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On Tattoos

Monday April 28, 2014

At my son's nursery school end of year celebration, in Greenwich, Connecticut, I noticed that not an inconsiderable number of the parents were sporting tattoos, and some of them went beyond discrete hearts and angels but were covering large body parts like shoulders and forearms. I also couldn't help noticing that quite a few of my children's camp instructors at our country club had tattoos on various parts of their bodies. Whereas I had previously thought of tattoos as something for veterans, prison inmates and bikers, now I feel like I am seeing them everywhere. Tattoos have gone mainstream. According to a Pew Research Poll done in 2010, the current generation of young adults (called the "Millenials") adoption of tattoos has been unprecedented in history. Almost four in ten persons 18 to 40 across America had at least one tattoo.

The Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans used tattoos to mark criminals and slaves. However, in A.D. 787, Pope Hadrian I banned tattooing of any kind, even on criminals or gladiators. From then on, tattooing was virtually unknown in the Christian world until the late 1800's. Later, prisoners in Auschwitz were tattooed, as well as prisoners in Soviet Union work camps. In all of these cases, there is certainly no act of volition or any sense of desirability associated with having a tattoo, or mark on one's body. In fact, the Greek word "stigma", meaning mark, puncture, came into the English language through Latin to mean a mark burned into the skin to signify disgrace. Now we use the word stigma more generally when we are talking about something that has a negative connotation or stereotype, but it is still very much applicable to tattoos, since there are certainly residues of social stigma against people who have tattoos.

On our aupair website, you can screen aupairs on the basis of visible tattoos or piercings and failure to disclose a tattoo is grounds for expulsion from the program. The word "tramp stamp" came up in conversations with my friends, even the ones who had siblings with tattoos. Another friend of mine thinks that she was denied admission to her private airport club on the basis of her assistant's heavily tattooed neck, since she travels constantly and had never before been told there was "no room" in the lounge. And it is difficult to imagine an investment banker or Wall Street lawyer with a visible tattoo.

Given that there is the risk (at least in certain segments of society) of social stigma associated with having a tattoo, what does it say about our society that so many people are getting tattoos? I asked a friend about why he got his tattoos, and he said that when he was young, it was a way of establishing his individual identity, a way of showing how he was different and apart from everyone else. The problem for him at least, he grew up, and his tattoos no longer reflect how he feels about himself or how he wants to present himself to the outside world. He no longer wants to be apart from the word, but rather wants to be part of the world. I also asked him what he thought the reason might be for so many people getting tattoos and he thought it meant that a lot more people were in pain, which I interpreted to mean that tattoos are an outward expression of internal angst. Maybe it is as simple that if you feel happy and joyful you are unlikely to choose something that involves needles and pain.

The problem I see with tattoos is that they indicate a lack of forward thinking, and the preclusion of the possibility of change. The girl I saw working at the gas station with tattoos all over her arms doesn't seem to imagine that one day those tattoos will no longer be appropriate to her status in life, that she might one day be a mother holding a tiny baby in her arm, and she will feel completely different about herself, or that she may one day want the kind of job where those tattoos would simply not be acceptable. So large segments of our society, nearly four in ten young adults, are expressing, via their tattoos, this is who I am and who I will always be. That may be overstating the significance of tattooing in our society, but if there is one takeaway that is almost universally accepted among everyone I spoke too, it is that tattoos do not age well, and that they are, in fact, very permanent. For someone like me who really does believe in the possibility of change for everyone, and more importantly, possibility of improvement, this trend toward tattooing is troubling.

About the Author

Caroline Pillsbury Oliver is married to Drew Oliver, and is the mother of four children.  Caroline and her family live in Greenwich, Connecticut.  When not driving her children around, supervising homework, tracking down lost articles of clothing, grocery shopping and making dinner, Caroline works part time as a trusts and estates attorney.

Caroline is a graduate of the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Brown University and Columbia Law School.  Caroline grew up living abroad as the daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer, and was born in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.


0 Dan 05-07-2014 12:55
Reminds me of those jeans billboards with disgruntled youth loitering under the caption "express yourself" all wearing the same jeans. The best thing is to keep youth as far from pop culture as possible.
0 CarolineOliver 05-26-2014 19:19
Dear Dan,

Couldn't agree more on the pop culture piece! Thank you for reading my blog! I was in deep as costume coordinator for the school production of "Pirates of Penzance" (which is as far away from pop culture as you can get!) Do please keep checking the website, I hope to post more often,
0 Matt 05-23-2014 00:14
Tattoos are the short cut for small people to feel special. Better to live an interesting life and have the ability to communicate effectively and evocatively than to feel the need to mark up your body in the hopes of being noticed.

There are exceptions, of course. I give pass to our military as the seamen and soldiers have millennia of tradition in marking their bodies. However, for the vast majority, it is a shallow way to be noticed for doing little more than being still while someone scribbled in a permanent way.
0 CarolineOliver 05-26-2014 19:21
Dear Matt,

Thank you for reading my email! I agree, seamen and soldiers get a pass.

I hope to post more often!

0 Dan 06-05-2014 02:18
Matt - I couldn't agree more. The only tattoos that are at all acceptable are in the context of military or marine service where survival can require a certain surrender of individuality. Otherwise, they are a voluntary signal of membership in the moral and intellectual underclass.
0 luigi4235 03-02-2015 19:22
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