Tattoos: Misunderstood and Misrepresented

By | February 3, 2014

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“A genuine tattoo tells a story…there has to be some emotional appeal or they’re not, to my way of thinking, a real tattoo. It tells people what you are and what you believe in, so there’s no mistakes.” (Bodies of Inscription)

Tattoos are misunderstood. They bring to mind images of gruff bikers, drunken sailors, war veterans, punk rock kids, and sometimes even criminals, but one would be surprised to know that former President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the bearer of a tattoo, or that Thomas Edison one of the greatest scientists and inventors of all time sported one as well. Tattoos are essentially the victims of stereotypes, while in reality they are often meant to symbolize membership, honor loved ones, or even convey an image to others of themselves- whether it is true or false.

To fully appreciate and understand tattoos and their deeper meaning you must start with George Herbert Mead’s theory of the “I” and the “Me”. This is incredibly important because when judging those who have tattoos we are simply judging their “me”. Socially the tattoo might portray a stereotypical image… for instance imagine waiting at a traffic intersection, waiting in the line beside the car is a biker, head to toe in leather and brandishing a huge skull and cross bone on his tricep. What would one think? The skull and cross bone is probably the most widely known example used as a representation for tattoos. Bikers, pirates and even Hitler’s SS men were known to wear a skull and cross bone, but most people can not tell you what it represents. It is the symbol of historic Catholic saints such as St. Francis of Assisi the patron saint of animals and the environment; it is also representative of St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene. The skull and cross bone have also been known to symbolize forgiveness, and the fragility of human life. So when judging someone with a tattoo such as skull and cross bone one would be judging their “me” and see that they probably have a rough life. It would be surprisingly to look inside one’s “I”, the part that even the tattoo wearer themselves may be unaware of, and find out a strong faith in religion, a need for forgiveness or an awareness of death.

We must also analyze tattoos under the social construction of reality. Sociologist Peter Berger writes “Things are not as they seem”, and that is certainly the case. Our nature as human beings is to see what we want to see. To the majority, tattoos are not historic or have emotional ties, but are merely a form of body art. We shape them into what we want them to represent. For example, a convenience store is robbed. The suspects detained include a clean cut businessman and a young “punk” kid, complete with three or four chains hanging from his oversized baggy pants and a large tattoo of a flame wrapped around his neck. Due to the social construction of reality, we will look at the suspects and assume due to ones appearance that the young kid is responsible for the robbery. While in reality the clean cut businessman has a history of petty crime and on a weekly basis gets high and drunk. We see what we want to see. Tattoos automatically put in our mind images of dishonesty, but we are unaware of their origin. It has been a practice since the Neolithic era, and actually began as a therapeutic ritual. Furthermore tattoos were used in religious rituals and mothers of Chinese boys who were heading off to war, would use their sewing needles and tattoo the words “Repay your country with pure loyalty” into their backs. These origins do not seem like something we would usually associate with a life of crime (Wikipedia).

The use of the primary frame is most common reason for misconceptions about stereotypes. We take something that is broad and general and apply it to an entire group, rather than address it to particular circumstances for a particular group of people (Sandstrom). Tattooing falls under the category of Body modification, however it is not in the category of mainstream modification which would include cosmetic surgery, hair drying and nail painting which would be accepted in our culture, but falls in the non-mainstream category. This includes body piercing along with tattooing. In the past tattoos were status symbols of the upper class, but once the electric tattoo needle in 1891 was invented it became inexpensive and more accessible to the lower class. This decrease in price led to the start of negative stereotypes regarding tattoos, followed by their rise of popularity in prisons. Those groups that were practicers of mainstream modification began to look down upon tattoos and due to tattoos growing prevalence in underground homosexual communities and use by motorcyclists it became assumed that those bearing tattoos were criminals, and some went as far as to believe that tattoo wearers were gay and most likely had AID’s (Myers). This is a crucial example of how the primary frame can cause stereotypes in regards to tattoos. The broad and general consensus that tattoos were symbolic of criminals and those suffering from AID’s, caused the entire population of tattoo adorners to be negatively categorized.

Discovering the definition of the situation is the best way for stereotypes concerning tattoos to come to an end. If people attempt to determine what is going on in a social situation, rather than what is socially, politically or ideology projected to be occurring, much conflict can be avoided. There is a lot of ambiguity due to uncertainties regarding roles in a situation, and can cause difficulty in negotiating a widely shared definition of the situation. The most commonly proposed definition may be challenged by other definition and may ultimately result in serious interpretive and interpersonal conflict. This is believed to occur because as human beings we like to construct definitions of situations so they make sense, however due to our differences in lifestyles not all definitions will be equal (Sandstrom). A great example of this would be my family friend Carmen Manzo. In February of 2001 her husband Greg who at the time was the owner of G. Manzo Tree Service was on the job when he was hit by a falling limb. He was instantly killed. Carmen was widowed with four boys ranging from the ages of six months to fifteen years. To show her love for Greg, Carmen had his name tattooed on the top of her left breast. To all that knew her this was completely understandable, we knew it was her form of grieving and it was accepted. However, to many who did not know her and her situation, they looked at her and judged her never even guessing that she was a mother of four, and was a recent widow. As friends of Carmen we constructed a definition of the situation, and accepted her tattoo as a part of the grieving process, however to those unaware their primary frames hindered achieving a proper definition.

Tattoos can help an individual overcome a sense of alienation by sharing their life experiences (Goffman). Despite their expressive qualities and positive effects, they are most likely the most misunderstood dress code. Nevertheless, as with any trend it will most likely work its way into our social construction of reality. A woman wearing long pants was not always accepted, but now it does not faze anyone. The interesting thing about tattoos is that they have been around much longer then the change in women’s dress has, but they still are not entirely accepted into our culture. One day though tattoos will no longer have negative connotations, until then remember the words of Jack London, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”

Works Cited

“Modification.” BMezine. BME. 28 Mar. 2006 .

Myers, James. “Nonmainstream Body Modification. Genital Piercing, Branding, Burning, and Cutting.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Vol. 21, No. 3, Oct 1992.

Rubinstein, Ruth P. Dress Codes. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview P, 2001. 280.

Sandstrom, Kent L., Daniel D. Martin, and Gary A. Fine. Symbols, Selves, and Social Reality. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Los Angeles: Roxbury Company, 2003.

“Skull Tattoo’s and Tattoo Design.” Tattoo Johnny. Tattoo Design. 28 Mar. 2006 .

“Tattoo.” Wikipedia. Mar. 2006. Wikipedia Foundation. 28 Mar. 2006 .

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