Tattoonomics, Part I

According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo; 36 percent of those age 18-25 report having a tattoo.? Only 1 in 10 people older people have a tattoo.? (Only one person has a Freakonomics tattoo, as far as I know.)

These numbers are shocking to my economist brain.

Economists tend to like choices that are reversible.? Whatever my preferences might be today, who knows what they will be a week, a year, or a decade later?? I loved Adam Ant when I was in high school, but I sure am glad that I didn’t tattoo his name on my forearm.? The same would certainly hold with respect to tattooing the names of any of my ex-girlfriends on my chest.

So what makes tattoos so popular?

One possibility is that people just enjoy them for their intrinsic beauty, just as they might enjoy a work of art in a museum.? The frequency with which people get tattoos in places they can’t easily see (in particular the lower back), makes me think this isn’t the primary answer.

Rather, it would seem that the irreversibility of tattoos must be at the heart of their popularity.? The fact that tattoos are (essentially) permanent makes them very powerful signaling devices: the more costly it is to take an action, the more powerful the signal that action carries.? If I get tattoos on my face that look like the ones that Mike Tyson has, it sends a strong message to society about me.

Who are tattoo-getters trying to signal to?? Because tattoos are painful to get and close off some legitimate job-market opportunities, it isn’t hard to see why tattoos serve a purpose for people engaged in activities that make it likely they will eventually end up in prison.? Most of the young people getting tattoos, however, aren’t on that path.? Presumably they are mostly trying to signal something about themselves to potential mates.? But it seems strange that a University of Chicago undergrad would want to signal, via a tattoo, that they are like the tough guy who ends up in jail.? (An acquaintance of mine had a caduceus – the symbol of medicine – tattooed on his chest.? He definitely felt it sent the right kind of message to girls at the beach.? Just in case, though, he had it done all in blue ink, which is easier to remove.)

Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk.? I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list now!

Blog readers – tell me what I am missing.? Is there a reason I should want a tattoo, or want my wife to have a tattoo?


Roni

I have 4 small tattoos each representing something different to me. They are unique and personal. Expressions. Memories. Even desires. Everyone has a body, tattoos are a way I make mine unique.

jrod1115

Tattoos have baffled me also. They are a luxury item, so it shows we as a society are that much richer. I live in a ski town where a lot of locals dont have a ton of expendable income (these are workers employeed at the mountains and some fo the waiting jobs). Many (I would guess most) have some sort of tat however most them will cry all day about how little money they have. Thats the thing that always gets me about tattoos and smoking, many times its not the richest among us that expend the money on these luxury items.

Kate

I thought about it for three years before I got my tattoo. I chose someplace not visible in the workplace, and I chose a lotus, to symbolize my eventual path to enlightenment, as a visual reminder to be mindful every day, and to practice compassion. I did mine all in black, because colors can fade over time. I also got it done in NOLA, at Electric Ladyland, and it didn't hurt that much. I did a lot of research before I did it, knew the risks, the pain factor as determined by location, etc.

I think a lot of people think of them as accessories now. But personally, I find many to be beautiful to look at, like a woman at my gym with a bracelet of lilacs, or my own lotus. I couldn't have done it if the image didn't mean something to me, because it is permanent.

David

I have the opinion that traditionally tattoos are tribal markings. However I never quite got why people got "tribal" tattoos. My brother has a different opinion, he thinks they are all ridiculous but if he had to get one it would be of a roll of paper towels because how is that any different than a snake wrapped around a skull or barbed wire. That being said, I have two tattoos that mark tribes that I believe I belong to. On my shoulder I have the quadratic formula since I am a math teacher (Tribe 1) and on my calf I have the Ironman symbol since I participate in Ironman Triathlons (Tribe 2).

Douglas Green

I often visit my daughter in the hip Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY where many have all the tattoos they need but I suspect not all the tattoos they want. As they are artist types the work tends to be attractive and make some artistic sense and they seem to stick with genres and objects that mean something to them. This is the opposite of some athletes who look like human doodle pads. Every tattoo tells a story and people who have them are happy to tell you. If you want to do research, just start asking.
DrDougGreen.Com - for busy educators

jonathan

The people I know who have real tattoos, not the little bitty ones that can't be seen, have them because they reflect their internal issues.

I can give a legion of examples:

A farmer with vegetables tattooed on his arms. His issues are that he wasn't trained as a farmer but as a scientist and now farming is his commitment and the tattoos show that.

The barista with the lily on her shoulder. Truth is that when you get to know her you realize that she's often sad and the tattoo comes from the part of her that wants to be happy.

The accountant with Dante scenes on his back. He has deep problems with feelings of having betrayed his religious beliefs as well as a number of personal issues. You can guess what the tattoos represent.

The store manager with full sleeves inspired by Tolkien but not directly representative of the actual characters. Not hard to understand why and she knows it.

The soldier - really a marine and a soldier - who have the names of their units, injured men, etc. on their backs.

I could go on but whereas tattoos once were a way of marking your occupation or your particular lifestyle apart from the norm, now they are very often expressions of the self. Not celebrations necessarily but expressions of the turmoil, the hopes, etc. on the inside.

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martha

I got the 1st tat at 22 to show myself (no one else could see it easily) that I could do my own thing and be wild and a bit dangerous. I got the 2nd on my left shoulder to show it off: to myself and others (since no one could see the first one). It was more of a 'I am STILL a bit wild and crazy, despite my suburban family life.'
Now I work for a church (glad it isn't a devil or something!) and the tat that is visible gets some comment, but it's one of the universal symbols for life (tree), so most people are surprised (esp. if they havn't seen it before) but never (obviously) offended. I think they may think I'm a bit younger than I really am, too. Which is nice :)

Brendan

I got my tattoo when I was 23; my reasons vary (I was into The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are very tattooed; younger ladies seem too like "bad boys") but looking back now, I think it was the hubris of youth: I was going to live and be cool forever-like my tattoo. I think a sense of permanence in an always fast changing world gives people an emotional as well as physical anchor. However, now that I'm 41, married, and work as a teacher, that anchor weighs a bit much. I'm glad my tat is virtually unseen (it's on my hip), and a bit fun (it's Mighty Mouse, saving the day). My advice: buy a box of Crackerjacks.

Dr. John Koroloff

I worked my way through college (UCB and SFSU and later PhD at Univ. of Oregon) first as a Palo Alto police officer and later as Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy working nights....my main observations of tatoos back then before they became popular with young people, was of the inmate populations of state and local jails. My theory is that tatoos represent a form of Batesian mimicry, a form of mimicry typified by a situation where a harmless species has evolved to imitate the warning signals of a harmful species directed at a common predator. The kids I see these days at the gym where I exercise are "dressed up like bumblebees" ... or children who wear superman or batman costumes to signal to the world their "special powers".

Sully

My Frat-Tat is a permanent reminder of some of the best friends I've ever had. We still keep in touch despite thousands of miles of separation and years after college.

It's also a binder between future friends. It turns out my 1st boss (Im no longer at the job, but he has become one of my best friends) was also in the same Fraternity.

kim

I have a small tattoo on my ankle that i got when i was 19. I'm not sure I'll get another, but I don't regret this one because:

a) I chose something that means something to me (a maple leaf - I'm Canadian and now living internationally)
b) It's discreet and can be easily covered. I usually get to decide if people see it or not - so it tends not to affect how people see me.
c) It's in a spot that is unlikely to stretch or sag over time.
d) Most people are surprised to hear *I* have a tattoo (I'm a bit geeky and vanilla). I'm glad it's a surprise.

Nick

I feel as though you have made far too many generalization in this past post. The only positive you mention about a tattoo is their "intrinsic beauty". It sounded as though you correlate tattoos to things that are insignificant and entirely unnecessary. I do find a few issues with this.

1- There is the concept of permanence associated with a tattoo the is very powerful, which works well when the tattoo actually means something to you.

2- There are things that will never change and that you feel strongly about. Giving the examples of ex-girlfriends and Adam Ant are very poor examples of things to get tattooed. What if someone went through a horrible accident and survived and wanted a tattoo to remind them of that every day, or maybe a mother, father, sibling or child that passed away tragically.

3- Tattoo location- you mention the lower back, and face as 2 locations when there are plenty of other very discrete and appropriate locations for a meaningful tattoo.

I do agree that there has been a tremendous growth in the amount of people getting a tattoo, and I do feel as though that too many people are in fact getting unnecessary ink done and that people should put more thought into what they get. However, what positive I do see coming out of this wave of tattoo getters are riding the world of the stigma of tattoos and making them more socially acceptable. They are also helping to increase the awareness about tattoo parlors being clean and raising health standards associated with them. In the past there was a danger of a tattoo that an artist would use an old needle, pass on diseases, but that is no longer the case.

As for getting a tattoo to create a new perception of yourself, I can see why you would pass the judgment on some people, but you should not assume that about everyone who has a tattoo. Not all tattoo-getters are trying to signal to someone.

I say all this because I in fact have 2 tattoos that are very meaningful to me and are in places where I still have family and friends that don't know or know but haven't seen, yet I can see them every day as a reminder to their meanings. 1 is on my right thigh, hidden by my pants or shorts, yet I can see every day. The other on my rib cage under my arm where I would have to lift my arm to see and could easily get by without it being seen.

If you are against tattoos and have these general perceptions about tattoos then you should definitely not get them and not have your wife get one because you would ultimately judge her for it. But I also would hate to not say that you should not pass judgment on anyone that has a tattoo, whether they have 100 or 1, to each their own and to every tattoo there is a story.

Nick

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Dave

I think it's very similar to the whole social networking thing; the drive to broadcast things about yourself to the world (or at least the small part of the world who is your facebook friend or following you on twitter...).

I don't understand the social network phenom so I am not surprised that I also don't understand the tattoo thing either; if you're searching for enlightenment or peace or something, doesn't that happen in your own head rather than via a flower or Chinese or Egyptian symbol or character inked on your body?

At the more shallow end of the spectrum are those who get images tattooed because "they like them." Hey, I like pizza but wouldn't think about getting a "large with pepperoni" tattooed on my butt....

William

People like being trendy and coming up with post-hoc rationalizations for it.

batticus

It is the search for authenticity, tattoos used to reflect shared experiences (army, navy, prison) and toughness (enduring pain, risk of disease, seedy tattoo parlors) and meant something when they were rare and difficult to acquire. Anybody with a tattoo these days is usually trying to be cool and with it, trying to say they are the real thing, authentic to their core when in reality they are signaling that they blindly follow the latest trend (the opposite of being authentic and yourself).

Germano Vale Filho

I have a Buffalo Man (the Jamiroquai mascot) tattoo in my right arm. I just felt like I was going to tattoo it back in late 2005, when I have it done. I was on vacation, living a wild life and it was purely impulsive! I still like Jamiroquai and I will always like the music. I believe it's purely an egocentric act - much more than an economic one.

Aiken

Asking why people get tattoos is like asking why people buy 4x4's -- there are as many different answers as there are personal motivations.

But #'s 4, 7, and 10 hit on something important: for many people, tattoos are a way to signal *oneself*. Or, really, one's future self. By making an overt symbol of an event or feeling, people choose to remind themselves, for good or bad.

And screw reversibility. Life isn't reversible. That incredibly painful breakup, or that fantastic achievement, or that key lesson learned -- that was your life. For many people, the permanence of meaningful tattoos is equally acceptable or inevitable.

NSK

I came from a society that frowns on flaunting. Tattoos are meant to flaunt. Therefore, I have a bias against tattoos.

That said, empirically, purely based on what I have observed, the people who seem to be in "trouble" (with the law) ... ball players, regular Joes at street corners, etc etc ... all seem to have tattoos. So, I like your attributed cause-effect relationship between tattoos and crime. Though, the logician in me tells me that this is more correlation than causation.

I will be extremely hard pressed to let my kids get tattoos. My wife will not .. she hates needles and being poked!

Shayna

The concept is beyond me as well --- I cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I have a tattoo (and as a Jew, I plan to be buried in one), but long before my mother clued me in to that detail the wisdom in an irreversible drawing being etched into my skin eluded me for a variety of reasons: What looks cute at 20 will be wrinkly at 60, what you love now you may hate later, tattoos are painful to get, and often require touch ups. They are even more painful to remove... did I miss anything?

Dave

My tattoos mark passages in time. They mark things I want to remember and things I should never forget.

There are some rules I follow however; no names, no faces, and no languages I cannot read. I have also never seen the appeal of violent or death oriented tattoos but to each their own.