Although the medical and mental health literatures bemoan the dangers of tattooing as a predictor of deviance and a source of negative sociality, recent research in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies reveals the multiple reasons individuals become tattooed in the contemporary United States of America. Analysis of these works shows that many individuals become tattooed to face social-psychological challenges and to exert control over themselves and their lives through the modification of the body. Specifically, the study of contemporary body projects like tattooing illuminates social-psychological concepts regarding the self, including: coping, mastery, self-efficacy, and the construction of the self through life narratives.

More importantly, contemporary tattoo practices address the fluidity and malleability of the middle-class body and reveal the changing nature of middle-class tastes with regard to “bodywork”. But these trends also raise questions about the efficaciousness of contemporary tattoo practices. Most specifically, what are the implications of semi-affluent white Westerners’ adoption of the body marking practices of non-Western others?

One vein of research on tattooing has been undertaken by the mental health community in the form of survey data. This research concludes, generally, that tattoos and other forms of body modification serve as predictors of future deviance — a highly deprecatory view of tattooing. For mental health experts, who share the assumption that voluntary inscription of the body is an indicator of social maladjustment or self-hatred, tattoos serve as outward reflections of inner pathology.

Exemplifying this viewpoint, Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz (2008) have argued that there is a connection between tattoos, body piercings, and self-injury. Their survey data was collected from 432 individuals with body modifications, who were asked questions about personal histories and views of self. The researchers sought to draw a parallel between childhood experiences, self-cutting, and current body modification practices. In short, they conclude that body modification arises out of a history of abuse and hatred for the body.

The problem with this work (and many more like it) is that it relies too heavily on survey data for its conclusions. This precludes capturing the more nuanced reasons that individuals get tattooed as well as the more diverse personalities that undergo the process. For example, survey data comes almost exclusively from college students located on the premises of university research facilities. This creates striking generational differences between one’s sample and the population to which one generalizes. For this reason, one needs to supplement survey data with in-depth narratives of people who are tattooed. The tattoo community is not entirely college-aged, but much more diverse than Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz’s data would suggest.

Furthermore, what Aglaja Stirn and Andreas Hinz, along with their colleagues, fail to consider is that notions of the body as static may no longer be suitable for our late-capitalist, consumption-driven society, a society predicated on the manipulation and self-fashioning of the body. As Pitts (2003:17) has argued, the body is often now treated as a “limitless frontier of exploration and invention” rather than the fixed, ontological whole that it once was. And similarly, consumer culture has shifted from disguising the body behind restrictive clothing to emphasizing the body’s visible contours. The body has become a site of consumption and explicit self-construction, and this new conception of the body provides a new terrain upon which identity is constructed.

To capture the nuances of this changing bodily aesthetic, we must locate our research on the ground, in the trenches of self-formation and consumer capitalism, where tattooing has made large strides in being incorporated into middle-class consumption habits. For this task we must look at the work of DeMello (2000), Pitts (2003), Atkinson (2002a, 2004), Sanders (2008), and Vail (1999), who each offer an intimate look at the tattoo community from a vantage point of ethnographic experience.

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