I've had some readers ask me to post my research paper on tattoos and consumer identity, so here it is! It's a bit of a read, I apologize. I found conducting the research to be very interesting, and it has inspired me to continue researching this topic. I hope to incorporate or expand on this preliminary research in the future, hopefully again during my undergrad. Please note that all ideas, data and writings are my own unless otherwise credited. This was an academic paper I submitted this past semester, as well as presented at a department conference this past April.
*Update: this paper has also been nominated for a research competition for the same department. Results should be out in June 2013. (fingers crossed!)
Tattoos as Markers of Identity
and Their Value as Consumer Products
The construction of personal identity has been linked to the expression of the self through materialistic consumption (Wang Chengbing 294), and while this materialism has become socially acceptable in Western culture, there remains a lack of tolerance for the consumption of tattoos as markers of identity. This issue of identity construction through tattoo purchasing is discussed by some scholars as categorizing tattooed people as self-expressive, while simultaneously marking them as socially deviant and narcissistic (Lauren Langman 239). This contradiction is the starting point for my research into the construction of consumer identity through tattoos. While many scholars discuss the correlation between identity construction and tattoos, the consumer aspect as markers of social status has not been fully investigated. Whereas many consumer goods allow the buyer a certain status based on their investment (Chengbing 295), tattoos do not appear to receive the same acknowledgement for their monetary value. Additionally, considering the commodification of the body, as discussed by Maurice Patterson and Jonathan Schroeder, skin can be argued as another medium through which individuals embody consumerism (259).
This study will focus predominantly on the insufficient consideration of the consumerist investments required of tattoos. I will explore previously conducted research on the relationship between consumerism and tattoos in Western society, and examine individual testimonies on various blogs and online sites about acquiring tattoos. While my research focuses primarily on two blogs, (“The Tattooed Engineer”, “Rainy-Day Saver”) I collected data from a number of related blogs and articles, concentrating on reader comments and debates within this forum context. I will also look at the negative stereotypes attributed to people with tattoos, and the juxtaposition this creates between individual expression, and social identity. Through this, I will explore the contrast in personal motivations for purchasing tattoos, to the negative judgements imposed upon tattooed individuals. This dissimilarity in identity presentation and public reception will be further analyzed by theorizing tattoos consumption on its comparative value to other material markers of status.
Consumer culture has been defined by previous research as, “allow[ing] people to construct a way of life that promotes self-display to gain satisfaction from their consumer behaviour” (Chengbing 294). When applied to the purchasing of tattoos, this definition supports what scholar Victoria Pitts claims as tattoos being a reflection of personal and spiritual growth connected to consumerist activities. She further constructs tattoos as symbols of social status (366). Using this theory, it is evident that the connection between tattoos and identity is constructed drastically different for the consumer, and those who view the tattoos as markers of social deviancy (Patterson and Schroeder 263). Liz Frost explains that social acceptance and identification “may be dependant on what kind of image…[people] can construct” (75). Applying this to the presentation of tattoos within social groups, personal identity is dependant on the perceived image one portrays to others. Through consumerist behaviour, personal identity has become what Jennifer Hill describes as a “reflection of ‘lifestyles’” (354), and the purchasing of tattoos therefore reflects the genre of lifestyle choices the wearer has made. What these definitions fail to consider, however, is the difference between the tattooed persons intended identity, and the perceived identity based on the observations of others. Here there is a possible connection to what Soraya Mehdizadeh describes as two categories of personal conception. She utilizes these categories in her study on narcissistic personalities, based on work by Markus and Nurius, which are known as the “now self”, and the “possible self” (358). These constructions of selfhood are relatable to the consumption of tattoos based on the contradictory identities of tattooed individuals. Whereas the “now self” is constructed by others, the “possible self”, or the unknown identity, in selectively presented. This concept applies to tattoo consumption, in that this possible identity is portrayed visibly on the wearers skin, and can emphasize personality traits or aspects of the individual they wish to mark as part of their identity. Similarly, the wearer may choose to hide their tattoos with clothing or makeup, and may therefore construct their identity through the choice to display or hide their tattoos in order to convey a particular “possible self”.
Following Patterson and Schroeder’s definition of skin as, “an important component of embodied capital in the West” (259), I will examine the commodification of the body as a means for expressing consumer behaviour. In this way, tattoos act as visible markers of consumerism, while also constructing the ambiguity of the skin as personal and yet transgressive in nature (254). Although my research demonstrates the relationship between identity construction and tattoos as visible markers of the self, my primary focus is to examine the deficit of acknowledgement to the consumerist investment included in the purchasing of tattoos. What are negated in previous research are the tattoo’s monetary obligation, and its consequential consumerist fulfilment. This follows Chengbing’s definition of consumer culture and the satisfaction gained from this behaviour. My research looks at the argumentative commentary found on pro-tattoo blogs, such as the “The Tattooed Engineer”, as well as comments by readers on “Rainy Day Saver”, a personal blog on finances that examined the consumerist aspect of tattoos. This comparison revealed a paradox of identities, presented by the supporters and detractors of tattoos, as well as a discussion on the practicality of tattoos as a good financial investment. I also considered articles and their reader comments on the following sites: “Cranking Widgets”, “Washington Square News” (NYU), “Needles and Sins”, and “Matador Network”. These blogs provided sufficient data to determine the conflicting perceptions of identity, as well as support my claim on the possibility of acknowledging tattoos as consumerist investments.
Rebecca Rashid’s article for the “Washington Square News” (NYU) presented the results from a 2010 Pew Research Centre study, which found that almost 40 percent of people aged 18 to 29 in the survey, had at least one tattoo. She questions the validity of the stereotypes against tattoos, asking, “is almost one-third of our upcoming generation a mob of anti-professional, rebellious, unmotivated individuals?”. Her question parallels my own research into the connection between tattoos and personal identity, and that the ownership of a tattoo cannot stigmatize the wearer. Here also, it is important to consider the difference in regards to the wearer’s interpretation of the tattoo, and the societal construct of the entirety of the individual, based on the singular aspect of a tattoo.
When considering the impact of material markers of social status, such as designer clothes, purses, and cell phones, for example, it is evident that consumer culture has a significant influence on constructing social identities (Chengbing 294). As tattoos have become mainstream, those with tattoos have become the foundation on which future tattoo purchases are based, which Chengbing has explained as being characteristic of fashions in consumer culture (294). Based on this concept, tattoos, as fashion is comparable to other consumer products, with trends and styles that change over time. Like other products, certain tattoos are popularized during certain eras, such as tribal tattoos during the 1990s. This concept is appropriated for the consideration of tattoos as another product of consumer behaviour. Using this framework, alongside the increased commonality of tattoos across social demographics, my findings are supported by aligning tattoos with other forms of material consumerism. Just as other consumer products shape identities and align individuals within certain social groups, tattoos also have the ability to construct selfhood and categorize societal cliques. Victoria Pitts reiterates this concept in saying, “the tattoo seems to reflect some version of community and belonging”(366). Insofar as my own research, the concept of social belonging is relevant to distinguish not only the tattoos themselves as markers, but the differentiation between the qualities of the art. Comparable to the quality of clothing, for example, tattoos are seen in a wide range of artistic ability and style. This can be suggested as another category of the consumerist value of tattoos, and the necessity for high-quality work to be recognized as high-quality merchandise.
The comments on the article, Tattoos: Waste of Money or Artistic Investment? on “Rainy Day Saver” provided a consistent source of data to reflect on the “artistic investment” quality of tattoos. 41 percent of those who commented acknowledged the financial commitment required by a tattoo. Commenters who did not mention this aspect, either provided a personal anecdote on tattoos, or their inability to withstand the pain to get one, but did not argue the investment factor of tattooing. These comments support what I claim is sufficient cause to recognize tattoos in consumer culture, as markers of “embodied capital” (Patterson and Schroeder 259).
Comments in reply to the article What do your tattoos mean to you? by Kate Sedgwick on “The Matador”, contribute to the dualistic perception and interpretation behind tattoos. Those who had tattoos firmly stated that their meanings were deeply personal and “sacred”. The comments were replying to the article itself, which focused on cultural appropriation of indigenous tattoo practices. However, this aspect of the cultural appropriation of tattooing supports my own study into tattoos and identity construction. How one person constructs their individuality through tattoos is not necessarily contingent on the cultural values or practices from which the tattoo originates. Comparable to other consumer products acquired overseas or from non-western cultures, tattoos may be perceived as other markers of personal investment, as well as being possible parallels to other forms of “exotic” material consumerism.
Marisa Kakoulas makes an interesting argument on tattoos and workplace acceptance, which I argue reflects the consumerist value of tattoos. Her article, NY Times on Tattoos in the Workplace, posted on “Needles and Sins” tattoo blog, talks about the continued discrimination of tattooed people in corporate and non-corporate companies. Her ending argument comments on the aspect of tattooed attorneys representing tattoo studios. She states that, “You don't need a tattoo to provide effective legal services to a tattoo studio, but creating brand trust -- just like all luxury brands do -- has a greater reach to your target market”. In this case, tattoos may actually be a positive item for an attorney to possess, should they be representing people in the industry. Kakoulas compares tattoos to other high-commodity products, which in turn, supports their status as high-value consumer products. Her comments thus support my research on the consumerist value of tattoos, and the recognition of high-quality tattoo work as high-quality products.
My research on these blogs and their reader comments, support my hypothesis of a contrast between the motivations for acquiring tattoos (spiritual, personal growth, memorial, art) and the negative stereotypes (gang related, criminal, social deviancy, narcissism). I have been able to determine that there exists a conflicting area of identity construction. I therefore aim to look at in further research, the reasons why despite the mainstream popularity of tattoos, there remains the cultural stigma of deviancy (Patterson and Schroeder 260). As a commenter on “Rainy Day Saver” stated, “tattoos are an artistic investment”, going on to explain that in comparison to other materialistic purchases, tattoos have the longest investment, as well as the best value over the length of time the tattoo is owned. By taking this approach to analysing the commodification of tattoos as purely another aspect of consumer culture, I aim to further explore the possibility for capitalist recognition for the amount tattoo consumers invest on their skin.
Although my research has revealed the spectrum of differences between tattoo motivations and identity constructions, I have not been able to find a plausible means for bridging the gap created by the negative stereotypes cast on tattooed individuals. In further research and advocacy, it may be possible to promote the assimilation of tattoos with social acceptance, if their consumerist value is emphasized on a more recognized scale. From my research, those who advocate for tattoo acceptance base it purely on individuality and self-expression as the dominating argument for the tolerance of tattooed bodies. However, I propose that their value, based on their commodification as part of Western consumer culture, be accepted as a corporeal medium for not only personal expression, but also recognition of their value as “artistic investments”. Using Patterson and Schroeder’s concept of skin as cultural capital, I aim to gain recognition for tattoos as a high-cost consumer investment. I feel it is significant to add however, that in focusing on the capitalistic aspects of tattooing, I do not wish to devalue it as an art form, nor am I denying the complexity of the tattoo industry. My research has brought me to the conclusion that, if tattoos are not receiving adequate social consideration based on the testimonies of its consumers, and its proliferation in modern Western society, I ask that they receive societal recognition based on their monetary value. Further research could examine possible avenues of advertising, or methods to raise social awareness on the consumerist value of tattoos. Also, as a way of gaining cultural value as a respected art form, further research could examine the possibility of promoting the artistic ability of tattoo artists, and their designation within the art world.
Chengbing, Wang. “Consumer Culture and the Crisis of Identity”. Science and Business Media. 45 (2011): 293-298. Print.
Frost, Liz. “Theorizing the Young Woman in the Body”. Body & Society. 11.63 (2005): 63-84. Print.
Hill, Jennifer Ann. “Endangering Childhoods: How Consumerism is Impacting Child and Youth Identity”. Media Culture Society. 33.347 (2011): 347-360. Print.
Kakoulas, Marisa. “NY Times on Tattoos in the Workplace”. Needles and Sins. April 2013. April 3 2013.
Langman, Lauren. “Culture, Identity and Hegemony: The Body in a Global Age”. Current Sociology. 51.223 (2003): 223-247. Print.
Mehdizadeh, Soraya. “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook”. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking. 13.4 (2010): 357-363. Print.
Patterson, Maurice, Schroeder, Jonathan. “Borderlines: Skin, Tattoos and consumer cultural theory”. Marketing Theory. 10. 253 (2010): 253-267. Print.
Pitts, Victoria. “Review Essay: Reading the Body Through a Cultural Lens”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 31.361 (2002): 361-372. Print.
Sedgwick, Kate. “What do Your Tattoos Mean to You?”. The Matador. September 26 2011. March 2013.
“Why Do People Get Tattoos?”. The Tattooed Engineer. May 2011. March 13 2013. <http://www.thetattooedengineer.com>.
Nicole. “Tattoos: Waste of Money or Artistic Investment?”. Rainy-Day Saver. N.d.
March 13 2013.