This dissertation deals with the emerging phenomenon of body modifications in today’s society. I chose the topic above all because I was interested in the fact that people can influence the minds of other people and what they think about themselves by their appearance. According to DeVito in his book The Interpersonal Communication, depending on how we dress, others can judge us. At least partly – they can tell what kind of society we are in, what we think or stand for (for example, conservative and liberal), sense of style and how creative we are. (2005, p.165)
That is why fashion trends keep emerging and most of the society often adapts so that they do not go upstream and stand out. Another case are individuals who try to do everything to distinct themselves, and body modifications often have been a means of differentiating and eliminating from the current trend of society. This question is also related to the concept of social roles used by Erving Goffman in his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. According to Goffman, information about an individual helps to characterize the situation, allows others to predict what can be expected of them and what they can expect from them. Observers who do not know the subject can gradually gather their points of view from the person’s behaviour and appearance to allow them to use previous experience with similar individuals or more importantly, apply stereotypes previously verified elsewhere. (1999, p. 10) People judge others not only in the matter of clothing but also in fashion accessories, jewellery and all visible details that complement their look. Therefore, it is only up to us how we present ourselves to others, what we show and what we conceal.
However, the question is how and whether a tattoo, which is practically irreparable and permanent, can be a fashion trend? Trends in fashion are known to be a temporary, ever-changing tendency and permanent tattoos may be in complete discrepancy with fashion trends. This work is divided into several parts. In the practical part of my dissertation I would like to find answers not only to the above mentioned question but also to why people decide to modify their bodies, whether it has a deeper meaning for it or it is only a question of perception of aesthetics and fashion and finally, what the bearers of these modifications have in common and how they differ. This part is part of a methodology that describes what kind of research method I have chosen for the collection of data and why.
1. Theoretical part
1.1. The sociology of body decorations
Body decorations can be looked at from different perspectives. For example, American scholar sociologist Erving Goffman investigated social stigmatisation. Decorating and stigmatisation were closely related in the past, few years or decades ago. The situation has nowadays changed, because for most of the modified individuals, the decoration is a matter of a trend and modernity rather than a deviation from a society that was considered negative. In addition to stigmatising, Erving Goffman also studied the social roles that can also be very closely related to the decoration. Even nowadays, we can still encounter negative responses to body decorations, for example in some types of employment. Thus, social roles can influence the decision whether a tattoo or other body modification will have a negative effect on the choice of future job opportunities, such as work with children or senior management positions where a serious and pleasant look is expected, which can appear incomprehensible with visible modifications as perceived by society.
This topic has already been dealt with in a study by Martin Rychlik, who focused on a theoretical part of this topic, rather as an encyclopaedic interpretation and history. Later on, he wrote a book from which I draw in the theoretical part of my dissertation.
Another work dealing with body modifications – piercing in particular, is by M. Hermansky about the occurrence and reasons of the popularity of piercings across youth in secondary schools. In contrast to my work, his work is only focused on one type of body modification – piercing – which is only a temporary modification (or semi-permanent, a small scar usually stays after the jewellery has been removed, which unlike other modifications is barely visible or disappears completely).
Such a fashion trend is very inconsistent in society. It gives rise to enthusiasm, but also strong resistance. We can still see it as one of the eldest body adjustment, a physical mutilation, which keeps a certain amount of mystery. It stands against the natural state of things, and that is why its monotheistic systems like Islam, Judaism and Christianity explicitly forbid, which adds the forbidden character to that magical character of tattoos.
Tattoos alter the natural form of human body; it is a form of beauty, which is also permanent, based on a painful act of performance, which individuals undertake voluntarily and in order to create a desired decoration, inner satisfaction and possible admiration of the surroundings. Tattoos are a non-verbal form of communicating feelings, capturing memories and past, retaining the character of its bearer, and to this day are a sign of somewhat unbridled rebellion.
This phenomenon has a history of thousands of years, the development of techniques and trends has undergone many and many advances, several times changed the meanings and reasons for the creation and a view of the society on its image on a human body. Completely original, let alone primitive tribal ornaments, rediscovered due to overseas voyages, tattoos became a sign of sailors, prisoners and circuses, over the years transformed into sophisticated shapes, significant decorations and signs of the highest social class. Nowadays so-called “spikes” are widely spread, they are a phenomenon that develops through all sorts of subcultures, from bikers’ gangs, to comic collectors to Straight Edge individuals. People are no longer shy about them, on the contrary, they give them a glimpse and take them as a natural part of themselves. Tattooing has broken away from its workers’ roots and has become a middle class affair. Researchers record changes in demographics and the development of tattoos themselves; from standardized, predetermined patterns created by craftsmen to individual, custom patterns tattooed by professionally trained artists (DeMello, 2012). However, although tattoos have a very important role in the decoration of the human body, they still receive too little attention from leading experts. Whether artistic critics, historians, sociologists or culture experts, it is possible to say that they have totally and implicitly forgotten about the basic aspect – the fact that tattooing is the only form of art that uses live human tissue as its material for creation.
Human body is more and more exposed, thanks to which we communicate with the outside world and present ourselves. Our own body gives us a sense of certainty and stability, we express our opinions and our personality with distinctive decoration. These changes have been described by a Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. According to him, the human body is primarily the body of consumption and its proper status is the ability to absorb and accept everything that a consumer society offers. The postmodern body is primarily a consumer of experience. It is a tool of pleasure because it uses the natural ability to respond to stimuli. (Palese, 2013)
1.2. The history of a tattoo in modern society
In the 19th century, the first tattoo studios started emerging, mainly in larger cities such as London, Marseille or Shanghai. (Rychlik, 2005) The profession of a tattoo artist gradually extended from their origin – harbours, and at that time tattoos started becoming popular across aristocracy and bohemians as well as the peripheries and even the royal families.
“The transition of the tattoo in England from a sailor’s whimsy to an aristocratic trend came in 1862 when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had a Jerusalem cross tattooed upon him while visiting the Holy Land. Edward VII had his sons, the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York, tattooed in Japan by master tattooist Hori Chiyo as well as in Jerusalem by the same artists who had done his tattoo twenty years prior. This marking of royalty sent the British aristocracy into a frenzy and soon fashionable society was overrun by a “tattoo craze.” (Bitter, 2008)
At the end of the 19th century, there was also an enormous development in tattooing, not only because of its expansion into the inlands, but also by a man named Samuel O’Reilly who invented a tattoo machine. As a result, tattooing started becoming more of an art, and professional graphic designers and artists such as Ed Hardy – the best-known tattoo artist of that time – began to engage with them. In 1974, he opened his first tattoo studio and became a “tattoo teacher” to pass his experience on his students. (Levy, Sewell and Goldstein, 1979)
In today’s modern society, the tattoo prejudices retreat mostly thanks to celebrities. They started getting tattooed to attract attention and highlight themselves. Because of them, the tattoo has grown as a trend in the last few years, for example, people like to look like their idols or want to adorn their body with their own special jewellery.
“Tattooing appears to be achieving social respectability, particularly among young women. Various international celebrities are publicly displaying tattoos, even Eddie Grundy has been exhibiting his new design in The Archers on national radio. The appeal of these personalities is predominantly to young adults, who have come to regard tattoos as fashionable.” (Mercer and Davies, 1991)
1.3. The history of a piercing in modern society
In modern society, the piercings appeared again first of all thanks to the hippies. However, the real boom occurred roughly in the seventies with the birth of punk, when the main part of the vision was to shock and distinguish from the rest of the society and go “upstream”. Doug Malloy is considered the father of modern piercing. Him and his colleague Jim Ward opened the first professional studio “The Gauntlet” in Los Angeles. However, piercing has gotten into the wider public primarily thanks to celebrities. For example, French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, who promoted his own fashion philosophy and his collections included tattoo elements and piercing jewellery from the beginning of his work. As Gaultier began to present himself through this theme, it got him under a pressure of the media as at that time, this kind of fashion and beauty was judged or refused by the majority of the society. (Steele, 1996) Despite the fact people judged it, piercing started becoming more and more popular with the aim to shock and diverse from the majority of the society and that is why many celebrities, such as Spice Girls or Prodigy, started using them for that matter. (Soccio, 1999)
An important breakthrough was the publication of Modern Primitives in the late 1980s. The book became an important source of information for all young people who were interested in this topic and were thinking of getting pierced themselves. (Juno, 1989)
Nowadays, in the last 20 years, the interest in piercing has grown, mainly because it is no longer considered extravagant, except for extreme jewellery, but rather as a common accessory especially for young people.
2.1. Aims of the research
The main objective of my research is to clarify the increasing trend of body modifications nowadays. The basic research questions that I asked myself before the research were: Does a tattoo have any deeper meaning than just decoration? Why is a tattoo, which is an irreplaceable interference to a human body, becoming a matter of fashion and modernity? Why do more and more people get tattoos, despite the fact that their bearers have recently been condemned and extruded to the edge of society? What do tattooed individuals have in common and how they differ? What is their view on this phenomenon? Why do people have piercings and other types of body modifications and how do the different types vary?
2.2. Data collection method
For my research, I chose a quantitative collection of data supplemented by a few semi-structured interviews with 11 women and 8 men I conducted in the framework of the research. In my work, however, I will only work with some of the interviews so that I do not affect the structure of the work and unnecessarily duplicate the information that was subsequently confirmed in quantitative research. I used these interviews mainly as a basis for creating a questionnaire and primary hypotheses. I chose an online questionnaire, where I mentioned the ownership of at least one body modification as a criterion for the respondents. I sent this questionnaire to my friends, who I know have tattoos or other modifications, and I have also asked other people I knew for collaboration to extend the questionnaire.
2.3. Research validity, factors influencing the distribution of the respondents
The research resulted in 153 respondents, 12 of whom do not have tattoos, but only piercings or other modifications (e.g. implants), the remaining 141 respondents own at least one tattoo and 73 of them at least one piercing as well as a tattoo. As far as the gender breakdown is concerned, women considerably predominate.
There were 116 female respondents and only 37 male respondents. This result can be influenced by the fact that women tend to be more willing to fill out questionnaires than men. (Tarnai, Moore, 2002)
Obtaining a sample that would be representative would be difficult, given the factor that most of the modified individuals do not show whether or not they have any modifications.
The individuals who have significant modifications are an exception, for example, they have modifications on their face or lower parts of the arms where they are clearly visible. If the research was only focused on these visibly modified individuals, it would break its’ representability. Respondents were divided into five age categories, according to their age when they got their first tattoo. These were under 15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31 and over. These categories did not work out to be balanced and the highest representation was given by respondents aged 16 to 20, followed by respondents aged 21-26 years.
This fact is probably caused by persistent prejudices from years ago, especially from older people, who have experienced the time when the tattooed people were condemned by society. This hypothesis is partly confirmed by Rychlik, who collected information from the media and tattoo studios and found that the majority of the customers are those aged between 18 and 30, with an average of 25 years. (Rychlik, 2005) Rychlik indicates a higher average than in my research, however, it has been 13 years since the publication of this book and the average age has probably decreased. This information would nowadays probably correspond to the data that emerged as my research.
From the interviews completed in the primary research, I created hypotheses and tried to confirm or disprove them by the research results. The first theory was that people were tattooed for three different reasons or from a combination of these.
1. A matter of aesthetic, they liked a design and therefore had it tattooed on their body
2. A desire to attract attention or to differ from the rest of the society
3. A symbol of an important moment in their lives, for example, a birth of a child – women get tattoos of their child’s name or a date of – or some try to express their opinions through tattoos.
The second theory was related to piercings, where the questions were identical with the first and second in the previous hypothesis.
An important fact to think about also came from the research done by Martin Hermansky focused on piercing in the culture of secondary school youth. His research has shown that the youth is viewed as being located in a state of liminality, i.e. in such a period, which is inherently transient and even though it is not clearly bordered, it always needs to come to an end. Therefore, the youth must be acclimated to the dominant society. In this perspective, the members of the majority of society can see piercing as a youthful indiscretion caused by the insufficient enculturing of the youth who has not yet accepted the values and standards of the dominant society, but it is only a matter of time when they do so. When this happens, the piercing will be permanently removed. (Hermansky, 2012) Thus, the individuals agree that this modification is only temporary and that it is related to a certain period of life. However, the question is why are other body modifications such as tattoos, scarification, implants, etc. as popular as piercing, yet they are permanent and irreversible? This leads to a hypothesis combining the previous two theories and that is a possibility that a tattoo, unlike a piercing, has a deeper sense than just aesthetic or the determination to differentiate from the majority of society.
Another hypothesis is that women tend to get less noticeable, smaller tattoos in less visible places than men who tend to try to underline their masculinity and therefore choose bolder motifs.
The last hypothesis in my research was the understanding that most tattooed people believe that the others have their tattoos mainly from aesthetic reasons as a matter of a fashion trend.
The following part will summarise the knowledge that emerged from the answers of the respondents to the individual questions of the questionnaire, or on the facts which result from the dependence of some questions. The research is mainly focused on the difference between male and female responses, and investigates whether there was any dependency on the age of the respondents and their answers.
3.1. Breakdown by gender
The main factor the research is focused on are the reasons for the respondents to have chosen the place of their first tattoo. As for male participants, the majority (62.7%) choose their arm as the location for their first tattoo, be it a shoulder, forearm or the length of the whole arm, the so-called sleeve. This is, according to them, mainly due to the fact that men want their tattoos to be seen on a regular basis but they also want to be able to hide them under a long sleeve in case of need, for example, in employment. Another reason can be the relatively large area of the male arm and therefore a “suitable canvas” for larger designs. This information confirmed that 37.3% of the men choose a suitable combination of placement and motif. The second most frequent answer was the selection of the placement for practical reasons (32.2%) and the rest chose the placement for aesthetic reasons.
These responses were very different for female participants, as only half of the women (49.6%) chose the placement for practical reasons, so that they could easily cover it in case they needed to. Another 32.4% of women chose the placement to be a suitable combination of the location and motif. This logically leads to the rest of the answers – the placement of the first tattoo was women’s back (30.1%) and their legs (21.7%).
While it is clear from the above that women prefer to choose the location of their tattoos for practical purposes and men for aesthetics, the answer to the question of what was the reason to get their first tattoo is the opposite. Nearly half of the women (47.8%) got their first tattoos for aesthetics, compared to only a third of the male respondents (33.9%). The most common answer was expressing their opinions or lifestyle (38%). The third most common response for both sexes was that the tattoo was a symbol representing a specific moment in their life. To reflect this, there is an interesting fact that approximately a quarter of the respondents of both sexes (26.2% in total), gets tattooed to separate from the crowd, differentiate and be original. However, the question is how original this thought is if another quarter of respondents think the same.
In exceptional cases, tattoos can cause serious problems. For example, a German doctor, who has not been named, refused to perform a surgery on a 36-year-old lorry driver when he saw a Nazi tattoo on his arm.
“I can’t operate on this man. I am Jewish,” the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung quoted him as saying. Leaving the patient anaesthetised, he found a senior colleague, who then performed a successful operation. The 46-year-old Jewish doctor, who works at hospital in the city of Paderborn, explained later that his conscience prevented him from treating people he suspected of having neo-Nazi sympathies. German law bans all Nazi symbols, and anybody found guilty of displaying them in public can spend up to three years in jail.”
This article, of course, aroused a wave of opposing views and the contradiction between the duty of the doctor and his personal belief.
Different factor for the answers of men and women is also the age borderline. Despite the fact that the majority of both men and women respondents represented categories between 16 and 25 years of age, over a half of all men respondents were aged over 25 years (51.7%), while most of the women ranked into categories up to 25 years (61%). Although it is not an extremely significant difference, it results in the fact that women tend to get tattooed at a lower average age than men.
An interesting fact is that although men have stated their opinions or attitudes as the most frequent reason of their own tattoos, they are of the opinion that for other people it is only a matter of fashion and trend. They also tend to give this answer more than women. The other interesting fact is that 59.3% of tattooed people who want to be distinguished and original are of the opinion that others have tattoo as a fashion affair as it is a trend. This results in the fact that even though people get their tattoos because they want to stand out and be unique, they still agree that tattoos a fashion trend, therefore not something unusual.
Another popular body modification is the piercing. As it turns out from the research, piercing is rather a women’s affair, with at least one piercing owned by more than half of the female respondents (59.1%), 40.4% of them then own more than one piercing. The results are quite the opposite for men, as only less than a third of the male respondents own a piercing (28.9%) and 40.6% of them own more than just one piercing. This information is probably due to the fact that the piercing is only a different type of an earring or jewellery, and women generally wear jewellery more than men. It is not surprising that ears are the most frequent part of the body for women to pierce as well as for men (women 20.2%, males 13.4%), mainly ear-cartilage (because the earlobe piercings are the most common ones, they are not included in the research results accurate). The second most popular piercing for women is the tongue piercing (16.4%) followed by the belly button piercing, which is 16.1% of the respondents.
The second most common type of piercing for men is the eyebrow (11.2%) and the third most popular area is chin (5.7%). Other options are negligible due to the low number of respondents for these types.
As well as with tattoos, people were asked for the reasons of their piercings, and as supposed, the majority of men and women have piercings for aesthetic reasons (men 55.2%, women 63.4%). The second, less represented answer was “trying to differentiate” by getting a piercing, percentage of which was higher for men than for women (men 35.7%, women 28.6%). As mentioned above, this is caused by women who enjoy to adorn themselves rather than men, who wear this type of jewellery rather as a way to attract attention. Only a few people have mentioned a deeper meaning of their piercings, for example, they want to overcome their own fear of pain or the actual application of piercing is a ritual matter. Some of them also got their piercing due to specific events:
“Besides aesthetic reasons, it was a desire to eternalise a certain moment in life – for example, one of my piercings symbolise my engagement” (woman, 26-35 years old)
and one male, for example, responded to having a genital piercing for practical ways – to improve his sexual life.
3.2. Differentiation based on education
In addition to different gender responses, I also focused on whether respondents were affected by the education they had achieved. However, it must be taken into account that a part of the respondents are still students of secondary schools and universities, thus their highest completed education may not be final and therefore some results may be distorted. A specific number of respondents is not known because the question of employment was optional due to a higher return rate of the questionnaire and the unwillingness of respondents to communicate this information, although the employment was responded by almost 60%, of which students represent less than 35%.
The most frequently answered location of the tattoos in the primary education category were respondents’ backs because of the fact that back tattoos can be easily hidden under the clothes when needed and nobody in their employment knows that the tattoos exist. On the other hand, half of the respondents with a secondary education choose a suitable combination of motifs and placements of their tattoos, the second most frequent answer were aesthetic reasons (38.2%) and only 12.7% of these respondents answered practical reasons. In terms of the highest achieved education of men and women, male respondents are more represented in the category of A-levels graduates (63.7%) than women (56.6%) compare to university graduates with a higher number of women than men.
The research also shows that people with achieved primary or secondary education often get tattooed in the age from 16 to 20 years (100% in primary schools, 40.8% in secondary schools and 52.3% in A-levels), while the most frequent answer for people with a higher achieved education was 21 to 25 years of age (47.2%). The conclusion for this can be, for example, that university graduates put more of a thought into their tattoos than the people in puberty. This fact is confirmed by reasons for which these people get tattooed. As for the respondents with primary education, the most frequently answered reason was the expression of their own opinion or attitude; for the respondents with a secondary education it was the desire to be original but also following trends (29.3 %). This can be explained by the fact that a large number of individuals in puberty tries to distinguish themselves from the rest of the society and promote their own beliefs to show that they are no longer children. About a third of the university graduates also chose trend and aesthetic as their reasons and the second most frequent answer in this category was the expression of a certain period of life. According to these findings, people with higher education choose their tattoos for deeper meanings rather than to attract attention and to make them visible, which can be the reason why, in average, university graduates get their first tattoos later than other respondents.
However, the result is opposite once the respondents own more than one tattoo. These are mostly trend and aesthetic reasons for respondents with either a primary or a secondary education, while for A-levels and university graduates it is generally the expression of their opinions and beliefs.
In my dissertation I dealt with the topic of body modifications, I focused on the two that are the most common in modern society – piercing and tattoos. In order to investigate this phenomenon and the expansion of these modifications nowadays, I decided to focus on population that has personal experience in modifications, i.e. respondents who own at least one body modification themselves. The result of this quantitative research is a preview of the current situation, which, based on the research results, is very different from the findings of the theoretical part of this work. The aim of the research was to find answers to the question of whether a tattoo has a deeper meaning than just body sculpting and why this irreversible modification nowadays becomes a matter of fashion and is owned and accepted by more and more individuals, when in the past, modifications were condemned. It does not appear that there is a single answer for all modified individuals. The result is that about a quarter of the modified individuals have tattoos purely for aesthetic reasons. Another almost three quarters of the respondents have deeper reasons, which include, above all, expressing their thoughts, opinions and attitudes or communicating a period of life, for example, some difficult life situations. However, paradoxically, about 65% of the respondents are of the opinion that the other modified individuals have their tattoos purely for aesthetic and fashionable reasons (detected by adding up opinions “it’s modern and trendy” 42.8% and “aesthetic reasons” 17.6% of respondents). It also follows that tattoos are no longer condemned as much as ever before because they have become a fashion trend and this is probably the cause of the ever-increasing interest in this modification, although most respondents deny that they have a tattoo only for superficial reasons and see a deeper sense in their tattoos than in tattoos of other individuals. Individuals therefore feel exceptional, seeing sense in their tattoos, while according to them, the others have just succumbed to the fashion trend. This general feature is probably caused by the fact that most individuals have the so-called “double meter,” they look at themselves differently than at the others and refuse to admit that they would surrender to fashion trends or pressure from society.
The greatest differences between the respondents are logically found in gender breakdowns, which again confirms the idea mentioned in the theoretical part that men have their tattoos more distinct, bigger and more visible because they have to emphasize their masculinity and women prefer a more subtle, decent and less visible designs. Women originally gave birth to children and protected the family home while men had a completely different mission – they were hunters, protectors and breadwinners. Women used to adorn themselves because they wanted their men to like them, while the men adorned themselves to impress the enemies. (Fiksa, 2005) For this reason, women did not have extensive tattoos in visible places so that they did not frighten their children, unlike the men whose tattoos intimidated the enemy. The piercing is especially popular across women, majority of whom have it for purely aesthetic reasons. They consider it a jewellery just like earrings or a necklace. However, an important question remains: why has this permanent modification become a popular fashion trend, yet it is irreplaceable and unlike fashion trends is not transient? Though, an objective answer to this question cannot be found, as most respondents do not want to admit that the tattoos that were previously the object of differentiation and now they are being grouped together into a new “modern tattooed society” and we can only guess whether this trend will reach the situation where the individuals without any physical modifications will be the original and distinctive.