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Perceptions of tattooed bodies

tattoos

Charlotte Dann is a psychology lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Society, researching women’s tattooed bodies. You can find out more and get in touch via Twitter – @CharlotteJD

Whenever I discuss my tattoo research, I always frame it historically, because I think it’s important to consider how we have come to the point we are at with how tattoos are perceived and understood. And you know, it’s good for a laugh.

In the late 1800s, Lombroso researched deviancy and criminality, and as part of this, came to the conclusion that people who had tattoos were criminals and prostitutes. However, this research was conducted on – you guessed it – criminals and prostitutes. Despite the poor correlation that was presented, his research was influential in how we perceive deviancy and deviant bodies, to the point that those negative connotations towards tattooed bodies still ring true today. Tattoos may be ever rising in popularity (figures indicated one in five has a tattoo, and the number of studios rose by around 170% in the last decade in the UK), but tattooed bodies can still be found to be associated with deviancy.

Let’s consider the influence of the media in this. Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of articles that express shock for the fact that ‘normal’ people are getting tattoos, and why tattoos are becoming more popular for women. It only takes a quick gander at the comments left on these articles to see that public opinion hasn’t changed that much, and that these articles perpetuate negative perceptions about tattoos (i.e. they’re not meant for ‘normal’ people). Newspaper articles such as this often make reference to the ‘normal’ people who are now adorning their bodies – normal being white, middle-class, ‘respectable’ people. The narrative of such newspaper articles often seems to rely on a discourse that positions tattooing as the proper domain of ‘the other’, associated with deviant, problematised, and generally male bodies. Newspaper articles often reflect a certain moral panic about the rise of tattoos among so called ‘normal’ people, whilst at the same time, normalise the practice of tattooing itself.

The media does not do a good job in quelling negative connotations regarding tattooed people, as they tend to focus more on the extremes – the eye-catching headlines, the things that make you wince and tut, not the everyday person who is tattooed. In recent years, newspapers have reported on tattooed teachers as being ‘inappropriate’ for children, on young adults who get cheap ‘joke’ tattoos on holidays in Magaluf, and present morality tales such as those who regret their tattoo choices. In addition, they also frame our understandings of ‘who’ this ‘normal’ tattooed person is (look – even Samantha Cameron and David Dimbleby have them!)

I think what we need to do is question the idea of what a ‘normal’ body is, and really think about the assumptions we make about that body based on frankly outdated perceptions. There is no longer one particular type of person who is tattooed – the availability and accessibility of tattoo studios, designs, and techniques, has meant that you cannot stereotype all tattooed people as one homogenous group.

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