We all exist in a system of social groups. The profession we choose, the hobbies we partake in, the community in which we live all the way to our national identity. Different social groups have different tolerance or acceptance of tattoos and body modification. Some people who want to get a tattoo may never simply because they have seen what their society does to or thinks of people with tattoos. In extreme cases they become an outcast, stared at, thought less of or labelled a freak just because of the negative tattoo associations some people and social groups have. Obviously people who have tattoos which cannot be seen are more difficult to be judged upon.
In the UK currently the negative tattoo associations can be mainly found in the vague but occasionally still evident class differences. The feeling of tattoos being for the working class can still be found especially in older generations. Other factors effect the reaction which we have to tattoos. A tattoo of a dragon all the way up a mans arm for example (called a ‘sleeve’) would be treated entirely differently if he were wearing a suit than if he were in very baggy jeans and a wife-beater top. In this regard we interpret the tattoo in the context in which it is presented. The negative repercussions of having a tattoo are mainly felt in the professional industries such as banking and law rather than in public situations.
In the United States negative tattoo associations include belonging to biker gangs or criminal street gangs, meaning some Americans with tattoos may be unfairly branded as troublemakers or misfits. This can lead to people with tattoos only associating with other tattooed folk, which perpetuates the negative tattoo associations within society. The old saying that when like mixes with like their communal irrationalities and false beliefs are perpetuated and reinforced can explain this phenomenon.
These associations are not always an issue. In some professions negative tattoo associations are largely ignored or don’t exist, the military and the entertainment industry being two examples. However, in the military tattoos should not be visible when in uniform and many in the entertainment industry also choose to have tattoos in largely non-visible areas. Some odd places for tattoos have been utilised by celebrities recently including the inside of the ear, side of the finger and down the side of the body.
Depending on the level of tattooing and the sensitivity of the people around various levels of reaction can be seen. Sometimes people with tattoos may be avoided in public, even if that individual is successful in his or her career and has a perfectly gentle nature. The negative tattoo associations can be just that strong in certain communities.
In ancient societies, negative tattoo associations were non-existent. They were often the signs of strength, courage and accomplishment. However, the accomplishments commemorated with a tattoo often involved killing someone. This behaviour is now considered negative in our culture which explains the same association between tattoos and violence over time changing into a negative association. There were no anaesthetics in ancient times, so the pain of getting a tattoo was excruciating. Getting a tattoo would indicate that the wearer could tolerate lots of pain. While these connotations were in the past, they may form the basis of negative tattoo associations today.
In our contemporary culture, negative tattoo associations can lead to people feeling pressured to remove them so they can further their career or begin to socialize in new circles. Even modest tattoos of tranquil designs such as a small flower can be a magnet for gossip and derision in certain circumstances. People who get a tattoo may really enjoy the tattoo but then become so worried about what other people will think that they always cover it up. The tattoo, once a source of individuality and pride, can now hold many negative associations when in fact it has no reference to a person or their actions at all.