Why Do We Get Tattoos?

I still remember what my tattoo-obsessed ex-boyfriend said in response to my questioning of why he found women with tattoos more attractive — mind you I have zero tattoos and we were in that moment in the shower together.

“Tattoos can help a woman cover parts of her body that aren’t looking so good… she can distract others from seeing the unattractive parts of her body with art.”

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he is a complete douche.

Last week I had to read an article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones titled, “Why do people get tattoos?” for a sociology class I’m taking. The article opens with the question “Who gets tattoos, and why?” and then tells an anecdote of a young insecure woman who says her tattoos helped her begin to love her body.

The moment I picked up this article and read the “24-year-old, insecure female who isn’t a perfect, thin, beautiful supermodel’s own reasoning for marking her body,” it hit me: women don’t always get tattoos for themselves, for the mere act of getting a tattoo. Sometimes, they get tattoos because assholes like my ex exist — among other unconscious motivations. While this woman says her tattoos are for her, and help her personally “overcome hatred of her body,” reading her quoted words brought me back to that moment with my ex: as I stood there naked in front of him, I began feeling embarrassed that I myself did not have a tattoo, but more importantly, I wondered where he thought I needed one.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that every woman that has a tattoo(s) got it for reasons other than to please herself. I am not in any way making an assumption about or judging anyone who has or doesn’t have a tattoo. I am only saying that, this article made me think about this subject more closely. It took me back to those moments when I myself considered getting a tattoo, and made me realize that I would have been doing it to impress a man who idolized tattoo culture. And while it’s embarrassing to admit this, I would have gotten a tattoo to be more attractive in his eyes — to be like those completely inked girls on his Instagram feed that he loved “double-tapping” and the girls in the magazines that sat on his coffee table. Sure, maybe I am just incredibly insecure about myself. But according to Kang and Jones, I’m not alone.

Tattoos are seen as a form of self-expression, a way to show our individuality and the unique aspects of ourselves. I’ve seen so many of my friends spend months, even years, thinking and planning for their tattoos. Everything from the artwork, to the location on their body, to the meaning, to the artist themselves — our tattoos become our own way before they are actually put on our bodies. But this article, like any other sociological work, questions the actual individuality behind the act of getting tattoos. Tattoo culture is rising in popularity, certain images and ideologies are attached to tattoos, and tattoos are becoming more visible and accepted. Kang and Jones share, that whether we like it or not, the media, consumer culture, gender, sexuality, race, and class influence our desire, and ultimately our decision, to get tattoos. And at the end of the day, “people cannot fully control the meaning of their own tattooed bodies; the social contexts in which they live shape the responses to and interpretations of their tattoos by others.”

It’s undeniable that we are all unconsciously influenced by forces outside ourselves to do a lot of the things that we do. But the idea of tattoos as a collective act and group trend sends a chill down my spine. The fact that I personally considered permanently changing the pigment of my skin to cover the parts of my naked body that my ex thought weren’t “looking so good,” really sends a chill down my spine.

Certainly, insecurities aren’t the only, or even the most common, reason why people get tattoos. But, the question of whether tattoos actually satisfy the supposed individual aims of those who get them, is an interesting one. So, what do you think; “Why do people get tattoos?”

Avery is a third year English major at the University of California at Berkeley. She spends most of her time eating cookie butter, instagramming, finding ways to procrastinate on her work and enjoying good company. She’s a morning creature who lives for breakfast meals, white mochas, cuddling and mismatched socks. She is a writer and the Head of Marketing for Berkeley’s award winning publication, Caliber Magazine, read some of her work at: Calibermag.org and be sure to follow her on Instagram to add some cheesy poetry to your feed: @averynicepoem.

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