Apparently 1 in every 5 British adults has been ‘inked’ (Guardian 2010). But is the evident popularity of tattooing a result of multiple individual expressions of free will and agency devoid of cultural influence?
According to Woody, the tattoo artist interviewed by the Guardian, this form of body modification is much more than mere fashion ‘A tattoo gives you something to live for…Why do you get up in the morning? To wear grey, to have your life ruled by train timetables? A tattoo offers you something personal and fun and exciting in a world that can be drab and grey.’
Academics such as Pitts (2000) and Sullivan (2004) would agree that the decision to ‘ink’, along with other forms of body modification (e.g. piercing) is an act by an empowered individual making his/her own intentional and uninfluenced choice. Sullivan (2004) goes as far as to argue that the search for meaning in tattooing is pointless because it is more than an intentional act. It is ‘an integral aspect of the inter-subjective and/or inter-textual character of what we might call existence and existences’ (2004: 3).
One of the issue with arguing that people make autonomous/uninfluenced choices is that it is complicit with neoliberal discourses which position individuals as rational, calculating and self-regulating; ascribing them full responsibility for their life biography regardless of the constraints upon their actions (Walkerdine et al., 2001).
Gill (2007: 73) argues that if tattooing, or any other fashion item, ‘were simply a freedom of choice and not cultural influence then why is the ‘look’ so similar? If it were the outcome of peoples’ individual idiosyncratic preferences, then surely there would be greater diversity?’ She argues that the choice to body modify or consume any other fashion item, is arrived at anything but autonomously because choices have everything to do with the person’s daily exposure to cultural images that shape their tastes, desires and what they perceive as a beautiful body.
The rise and rise of the tattoo
Socialization: Insights from Social Cognition