The Psychology of Tattoos

You think it, they’ll ink it: why people get tattoos


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The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have tattoos, and those who are afraid of people with tattoos. Honestly, I was raised to be among the latter group. After all, who did I know growing up in Newark, New Jersey, the Weequahic section, who had tattoos? Sailors, criminals, thugs, “greasers” and just “bad guys.”

In fact, psychologists who conduct research on tattoos suffer from a mental block created for centuries that associated tattoos with an aberrant personality. Yet, as I’ve come to know more people with tattoos, I’ve discovered that tattoo designs always carry a meaning and tell you something about the person and his or her background.

The fact is, tattoo-lovers are a proud lot — they have consciously taken the decision to tattoo their bodies and would like to proudly declare that they are what they are. They are ordinary people like you and me, except that they have a strong sense of identity they have no intention of hiding. They are not scared of public opinion and would love to let others know what they believe in. And good for them! Over the centuries, instead of becoming an extinct practice, tattoos have gained in popularity — which only goes to prove that it has stood the test of time and is here to stay.

The earliest tattoos found are more than 5,000 years old. In 1991, a 5,300-year-old mummy was discovered in the Alps. He had more than 50 tattoos on various parts of his body, and he is the oldest human ever found to have tattoos. The rationale of tattoos has differed from one culture to another during the centuries. According to history, Egyptians used tattoos to differentiate slaves and peasants. Tattoos spread to China and then to Greece around 2,000 B.C. where they were used as a mode of communication between spies.

Tattooing has been practiced in Japan and other Asian countries for thousands of years. The first written record of tattooing in Japan was found in a history of the Chinese Dynasty from the year 297 A.D. Today in Japan, tattooing is considered taboo, because many of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, wear tattoos.

America got its first taste of tattooing from Chatham Square, located in New York. This was a place frequented by people from all over the US, especially the rich and famous. A man called Samuel O’Reilly set us his tattoo shop in this area. He was the first man to use an electric tattoo gun.

San Diego has plenty of proud tattoo artists, tattoo shops and a rich tattoo culture. With names like The Flying Panther Tattoo Shop, Avalon, Chronic, Guru, Body Mark’s Tattoo, Propaganda, Black Rose, and Vista’s recently approved first tattoo parlor, Frontline Tattoo, these shops are prospering as more people ink their bodies. You’ll never hear an “oops” at one of these premier tattoo shops.

Why are they doing it? From getting noticed, to a badge of honor, from identifying with a group to a badge of social rejection, there are many individual reasons. Asking a wide swath of people who have tattoos why someone would get something permanently imprinted on their skin reveals five basic reasons.
• Tattoos represent a loved one, living or passed away
• Religious reasons including crosses and the face of Jesus or Mary
• Military tattoos representing patriotism
• A dumb mistake (tattoos can be removed, so this reason is diminishing) • Just for fun — just “because” a friend did it

Tattoos are a mark of the 21st century, and it’s estimated that more than 25 percent of people under 30 are inking their skin. Personal expression, youthful impulsiveness, drunken mistake — the fact is that while it’s trendy, cool and even sexy, there are murky risks to one’s health. Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good, so be sure the little butterfly you think looks hot on your hip will be what you want 50 years from now, if you can still find it. In other words, think before you ink!

For more than 30 years, Dr. Mantell has successfully been bringing upbeat, friendly and helpful psychological insights to individuals, families and businesses in San Diego as a clinical and corporate psychologist in private practice. He's been a regular on Good Morning America, KFMB-TV News 8, has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live, the Today show, authored two best-selling books and speaks regularly for audiences throughout the country. He can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/michael.mantell and Twitter at DrSanDiego.

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