How tattoos say so much more about us than we imagine

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Image credit: Mary Pokatova on Unsplash

Most of the human brain, like that of all other animals, is concerned with regulation of heartbeat, digestive system, movement, and suchlike. Primates, however, along with certain other species such as corvids and cetaceans, also have areas that permit learning and some measure of abstract thought.

In order to learn, we need to be able to recognize recurring patterns, and so our brain is hardwired to look for patterns all around us. When there are no patterns, we imagine we see them.

That’s the origin of superstition, religious mythologies, shapes in the stars and in the clouds, the enjoyment we derive from playing games and solving puzzles, and our ability to create and consume all forms of art. All of these activities are methods of filling in the blanks, of creating patterns where formerly there was only emptiness. This is because the human brain doesn’t cope well with emptiness (despite what you may think after listening to the vacuous rantings of ephemeral celebrities and politicians…).

When we look at old examples of visual art, we see everywhere around the world horror vacui, which is “fear of empty spaces.” Aboriginal and African rock paintings depict animals whose bodies are filled in with a variety of patterns.

Image credit: ABC

Jumping forward tens of thousands of years we see Celtic art with its intricate methods of filling empty spaces, following the same primal instinct to avoid emptiness. Scarification and other body modification continues to be practiced across a wide range cultures and is yet another way of avoiding emptiness.

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Image credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University

Today this hardwired fear of empty spaces is most frequently seen in the fashion of covering one’s body with ink.

Any TV or movie director wishing to evoke the 1970s need only assemble a handful of old cars, have the actors appear with long hair, and dress them in bell-bottom jeans and jackets with wide lapels. Evoking the 1980s is equally simple: slightly less old cars, big hair, platform boots, and clothing in shockingly bad taste. Twenty or thirty years from now directors will merely need to ensure the actors are covered in tattoos and never look up from their beloved smartphones, which will be stroked incessantly rather as one might nervously caress a lover whom one fears will depart if not constantly placated.

Back in the old days (e.g. about thirty years ago) only convicts and gangsters covered themselves in ink. This was to ensure they were readily identified, which saves time if you’re an old lag re-entering incarceration or a Yakuza seeking to intimidate a potential victim. But somehow, at some point, tattoos became fashionable. I presume some ephemeral Hollywood celebrity got a tattoo and everyone else felt they had to jump on the bandwagon.

People get tattoos for the same reason that some African women distend their lower lip with huge wooden plates, or stretch their necks by adding ever-more copper necklaces. It’s the same reason Western women wear earrings and makeup. Everyone thinks it makes them appear more attractive and says something “personal” about them.

The irony is, of course, that because so many other people are doing the same thing, the message conveyed is simply: “I’m fitting in with the herd.”

Hence today adults pay significant sums to have someone ink them, with the result that often they look as if they fell asleep one afternoon and then a small child drew all over them with a sharpie while they were unconscious.

Personally, I don’t care what people do to themselves so long as it doesn’t impact my health. I detest smokers because they foul the air we are all breathing, but I don’t mind people who cover themselves in tattoos to the point where they look as if someone expended significant effort to bruise them all over. But I do think that many people under-estimate the effect of their tattoos on others.

We humans use, among many other things, our artifacts to signal social status. That’s why for many decades, office attire was absurdly impractical. The standard business suit-and-tie was unsuited for any environment except a temperature-controlled office in which one walked only minimally in one’s unsuitable shoes. This attire conveyed the message: “I’m a middle-class professional who doesn’t need to care about practicality but who desperately needs to conform to group norms so that I keep my job.” Likewise, a set of worn baggy overalls signals manual labor and probably modest educational attainment.

Tattoos likewise are a powerful social identifier. A young man with a tattoo of barbed wire encircling his neck and a spiderweb tattooed across his face is telling the world that he’s elected to identify with a particular social group. Consequently, he’s highly unlikely to fit into a wide range of professional occupations and most likely will spend his life either in manual labor or unemployed.

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Image credit: Wild Tattoo Art

That’s why middle-class professionals select small discrete tattoos located on parts of the body that are normally underneath a garment. A tiny ankle tattoo or one on the inside of one’s wrist might be a daring exception, but for the most part professional people know that large aggressive tattoos are a kiss of death for one’s employment prospects and so they remain hidden.

It doesn’t matter whether we think this is “fair” or otherwise. It doesn’t matter if we protest that it’s all the fault of the patriarchy, matriarchy, or the capitalist fashion industry. The hard fact is that because we’re social primates we are always alert to signals that tell us where people fit into the social hierarchy.

Of course, as more people have tattoos and as they become (at least temporarily) more socially neutral, it’s possible to find niches where one can be tattooed and still find interesting employment. But these are exceptions, not the rule. When did we last see a CEO or senior politician sporting a large visible tattoo?

The fact is that people who aspire to upper-level positions in the social and economic hierarchy are very aware that tattoos send a message incongruent with their ambitions.

This suggests that young people may wish to pause and think a moment before rushing to the nearest tattoo parlor to request a full-body inking. One’s future may be to a significant degree determined by the choices made therein.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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