Inside Tattoo Culture – Part 1: Tattoo and Tattooee

Note: This article is the first of a two-part series discussing tattoos. This first article will take a micro-perspective and engage more directly with the tattoo – its purposes, the stigma surrounding it, and our interactions with it. Following this, the second (separate) article will take a macro-perspective to discuss the tattoo as a subject of wider cultural phenomena. It is the hope of the author that the articles give you a better understanding of how the tattoo is positioned both as a personal and cultural symbol.


It is no secret that tattoos in many contemporary societies carry associations of deviance. They are often taken as external representations of inner moral shortcomings and the undesirable. Hence, tattoos are often met with stigma, but not without reason. For example, Japanese society frowns upon tattoos as they are used as markers of their membership by the Yakuza, an organised crime group. The skin as a site of contestation is thus made apparent as individual agency over one’s body can come into tension with the social regulation of bodies. While recent trends suggest a shift away from the associations of deviance to tattoos even in more ‘conservative’ societies, many tattooees today still negotiate an environment that remains sceptical of their inscriptions on skin. 

Tracing “Tattoo” and Stigma

The first use of the word “tattoo” appeared in British explorer James Cook’s accounts of his voyage to Polynesia in the 18th-century (Fleming, 1997). The word is onomatopoeic, as it is derived from the Tahitian word “tatau”, which refers to the tapping sound of the tattooist’s tools onto skin. The word also means “to mark”.  

The ancient Greeks were considered the first to use what we today call tattoos as markers of deviance. Having observed the cultural significance accorded to tattoos as status markers by their rivals the Thracians, the Greeks intentionally sought to debase the tradition by inscribing tattoos on social ‘Others’ such as criminals and slaves. In other words, the Greeks deployed tattoos as a punitive measure (Fisher, 2002; Larsen et al., 2014). Interestingly, the current meaning of the word ‘stigma’ might have stemmed from this ancient form of tattooing. The Greek word stigmata was used to refer to tattooing, and thus became synonymous with the ‘Other’, individuals or groups that are excluded from a social group as they do not adhere or conform to prescribed social norms. Nevertheless, punitive tattooing later became widespread across Europe through the Middle Ages, which explains the connection between tattoos and deviance in Western civilisations (Fisher, 2002). 

However, as observed by Larsen et al. (2014), there was a “shift from involuntary to voluntary consumption” of tattoos during the 18th and 19th centuries. Criminals started to use tattoos “as a means of documenting their criminal careers and constructing an Othered subjectivity”. Similarly, soldiers used them to indicate “a life lived differently from everyday society” (p. 671). Indeed, Thompson (2015) posits that military personnel used tattoos to affirm their individual identities while in de-individualised service in uniform. Despite this, tattoos continued to be “associated with those on the fringes of society, maintaining allusions to deviance, and steeped in stigma”(Larsen et al., 2014, p. 671).

Tattoo Purposes

There are many reasons and purposes for getting tattoos. According to Fisher (2002), they can be classified into four categories: 

  1. Tattoos for ritual. Often used for commemoration, remembrance, or celebration purposes, tattoos are used to mark significant events in life. They are valued by the owner, and, in cultures where tattoos have cultural significance, by society as well. 
  1. Tattoos for identification. Tattoos can be obtained in order to identify oneself as being part of a particular social group, i.e. tattoos as evidence of group membership. The tattoo can provide affiliation to groups of different sizes, from a simple tattoo between two partners or a flag tattoo to assert national identity. 
  1. Tattoos for protection. Tattoos can function as talismans that offer protection from danger and are often employed in indigenous groups.  
  1. Tattoos for decoration. As physical images rendered onto skin, tattoos, regardless of their meaning or design, permanently decorate – and in a sense, mark – the body. Hence, while tattoos (and by extension skin) can be sites of expression, they are simultaneously targets of judgement. In response to this contention, tattooees often debate between getting tattoos as either a public or private decoration. 

Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, tattoos given to Kalinga men who defended their villages were highly ritualistic and also served as a badge to exhibit their membership in the community’s well-respected class of warriors (Aggabao et al., 2017).

Legitimation and Justification

In societies where tattoos are not culturally accepted, tattooees have come up with ways to negotiate their social interactions by legitimising their owning of tattoos, as have non-tattooees to justify their condemnation of the very act of owning a tattoo. 

One way that stigma against tattoos is “justified” is the fact that tattoos are a form of “controllable stigma”. Unlike medical conditions or physical disabilities, we can choose to get tattoos or not, which “may help legitimize the public’s negative perception” (Broussard & Harton, 2018, p. 521), thus justifying the stigma against a particular social group. Broussard & Harton explain:

“In the case of tattoos, stereotypes about tattooed individuals, such as being criminal, dangerous, or drug addicts, legitimize the fact that they are discriminated against because of their physical appearance. By accepting the stereotype that tattooed individuals are dangerous, others can be justified in holding prejudiced attitudes toward another person based on their appearance.” (p. 523)

In response to or anticipation of stigma, tattooees often employ “stigma management strategies” that would let them negate or at least alleviate the stigma they face. Larsen et al. (2014) explicate this concept in three different strands of strategies:

  1. Manipulation of self-perceptions. Through this strategy, tattooees attempt to offset the connotations of their tattoos by conforming to conventional aesthetics. Larsen et al. cite an example of one of their female interviewees, who purposefully presents herself in a more conventionally feminine way that is likely to be regarded as more “normal” and socially acceptable, thus distracting from the fact that she has a tattoo. Conformity is thus employed as a means to override stereotypes of tattooed individuals.
  1. Manipulation of others’ perceptions. Non-tattooed individuals, either out of curiosity or because they demand justification for such a deviant act, instinctively want to know the meaning of a tattoo or the reason for getting one. Tattooees are thus usually compelled to produce some reasoning along the lines of a significant life event, memorable moment, etc. Not only does this offer some kind of justification for the tattoo, it also allows the tattooee to influence external perceptions of him-/herself as opposed to being a silent subject of judgement. 
  1. Manipulation of multiple identities. Some tattooees can choose to hide their tattoos, thereby presenting themselves as non-tattooed individuals. This way, they are saved from the stigma as others treat them as non-tattooed individuals rather than as tattooed individuals.


Tattooees in many societies, proud as they are, still occasionally find their tattoos frowned upon. The impression of tattoos as markers of deviance belie the diversity of purposes for which tattoos are deployed, but is also indicative of the way that both tattooed and non-tattooed individuals negotiate their interactions with the art form. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding tattoos remain prevalent in some contemporary societies, and it is unlikely that the near future is poised for a stigma-free tattoo-embracing scenario. If the views surrounding tattoos continue to shift in the direction seen in recent years – if we collectively see past the veneer of deviance – then perhaps the unlikelihood will not be indefinitely so.

Feature and header image from Fallon Michael on Unsplash.

About the author:

Sven is a second year sociology major in FASS. He sometimes wonders where the degree will take him.


Aggabao, M. C., Parungao, L. C., Tuddao, R. M., & Mendezabal, M. N. (2017). Getting ink by a mahbabhatok: The traditional trademark of Kalinga. Bannag: A Journal of Local Knowledge, 4(1), 17-27.

Broussard, K. A., & Harton, H. C. (2017). Tattoo or taboo? Tattoo stigma and negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(5), 521-540.

Fisher, J. A. (2002). Tattooing the body, marking culture. Body & Society, 8(4), 91-107.

Fleming, J. (1997). The Renaissance tattoo. Anthropology and Aesthetics, (31), 34-52.

Larsen, G., Patterson, M., & Markham, L. (2014). A deviant art: Tattoo-related stigma in an era of commodification. Psychology & Marketing, 31(8), 670-681.

Thompson, B. Y. (2015). Sailors, Criminals, and Prostitutes: The History of a Lingering Tattoo Stigma. In Covered in ink: Tattoos, women and the politics of the body (pp. 21-34). NYU Press.