The Stigma Attached to Having Tattoos: Being Labeled as “Deviant”

 

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?

 

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6 thoughts on “The Stigma Attached to Having Tattoos: Being Labeled as “Deviant”

  1. This is a great discussion piece on the significance of tattoos in regards to deviance and labeling. The research questions involved are very interesting and could definitely be used towards a final comps project or research paper. The argument of whether tattoos are simply a form of self expression or actually an acceptance of the deviant stigma is something that could definitely be further researched and studied because I feel as though there are many people in both categories, or even a combination of both. While people may feel the need to show self expression through tattoos, they may also be influenced by the stigma, even subconsciously. The picture that you chose reminded me of a documentary I recently saw that was about the “most dangerous gang.” I believe his chest tattoo of “MS” is related to this gang. The documentary discusses the significance of their tattoos and the meanings behind them. The gang is a perfect demonstration of deviance and criminality, and could be helpful if you decided to follow up on this topic later on. I really enjoyed reading your piece, and you did a great job of relating it to theories and very intriguing research questions.

  2. I think it is very interesting to see the cultural roles that tattoos have played in history. Tattoos are a common part of many cultures, and I believe that their meanings do change over time. Back in the olden days, only specific members of society (e.g. primitive societies) like male warriors got tattoos to show off their power and masculinity. At present, if we see a tattooed person, we may think that they are a gang member. Yet, tattoos are so common and so many people get them, regardless of age, gender, class, etc. I think nowadays we see tattooed people less as deviants because it is more socially acceptable. However it all depends on context. We would react very differently to a tattooed white male in comparison to a tattooed black male.

  3. Because I have a tattoo, I found this discussion piece particularly interesting. You ask how race, class and gender play a role in stigmatizing people with tattoos. Peridotted mentions that we may think someone with tattoos is a gang member. However, I can definitively say that I would never be mistaken as a gang member, and have never been aware of being looked down upon for having a tattoo. In fact, I have worked in a law office for the past two summers, and when I accidentally exposed my tattoo at work one day, it sparked more interest than stigmatization. This would not always be the case, and some find it very difficult to get a job due to their tattoos. I think that being a white female has a lot to do with how my having a tattoo is perceived.

  4. Great topic, and very well written… i had a great discussion with my very conservative next door neighbors about this very subject just the other night. I have both arms sleeved and my neighbors do not have any tattoos. My topic was about tattoos and golf, i used the example of NFL and NBA tattooed million dollar athletes and there sponsors endorsing them… why not golf?

    There comment was , “no sponsor in golf would endorse a pro golfer if they had tattoos” i disagree, using soccer star David Beckam, and all the other pro athletes that has big sponsors……

    The world is changing but very slowly.. :)

  5. You seem to want to confine tattoos to one particular expressive role. Why should they conform to this limitation? The role you mention doesn’t even seem to be predominant, though I’m sure it does play a part in some instances (I’m thinking for instance of those “teardrop” tattoos). If anything your post seems more relevatory of your own class biases than anything.

    I see four primary functions of tattoos: signs of group affiliation, signs of status/power, signs of sexual prowess/availability, and signs of individial expression/differentiation. You would expect something no less affirming from permanent emblem voluntarily etched by so many. For my part, I have to confess, my own reaction to the image you chose is closer to fear than contempt. I see it as a sign of group(gang) affiliation and status/power rather than deviance and inferiority.

  6. I find it hilarious that tattoo people go shirtless on purpose to show their tattoos. I especially like it when they do it in singles websites, like they want to impress the women. Sorry, I think that having no tattoos is better. I actually say that on my single profiles. People truly are brainwashed about those ghastly things. Probably comes from Hollywood. Nothing like natural skin.

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