Tattoos as Windows to the Psyche: The Psychology of Skin Art
What do your tattoos really say about you?
Posted Feb 01, 2018
What does having a tattoo reveal about you?
This is a question I frequently see online. Headlines suggest that having tattoos tells us something meaningful about the personality or psychological makeup of those who wear them.
Indeed, a number of studies over the years have attempted to answer this question by comparing the personality characteristics of those with tattoos to those without. Despite what individual studies have claimed (e.g., that people with tattoos are more extroverted), taking a broader view across studies conducted in a variety of populations—people from different countries, college students, and those being treated for mental illness—reveals findings that are, not surprisingly, inconsistent and inconclusive.
Consider the following scenarios:
- After the birth of his daughter, a 35-year-old father gets a tattoo of her name on his arm.
- A 48-year-old yoga instructor gets a tattoo of a mandala on her back.
- During time in prison, an 18-year-old gets a tattoo of a teardrop below her eye.
- After returning from combat deployment overseas, a 23-year-old Marine gets a tattoo of the phrase “Semper Fi” on the back of his hand.
- During a vacation over spring break, a 20-year-old college junior gets a tattoo of a butterfly on her ankle.
- After joining a white supremacy group, a 45-year-old man gets a swastika tattooed on his forehead.
- Following the 2016 World Series, a 60-year-old fan gets a Chicago Cubs tattoo on his arm.
So, given this potential variety, what does having a tattoo really say about its wearer? Nothing — and potentially everything. By this I mean that having a tattoo in general doesn’t reliably tell us anything about an individual, but exploring the details about an individual tattoo could prove quite informative. This was the conclusion of my colleagues and I, in an article recently published in the World Journal of Psychiatry, “Tattoos as a Window to the Psyche: How talking about skin art can inform psychiatric practice.” We reviewed 30 years of research on the psychology of tattooing and found the following:
1. It's becoming increasingly normal.
While tattoos have historically been associated with criminals, gang members, prisoners, and other marginalized groups, tattooing is now firmly part of mainstream culture. A 2015 Harris Poll found that about 30 percent of the U.S. population, and almost half of those aged 18-35, have a tattoo. Although some people may get a tattoo based on “rebelliousness” or a “need for uniqueness,” having a tattoo is fast becoming a sign of conformity.
2. Tattoos don’t necessarily reflect deviance or psychopathology.
Older studies of tattoos performed in psychiatric settings and prisons were biased toward finding evidence that tattoos were a sign of criminality, perversion, deviance, or mental illness. This is no longer true among adults. While there is some current evidence that adolescents with tattoos are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like drug use and sexual activity or to have problems in school, that’s probably a byproduct of the fact that getting a tattoo is illegal for minors. In other words, having a tattoo as a teenager is associated with risky behaviors because it signals that one is willing to do something that is against the law.
3. Merely having a tattoo doesn’t tell us anything about an individual, but talking in detail about someone’s tattoos can provide a “window to the psyche.”
Considering the different examples outlined above, it should be obvious that the significance of any tattoo might be quite different depending on the individual who gets it.
It’s time to abandon the idea that having a tattoo tells us anything meaningful about a person. There are no shared personality characteristics that can be reliably observed among all people with tattoos. However, discussing why a tattoo was obtained, how its location was chosen, and the personal meaning of its design offers a useful opportunity to understand someone better. As discussed in our paper, talking about those details could be particularly helpful in psychotherapy, allowing the therapist and patient to explore issues or themes that might otherwise remain hidden.
Roggenkamp H, Nicholls A, Pierre JM. Tattoos as a window to the psyche: How talking about skin art can inform psychiatric practice. World Journal of Psychiatry 2017; 7:148-158.