Meaning of Tattoos among College Students

Academic journal article College Student Journal

To Ink or Not to Ink: The Meaning of Tattoos among College Students

Article excerpt

We examine the process of getting a tattoo and its meaning among 195 tattooed and 257 non-tattooed undergraduates. Most tattooed respondents contemplate getting a tattoo for months, get a professional tattoo, can cover it easily, and like it. Respondents acquire first tattoos to represent important role transitions and as a form of identity and self-expression. Most respondents' first tattoos are obtained as a symbolic way to celebrate relationships with family and friends, to signify personal growth or spirituality, or because they just "wanted one" or want "something different." Respondents express greater positive affect toward their first tattoo if it is larger, has significant meaning and is done professionally. Among the respondents who are not tattooed, the most common reasons for not having a tattoo are concerns with the permanency of the tattoo, lack of desire for one, lack of resources such as time and money, and health concerns. The findings suggest that tattoos serve a symbolic meaning-making function that is part of the development of adult identity.


* Tattooed college students get their first tattoo only after much consideration, and they do not regret having gotten a tattoo.

* Perceived quality and significance of the tattoo are important predictors of how much positive affect a respondent has for a first tattoo

* A majority of our tattooed respondents have at least one tattoo.

One's favorite tattoo has more significant meaning, and it is larger and more expensive.

* Non-tattooed college students have refrained from getting a tattoo because of issues of permanency, lack of resources and health concerns

* For college students, tattoos are part of a meaning-making function in the formation of adult identity.

Numerous studies have found an increase in the percentage of persons who have a tattoo. In 1990, a national survey found that 3% of respondents had at least one tattoo (Armstrong & Fell, 2000). Since this time, tattoos have become increasingly popular, especially among young people. A 2012 Harris poll reported that 38% of respondents aged 30-39, 30% of those aged 25-29, and 22% of those aged 18 to 24 have one or more tattoos (Braverman, 2012). Several smaller studies indicate that about 20% of people, aged 1825, have a tattoo (Armstrong, 2005). Recent studies with college students show similar rates (Forbes, 2001; Home, Knox, Zusman, & Zusman, 2007; Manuel & Sheehan, 2007; Resenhoeft, Villa, & Wiseman, 2008).

Currently, the demographic characteristics of tattooed persons show wide variations in gender, age, social class, race, political party and occupation (Armstrong, 1991; Armstrong, Roberts, Owen, & Koch, 2004a; Braverman, 2012). However, despite the growing diversity of people with tattoos, tattooing is not embraced by older individuals, especially those who have higher education and income levels (Adams, 2009; Bowman, 2010). Women have shown the greatest increase in tattooing (Armstrong, 1991; Braverman, 2012; DeMello, 1995; Inch & Huws, 1993; Sanders, 1991). Armstrong (1991) estimated that the number of women getting tattooed has quadrupled over the past 40 years, and now for the first time a greater percentage of women report having a tattoo than men (23% versus 19%; Braverman, 2012).

Although the extant literature on tattooing is increasing, little is known about tattooed and non-tattooed college students' behaviors, motivations and perceptions related to tattooing. College students are an especially interesting group because as graduates they will have greater socioeconomic standing and more influential occupations (Roksa & Levey, 2010) than the traditional twentieth century consumers of tattoos who were predominantly white working-class men who often were seafarers, warriors, convicts or motorcycle gang members (Dunlop, 2012). Tattooed college students may also serve as a "bridge" between younger tattooed persons for whom tattoos are still correlated with a plethora of negative behaviors and tattooed adults for whom tattoos can represent a positive vehicle for personal expression (Irwin, 2003). …

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