Not Every Tattoo Is About Sex

Illustration for article titled Not Every Tattoo Is About Sex

Steven D. Levitt at Freakonomics asks (and answers) the ever-annoying question: why get a tattoo? After rejecting the obvious, he zeroes in on the one reason we get inked (and do everything else): Sex.


Levitt admits that he has never really wanted a tattoo, partially because they are so permanent. "Economists tend to like choices that are reversible," he muses. "Whatever my preferences might be today, who knows what they will be a week, a year, or a decade later?" For the risk-averse among us, tattoos can certainly seem like a huge gamble. They are not for the wishy-washy or those plagued with regret (for her sake, I hope the Twitter fan from this morning does not fall into this category).

After rejecting the idea that "intrinsic beauty" is the reason most people get tattoos, Levitt suggests that it is the permanence itself that swayed 40% of people aged 26-40 to decorate their skin. The irreversibility of tattoos make them powerful signifiers; they bear witness to our commitment to a group, a person, or even an abstract concept (I'm reminded here of the ironic tattoos that have become so popular recently). They are signals to the outside world - but, Levitt asks, "who are tattoo-getters trying to signal to?" His answer? Potential mates.

Levitt's argument is interesting, and certainly holds some water. But it is not — to blatantly mix metaphors — airtight. He assumes that most tattoos are far more outwardly-directed than inward. He believes that, if it is visible to the public, it must be intended for public consumption. He even falls into the old trap of equating tats with a particular attitude: "Maybe a tattoo is a signal that a person is wild, impulsive, and likes risk. I suppose those are traits I once would have sought in a woman, although they certainly wouldn't be at the top of my list now!" He never uses the word slutty but the implication is there, especially when you consider his broader, sex-based argument. But many commenters disagree with Levitt's assumptions — as do I.

Yesterday, I went under the needle yet again to get my fourth tattoo. This act - along with my earlier inks - places me within the 36% of people age 18-25 with modified skin. I've mentioned before some of my reasons for getting tattoos, none of which had to do with sex or desire to attract mates. One could argue that it is born from an unconscious desire to signal to men that I'm an impulsive, sexually-liberated risk-taker, but that seems a little reductionist. I can't speak for every tattooed 18-25 year-old, but I can say this: most of the people I know with tattoos get them for one of two reasons. Either A) They simply like how it looks; or B) It is symbolic (and of course there is C: Both).


My fresh ink falls into the third category. For months, I had been planning on getting it done, but yesterday was my 23rd birthday, and having taken the day off to recover from a red-eye flight, it seemed like a good time to finally take the plunge. I went alone to the studio, partially because it was a rather unplanned decision, but also because I didn't want any witnesses (or hand-holders). Waiting in the tattoo parlor, I was able to observe the other customers, and ask them about their coming procedures. One girl explained that she was getting the symbol for resilience on her foot, and a few minutes later, another shared with us her sketches for a full sleeve, which she had designed as a tribute for her dead father. While we only represent a few isolated cases, I'm willing to bet that no one there was thinking about luring in sexual partners with our wild, impulsive ways. It seems that the people who equate sexual freedom with tattoos are the very same people who would never do something so "risky." For those of us with ink, it is usually more complicated than just signaling to the public that we are the maverick-y types. And when a full 40% of American adults have submitted their skin to be permanently marked, maybe we need to stop thinking of tattoos as an outsider thing, and realize that they are really quite normal.

Tattoonomics, Part I [Freakonomics]

Related: Painted Ladies: On Tats And Trashiness


If you look historically at body art, it has been a symbol of ownership for a very long time. Owners branded, tattooed, or pierced their slaves. Governments branded or tattooed those they deemed to have a certain status based on their "crimes" (from literal crimes like murder to less concrete things like religion). The conference of such a status put an identity on the marked person. So I would argue that modern body art is still about issues of identity and ownership, but now it is more a matter of claiming ownership of one's own body, of declaring an identity chosen yourself instead of one chosen for you. It's great that Levitt is looking at deeper reasons behind this stuff, but the reason he comes up with definitely says more about his fear than anything else.