Upon first glance, how would you “label” the man in this photo?
In his book, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity,” Erving Goffman refers to the Greeks’ definition of “stigma” as “bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier” (1). These signs were “cut into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor…to be avoided, especially in public places” (1). Today, while the term is still used in its original meaning, it is applied more to the “disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it” (2). In mainstream society today, there is a stigma attached to having tattoos. One with tattoos, or “bodily signs,” is referred to as a “deviator,” which Goffman defines as an “individual member who does not adhere to the norms” (141) and they are perceived as “failing to use available opportunity for advancement in the various approved runways of society” (143-144). Although 36% of people between the ages of 18-25 and 40% of people between the ages of 26-40 have at least one tattoo, having a tattoo is attached to a stigma that was seemingly created and sustained by society’s association of tattoos with “deviant behavior.” This behavior is most commonly associated with criminality, specifically gang involvement and time spent in prison. Because of this, many dismiss tattoos as a means of self-expression or as reminders of experiences that may have been influential in one’s self-identification.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Men’s Central Jail here in Los Angeles. There, I noticed that every inmate I talked to had at least one tattoo. There was one, an ex-gang member incarcerated since the age of 12, who had an intricate tattoo on his back. I was not allowed to take a photo, but this is what I remember: the pope, a nun, a priest, and a baby cherub all surrounding Satan, who is being crucified and overlooked by Jesus. When asked about its meaning, he said that they are all God’s people who are possessed by Satan in the flesh, and even if the flesh is possessed by Satan and you look evil, the Holy Spirit can intervene and do God’s work. I then asked him why he chose to cover his body in tattoos, and he said that he cannot verbally express himself, and because he is not what people call the “norm” in mainstream society, he is viewed as “trash.” He uses this hatred in his work as a tattoo artist to express himself. Society uses their belief in the connection between tattoos and criminality to justify his poor treatment, even though he explicitly told me that tattoos are his way of expressing himself. He was, and still is, being “labeled” as inferior, which he may have internalized and acted accordingly as a deviant. This labeling theory could be a possible reason for his repeated incarceration since puberty. If you think about it, being heavily tattooed directly correlates with recidivism rates, as these tattoos, or “inferior labels,” reduce the chances of finding a job, which then leads to lack of structure, criminal behavior, and possible re-incarceration. However, those who are heavily tattooed are well aware of this association, so does that mean they are accepting the “stigma” of being “stigmatized?” In other words, is it that they want to be placed in this marginalized group, or is its sole purpose self-expression? And if all tattoos ARE forms of self-expression, some are viewed with more contempt than others—so how do race, class, and gender play a role in stigmatizing tattooed people?