Written by: Joan Ivanka
Edited by: Zania Putri , Ghafi Reyhan, and Wulan Faraditha
Illustration by: Rievan Rizky
A few years ago, a woman arrived at a public pool. Upon seeing this woman, a few heads turned her way, leering at her arms. A couple of them almost immediately turned to their companions and started whispering; the scene resembled a middle school cafeteria. My great-aunt, who was sitting beside me, turned to me and said, “If you make yourself look anything like her, you will never land a job,” her tone so firm and self-assured. It took me a second to realize that I had unconsciously agreed with her. In retrospect, I find myself wondering why my immediate thought was one of agreement. An agreement I was seemingly unaware of. We didn’t even know her name or where she came from, so we had no basis for making any assumptions about her based on anything other than her appearance. Though the prejudices didn’t come from nowhere, I didn’t know where they came from. With that one remark, she sparked a chain of questions that lingered longer than I expected.
While the stigma surrounding tattoos affects all genders, it’s no secret that tattooed women are judged more for it; but that’s a conversation for another day. We can all agree that tattoos and body piercings are now more widely accepted than in past decades. Yet negative connotations about the personality traits of people that have them are still alive and well although the negative associations aren’t universal.
Tattooing itself is a long-standing practice, and people get them for many reasons, from fashion statements to spiritual healing. In the past, Ancient Egyptian women used tattoos to protect their unborn children (Mark, 2017), and the “Oldest Tattoos” were believed to be therapeutic, like acupuncture (Engelking, 2013). Another example within the country is Dayak culture, where tattoos have traditionally held spiritual significance, including warding off evil. From there, we can see how different cultures consider body art as something significant in different ways. It wasn’t until the late 1800s, when more and more ‘social deviants’ began to wear them, that most body modifications became associated with aggressive individuals or groups, such as prisoners, criminals, thugs, biker gang members, and organised crime syndicates. These became the stereotypical images associated with tattoos and the people who receive them. Prime example of this is The Yakuza, who are well-known for the symbolic tattoos they sport on their bodies. They had such a pervasive impact on tattoo culture that even foreigners were advised to cover up their ink when visiting Japan. Decorative ink mostly remained popular within the out-groups until the 1950s – when it gradually made its way into the mainstream (Swami and Harris, 2012; Swanger, 2006). Even to the point of becoming ‘trendy’. The past two decades have seen conventional assumptions fade away, as we see a surge of body art in films and advertising, such as Popeye; on well-known celebrities; and even in items marketed toward children, such as temporary tattoos of animated characters. Though on the other hand, the vast majority of people continue to believe in out-of-date stereotypes.
The use of stereotypes simplifies our social interactions by using generalized assumptions – usually based on the surface characteristics of new people we meet. It means, to an extent, they can be helpful because we can retain more information, as long as the information is stereotype-consistent. This may be one of the reasons why they are so difficult to eradicate. Another possible explanation, as demonstrated by a recent study, is that the human brain is predisposed to learning negative stereotypes (Devlin, 2016). In other words, stereotypes may not be harmful in and of itself.
The issue arises when those stereotypes cloud judgment or lead to real-world implications. For example, people with body modifications were rated as less caring, attractive, intelligent, credible, religious, and so on when compared to those without (Martino & Lester, 2000; Degelman & Price, 2002; Durkin & Houghton, 2000), despite the fact that other studies have found no significant differences between tattooed and non-tattooed individuals in terms of risk-taking, impulsivity, and boredom proneness; all of which may be associated with risky behavior (Swami et al., 2016).
Given the historical context and the fact that societal distaste for body art is a relatively recent circumstance compared to how long tattooing has been practiced, my aunt’s statement is unsurprising. However, body art is not intrinsically bad; it is merely perceived as such by the groups associated with it. Tattoos, of course, are not for everyone, and different people have different tastes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. But it shouldn’t minimize or exaggerate one’s accomplishments. And we as a society should avoid making assumptions about who people are or what they believe in because people aren’t always who they appear to be.
Degelman, D. & Price, N.D., 2002. Tattoos and ratings of personal characteristics. Psychological Reports, 90(2), pp.507–514.
Devlin, H. (2016, November 1). Human brain is predisposed to negative stereotypes, new study suggests. The Guardian. Available at: from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/nov/01/human-brain-is-predisposed-to-negative-stereotypes-new-study-suggests. [Accessed October 20, 2021]
Durkin, K. & Houghton, S., 2000. Children’ and adolescents’ stereotypes of tattooed people as delinquent. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 5(2), pp.153–164.
Engelking, C., 2015. Scientists have mapped all of ötzi the Iceman’s 61 tattoos. Discover Magazine. Available at: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/scientists-have-mapped-all-of-otzi-the-icemans-61-tattoos [Accessed September 9, 2021].
Mark, J.J., 2017. Tattoos in ancient Egypt. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1000/tattoos-in-ancient-egypt/ [Accessed September 10, 2021].
Martino, S. & Lester, D., 2011. Perceptions of visible piercings: A pilot study. Psychological Reports, 109(3), pp.755–758.
Swami, V. & Harris, A.S., 2012. Body art: tattooing and piercing. In T. F. Cash, ed. Encyclopedia of body image and human appearance. London, UK: Academic Press, pp. 58–65.
Swami, V. et al., 2015. Are tattooed adults really more aggressive and rebellious than those without tattoos? Body Image, 15, pp.149–152.
Swanger, N., 2006. Visible body modification (VBM): Evidence from Human Resource Managers and recruiters and the effects on employment. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 25(1), pp.154–158.