Tattooing, Tattoo Collectors and Tattooists as Deviants

Katherine Irwin
Katherine Irwin

Since the rise and burgeoning of the labelling perspective in the 1960s and 1970s, the field of deviance has become a highly polemical terrain marked by many lively debates. Not the least of these are the arguments surrounding what is known as positive and negative deviance (cf. Best and Luckenbill 1982; Goode 1991; Sagarin 1985).

Such trademark concepts as primary and secondary deviance (Lemert 1967), labeling (Becker 1963), retrospective interpretation (Kitsuse 1962), master status and auxiliary traits (Hughes 1945), degradation ceremonies (Garfinkel 1956), and dramatization of evil (Tannenbaum 1938) have encouraged the negative deviance perspective and supported the idea that deviants are norm breakers treated as inferior to conventional individuals.

Advocates of positive deviance (Ben-Yehuda 1990; Dodge 1985) have argued that norm-breaking is not inherently negative and have looked at positive deviants as those who “exceed social norms”’ (Heckert 1989). To date, this debate has led to the development of two divergent kinds of literature: one that identifies numerous types of negative deviants and the other illustrating a few cases of positive deviants (Ewald and Jiobu 1985; Heckert 1989; Hughes and Coakley 1991; Huryn 1986; Jones 1998). What are missing are examples of individuals who cross this conceptual divide and simultaneously function as positive and negative deviants.

This article bridges this gap in our knowledge by identifying individuals who surpass and fall below social norms. While conducting a participant observation study of tattoos and tattooing in the 1990s and early 2000s, I had the chance to interact within an elite tattoo realm. Two social types make up the elite tattoo world. The first type is the elite collector. Individuals in this social group are not just collectors in the sense that they are covering their bodies with one or more tattoos (cf. Vail 1999b). They represent a subset of heavily tattooed individuals who desire the best art available, pay many thousands of dollars for their tattoos, and travel to cities around the United States of America, Dollarspe, Japan, or Australia to acquire pieces from famous artists.

This group proves to be an exclusive one, as few individuals in the tattoo world can afford the $100 to $250 per hour fee charged by famous artists. Professional tattoo artists, who produce the work so highly coveted by elite collectors, make up the second group in the elite tattoo world.

Tattoo artists are among the few who can afford the high cost of tattoos; hence, members of this group make up the vast majority of the tattoo elites. In addition, most elite collectors who are not tattooists see themselves as experts in all aspects of elite tattooing, including possessing detailed knowledge about elite tattooists’ careers and familiarity with the organization and techniques of the tattoo profession. Thus, the boundaries between the two groups in the upper echelons of tattooing are exceptionally thin and vague.

Members of the tattoo elite solicit mixed responses from others. Some observers are transfixed by tattooees’ “embodied art” and their novel approach to art collection. Others find them vile and disgusting. In this article, I argue that elite collectors and tattooists represent an example of simultaneous positive and negative deviants because they combine a conflicting set of norms and values and inspire a variety of responses from others.

Tattoo researchers working in the 1990s and 2000s suggested that, like many subcultures (cf. Fox 1987), tattoo worlds remain rigidly divided between core and peripheral social members (DeMello 2000; Vail 1999a, 1999b). On the outskirts of the tattoo scene are a group of middle class and largely conventional individuals who see getting tattoos as fun, hip, and trendy (Irwin 2001). While these fashion-conscious tattooees provide a broad base of support for tattoos within mainstream social groups, they ultimately select the smallest and most innocuous tattoos possible. Their co-option of this once edgy and deviant activity affords them the lowest status within the tattoo world.

Avant-garde tattooees represent a more revered group within the subculture. Interested in setting themselves apart from the hip and trendy circles, avant-garde individuals find themselves getting larger, more extreme tattoos (Irwin 2000). However, lack of resources and interest in having their master status determined by their tattoos keep avant-garde collectors from covering their bodies with art.

Elite collectors and tattoo artists rest at the core of the tattoo world. They are not only dedicated to completing their “bodysuits,” they are also interested in acquiring and producing the best, most expensive, and prestigious tattoos available. In this way, they serve as the trendsetters within the world of professional tattooing. In this paper, I examine how elite collectors and tattooists’ status as positive and negative deviants played on these social divisions within and between tattoo worlds and how simultaneous positive and negative deviance statuses are tied to the structure of fringe social groups and conventional society.

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Notify of
Inline Discussions
View all discussions
Limited Time Clearance
Up To
Item added to cart.
0 items - 0.00