Nation of Beancounters

Is there something to the “tattoo taboo”?

Posted in Culture by Navin Kumar on June 24, 2013

The Times of India has an article on how people with tattoos are negatively judged – as unprofessional, rebellious, and “loose” . It’s tempting to dismiss these judgements as baseless, but they aren’t necessarily. Stereotypes can be self-fulfilling – for example, suppose blacks are thought of as being criminal, reducing legal employment opportunities (who wants to hire a convict?). This increases the number of blacks committing crimes, and thus confirms the stereotype that blacks are criminal. Discovering this kind of vicious circle is one of the more fun parts of being a social scientist.

Imagine that there are two types of people: conformists, who follow social norms because they fear being judged adversely, and non-conformists, who don’t. Both types enjoy having a tattoo equally. Suppose that it is impossible to tell them apart by just looking at them. Suppose, furthermore, that there is a social norm against tattoos. What kind of person would acquire them? The non-conformists, of course, who don’t care what others think of them.

Suppose that people face stern rebukes and stained reputations for being “unprofessional” or “unreliable”. Non-conformists are likely to not care about such things and thus face a lower cost for being “unprofessional” or “unreliable”. Thus, they will engage in more “unprofessional” and “unreliable” behavior. Similarly, non-conformists are more likely to disregard social norms against having sex (at the risk of being labelled “loose” or “easy”), or ignore norms that say that one shouldn’t “talk back” or otherwise disobey one’s in-laws (at the risk of being labelled “rebellious” or “opinionated”). In this model of reality, such people are also more likely to get a tattoo.

Some people will therefore observe (correctly) that individuals with tattoos are more likely to possess characteristics that they consider undesirable in a partner or colleague. This leads to them negatively judging individuals who have tattoos, and thus tattoos become things that only non-conformists acquire. The circle is complete. Note that tattoos are a completely arbitrary taboo in the above model – we could replace them with short haircuts, or butterfly earrings, and the argument would remain valid.

There is some supporting evidence for this in the article. Firstly, if judging tattoos are a matter of discovering some unknown quality, once the quality is known about, the tattoo should become irrelevant. Indeed, that is the case:

But, she adds, once you establish a good working relationship with someone, the tattoo becomes the most interesting aspect of your personality. “Then everyone wants to know the significance – the what, how and why of it,” she says.

Non-conformists are more interesting than conformists.

Secondly, people come from different backgrounds, and not everyone is breaking a social rule by getting a tattoo. People from places where tattooing is not frowned upon shouldn’t be judged negatively. Again, this is the case:

The armed forces recently issued orders, after recruitment centers reported that youngsters were sporting intricate tattoos, that “all aspiring candidates with elaborate tattoos should be rejected because they are against the military ethos and good discipline”. If the tattoos are small and had some religious significance, or if they are names etched on forearms or back of the hands, they aren’t a problem. Tribals are also allowed to have tattoos as per their customs.

Note that in certain subcultures, tattoos could a positive signal, indicating that a person has broken ties with the “mainstream”. I believe this is true for the “skinhead”, “hipster”, and some “gangster” subcultures.

*For some reason, sex is a moral issue in this country.


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