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?