Last year, a good friend of mine, radio host Mike Opelka, visited the 18thAnnual Philadelphia “Tattoo Arts Convention,” which as he writes about as spotlighting both skin art and “tattoo regret”—which he describes as a “real thing.”[i]As he circulated through the booths, he spoke with many people who describing the pain involved in getting a tattoo, particularly in sensitive areas of the body, such as the chest. He also met people who described the desire for tattoo corrections, updates, and yes—removal.
People remove tattoos for a variety of reasons. They are no longer with the high school sweetheart whose name is plastered on their upper arm, they are tired of trying to cover up the images they thought were cool twenty years ago, or they have simply decided the body art no longer fits their image, lifestyle, or religious beliefs.[ii]
Yet what about those who choose to showcase their often elaborate, intricate, body art to the world? How are tattoos viewed today? And is there a difference between the way we view tattoos on women versus men? Research has some answers.
Are Tattoos Still Taboo?
Public perception of tattoos has evolved over the years. No longer are they viewed solely as symbols of nonconformity, rebelliousness, or gang activity. Someone with a visible tattoo thirty years ago was perceived very differently than he or she would be today. Today, you might not think twice about the inked barista taking your coffee order, or the retail store clerk with a rose tattoo on her wrist helping you put together an outfit for a job interview.
Obviously, when viewing body art, there is a major difference as a matter of first impression on your assessment of a small butterfly on the ankle versus a skull and crossbones on the forehead. Yet assuming inked memorialization in moderation, today, tattoos are often conversation starters. You might inquire about the meaning behind the artistic scene or Scripture passage someone is visibly displaying to the world.
Yet when it comes to gauging romantic receptivity, the intentions of women showcasing visible tattoos are subject to serious misinterpretation.
Tattoos on Women—Perceptions of Promiscuity and Power
Both women and men run the risk of being unfairly judged by what they visibly showcase to the world. From clothing, to hairstyle, to tattoos. In some cases, women are judged differently than men.
Research indicates that tattoos may send the wrong signal when it comes to judging sexual receptivity. Research indicates that men may misperceive tattooed women as more sexually responsive. This leads to approach behavior, potentially with false hopes of sexual activity.
Research by Nicolas Guéguen(2013) found that a man will approach a woman with a tattoo over one without; and faster.[iii]The study examined the approach behavior of men to women lying on a well-known beach. The women were reading, lying flat on their stomachs, some with a tattoo prominently displayed on their lower backs, some without.
Men were more likely to approach the women with tattoos, not because they found the tattooed women to be more attractive, but because they believed the tattooed women would be more likely to have sex on the first date.
Previous research by Hawkes et al. (2004) indicated negative attitudes towards women with visible tattoos.[iv] This negative evaluation was held even by study participants who had tattoos themselves. Yet there were other significant personality predictions that appeared to depend on the body art (or lack thereof) of the evaluator.
Tattooed men rated tattooed women as more powerful and active than their tattoo-less counterparts. Women viewed tattooed women as more powerful and less passive than their clear skinned counterparts, whether or not they had a tattoo themselves. In other words, women viewed other women with tattoos less positively, yet rated them as more powerful.
A Tattoo is Skin Deep: The Individual Beneath the Ink
The tendency of people to jump to conclusions based solely on appearances is a byproduct of any visible type of ornamentation, from body art, to clothing, to hairstyle, and many other observable characteristics.
As my friend Mike Opelka learned at the Philadelphia convention, people seek tattoos (as well as their removal) for many different reasons. When judging the character and receptiveness of individuals with tattoos, it is important to resist the temptation to rely on stereotypes or reflexive assumptions. Only when we know about the incentive behind the ink, and the desire for the design, can we discover the person behind the persona.
[iii]Nicolas Guéguen, “Effects of a tattoo on men’s behavior and attitudes towards women: An experimental field study.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 42, no. 8 (2013): 1517-1524.
[iv]Daina Hawkes, Charlene Y. Senn, and Chantal Thorn, “Factors That Influence Attitudes Toward Women With Tattoos.” Sex Roles 50, no. 9-10 (2004): 593-604.