Tattoos: Origins, Meanings and Consumption

Subject: Economics
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 3322
Topics: Consumerism, Art History, Design, Popular Culture, Tattoo


The tattoo culture has existed for thousands of years across cultures around the globe; Its precise origin is still a mystery. Different sociocultural groups had varied reasons and motivation for engaging in the art. Historically, they were markings that represented a cultural or ritualistic aspect of people. Tattoos also indicated membership to a certain society, status group or clan; for example, sailors got tattoos to indicate their membership to a crew and their journeys (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson,2005). Some cultures also used tattoos to mark marriage and show lineage (Wolf et al., 2015). Tattoos have also been associated with deviant behavior since some criminal gangs used similar tattoos to indicate membership. 

Negative prejudice has affected tattooed individuals especially in the hiring sector. However, there is an increased trend in the number of people getting tattoos. A research conducted in 2006 in the U.S.A showed a tattoo prevalence rate of 24%; a sharp increase from a 16% prevalence rate in 2002 (Urdang, Malek &Mallon,2011). This trend is expected to continue rising. More young adults are getting tattoos. This trend is also reflected in the U.K. According to an article published in the ‘Telegraph’ it is estimated that at least one out of 5 people have body art in the U.K. This is almost 20% prevalence rates. 

The growing popularity of body art and tattoos brings to light intriguing research questions that need answers. The main purpose of this study is to discuss historical issues surrounding the tattoo; reasons why people get tattoos; how prejudice affects people in hiring; the most salient market of the tattoo; tattoos as a fashionable consumer product; and tattoos with respect to the Consumer Culture Theory. This paper will start by reviewing important literature on tattoos. The next section will involve discussion of the main research questions i.e What are the cultural origins and meanings of tattoos and how have they change over time? and What are the key factors in consumer culture that drive people to get a tattoo? Appropriate subtopics are assigned to ensure an exhaustive discussion is done on the research questions. The final section of this study is the conclusion.

Literature review 

Kjeldgaard and Bengtsson (2005) in their publication, ‘Consuming the Fashion Tattoo’ provide deep insights that are important in fueling the discussion on the current and pasts trends on the tattoo culture. The study was conducted through a series of interviews with different groups of tattooed individuals. This provides primary data that can be used in analysis of different issues surrounding the tattoo. According to Kjeldgaard and Bengtsson (2005) tattoos have been associated with deviant behavior and subcultural groups in the past; however, the trend has changed. Currently, people use tattoos to beautify their bodies; it is now a consumption practice (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). The study also relies on other authors’ previous research to explore the topic further. This publication is an important background for this study especially in discussing the consumption practices associated with tattoos. The consumption practices used in the analysis of this study are derived from Holt’s (1995) typology of consumption practices (as cited by Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). The study takes into account the integration between self-identity and tattoos. 

The four approaches used to discuss consumption are: consuming as integration; consuming as play; consuming as experience; and consuming as classification (Kjeldgaard &Bengtsson ,2005). They are very important in setting up the discussion of this study. In fact, they form a major basis for analysis of the Consumer Culture Theory.  Patterson and Schroeder (2010) also contribute immensely to this discussion through their study; Borderlines: Skin, Tattoos, and Consumer Culture Theory. The discussion explores the double aspects of the skin; ‘its ambiguity and its ambivalence’ (Patterson & Schreoder,2010). The discussion also talks about embodied identity and consumption using three skin metaphors: skin as a container; projection surface and as a cover to be modified (Patterson & Schroeder,2010). The insights provided by Patterson and Schroeder are very important with respect to the discussion forged in this paper.

To make this discussion complete, we must explore the effect of tattoos on hiring and recruitment. Timming (2015) in his study ‘Visible tattoos in the service sector: a new challenge to recruitment and selection’ conducted a study through interviews with individuals with visible tattoos and hiring managers. The study makes interesting findings. Individuals with visible tattoos are prejudiced against in selection (Timming,2015). There is a pre-eminent negative perception on tattooed individuals in hiring. However, this depends on the industry, position of the tattoo on the body. This study borrows heavily from the mentioned literature above.

Cultural origins and meanings of tattoos

Conclusive evidence on the origin of tattoos is still under research. However, the earliest record of body art was found in a mummified body dated back to 3300 BC (Frecentese, 2013). Other records of the earliest tattoos were documented from Egypt’s mummified bodies. They can be dated to the beginning of the bronze age (Frecentese, 2013). They had different meanings and implications in various cultural settings. The art was then spread to Asia and Eastern Europe countries.

It is difficult to discuss origins of tattoos without discussing the reasons behind the existence of body art. It is sound and more sensible to discuss the origin of tattoos in different societies around the world and the driving factors behind the art. Women in Borneo were the tattooists. They tattooed their fore arms indicating a skill they had; for example, weaving. This increased their chances of getting married. The Romans used body art to mark slaves and criminals while in Greece tattooing was used for communication amongst spies and their ranking. Japan adopted tattooing from the Ainu people and changed it into a religious practice (Frecentese, 2013)..

The above sample locations prove how body art gained popularity in different sociocultural settings. Whilst tattooing thrived in some areas, it diminished in others. For example, in West Europe tattooing was banned by Pope Hadrian in in 787 AD (Frecentese ,2013). However, this did not stop consumption of body art completely. Some early Britons used tattoos in ceremonies. Tattooing was reintroduced to the west by sailors and explorers like William Dampher and Captain Cook (Frecentese, 2013). Tattoos gained immense popularity in the west after invention of the first tattoo gun by Samuel O’Rtiely in 1891. Because of this, more people got tattoos. The art spread to the U.S.A by the 1900s. Since then, body art and tattooing has gained popularity amongst the Millennials.Tattooing has become a major part of people’s lives and identity everywhere. 

The revolution of the meaning of tattoos and body art

Tattooing as fashion product has gained popularity. Similarly, the reasons and meanings associated with tattoo consumption have also shifted over time (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). Some tattoo consumers get tattoos for reasons that are not related to any subcultural group. In fact, some get tattoos that they find appealing and attractive without acknowledging the meaning of the tattoo.

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Despite having full knowledge of the deviant behaviour associated with tattooing, many tattooed individuals adopt a contextual representation to act as a middle ground. They get tattoos in parts of the body they can cover or hide in case they feel visibility is inappropriate. According to Kjeldgaard and Bengtsson (2005) people get tattoos to express their self-identity. It is an illustration of the postmodern concept of mind-body dualism (Firat & Venkatesh as cited by Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson ,2005). This implies that people get tattoos as a means of body expression.

This concept is further strengthened by the fact that some people prefer crafting their own tattoo designs; not affiliated to any subcultural group (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). Personalization and biographing of tattoos demonstrates the shift from the common meaning and implications of tattoos. It is still possible that some people link tattoos to deviant behaviour and may find it offensive. In fact, tattooed individuals are affected by prejudice in hiring.

Tattoo Consumption practices 

While investigating the shift in the meanings and implications of having a tattoo, it is also important to understand the consumption practices surrounding the tattoo. This is based on the fact that tattoos are consumed by different groups in various ways (Holt, 1995). The four main categories used in analysis of consumer practices in this context are: consuming as experience; consuming as integration; consuming as classification; and consuming as play (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson,2005).

The ‘consuming as integration’ dimension is rooted around the concept that tattooing is an extension of the ways in which individuals can express their identity (Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). This is acceptable and highly encouraged in a globalized world. This dimension explains the emergence of the fashion tattoo as a form of beautification of the body. This structure also provides a platform for individuals to express their cultural differences.

The ‘consuming as experience’ structure considers the individuals who get tattoos which lack any significance or attachment to historical or current subcultural groups (kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). In this context, individuals get tattoos to enjoy the experience itself; the pain and risk involved in getting a tattoo. The engagement in tattooing to go against common social norms and the risk of permanent body alteration is accounted for in the ‘consuming as experience’ dimension.

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Individuals who get tattoos as a form of fashion always try to ensure they incorporate a meaning in the tattoo to avoid obsoleteness. This is because a tattoo may go out of fashion and therefore individuals compensate for this by adding a meaning to a tattoo ( Kjeldgaard & Bengtsson, 2005). Individuals belonging to this consumption practice category are said to be ‘consuming as classification. Other individuals accounted for in this structure express their identities by engaging in tattooing since it is a deviant behaviour.

The ‘consuming as play’ dimension is the least common consumption practice according to a study conducted by Kjeldgaard and Bengtsson (2005).  It represents heavily tattoo individuals who view themselves as members of the tattoo subculture. They are always fascinated by people fellow tattooed individuals and always try to forge relationships with them. Their subculture in this context is that of alteration of the body.

The Consumer culture theory with respect to tattoos

While examining the relationship between the tattoo culture and the identity, it is important to approach the discussion using the Consumer Culture Theory. It integrates concepts from self-identity and consumption using three common skin metaphors: skin as a container; as a cover modified; and as a projection surface (Patterson & Schroeder, 2010). The Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) suggests that the common market place for the society, often offers people a wide range of products that end up shaping people’s identity (Patterson & Schroeder, 2010).. The skin for instance is one that is commonly shaped by what is available in the market. People will go to great lengths to clothe, beautify and even tattoo the skin. The skin has characteristics that enable human beings to express their self-identity.

Studies done to gain insight into why women tattoo themselves have come up with various conclusions. Some researchers have observed that some women tattoo themselves in visible areas of the body (Patterson&Schreoder,2010). This may be driven by different motivations across different women like the desire to stand out among people. However, research shows that some women engage in such practices since it is deviant and disobeys common norms (Patterson & Schroeder, 2010). According to Holbrook et al., this act is called ‘refiguration’ and it is done intentionally to make a moral or ethical point (as cited by Patterson & Schroeder, 2010).

Further research into women and tattoos and their consumption practices was also done on heavily tattooed women (Patterson & Schroeder, 2010). It gets more complicated in such a case as the real reason for the heavy consumption of tattoos cannot be clearly understood by researchers. Research suggested that women have in recent time shown an increased interest in tattooing as part of their expression of liberation form the times in history when they were fully under the control of men. This new-found belief is among the main reasons on the increased level of tattooing in women. In fact, there is a considerable number of women who have taken up professions as tattooists (Patterson, Schroeder, 2010).

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The media has also played a key role in the marketization of tattoos (Patterson & Schroeder, 2010). Magazines display the works of talented artists hence motivating individuals to engage in the practice. According to Patterson and Schroeder (2010) the clients and readers of such magazines learn how to effectively judge between acceptable and unacceptable tattoo designs based on the readings and magazines hence they form a subcultural context on the tattoo styles the prefer. This trend has different effects on the consumption of varied types of tattoo styles. Most people prefer unique designs that effectively express their identities. Some go to the extent of inscribing images of their loved ones.

The ‘skin as a projection surface’ concept depicts skin as a connecting and communicative element rather than a barrier that alienates us. This concept holds because of the size and location of the skin as an organ of the body. According to Connor (2004) the skin is exposed to the functions of other senses especially vision hence as it ages and wrinkles it carries with it information on our identities (as cited by Patterson & Schreoder, 2010). The ‘skin as a cover to be modified’ concept in CCT views skin as an object which can be changed and tweaked to an individual’s desire. This plasticity characteristic is quite unreliable since people are not exposed to the same resources and conditions hence using such as concept in CCT can be problematic (Patterson & Schreoder,2010). Finally, the ‘skin as a container’ concept of CCT explores issues of extended and fragmented identity with respect to postmodern concepts of consumer research (Patterson & Schroeder,2010).

Hiring and tattoo 

As previously mentioned, individuals with tattoos are often discriminated against in the hiring and service sector (Timming,2015). A considerable number of people in the society do not take the idea of body tattoos that well. This prejudice becomes worse when one seeks formal employment. Statistics have shown that a vast majority of managers and formal employers would not hire a person with visible body tattoos (Timming,2015). Hiring managers always try to consider how their clients will react to an employee with a visible tattoo. Aside from that, few have personal issues with tattooed individuals.

Different sectors and departments have different hiring rules and commonly followed norms. For example, hiring managers looking for individuals in the management, sales and marketing departments avoid individuals with visible tattoos. This is because such kinds of jobs require the employee to interact with clients at a personal level hence a visible tattoo may send a wrong message to the clients. This is caused by the historical associations of tattoos to deviant behaviour and contemporary issues like association to drug and substance abuse; and crime. From a study conducted by Timming (2015) we can trace back the discrimination on hiring and selection past hiring managers to clients. This is because hiring managers have the interests of clients at heart.

Research has also brought up information that suggests that employer’s beliefs are also a key factor in determining whether they will hire someone with body tattoos or not (Timming,2015). Many employers are a bit old fashioned and prefer the traditional formality of staying official and having their employees wear suits and conduct themselves as formally as possible. In such a case, a tattooed individual will find it very difficult to land a job as he is likely to be viewed as less descent or rather less formal. On the other hand, there has come up many changes in the job market, fuelled by the current changes in technology. Many of the jobs that are available these days involve integration of new developments in technology; employers only seek results at the work place. They do not care whether employees wear suits or not; or have tattoos. Their main concern is to ensure the employee works optimally and performs by delivering positive results (Timming,2015). In such a case a person with tattoos will have no trouble landing a job.

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Among the major reasons for this unending historical prejudice is religious belief. Timming (2015) explores religious themes while analysing the issue of prejudice and discrimination of tattooed individuals in the hiring sector. Tattoos are wrong practices according to most common religions. This basis makes people view tattooed individuals as wrong doers and sinners. This takes effect in hiring when the hiring managers believe in these concepts. This leads to imminent discrimination and outright prejudice during hiring. Such religious contradictions have long lasting effects on how people view tattooed individuals and may be difficult to fix; not even through technology. According to Timming (2015) despite being prejudiced and discriminated against, some tattooed individuals are not bothered by it. However, a small number feel they made a mistake engaging in the practice (Timming,2015).


The history and origins of the tattoo may not be well documented but the meanings of tattoos and how they have changed over time is a subject that has attracted the attention of many researchers. From the beginning of the Bronze Age to date, tattoos have taken different forms, meanings, designs and styles. At first tattoos seemed to be glued around the idea of a subcultural group. For example, clans, sailors, slaves and warriors. However, an unexpected shift has happened in terms of what a tattoo means and its implications. Currently, people use tattoos to express their self-identity, skin can be view as a cover that can be modified to one’s desire and will. It is also important to note that some tattooed individuals engage in the practice just to belong to a subcultural group that intentionally disobeys societal norms. In this way, individuals express their identities by adopting rebellious practices. 

People have also started adopting unique tattoos that they have crafted to represent important parts of their identities. They add meaning to the tattoos to ensure they do not become obsolete due to fashion. This is because tattoos are being consumed as fashion items. Personalization and biographing of tattoos is among the new trends observed in the tattoo industry. Different consumption practices are observed from tattooed individuals. These include consuming: as experience; as play; as classification; and as integration.

The prevalence rates of tattoos across the globe are worrying. This trend brings into light a mass consumption phenomenon that ought to be discussed through consumer culture theory. In examining CCT, researchers often take three approaches to skin and consumption. Skin as a: container; cover to be modified; and projection surface.

Aside from issues on history and meaning of tattoos, contemporary issues like hiring and selection for individuals with visible tattoos exhibits the discrimination and prejudice tattooed individuals must face. This discrimination can be attributed to historical associations of tattooed individuals with deviant behaviour. Religious beliefs also cause discrimination since the most common religions such as Islam and Christianity do not condone tattoos. However, the number of tattooed individuals is expected to increase especially due to the development of tattoo removal methods in future.

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  1. Kjeldgaard, D., & Bengtsson, A. (2005). Consuming the Fashion Tattoo. Association for Consumer Research, 32(172-177). 
  2. Patterson, M., & Schroeder, J. (2010). Borderlines: Skin, Tattoos and Consumer Culture Theory.  Marketing Theory,10 (3)253-267. 
  3. Timming, A., R. (2015). Visible Tattoos in the Service Sector: A New Challenge to Recruitment and Selection. Work and Employment society,29(1)60-78. 
  4. Wolf, A., Robitaille, B., Krutak, L., & Galliot, S. (2016). The World’s Oldest Tattoo. Journal of Archeological Science.
  5. Frecentese, V. (2013).Tattoo Identity: An Analysis of Historical and Contemporary Tattooing Practices Among Members of the Military Community. The Department of Anthropology, The Colorado College. 
  6. Urdang, M., Malek., J., T., & Mallon, K., W. (2011). Tattoos and Piercings: A Review for the Emergency Physician. West J Emerg Med,12(4): 393-398. 
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