Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why do people get tattooed?

Last night, I had a weird dream. A white haired man with a long beard insisted on tattooing my shoulder. I couldn't get him to drop his plans, so he started punching. I asked him what the image will be. “I'm doing a circle,” he said. He continued his circle but when he finished it didn't close. “Now I have to walk around with a stupid non-closing circle!” I complained and he poured his ink over me. Then I woke up.

You're welcome to analyze this dream, but not allowed to use the words “string” and “loop.”

If you read science blogs frequently you'll probably have come across one or the other posting of a science related tattoo. (See eg here for a nice compilation.) It always leaves me wondering what drives people to do that. It's one of these emerging social and cultural trends that are so complex even the people doing it don't know why they're doing it. It is, from an evolutionary perspective, very interesting what weird behaviors intelligent creatures can develop in large groups. My attempt to understand humans recently brought me across the paper “Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced” (Wohlrab, Stahl and Kappeler, Body Image 4 (1007) 87). They start with an interesting historical summary (please see paper for references):
“[Tattooing and body piercing] have a long history and are well known from various cultures in Asia, Africa, America, and Oceania. There is also evidence for the prevalence of tattoos in Europe, dating back over 5000 years. Although the appearance of tattoos and body piercings varied geographically, they always possessed a very specific meaning for the particular culture. Piercings were often used in initiation rites, assigning their bearer to a certain social or age group, whereas tattoos were utilized to signal religious affiliations, strength or social status. In Europe, the practice of tattooing was predominant among sailors and other working class members from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. Later on, tattoos assigned affiliations to certain groups, such as bikers or inmates. In the 1980s the punk and the gay movement picked up invasive body modification, mainly as a protest against the conservative middle class norms of society.

Until the 1990s, body modifications remained a provocative part of various subcultures. In the last decade tattoos and piercings have increased tremendously in popularity, rising not only in numbers but also involving a broader range of social classes.”

Thus, historically tattoos seem to predominantly have been used to signal affiliation to or sympathy with a group. The paper is basically a literature survey, and the authors then identify ten motivations for getting tattooed that have been studied. These are: 1) Beauty, art and fashion 2) Individuality 3) Personal narrative 4) Physical endurance 5) Group affiliation and commitment 6) Resistance 7) Spirituality and cultural tradition 8) Addiction (to obtaining the tattoo) 9) Sexual motivation (in the case of tattoos: expressing affectation or emphasizing the own sexuality) 10) No specific reason (eg under the influence of drugs).

For what science tattoos are concerned, I think we can forget about the last category. It seems quite unlikely to me the average guy on the street will get drunk and wake up the next morning with the Wheeler-DeWitt equation on his shoulder. For what point 4) is concerned, I think we can leave this aside as well. I don't think the physical endurance is higher for scientific motives. Unless maybe there's a mistake in the equation.

For what sexual motivations are concerned, it is in this context interesting to draw upon a recent survey, conducted in Germany (sample size approximately 2500, as reported in “Machen Tattoos sexy?” forschung SPEZIAL. Das Magazin der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft, 2/07, 22-25). More than 10% of men and more than 8% of women were tattooed. The age range that currently dominates the wedding market (18-36 years) has the largest fraction of tattooed people. Men are more likely to be tattooed on arms and legs, whereas women prefer places that can easily be covered by cloths: back, belly, bottom. Not so surprisingly, men prefer designs with skulls, weapons and such, whereas women prefer flowers and animals. Maybe the most interesting fact though is that while only 8% of women had a tattoo, 56% of the participants with a tattoo had a partner who was also tattooed. So there's clearly some matching going on there. Another study in which participants were shown images of tattooed people revealed that both women and men judged people with tattoos to be more “aggressive” and “dominant.” Maybe for some, that is a desired effect?

Needless to say, all that reading didn't really explain why people want to have an equation on their arm. I can relate to the beauty/fashion motivation to some extend, but I suspect that if your fashion statement are Maxwell's equations you'll get more confused than admiring looks. I suppose the most likely motives are thus personal narrative and showing group affiliation and commitment. Or maybe we're seeing an attempt of resistance to anti-intellectualism? Not to mention that you can upload the photo to your blog and collect cheers. As for myself, I've fleetingly considered getting tattooed once or twice, but my tastes are at the best metastable and whatever the design, I'd probably get fed up with it after a few months, so tattoos are not for me.

Anyway, it is sometimes very refreshing to read an article in a journal I had never heard of before like Body Image. The most amusing part was this sentence from the abstract, right out of the ivory tower:
“[A] profound understanding of the underlying motivations behind obtaining tattoos and body piercings nowadays is required.”

Sure, I mean, unstable financial systems are ruining the lives of millions of people, climate change is about to erode the basis of many economies posing a threat for global political and social stability, each year about 5 million people still die because they don't have enough to eat, but what's really required is a profound understanding of why people punch needles through their nipples. If you replace “motivations behind” with “structure of” and “obtaining tattoos and body piercings” with your favourite physics term, I'm sure you'll find the same sentence in a significant fraction of arxiv papers...


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  2. Hi Bee,

    It’s always interested me as to why people would permanently mark or put holes in their bodies. I would say today it represents being an act of defiance more than the others on the list that you noted; which is perfectly fine except for the fact that it’s not such a handy thing if you happen to change your mind in respect to your opinions or feelings. So in this respect I don’t consider such an act being scientific as it leaves little room for doubt or growth resultant of future discovery. I always thought it better to do things with your hair or your clothing as such things can be easily changed and then less regretted. For that reason if I was ever tempted to get a tattoo I would have it be a mathematically related one, as they stand a better chance of representing a permanent truth. I thought perhaps a small tattoo of the Greek letter phi to be found in a place dictated by the proportion, yet remain undecided what to use as a fixed frame of reference or for that matter direction/orentation when making the determination:-)



  3. I think viewing tattoos as an act of defiance while detailing the rise of popularity across all sorts of groups seems a little strange. Who are they defying if everyone is doing it?

    We live in the "Age of I". No one wants a white iPod... it has to come in colours. And even then, that's not enough. You have to accesorize your iPod so that it is YOUR iPod...

    And it isn't just iPods. "Making your product yours" is a major element of a vast number of new consumer goods marketing strategies.

    Then there's facebook and myspace. You're now on the internet and can doll up that myspace however you like.. I don't agree with pink sprakly background gifs on a website... But someone found it attractive.

    Same with tattoos. It's a way to individualize your body. To say, well, it WAS like a stock body from the factory, but I got a new skin for it.. makes some people feel a little more themselves.

    Who can blame them with 6+ billion bodies moving about it's easy to get lost in the crowd.

    And yes, I have a tattoo. On the back of my neck just above my shirt collar reads: "audiovideodisco". Translated from Latin: "I hear, I see, I learn".

    I picked it because "it's me". I'm a nerd with a passion for knowledge and information and remember nearly everything that's happened during my life. Occasionally at work people forego wikipedia and just ask me instead.

    I like learning for the sake of learning and then I like to share what I've learned with others. I wanted to create a real artifact that captured that part of me and then shared it out into the world. "audiovideodisco" is that artifact.

  4. Why would anyone tattoo Maxwell's equations on his arm, and put a question mark after div B = 0?

  5. I guess to show sympathy for magnetic monopoles?

  6. Hi Phil,

    I guess what you mean with defiance is what the authors of the article meant with resistance. Yes, I can understand your reservation about permanent body alterations. I personally find the human body in its natural state to be one of the most amazing pieces of art, so I don't know why people want to pull rings through parts of it. As to tattoos, there's also the aspect of having chemicals inserted below the skin that I find very unappealing. In any case, to come back to the defiance, I think this is today only one out of many reasons. For example I think a lot of people, rather than wanting to be different, do it out of a 'me too' desire, maybe because their friends/partners have a tattoo as well. Best,


  7. Hi sidebetzbetweenfriendz:

    The motive of resistance and defiance certainly crumbles away the more mainstream an initially provocative act was.

    I actually wanted a white iPod (I have a white iPod player and wanted the colors to match). But they were out of stock, so I ended up with a silver one. I think you might have a wrong impression how many people like to walk around with a neon green mp3 player. Best,


  8. Beauty is simply defined: What the seeker does not possess, can only asymptotically approach.

    A tot-syn chemistry job candidate boasted a tattoo of palytoxin artfully twined about the ankle. The interviewer pointed and asked, "Isn't that stereocenter inverted?" It was a poor time to display indecision.

    The military gets "meat chops." Dissociated peripheral parts are matched to the core. Pierced nipples make perfect sense - while decorating a Christmas tree with ornaments.

    Obsessively surveillant societies thrive on permanent idiosyncratic markings. Indeterminant anonymity has its virtues.

  9. Mt Dad is 87. He served in the US Navy in World War II, in the Battle of the Atlantic aboard a Destroyer Escort, and was on the way from Hawaii to Japan before Operation Olympic was canceled by Truman in favor of the Atom Bomb. He was a sailor, and this is what he said:

    Plenty of men in the Navy in my generation have tats. They were always drunk when they had them.

  10. Come on Bee, you cannot ignore a god-sent vision! Time to get yourself a lovely non-closing circle tattoo!

  11. First off your own interpretation supersedes anything I might have to say.

    The Dream

    Punching was meant symbolically to break down your resistance. To listen.

    A white hair, bearded man and circle in the same dream is significant. The fact the circle was known and yet was not closed was also significant.

    Expecting the circle to be complete, and unsatisfied as to having to walk a incomplete circle shows you expected the (life)circle to be complete?

    You have certain expectations for yourself, and they are not being fulfilled. Your "higher self(white bearded man)" is chastising you for this expectancy and showing you how incomplete(ink) this makes you feel. Usually for woman it is a wo/man who can represent this higher self, but it is a universal representation nonetheless.

    The circle represents completeness, wholeness, and if your not to religious, it can even represent God. This is a very soulful and meaningful dream.

    The tattoo

    I noticed these equations on a young fellow who worked the summer to put himself through school. I liked it.

    I have had the fancy the last year to have a tattoo, which I had refrained from for many years as well. If I did, some have said I would have completed the biker look.:)Just missing the bike.

    But for identification purposes when in the military I thought such markers were give aways, so I thought better to not have any markings. Scars you can't help.


  12. Temporary tattoos are the best. Do a google search for "mehndi" and see what you get!

  13. Hi Plato,

    Thanks. This has given me something to think about... Best,


  14. Hi Arun,

    I've occasionally had temporary tattoos as a teenager. Mostly because wearing any sort of jewelery or other accessories didn't work well at the places I'd go. I'd typically have them at the shoulder or the ankle. No equations though ;-) Best,


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  16. Hi Bee,

    I agree with many you have this aspect of defiance contradicted by peer pressure conformity, yet this only indicates what distinguishes leaders from followers. So you are correct that for the vast majority it’s actually an attempt to belong. I would call this the struggle between our basic animal instincts and our higher ones of intellect. One thing it is clear proof of is to show that although many would like to look upon themselves as unique individuals we are still embedded with and influenced by our herding instinct. In the end however we all have a tattoo with that being our face and lucky nature makes the choice of what it is to look like, so that we are actually able to be recognizes as individuals.

    As for Plato’s interpretation of your dream I have a different take on it, which is founded in your feeling that tattoos are connected with blind conformity. The white haired man represents the status quo in physics, with the circle representing a unified theory. The fact that he couldn’t have it closed expresses your thinking that the way things are going it can’t be closed and all he could offer to your protest was to throw ink at you. This is representative of the sea of inked papers the discipline finds itself awash in.



  17. The thing that is most important in my view is that we learn to decipher what is most true to our own soul.

    In a sense this is what I am about here in the Socratic sense is that when one moves through the city, one is indeed listening to the "deepest sense of being" inhabited by the soul in expression. That the truest form of the universal language regardless of race, nationality, or country, is to find that commonality that speaks for, and from the soul of everyone.

    I would even so boldly go as to say that finding the deeper meaning truest "to the job we had come into existence to do," that the math discernible "is on equal ground" as we try to write the universal language in concert with the mathematical equations( Ramanujan is an example). Finding the constants, as we learn to deal with nature.

    Bu nature is not always as it seems? I have learned this quite early on gravity. Why I am also here.

    It means that as we venture inward is to find the truest meaning and language of our expression, that we will fulfill the truest expressions of being in concert with the universe?

    We have conversed in some forms or another on Mind Maps, and what can come from that most deeper center is expressions of all that we have learned as a soul, that the depth of being carries with it information(mandalas equatorial designed) from our life experiences that can be carried into this life.

    Symbolically we can design all this information to be contained in let's say a artistic (mandala)form. A tattoo. A equatorial tattoo?

    When you are expectantly gaining experience traveling the same paths as previous it is more likely that you will be presented with an completed mandalic design, whether in a complete drawing, or hidden, within the experience of the dream.

    That white bearded wo/man and circle is you, and is the truer voice of your existence. Why white? Why a circle?

    Interpreting the symbols for your self is how you come to know of yourself. You will come to know of others in their expressions.

    Other interpretations do awaken the mind to other possibilities, but in the end, you will know for yourself what sounds and resonates with your being.


  18. In Europe, the practice of tattooing was predominant among sailors and other working class members from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. Later..

    Hello Bee,
    that is not correct. Tattoos were en voge around 1900, and Prince Heinrich von Preussen (Brother to Wilhelm II)
    was not really "working class",
    I think. He had a four-master tattoed
    on his chest.
    At that time even women had taatoos,
    my source (a book written by a old
    captain) cites a song popular
    in Britain turn of the century:

    "Oh my darling let me see
    your little bosom honeybee"

    I hope You will not disgusted by this citation :=(

  19. Hi George,

    the reference the authors cite for this sentence is

    Sanders, C. R. (1989). Customizing the body: The art and culture of tattooing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    I haven't read it. Best,


  20. Bee - now look what you have done! There, in all its glory (gory?) are 1077 comments on subject 'Tattoos for the Math and Science Geek' -hot off the press on 6/28/10 Perhaps there will be some answer to the 'why' in there!


  21. A firsthand account:

    It’s been hitting me pretty hard what happened just a few years ago. Then you see [Senator] Carl Levin and the Senate looking to bring criminal charges against Blankfein. There are some key learnings that came out of that period in history, and it felt like it was a really appropriate thing to eulogize on my body… to me this represents the recipe for human greed. It was severely misappropriated by traders, the way it was oversimplified and reduced it to a single gamma number – and they couldn’t stop using it even knowing the inherent fallibility in it. I’m going to come off like such a f———g socialist in this, but to me it perfectly embodies what went wrong. And in that way it was the closest thing I’ve seen to the economic paradigm that we’re in. [Easy Street]



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