Projects almost due, YIKES!

Devin Escobar and Amaru Ona

Literature Review on Tattoos

It is evident that the idea and aesthetic behind tattooing posses an air of rooted traditionalism. Take for instance, the type of tattooing style that some would call tribal or tribal tattoos. The word tribal alone sounds of a specific community, that some consider to be not westernized, nor modernized to the politically, economically, academically comparison of a more westernized country like that of America. When used, the word tribal evokes this mental image of aboriginal people to a land, often times popularly described as less civilized and savage-like. Tribal, which is a word derivative of tribe, is used when talking about civilizations like American Indians, Africans, the Indigenous Australians called the Aborigines, and Asians, Pacific Islanders and those of the Arctic.

Man with tattoo from the Ibanese branch of the Borneo people
In North Africa, Iraq, and the Balkans, the people were heavily influenced with the Berber traditions of body adorning with tattoos. In Taiwan and Borneo the tradition behind body modification is strongly rooted in tattoo motifs and their spiritual functions. In Papua New Guinea, Easter Island and Rapa Nui , body modification is more than just dermal painting. It involves body markings and scarification. The Japan, Northwest Coast, and Arctic regions used body modification and the art of tattoo as medical therapy and spirituality (Sowell 619). I was personally always aware of the traditional expression of body modification of the indigenous from Latin America, but very little information was found on this region involving body art and the ancient cultures of the Americas. It is interesting to see that each of these cultures all had or have traditions of meaningful multitudes. Each and every culture has a defining vocabulary to discuss tattoo names, motifs and practices to emulate significance and meaning (Sowell 619). Yet, with this knowledge in mind, people still find such creative, spiritual and cognitive traditions of rich cultures as primitive.

How could it be that, even though such cultures are seen as primitive, people desire to adopt such customs when it does not apply to ones experience other than the exposure to seeing it in pictures or on other people’s bodies? It is interesting to see how it was integrated into present day mentalities. In the mid to later years of the 20th century the American society never really exposed a desire for such body modification unless it was by people belonging to specific social minority subculture and counter culture groups – like working class, blue-collar, bikers, prisoners, and punks (Kosut 1036). It wasn’t until the later decades of last century that the mass marketing of tattooing became a social norm, even to very young populations who were of the Barbie playing, Sesame Street watching, Power Puff Girls observing ages (Kosut 1035). There has also been an emulation of people owning such body art on their skins all over the media like in movies and television – reality television, soap operas, and sitcoms (Kosut 1037). It can be safe to say as a sociologist, that media is an enormous tool for socialization and adoption of ideas. It is also human to desire to place meaning to something, even if the meaning is sentimentally charged. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain, many people who adopted tattoos into otherwise a culture that does not have a historical tattooing tradition of their own; there is a desire to place personal meanings to the body art and defining motivations around it (Kosut 1036).

We desire, in a group effort, to look into people’s motivations behind adopting such a traditional forms of body art, to get a better glimpse as to why the cultural adoption of such practices occurred. Furthermore we desire to look into how people find themselves selecting what they want to adorn their bodies permanently.

Works Cited

Kosut, Mary. “An Ironic Fad: The Commodification and Consumption of Tattoos.” Journal of Popular Culture 39.6 (2006): 1035-048. Web. Apr. 2010.

Sowell, Terri. “The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women.” Review. Pacific Affairs: Volume 81, No. 4 – Winter 2008-2009 Winter 2009: 619-20. Print.


Every person involved in our sociological research project will have the knowledge as to why we are conducting this project. They will be informed of the photo elicitation aspect of the project in which we will be asking for verbal consent to take pictures of them, with the option to leave out their face or heads to maximize their comfort. We understand that some people may not want to share their face or head due to the stigma placed on body art by some religions, places of employment, or even family. We plan on asking questions that clearly share that due to the nature of the project; their picture may be used and published for research purposes. No participant will be expected to follow through on any of the photography unless they are certain that they want to be a part of this study. It would serve us no good if they are not comfortable because we as the researchers will also be uneasy.

Because part of our project may involve historical components to body modification and tattooing, we will be looking into finding photography taken that is open source. As for looking into historical tattooing, we will be looking into flicker photos, anthropological photography and archives of photos taken of other cultures that have tattooing as a traditional experience. All the photography we will be looking to use will be properly cited and credited. Being able to use historical data to compare data may help express the morphing of such traditions into mainstream modern cultures.


And then we can take a slightly different turn in which we’ll go and look into the not-so-seamless integration of tattoos in popular or modern culture, and take into consideration the type of critiques tattoos can get. In this case women with tattoos are the ones being judged lopsidedly, but not from tribes or indigenous groups. In one particular article written by Christine Braunberger, tattoos [on women] are being interpreted as women’s revolt against a standard of beauty and how this standard has been challenged from the 19th century, but through the 20th as well. The article contains several points of view/reactions to tattooed women’s bodies one excerpt sums this aspect down nicely: “The written body may only speak from a patriarchal script that tries to limit women’s voices and bodies to supporting roles and scenery. So, on a woman’s body any tattoo becomes the symbol of bodily excess. When a woman’s body is a sex object, a tattooed woman’s body is a lascivious sex object; when a woman’s body is nature, a tattooed woman’s body is primitive; when a woman’s body is spectacle, a tattooed woman’s body is a show.” (Braunberger, 2000) So this is exactly what we’re looking to compare; how tattoos can be widely accepted or even necessary to a culture and how in another culture (namely ours) they can be a stigmatized characteristic and, in truth, an escapist revolt from a male-dominated/favoring society. The article continues to explain how the early integration of tattooed women in society got off to an early bad (and easily stigmatized) start, when they began to be displayed during freak shows or tattoo contests in the already taboo carnival setting. (Braunberger, 2000)

Hot or Naught? Whatddya think?
One thing is that we have to be careful not to turn this into a women’s tattoo research. In truth, we’re trying to learn about people’s motivations to get them, sure, but also to learn about the reactions tattoos will get from people. But the truth is, women will more often than not get the most mixed reviews as it would seem that their bodies’ being tattooed can still be seen by many as an unnecessary, unwelcome, and excess addition. Ultimately we’d like to ask our participants more personally about the effects tattoos have had in their past. Although, you never know, the ‘women with tattoos’ aspect is a pretty deep one.

Braunberger, Christine. “Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women.” NWSA Journal 12.2 (2000): 1-23. Project MUSE. 3 Apr. 2010 .

Another article talks about a subject that we’ve also considered working on. The article, from the Journal of Psychology and Christianity by several authors talks about the perceptions of 24 college students on their own tattoos and the circumstances under which they received them. The study shows how some may have gotten them as a result of spur-of-the-moment spontaneity while others as the result of friends’ pressuring them, while the common aspect seems to be the overall disapproval of the parents. The article also explains how women are most likely to have tattoos on their backs while men usually have them on their arms. (Journal of Psych & Christianity) This idea really connects the difference between tattoos by gender, women, it seems, believe they’re more likely to be scrutinized for them. But it’s easy for men to wear long-sleeve shirts to conceal their own rebellious side. The idea of tattoos as symbols of rebellion is actually refuted in this article by the participants as they explain that the tattoos ultimately came predominantly as a result of their own choices and spiritual interpretation. I was surprised to find that they believed nothing in their religion went against tattooing because I find that that is a debated idea, one which I’m hoping we’ll be able to explore more in our interview with participants. The participants in this particular article seem to go against the common misconceptions of people with tattoos in that they are not delinquents, sexual deviants, or rebellious. In fact, the article explains that there is a growing trend within evangelical Christianity that is beginning to embrace tattoos on the body as badges of faith, and as a result, there are a growing number of religiously-themed tattoos.

Firmin, Michael W., Luke M. Tse, Janna Foster, and Tammy Angelini. “Christian Student Perceptions of Body Tattoos: A Qualitative Analysis.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 27.3 (2008): 195-204. Humanities Full Text. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.


With every participant informed about our intentions, we can then begin to (with permission) take pictures of their own tattoos and traditionally this inspires people to open up about themselves and the origins of the tattoos being looked at as well as the motivation to get them and meaning behind them. This also goes for tattoo artists who we’ll ask permission to take pictures of the artwork in their own portfolios (catalogs). Not everyone is expected to agree to have their tattoos’ pictures taken, from their body or portfolio, but this is going to be accompanied by an interview.

In what we’ve learned in class as photo elicitation, we will interview participants alongside pictures of tattoos in magazines or catalogs to get them to open up about a lesser known urban culture of artistic expression; we’ll most likely do this with an already prepared list of questions as well as detailed questions tailored curiosity questions towards the interviewees. It would probably be interesting to learn about the types of people that come in their tattoo parlors; how they come to decide on a tattoo, what types of people get what types of tattoos, we imagine that you can learn a lot about people from not only what their ink is but how they came to the decision in the first place.

Lastly, we will ask more personal questions about the people we interview (which will include customers, if possible, as well as the artists) about their history with having tattoos and the possible treatment/reactions received. We hypothesize that certain backgrounds will encourage tattoos more while the lack of encouragement (or even disapproval) other backgrounds may give will likely have a similar impact out of curiosity and perhaps even rebellion.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  1. Hey Devin, I think you did a great job in addressing your topic from every aspect! You have a very well-rounded scope of research regarding tattoos. Another question you may want to ask your participants is how they feel they are perceived by “mainstream” persons (those without tattoos). This could add to your research or it just may be too much. Just a suggestion. Sounds great and good luck!

  2. Want more blog readers? Check this out

Comments are now closed.

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar