The stigma surrounding tattoos
Tattooing has evolved quite a bit since the first tattoo shop opened in New York City in 1870. Nowadays, tattoos are more common, with 38 percent of people ages 18 to 29 having at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research Center study. Among the tattooed include students, staff and faculty at universities around the United States.
In the past, tattoos were often seen as taboo in the world of academia. Many university students, staff and faculty challenge stereotypes about appearance in the professional world by having visible tattoos. Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College, has tattoos.
“My tattoos corresponded with what felt like significant benchmarks in my life,” Thompson said. “The tattoo on my arm I got when I began my Ph.D., and I have a tattoo on my back I got after publishing my first book, and so on. So in a way, they’re kind of related to an intellectual biography or an employment history.”
Thompson said he sees the increase in tattooing in correspondence with the rise of globalization in the post-1960s world and the transformation of consumer society.
“You have the adventive, niche markets and an ideology, in a sense, that people discover themselves through their consumption patterns and consumer choices,” Thompson said. “And this was cynical in some respects, as a way to sell more, but at the same time it provided opportunities for self-expression that hadn’t existed previously.”
Tattooing has long been associated with self-expression and as a way to take autonomy over one’s body. People’s reasons for getting tattoos exist across a broad spectrum. Some of these include an act of rebellion, spontaneity, or self expression.
Tattoos can also be a path to body acceptance. Both men and women had a higher body appreciation, higher self-esteem and lower levels of anxiety after getting tattoos, according to a study in Body Image Journal.
Mike Ortolaza is a tattoo artist in Ithaca. The veteran tattoo artist began his career in Rochester, N.Y. about 14 years ago and has been tattooing at Medusa Tattoo in Ithaca for the past three years.
“I mostly get people who work at the colleges,” Ortolaza said. “Not necessarily professors, but employed by the colleges. I have a handful of students and teachers, but mostly people who just work there and are locals.”
Ortolaza, who got into the job after a stint in graphic design, said Rochester is a busier market in comparison to Ithaca. There are five studios in Ithaca, whereas there are over 20 studios in Rochester.
“Ithaca is a lot smaller, and everyone thinks there’s a lot of tattoo shops around here,” Ortolaza said. “I think there isn’t. There’s just a little handful of them, and they’re all pretty decent. In Rochester, there were over 20 shops and probably only about 10 of them were respectable.”
Emily Hess, a senior at Ithaca College, got her first tattoo during her freshman year of college.
“I got my first tattoo when my friend was giving stick-and-pokes in his dorm room,” she said. “I paid him 5 dollars and randomly chose a peace sign because he said it would be easy. My most recent tattoo is a little more meaningful. It’s an anatomical heart with flowers coming out of the arteries, like ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve.’ I got it here in Ithaca.”
Thompson said he doesn’t see much of a difference in the attitudes of colleagues and students towards his tattoos between working at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. and at Ithaca College. At Fordham, he said he made efforts to clean up for work but as more of an issue with job insecurity than being self-conscious of his tattoos. In his final years there, he gave up trying to be squeaky clean.
“What was significant to me was that the students didn’t blink,” Thompson said. “They didn’t register a difference. And for those colleagues who did notice that something had changed, it was sort of an observation and a casual conversation that then had no consequences.”
Hess isn’t worried about her tattoos affecting her career plans.
“I plan on getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology,” she said. “I’m not nervous about having tattoos, but my dad is constantly warning me that grad school admissions might care. I’m more worried about having facial piercings though.”
However, those who subscribe to the stigma around body modification may see tattooing through a different lens.
“A lot of people start with a conception of bodily integrity,” Thompson said. “That the body is a temple, and what else. Then, if you start from that presumption, modifying it in some way is like defacing it … But if you think that ‘I have bodily integrity, but that means that I have ownership over my body,’ then, you know, it is what I do with it, the first conception seems less tenable.”
Thompson said he believes body modification within the academic world is becoming more common. He cites a consistency with broader social patterns in the United States.
Ortolaza agrees that there is a shift in popular conceptions of tattoos.
“I personally think that within my lifetime, maybe even within the next 10 to 15 years, you’ll start seeing either politicians or people in higher power that will have tattoos, and it won’t even be a big thing,” Ortolaza said. “It’s definitely less taboo now than it was for a long time. And definitely, it’s more lenient now on an employment scale.”
Tattooing is expanding. The millennial generation and the age groups preceding them are less likely to express concern about increasing numbers of people getting tattoos in comparison to those age 50 and older, according to a Pew Research Center study. And as the millennial generation begins to take their professional places in the world of academia, they will be more likely to have tattoos than their Generation X counterparts. Whether it’s the permanence, the process or the artistry behind them, tattooing has withstood time.
Hess thinks that tattoos are becoming more acceptable. “I think judging a person based on body modifications is an old-fashioned way of thinking,” she said.
Thompson said he sees what he refers to as a “limited pathway to self-realization” as a ritual that will stick around.
“So much of our world is a finished piece of work,” Thompson said. “It feels locked down, and the field of our action is pretty constrained in a whole number of respects, but we have this. Like, this is our compensation.”
Rae Harris is a senior Journalism major who has a tattoo of the Captain Morgan pirate on their right thigh. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.