A couple of years ago, as a stressed third-year criminology student, I wondered what the hell I was going to write my dissertation about. What, within the umbrella of criminology and criminal justice, was I most passionate about? In the second year of my policing foundation degree, I’d written about the relationship between young people and the police. While it was a fascinating topic, I didn’t get a brilliant grade (to me, anyway). And so I wanted to do better.
In my other modules, I was already writing about women and sex and deviance and surveillance. I wanted to do something different. Then it came to me. Tattoos.
As a tattooed woman, I’ve had several comments made against my choice of ink, including “how are you going to get a job?” (this said by someone while I was at work); “the police will always be able to identify you by your tattoos” (since I’m not planning on committing any crimes, isn’t this largely a good thing?); and other ridiculous remarks about how tattoos mark you out as deviant. I suppose I am a social deviant in many ways, preferring the company of books and cats to most people, but my tattoos have nothing to do with that.
Let’s remind ourselves of the year we’re living in. I’m an educated, independent young woman, who has always worked, even while studying, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been presented with many wonderful opportunities, particularly in the last few years. I also love tattoos, and they have nothing, whatsoever, to do with my ability to work, to write, to pay my taxes or rent a house. Allow me to repeat: tattoos have zero impact on my life, other than make me look fucking awesome.
My dissertation, with the same title as this blog post, looked into several ways in which society stereotypes tattooed people. From branding them outright criminals to denying a vital part of their culture, this behaviour is incredibly harmful to tattooed people, as it affects their ability to find employment, labels them as deviants and outcasts, and encourages others to treat them with less respect than they might treat a non-tattooed person. This attitude even extends to the police, and I found that, although many forces across the UK have very strict rules on their officers having tattoos, it would actually bridge the divide between the police and tattooed people (yes, even the criminals with tattoos) if more officers were visibly tattooed. Just as we need more women and people of colour in the police service, tattooed people want people they can relate to, and who understand them, as well.
After 10 long months of research and writing, my study ultimately found that, although the attitudes towards tattoos can be extremely negative, the reaction of society depends on a couple of factors: what your tattoo is, and where it is on your body. The word ‘hate’ scrawled across your knuckles, or a spiderweb on your elbow, which is largely linked to prisoners, is much more likely to get a negative response than, say, some stars on your foot, or a tattooed areola after a mastectomy. Cosmetic tattooing has also become more popular in recent years; you’re unlikely to be refused a job because you have your eyebrows tattooed on, but those teardrops under your eyes will probably affect your chances.
Does my choice of tattoos really determine the kind of person I am? Does it project a particular image to the outside world? What do certain images say about us as people? My partner, for example, has several tattoos that might be considered distasteful or deviant, and yet he is a sweet, animal-loving guy, with a full-time job and a passion for gaming. But his choice of tattoos mark him out to some as a criminal, and he had many comments (more than I did) about how he was going to find a good job after graduating. We would roll our eyes and sigh, us young people in this modern world, where around a third of Brits are tattooed, but a part of me always wondered, why do these attitudes exist? And, as an aside, why do people feel like they’re entitled to share these outdated opinions?
The majority of people I know have at least one tattoo, even the people you wouldn’t expect. I don’t have any on my face, neck or hands, so you wouldn’t know I’m a tattooed person when I’m wrapped up warm against the British winter. But why should revealing my tattoos have any impact on your opinion of me?
I’ve learned a lot since having visible tattoos, and my dissertation was incredibly informative (for which I got a very respectable grade!). Above all, I learned just how important it is to be open, and not to judge people based on their appearance. It’s something I knew and believed anyway, but my research (and the research of others) really drove these messages home. From skin colour to religion, hairstyles to fashion, we are all human, and we all deserve respect. Having beautiful ink doesn’t change anything else about me; I’m just putting a bit of myself out there for you to see. Enjoy them, appreciate them, even envy them, and, if in doubt, ask.