Why Study Tattoos?
One week after my sixteenth birthday, I hopped on a plane to Helsinki, Finland and lived and volunteered with individuals from all over the world. The experience changed my life, and allowed me to realize that I had complete control over what I wanted to do with my future. I did not have to wait for exciting opportunities to arise, but instead could make my own opportunities and adventures, and that my possibilities were endless. A month or so after coming back to the United States, I took a road trip down to Delaware, where sixteen year olds are allowed to be tattooed, and got a dove tattoo with the words “Be free” written in the center, to symbolize the newfound sense of freedom I had obtained, and to remember this profound moment of change for the rest of my life.
Tattoos are becoming increasingly and ever more popular and accepted in today’s society. The reasons why individuals choose to ink something permanently into their skin varies greatly, though no matter what the image is, it is probably (though not always) quite significant to the individual in one way or another since they have made the decision to live with the respective image for the rest of their life. Whether or not the tattoo is chosen because one simply likes how it looks on them, or because it has a more profound, personal meaning, the tattoo is still a form of self-expression—the most permanent form of self-expression. Johnson (2007), who conducted an ethnographic study on tattoos in contemporary American society, explains, “The purpose of wearing this art on one’s body rather than hanging it on a wall signifies a total commitment to what it stands for” (59).
Studying why people get tattoos is important because it allows us to understand their relationship between themselves and the image they have chosen to ink into their skin. For the purposes of this ethnoecological study, only nature-based tattoos were focused on in order to further interpret and comprehend the personal connection with the plant, animal or other nature-related subject that the subjects of this study chose. This can give us insight into their beliefs and cognitions about the image that they have decided to make a part of them, and carry with them no matter where they go.
Some of the questions I aspired to answer during this ethnography include:
- What are the reasons that people have for permanently putting specific nature-related tattoos on their bodies?
- What meaning do these tattoos have for each individual, and are there common themes?
- Is there symbolism behind these tattoos, are they purely aesthetic, is it because they have a connection to that plant/animal, and if so, why?
- Does their nature-based tattoo make them feel closer to nature as a result?
Five informants were interviewed in a semi-structured manner about eleven tattoos altogether. This is because some of the informants had multiple nature tattoos. The main question asked was simply: ‘Why did you decide to get this tattoo?’ Jot notes were used to record their stories. All informants were kept anonymous.
Another method used for this ethnography was a Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). TATs are useful in seeing intracultural variation among a group and in examining common themes among the participants as well. Ten photographs of nature were chosen, including five plants and five animals that are commonly used as tattoo subjects. These photographs were chosen to further understand the participants’ beliefs and symbolic associations they have about each plant or animal.
The plants and animals shown to four participants were: a rose, lion, lotus, dove, tree, snake, maple leaf, owl, sunflower, and wolf. Of the four participants, two were male and two female, and two had tattoos while two did not have tattoos. The participants each had two minutes to write down what they associated with each plant and animal pictured.
The main goal of the TAT was to understand how people think symbolically about certain plants and animals, which can lead to explaining why certain plants and animals are far more common tattoo subjects than others (for example: doves, a very common tattoo, often symbolizes peace, while an ostrich, which would be a rare tattoo, does not usually evoke any symbols to most people).
The results for the TAT were quite interesting—Males on average mentioned eight symbols, while females averaged six and a half symbols—however, these numbers are not very significant, because one male mentioned fourteen symbols in all while the other only mentioned two! Participants with tattoos (one male, one female) averaged five and a half symbols, and those without (also one male, one female) averaged nine. Based on this admittedly limited study, neither gender nor “tattooedness” points to any significant evidence that suggests that either factor affects how individuals think symbolically about plants and animals. More data would need to be collected and further research conducted on this subject before any real conclusions can be drawn.
|Symbols Mentioned||Total: 28|
|Lotus||1-Truth, 1-beauty,1- renewal, 1-simplicity||4|
|Dove||2-Peace, 2-freedom, 2-sky, 1-love||7|
|Maple leaf||2-Renewal/rebirth, 1-Vermont/home, 1-beauty||4|
Table of TAT results of the four combined participants
Clearly there was intracultural variation within this study, though it is unclear what variables affect how individuals vary in their symbolic associations of various plants and animals. It is interesting to observe that none of the participants associated any symbols to snakes. Three out of four of the subjects associated family and friends with wolves—many mentioned packs when thinking about wolves, which interests me because the picture was of a single wolf howling alone.
Of all the plants and animals, the dove was the most symbolic to the participants. This is interesting because doves are a very common tattoo—perhaps people who decide to get tattoos of doves have the symbols of peace and freedom in their minds as the reason for specifically choosing a dove to permanently place on their bodies.
My a priori hypothesis (the hypothesis I had before conducting the test) was that participants with tattoos would think more symbolically about the plants and animals than non-tattooed participants. This hypothesis was not confirmed by the evidence, however. Yet, with such a small set of data, not much can be concluded from the study regarding variables that affect symbolic thinking. Nonetheless, valuable information was gleaned about the different symbols individuals assign to certain plants and animals, and how these symbols vary from person to person.
Of the eleven tattoos that I examined, a total of seven were animals, three were plants, and three were other nature subjects, such as a river or ocean, as illustrated in the pie chart above. No names will be mentioned within this ethnography because one person did not wish to be identified, and I feel that pseudonyms are unnecessary for the short examples.
As I interviewed people about their tattoos, and they shared their tattoo origin stories with me, I began to realize a pattern: there were three main reasons why these individuals chose to get their respective tattoos. Some got their tattoos purely for aesthetic reasons—they simply enjoyed the design of the tattoo and wanted it on their body. The second reason serves to remember or commemorate a specific time or event within their life—the tattoo has a personal backstory to them. Thirdly, many mentioned that their tattoo symbolizes something to them; some concept or ideal that is meaningful to them. More often than not, my informants’ rationale behind their tattoos was a combination of all three reasons. One reason in particular, however, would usually stand out above the rest, and the other two would follow. For some, there was only one reason for the nature-based tattoo.
An example of a tattoo that is purely aesthetic was of a fox that one of my informants had. He explained to me that there was no backstory whatsoever about his fox tattoo, other than because he thinks they look nice. His interview was the most comical that I conducted during this study, and also the shortest. I asked him, “Why did you decide to get this fox tattoo?” He replied matter-of-factly, “I think foxes look nice. They are handsome.”
I noticed the fox was standing in water, so I asked him why this was so. He retorted that when he and his tattoo artist drew it up, there were no feet on the picture of the fox they were referencing, so they chose to have it standing in water instead of having to go through the trouble of drawing some nice feet on the fox. In short, this individual explained that he simply wanted an aesthetically pleasing piece of art on his body—nothing more, nothing less.
A tattoo that commemorated a specific event was a bird tattoo of one of my subjects. The back-story was that he had dated a girl with whom he had been very much in love for three years, and this girl wore a golden bird necklace every day—he never saw her take it off once, until the day they broke up. She tried to give him the bird necklace as a way to remember her by, but he declined and told her to keep it. Instead, the next day he got a golden bird tattooed onto his forearm. This tattoo is especially interesting because the bird is no specific species; it is simply a generic bird. The information of what type of bird is unimportant to this subject, because the necklace had no specific species, either.
An example of a symbolic tattoo was an elephant tattoo one individual had. To them, the elephant symbolizes renewal, though not because elephants symbolize renewal. She explained, “This was my first tattoo, so no matter what I decided to get, anything was starting something new.” The elephant also symbolizes family to her; she stated that elephants are matriarchal, and she has a lot of strong female figures within her family that she wished to acknowledge through her tattoo.
Most of the tattoos studied were significant to the subjects for all three reasons—aesthetics, symbolism, and to remember an event. An example of a tattoo that covered all three was an oriole one informant had on his leg. This oriole first served to remember an event; he explained how he grew up in a poor area as a child, and his family was struggling. One day, an oriole built a nest right outside of his bedroom window, which was unusual because orioles were not usually seen in his area. His parents interpreted this bird as a sign that things would get better. This tattoo also symbolized hope, as he clarified, “You can always have hope, even in the worst situations. The oriole symbolizes that for me.”
Not all of the tattoos I studied were plants and animals; one was of a river—specifically, the Poultney River. This person’s rationale for her tattoo was that she always wanted to be near the river because she feels quite attached to it, so she decided to permanently etch a little piece of Poultney onto her body. She explained that the tattoo also symbolizes her personal journey of becoming comfortable with herself for the first time, while at Green Mountain College. This tattoo was one of the few examples I looked at where the tattoo really is for the purpose of becoming closer to nature. This informant stated that having the tattoo of the Poultney River helps her feel more connected to this area, especially when she is not physically near. She recounted how she spent the summer in Arizona, where rivers are scarce, and simply having the Poultney River on her arm and having the opportunity to look at it every day in the mirror, helped her get through those dry, arid months in the desert.
Humans have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years. During the past century, it has become increasingly more accepted within Western society to have tattoos, and more and more people have been taking part in the practice. Perhaps this is because, in our globalizing world, people are feeling less and less in control of their lives and future. Perhaps through tattooing themselves, people are making their mark on the only thing over which they feel they have some control (their bodies).
The reasons people get tattoos are as varied as the tattoos themselves. The nature-based tattoos I studied each had unique back stories and reasons for their existence. Many of these tattoos did not have a direct connection to the actual animal or plant, however. They merely served as reminders or symbols for something else. The fact that one of my informants had a bird of no specific species accounts to that.
Yet, some of the tattoos did serve as homage to nature. The last person that I interviewed for this study had a lotus on his ankle he had done himself. One of the reasons he cited for getting the lotus was that it served as a “constant reminder of how beautiful the Earth is”. He also explained that he wants to have qualities of the Earth—he stated, “I want to be the Earth”. In other words, the lotus helps this individual feel more connected to nature.
Johnson (2007) states, “tattoos are a way of connecting to that inner self that gets lost in the sea of the material world.” (59) Perhaps this is the reason so many young people are attracted to tattoos, as we struggle to find significance in a culture that is so focused on meaningless materialism. It is conceivable that the reason so many young people are choosing to get nature-based tattoos is because they feel they are slipping away from the natural world more and more, and through getting a tattoo, they become a little closer and more connected to the Earth.
Or, people simply think foxes and elephants are pretty! As stated before, the reasons people get tattoos are incredibly varied. No matter what the reason or backstory is for people getting nature tattoos, however, it is clear that plants, animals and other nature-related subjects are incredibly popular tattoo subjects. Further research should continue to be conducted about the meaning and connections this has for individuals, and what these reasons mean for our culture. The kind of tattoos that people within a culture choose are important to pay attention to, because whether it is a lotus that honors the Earth, a species-less bird to remember a past love, or a handsome fox, these tattoos become “connected to one’s mind and one’s body for their time spent here on earth, and connected to their spirit, their inner essence forever.” (Johnson, 2007: 59)
This ethnoecological ethnography was written by Zoë Biehl in 2012 for her Ethnoecology course at Green Mountain College.
Johnson, F. J. (2007). TATTOOING: MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT. THE INNER ESSENCE OF THE ART. Sociological Viewpoints, 2345-61.
Do you have a nature-based tattoo? What meaning does it hold for you? I would love to hear your tattoo stories, and keep this study going!