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The Atlantic on tattoos as identity confirmation

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An interesting read from The Atlantic -- just offering it up for perusal:

The Identity Crisis Under the Ink - The Atlantic

Excerpt:

In 1998, Velliquette and colleagues conducted an interview-based study that found people use tattoos as a way to cement aspects of their current selves. “We were hoping to look at the postmodern identity, and really what we found is that we were in this modern era where people did know who they were,” she said. “They had a sense of their core self.” Eight years later, the team revisited the idea. The second study, like the first, found that people used tattoos as a means to express their past and present selves. But the people interviewed in the second group also seemed to need proof that their identities existed at all. They relied on tattoos as a way to establish some understanding of who they actually were.

“We continue to be struck by rapid and unpredictable change,” study co-author Jeff Murray said at the time. “The result is a loss of personal anchors needed for identity. We found that tattoos provide this anchor. Their popularity reflects a need for stability, predictability, permanence.”

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Read that yesterday; not sure what to make of it. I only started getting tattooed when I had some stability in my life (same job, home and relationship for a while now). I know lots of folks use tattoos to mark the end of a period of transition, though.

Regarding this quote:

Tattoos, recent research suggests, don’t just express identity: They help define it.

A lot of the most fervent defining seems to be done by people looking at the tattoos, rather than the actual tattooed person. I find it interesting that text tattoos are so popular since they also have the most fixed meaning. I like that I can "redefine" my tattoos as I grow older.

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@polliwog - I agree with you that "A lot of the most fervent defining seems to be done by people looking at the tattoos, rather than the actual tattooed person." The article is a thoughtful read, but it also needs to be understood in the context of what the vast majority of tattoos are, i.e. those tiny infinity symbols and whatever. The kind of work folks on this board get is not the norm, and so our reasons and attachment to tattoos is probably not going to conform to that data super well either.

I do often get tattooed to mark particular moments in my life or transitions. I have many tattoos that to me did feel like alternative rites of passage where there were no "mainstream" ones (getting a tattoo to mark finishing my PhD, for example), so I can relate to some of what the article is saying. But I have two principal issues with it nonetheless. First of all, I hate these strange studies of "identity" because they make it seem like this rigid, easily defined concept. I mean, I feel like I have a strong sense of who I am and am searching for who I am at the very same time, and I imagine that is true for most people. I find their discussion of that stuff very over-simplified. Second, I am fucking sick of all these millenials articles, and I am not even a millenial! But like seriously, the desire to cast each new generation as a bunch of iconoclasts with no connection to the past is insane. Millenials are not a fundamentally different kind of person than the rest of us, and writing like they are some kind of alien culture that must be studied makes me crazy.

Like we live in a weird world where we are increasingly less and less attached to communities that traditionally defined us. So yeah, we're all searching, and maybe tattoos help us with some of that searching and maybe they don't. We invest a huge amount of time and money (and blood!) into them, so obviously they mean a lot to us and impact our identities. DUH; I would have a hard time disputing any of that. But trying to turn it into some kind of "definition of a generation" psychobabble is a bit much.

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good discussions folks as most always on here

i do spend some time thinking about topics like this

why do i get tattooed - why do i get what i get - what does it mean

more and more though i have become comfortable with the following conclusion

i feel compelled to get tattooed and i dont really know why and...i kinda like that

edit: i would like to add that if none of what i wrote makes sense i'm blaming the cranberry sauce

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First of all, I hate these strange studies of "identity" because they make it seem like this rigid, easily defined concept. I mean, I feel like I have a strong sense of who I am and am searching for who I am at the very same time, and I imagine that is true for most people. I find their discussion of that stuff very over-simplified. Second, I am fucking sick of all these millenials articles, and I am not even a millenial!

Totally agree on both counts. I wonder how "identity" is defined in the studies referred to in this article. I'm not sure that there's a super strong correlation between age and a solid sense of identity, either - maybe you shed some anxiety about it as you get older.

I tried to swear off reading op-eds about millenials a while ago, but righteous indignation's sort of addictive.

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...it also needs to be understood in the context of what the vast majority of tattoos are, i.e. those tiny infinity symbols and whatever. The kind of work folks on this board get is not the norm, and so our reasons and attachment to tattoos is probably not going to conform to that data super well either.

I agree. I would also posture a guess that the huge swell in people starting to get tattoos in the last decade or two is an increase in people getting tattoos to mark occasions, remember loved ones, "assert their identity" (whatever that means), etc., NOT an increase in people getting tattoos because they like tattoos. I feel like the people in the latter group have been getting tattoos for that reason for a while, and will keep on doing so regardless of what everyone else is doing (or what the media is saying about tattoos!).

I'm not necessarily saying the later group's decision has any less to do with identity, but yeah.

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Haven't read the article as of yet, but responding to the extract and replies.

Just my 2d's worth: You can't lump everyone into one group, yes we are all tattooed and we have a love and appreciation for the art but that is where the similarities end. We're all from different age groups, different cultures and countries. And we all have different reasons for getting tattooed.

The person who decides to get something tattooed because they like the design, that reason is no more or less valid than someone who spends years deciding. Likewise it makes no difference if there is a meaning behind the tattoo or not.

It always bemuses me how people try to analyse the tattooed. I haven't heard of someone analysing why people buy (for arguments sake), Monet over Picasso. It's a little bug bear of mine. Yes, a lot of us get tattooed to mark an occasion but some people buy new clothes, shoes or a bag so what is the difference? None, in my opinion. Do these people get analysed? No, I'm sure they don't.

As for idenity, it can be said that people's clothes and/or make up identify them.

Sorry, this reply kind of turned into a rambling/mini rant.

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@polliwogThe article is a thoughtful read, but it also needs to be understood in the context of what the vast majority of tattoos are, i.e. those tiny infinity symbols and whatever. The kind of work folks on this board get is not the norm, and so our reasons and attachment to tattoos is probably not going to conform to that data super well either.

I'd love to see a pie chart of the different types of tattoos people have, to put all those infinity symbols, etc. in context. And it would be neat to see that every decade or so. Might be kind of surprising. Although, sadly, the pie slice of scratcher tattoos is probably pretty large.

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...It always bemuses me how people try to analyse the tattooed. I haven't heard of someone analysing why people buy (for arguments sake), Monet over Picasso. It's a little bug bear of mine. Yes, a lot of us get tattooed to mark an occasion but some people buy new clothes, shoes or a bag so what is the difference? None, in my opinion. Do these people get analysed? No, I'm sure they don't.

I see your point @purplelace, but I guess see it a bit differently. I think that tattoos, despite their growing popularity and presence, are still considered by a lot of people as weird. I think that even many untattooed people who are totally OK with tattoos and tattooed people, just don't understand them (e.g. "I don't have any tattoos, and have no interest in getting any, but my wife has tattoos, and I think they actually look good on her. But I still don't understand why she wants to submit herself to the pain and put something permanent on her body.")

In that context, I think when so many people think tattooing is weird, and don't understand the motives, they think there has to be some deeper obscure and complex psychological reason.

People understand why someone would buy a Monet or a Picasso, and if one prefers one over the other and says, "I just like Monet's use of colors," they just accept it. it is within the realm of people's understanding. For many, tattoos are beyond their realm of understanding, so perhaps that is the reason for the search for deeper motivations.

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There is this really fantastic book I read last year as part of my research for something else I'm writing that discusses the concept of identity as neuroscience understands it in great detail, at a layman's level. It's called The Self Illusion, by Bruce Hood, and it draws many of the same conclusions about the myth of identity as the article.

While the conclusions he draws are still contested in some circles, I don't think there's more evidence against them than there is for them. The 'tl;dr' take-away is that identity is an extremely vulnerable construct assembled from countless exterior pressures and events, organized into a narrative that our brains tell us in order to help us make sense of new information. It does this with an aim toward efficiency and survival, rather than accuracy; it's remarkable how fallible human memory can be (and memory can be entirely overwritten or altered with astonishing ease). It's this way by design, though; these things make us adaptable to new circumstances, more resilient in overcoming traumas, etcetera. There is no little person inside of us with a set register of traits, operating switches and levers in us with pre-defined consistency. We are an accumulation of impulses defined by experience, and what we think we know or feel about those experiences is more malleable than we realize.

One of the central points of the book insofar as the studies it uses is that it's extremely easy to challenge even the most dominant values and beliefs of someone's identity under the right conditions, social pressures being what they are. Given the right parameters, a person will do things they'd never believe themselves capable of otherwise -- for better or worse. It could be that the fast and furious pace of social pressures we're experiencing these days via social media are responsible for causing people to seek out ways to define themselves in a more lasting manner...

...but it could also be that the fast and furious pace of social pressures we're experiencing these days via social media are pressuring people to get tattoos who wouldn't otherwise get them. This, I think, is a point the article probably glosses over too handily. People polish up the details of their lives and shovel them onto facebook, instagram, pinterest, and other people sit around judging their own lives based on these idealized representations from others. Someone still trying to figure out who they are spends six hours a day on pinterest, imagining what their life could be like, and somehow a dandelion-turning-into-birds tattoo becomes part of the landscape of social pressures that they're using to define themselves. It could have less to do with a lack they're filling, in other words, than a lack created by this idealized lifestyle they're constantly consuming.

This is a long and rambling post, I know. I do think it's relevant to tattoos, and other people's reactions to tattoos, though; I think there's something very interesting about imposing permanent images on one's self, and folding them into your self-image, regardless of whether they have deliberate meaning or not. Inevitably they'll commemorate something, even if that isn't why they were gotten; even if that something is just the moment in time at which they were tattooed, and even if that moment in time wasn't special for any reason other than that the tattoo was being done. And that act -- commemoration, deliberate or otherwise -- is definitely a thing. The word itself revolves around memory, after all, and memory is the essential thing from which we construct identity. The tattoo is permanent, the memory consequently more likely to stick around, and I suppose that could matter, even if we never intended it to.

Speaking generally, people tend to view permanent things with some wariness. I think they do that for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons may be that it affixes them to some identity or other. People are prone to being heavily influenced by the social opinions and trends of others, obviously, and I think people don't like the idea of being trapped by any given identity. It makes them nervous. It feels final, and that finality is not conducive to adapting to the social fabric that surrounds us. I can understand why someone might look at a tattoo and be bewildered by the choice to mark one's self in a way that makes being a social chameleon less easy to do. They probably find that viscerally strange, even setting aside the social implications from earlier decades.

...which makes it interesting, to me, that so many people embrace deliberately changing themselves in such a permanent way. I can't think of many other ways that a person can change themselves with such permanent intention. You can make lifestyle changes, sure, but they're usually internal...certainly not so publicly observable.

Don't get me wrong, here...I'm not suggesting that tattoos necessarily change anything about the tattooed individual, or that the choice to be tattooed necessarily indicates anything deeper than the desire to just get a really awesome tattoo. I just think it probably can, given what we know about how human beings create their sense of self, and I find it really fascinating to think about what a unique relationship tattoos could have with the way our own subconscious forms our narrative of identity. I think there's probably something special about the mental attitude of anyone who can fearlessly embrace a permanent change to their self image as it's perceived by others.

That all being wordily said, I think it's pretty dumb to try to psychoanalyze anyone based on the actual tattoos they have. These are interesting concepts in theory, but people are just so different...I don't know that I'd ever be comfortable making assumptions about this kind of thing with anyone, ever.

Anywho. Long-winded insomnia blabbering over!

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Wow! This is a really thought provoking thread.

I am a millennial, but I oftentimes feel isolated from the world based on all these articles describing my generating as Manhattan posh phone addicted job deserters. I don't have a smart phone or computer (a tablet, though, somewhere in the middle) and I feel a lot of strong ties to my community. I don't feel quite as isolated about this article, though. The majority of my tattoos, when I got them, I just thought "this would be cool/look good fit a theme/help me practice a new technique, but looking at them now are obvious manifestations of whatever my current situation was i.e.: king rat on my elbow after making it through a very difficult time, a comic book character shortly after finishing my degree in comics, a mom tattoo after feeling isolated from family.....

I think in a way tattoos can be meditations on your fucks.

Sort of like in the article, if you give a ton of fucks about how others see you, you would probably get that feather to tell people how super sweet and free spirited your fucks are.

if you give fucks about super dope tattoos your tattoos are probably going to be a direct manifestation to that.

If you give no fucks about anything, you just might have your buddy tattoo you on a kitchen table an image a parachuting donut landing on your penis. Cuz your homeless and why not.

It's all about the fucks. And how many fucks you give, in my humble opinion, is your identity.

Where you choose to give them, and how often.

Scientific conclusion: millenials are expressing their identity through tattoos; this relationship can be expressed quantitatively and qualitatively through the following ratio: z:x(y)=identity:fucks(tattoos)

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