Tattoo Taboo

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Long considered a hallmark of American deviance, the tattoo has undergone drastic redefinition in recent decades. No longer the purview of bikers, punks and thugs, tattooing is increasingly practiced and appropriated by mainstream, middle class individuals (DeMello 41; Irwin 50). For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. Estimates on the number of Americans with tattoos generally range from one in ten to one in five (Kosut 1036; Stirn, Hinz, and Bráhler 533).

Despite the fact that millions have been tattooed, not all tattooed bodies are equal in American culture. There is, indeed, a difference between people who have tattoos and the tattooed people (Bell 55-56). People who have tattoos usually have one to a few tattoos strategically placed on areas of their bodies that are easily hidden. While such tattoos may represent the self, they are not usually part of one's (public) self. Tattooed people, on the other hand, get tattoos that are always visible to others. Bold tattoos on the hand, neck and/or face are a prerequisite for tattooed people. Tattooed people readily and regularly display their tattoos to the world--to cover one's tattoos would be to deny one's true self. Though the number of Americans with tattoos has boomed, those who have tattoos and those considering tattoos typically recognize becoming a tattooed person necessitates "fully embracing marginalization" (Bell 55-56), limiting the number of tattooed people. According to Laumann and Derick, more than ninety percent of American tattooees can be classified as people who have tattoos (416). The aim of this article is to better understand how and why people who have tattoos--those with no desire to be associated with the "freak show" surrounding tattooed people (Bell 56)-- negotiate their status as tattooees and transition through mainstream society. Considering the vast expansion of tattoos among mainstream Americans since the late 1980s and early 1990s (Rosenblatt 300), the reluctance of social scientists to investigate tattoos as a nondeviant, mainstream phenomenon is noteworthy. While the "Tattoo Renaissance" (Sanders, "Marks" 401) has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes and arguments put forth by academics concerning tattoos, by no means are the old attitudes disappearing from the literature:

[D]espite… path-breaking analyses of tattooing as a contextual and negotiated signifier of identity, sociological statements on the cultural use of tattoos in North America ultimately (re)produce a conceptualization of the practice as contra-normative. The symbiotic relationship between tattooing and illegal behaviour (or otherwise unconventional lifestyles) still dominates in sociological research. Sociologists prefer to study the subversive subcultural uses of tattooing. (Atkinson 127)

This quote exposes the academic schism that has formed around this phenomenon. On the one side, researchers portray tattoos negatively by focusing on deviance and mental disorders. On the other, scholars view tattoos as positively contributing to identity formation and fashion.

Even more important than the ideological split within the academic community is the one forming within society. For many young Americans, the tattoo has taken on a decidedly different meaning than for previous generations. The tattoo has "undergone dramatic redefinition" (Irwin 50) and has shifted from a form of deviance to an acceptable form of expression--at least as far as the youth are concerned. One contributing factor of this youthful shift is the media, which legitimates tattoos by positively portraying the tattooed "lionized public figures" (Kosut 1038) that many young people admire, such as actors, musicians and athletes. At the same time, however, the media is critical of average people with tattoos. This mixed message contributes to the seemingly contradictory situation wherein individuals use tattoos for identity...
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