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Tattoos and Criminality – Correlational Behaviour

Tattoos and Criminality

A) Tattoos and Notions of Deviance

Tattoos are body adornments which have been found all over the world with different respective meanings and purposes. They can function as aesthetic, protective, a marker of group membership or part of a ritual (Fisher, 2002). Tattoos have historically been correlated with tribal and primitive people such as the Maoris and Polynesians who were encountered by colonialists. The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Tahitian word tautau and it was brought to the West after James Cook’s eighteenth-century voyage to Polynesia (ibid.). With entirely different and supposedly savage lifestyles, these primitive people were paraded at fairs in the West. In the late nineteenth century, The World Fair took place in the US with a freak show of tribal people doing primitive activities and donning tat-toos. These vast cultural differences reinforced Westerners’ view that they were a more superior and civilised race (DeMello, 2007).

While in the past tattoos were considered tribal, they were also used to signify the stigmatisation of certain deviant or marginal social groups such as convicts. In Ancient Greece and Rome, tattooing was used to mark the bodies of criminals. During the Edo period in Japan, irezumi (traditional tat-toos) were used to permanently label the offender by describing the crime someone had committed. Each region had it’s own version of irezumi — for example in Hiroshima, first-time offenders re-ceived one line etched on their forehead, followed by another for their second offence and a final line for their third crime, which all together created the shape of the word “dog” (Kurihara, 2013). In eighteenth-century France, criminals were inscribed with a letter to denote their crimes — such as V for voleur, meaning thief (Howson, 2013). Cesare Lombroso’s early twentieth-century book Criminal Man suggested that tattoos made a man more deviant and “savage-like” as they are a test-ament to their ability to endure pain (2006). While historically, tattoos were inflicted on prisoners as a means to brand them with their crimes, people now choose to embellish their bodies for various reasons such as resistance, loyalty to a cause or membership of a subculture. Whether through the influence of peers or of their own volition, offenders often self-identify their deviance through their body art. Nowadays, tattoos can symbolise anything from a fashion statement to gang membership to the indelible remnants of a drunken holiday. However, despite the ubiquity of tattoos in contem-porary society, they are still largely seen as a marker of deviance.

Deviance is a twentieth-century sociological concept which identifies the “social behaviours, prac-tices, acts, demeanours, attitudes, beliefs, styles or statuses which are culturally believed to deviate significantly from the norms, ethics, standards and expectations of society” (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2013). In other words, deviance relates to those who disaffiliate from dominant society and this behaviour or action may or may not be penalised or regulated. For Sanders and Vail (2008) — by choosing to be a physical deviant (bearing a tattoo), one risks being seen as socially or morally inferior. Physical characteristics such as tattoos, obesity, and transvestitism are perceived as deviant. However, for Lane (2014), choosing to appear abnormal is not necessarily a stigma — it can also be an act of resistance. Grotesque bodies challenge norms by rejecting for example, the culture of thin-ness or the squeaky-clean unblemished body. However, deviant bodies are subject to constant sus-picion and surveillance from social control agencies as their abnormality is a culturally unaccept-able (McLaughlin and Muncie, 2013).

Deviance Sociologist Angus Vail (2008) gave a personal account of tattoo prejudice when describ-ing security guards’ reactions to his exposed tattoos. During wintertime when he could conceal his body ink, he went largely unnoticed while shopping. However, in summertime when his tattoos are on display, he received negative attention from security personnel (agents of social control). Vail was able to navigate both worlds — as a fully-clothed non-deviant person and as a visibly-tattooed deviant person. This demonstrates the lingering negative stereotypes about inked people. Despite the fact that one-fifth of the British population have tattoos (Henley, 2010), many negative stereo-types about tattooed people remain. Some of these beliefs, however, are not necessarily unfounded. In a study which analysed data from young detainees, Braithwaite et al. (2001) found 28% of the participants had one tattoo, 15% had two or more tattoos and 69% had piercings. Furthermore, links were found between tattooed and pierced detainees and substance abuse. In a more recent study, Guéguen (2012a) examined the correlation between tattoos and risky behaviour — he looked at the links between having a tattoo or piercing and the age at which one became sexually active. From a sample of 2,080 students in France, those who were pierced or tattooed revealed that they had earlier experiences of sexual intercourse. In another study (Guéguen, 2012b), young people leaving a bar were asked to disclose whether or not they had tattoos and piercings, they were also asked to breathe into a breathalyser. The results showed that those with tattoos and piercings had consumed more alcohol.

In reference to deviance, there is a whole spectrum of associations and prejudices associated with tattoos. To the untrained eye, these differences may be imperceivable. A person can be judged as deviant for having a tattoo which was created in prison — or for having any tattoo design at all, re-gardless of the meaning and context in which it was created. Just as there are different types of tat-toos (from the seemingly benign to more aggressive imagery), there are different types of deviance. Lemert (1951) first made the distinction between primary and secondary deviation where primary deviation refers to anything that observers do not approve of but this may not necessarily be crimin-al or penalised. In other words, it has no long-term consequence for the deviant. Secondary devi-ation is a step beyond primary deviation and it involves criminal activity such as assault or murder.

People who display secondary deviance tend to associate with those who have been similarly la-belled, they become ostracised from dominant society and become part of a subculture. According to labelling theory, once a person is given a label as criminal or deviant, he or she is always treated differently from the dominant group and as such, their anti-social behaviour continues (Tannen-baum, 1938). Tattoos can both alienate people from the ‘normal’ population while creating a con-nection between those who have them. In prison, body ink can represent the crimes a person has committed — leading to an offender’s sense of self both in the context of the prison and outside. According to DeMello (1993), criminal status can be visually depicted in the form of a tattooed tear for example, which can denote the amount of prison time served or the number of murders one has committed. Prison tattoos make the body really stand out — particularly if they are on the face or somewhere equally visible (ibid.). This physical deviance communicates to fellow prisoners that they have shared life experiences.

Tattoos are often a self-identification of deviant behaviour — this can be seen in gang membership and among members of non-conformist subcultures. For Sanders (2008, p.30), “tattooing has had a long history of association with socially disvalued groups. The negative social definition of tattoo-ing is, however, largely derived from its voluntary use by members of deviant or marginal groups as a symbolic boundary-maintaining mechanism”. The purpose of such tattoos are to mark affiliation with a certain gang and to assert criminal status, particularly acts which were carried out as part of the gang (such as the amount of murders one has committed). Tattoos can represent a coming of age, which provides a self-inflicted reminder of who we are (Howson, 2013). While many criminals later decide to disaffiliate with their former lifestyles, these tattoos bear witness to their experi-ences.

Tattoos are no longer just for criminals, bikers and gang members — celebrities and everyday people sport tattoos but in general, body ink is still associated with rebellious attitudes (Kosut, 2006). Clothing choices, hairstyles and tattoos can be used to communicate one’s difference from the rest of society. Cohen (2011) coined the term “folk devils” to describe groups that cause fear. Moral panics are reactions of criticism and condemnation that are triggered by people who are defined as deviant (ibid.). Cohen noted that society’s reaction to these subcultures actually causes them to grow. Body-modification deviance is normalised and celebrated at tattoo conventions where people identify as being part of the same group. Sanders (2008, p.53) interviewed tattoo owners and found that they enjoyed seeing fellow tattoo-wearers and sharing the stories behind their art. One interviewee said: “Having a tattoo is like belonging to a club”. While many tattooed individuals are not actually deviant, they do feel a sense of connection and community and often this arises from their difference to “normal” people.

Tattoos and Criminality
Tattoos and Criminality

B) The Longitudinal Nature of Tattooing

Although nowadays there are means to remove tattoos, they tend to be seen as permanent entities. As such, the decision to receive indelible body art is a big one. Tattoos often tell the story of the owner’s life — particularly to mark a meaningful event, the lasting influence of a loved one or a decorative memory of the time the tattoo was made. The body is a canvas for self-expression and a means of communicating one’s identity. Tattooing as a lasting body modification is linked to per-manent statuses such as gender, a coming of age and a life-long affiliation with a subculture or tribe for example (Sanders and Vail, 2008). Despite the common misconception that people rue the day they received tattoos, 86% of inked people in the UK reported that have no regrets about their body ink (YouGov, 2015). People tend to feel attached to their chosen corporeal art as it represents who they are and who they have become over time. Even the experience of embodying a tattoo can rein-force this sense of attachment. Sweetman (1999) suggests that people with tattoos enjoy the reflex-ivity that emerges from the pain, self-care and healing processes associated with tattoos. The pain endured is a testament to the tattoo owner’s commitment to a cause or way of life and it is also a reminder of a certain moment in time. Sanders (2008) notes that a tattoo serves as a physical re-minder of a life event. In various tribes — tattoos and scarification are used to mark significant times such as puberty and rites of passage. Body art can also assert loyalty to a group, person, sub-culture or religion. Michael Atkinson studied 92 Canadian women’s tattooing narratives and found that the permanent nature of tattoos appealed to many women (20% of those he spoke to). One par-ticipant called Zeta said: “If you are really committed to a cause, then you’re prepared to give over your body and mind forever” (Atkinson 2002, p.228).

Zeta’s comment does not account for the fluid nature of identity — there are many cases where people choose to conceal their tattoos or remove them with laser treatments. In Vail’s account of being a tattooed person (2008), he experienced a negative reaction from security guards when he shopped with his tattoos on display. If he chose to temporarily conceal his tattoos, he would go un-noticed. These differing reactions impact one’s sense of self. As Sanders (2008, p.41) put it, “choos-ing to mark one’s body in this way changes the tattooee’s experience of his or her physical self and has significant potential for altering social interaction”. These encounters can be positive or negat-ive depending on the social context and whether or not tattoos are appreciated by a certain group. Identity is not fixed and people undergo many changes throughout a lifetime. While statistically, few people regret their tattoos, some may tire of negative judgements from agents of control and others may no longer identify with their body art. Therefore, the longitudinal nature of a tattoo is not always echoed by the meaning of the symbol itself. A tattooed former partner’s name ironically communicates the ephemeral nature of relationships and the meaning behind a once-loved symbol can change completely. People who want to leave a gang for example may want to remove any connection with their former way of life and their tattoos can be a source of shame and regret. Re-moving or changing the appearance of such tattoos can have a redemptive effect and be part of the process of turning one’s life around. Those who are part of a group or gang where tattoos are celeb-rated feel proud of their body art, whereas those in the social context where tattoos are not accepted tend to have regrets (Armstrong, Murphy, Sallee, & Watson, 2000).

The intended consequence of an imposed tattoo can change too. Tattoos which were used to per-manently mark prisoners with their crimes were intended as both a warning to others and a remind-er of a criminal’s deviant status. Their longitudinal essence was a sort of life sentence in itself. However, in Japan, offenders started to appropriate and embellish their tattoos with ornate designs and they became a source of pride (Lane, 2014). Nazis tattooed Jewish and Roma detainees in con-centration camps with numbers on their forearms. While these tattoos were used to permanently stigmatise and dehumanise those in camps, survivors later displayed them to communicate the atro-cities they endured and witnessed. When one Holocaust survivor was asked why he did not remove his tattoo, he said: “At a distance of forty years, my tattoo has become part of my body. I don’t glory in it, but I am not ashamed of it either […] there are not many of us in the world to bear wit-ness” (Levi 1986, p.105).


C) Criminality and the Iconography of tattoos

The meaning behind tattoos is subjective and varies among different cultures. A symbol which might be embedded with meaning for one person might be completely enigmatic to another. The meaning of a simple image can also be transformed by its indelible placement on the skin. In an-cient India, the swastik symbol represented well-being; however, this design was appropriated as a Nazi Aryan symbol and today, a bearer of a swastika tattoo would be judged as criminal, hateful and deviant. Tattoos have historically been associated with primitive people, criminals and the lower classes. In the late nineteenth century, they did become popular among the upper echelons of soci-ety who chose Japanese designs — to demonstrate their worldliness (Fisher, 2002). Ironically, in Japanese tattoo iconography, some of their most common emblems such as the peony flower for example were associated with the underworld (Goode and Vail, 2008). Regardless of the specific images and symbols, tattoos have generally been associated with deviance.

According to Angel (2015), the study of European tattoo iconography tends to pathologise the tattoo as many of the earlier researchers in this field (such as Lombroso) were criminologists. Whether a criminal was forcibly tattooed or not, researchers such as Lombroso assumed that these bodily im-ages and symbols could be decoded to reveal more about prisoners’ crimes. French criminologist Jean Graven believed that the tattoos of criminals revealed their abnormal psyche — particularly images which communicate rebellion, obscenity, provocation or rebellion (Angel, 2015). In a more recent study, DeMello (1993) examined American prisoners’ tattoos as signifiers of their ethnicity, class and convict status. She identified one of the most popular prison tattoos as the loca, which in-dicates the community where the offender comes from. Prisoners tend to display their ethnic group and gang memberships in their chosen body art. By using established symbols, a tattooed person identifies with a certain group (Fisher, 2002). Communicating their ethnic background and gang affiliations can help prisoner’s receive protection from groups who are already established in the prison population. Prison is an environment where only the fittest survive and it is important for inmates to communicate their status as criminals. An open teardrop represents the mourning of a loved one. A closed teardrop symbol can communicate that the bearer has taken a life but it can also represent a term served in prison. Either way, such tattoos which communicate the criminal’s life experiences can determine their position in the prison hierarchy. Other tattoo designs may illustrate their particular criminal specialisation (such as theft or murder) and their ideologies (being part of the Aryan Brotherhood for example). Apart from symbols and designs, the size and amount of tat-toos a criminal bears asserts that he or she can endure significant pain.

The tattoo is a personal symbol which communicates the psyche of the owner as well as his or her class and sociological background. In prison, the body is not only treated as a canvas to convey criminal achievements but it is also a realm of hopes and dreams. DeMello (1993) found that many prisoners adorned themselves with fantasy images of women and motorbikes. This escapism through body art empowers prisoners and enables them to acquire a new identity. Sanders and Vail (2008) note that the act of tattooing is a functional response to the dehumanising experience of hav-ing one’s identity stripped. An inmate can choose any design and it cannot be taken away by prison guards. Furthermore, prisoners can distance themselves from their crimes by choosing religious tat-toos or designs to celebrate loved ones, as a means of focusing on positive influences and turning their lives around.


D) Reflections on the Module

Before starting this module, I assumed that we would study criminal tattoos and was surprised to discover that we would look at the history and different cultural perspectives behind body art. This expectation actually reflects my own bias about tattoos, which emerges from my Bahraini back-ground. At home, tattoos are definitely perceived as deviant and it is assumed that anyone who has them is from a bad background and probably consumes a lot of alcohol, does drugs or engages in criminal activities. Furthermore, in Bahrain, tattoos are forbidden for religious reasons. It was inter-esting to reflect on the history of tattooing and the various functions it has. I also found it somewhat ironic that in Bahrain, our religion forbids tattoos and we judge inked people as deviant whereas in other cultures, they can represent devotion to god. This just highlighted that we can completely misunderstand and misjudge a person.

In the body and identity lecture, it was interesting to reflect on our prejudice based on not only the presence of a tattoo but the type of tattoo a person chooses. I had rarely examined tattoos before and even though I consider myself to be relatively open-minded, we saw slides of certain tattoos which would make me judge a person negatively. Tattoos on the face for example always look aggressive to me. We discussed whether or not we could distinguish a person’s class based on their tattoos and while interpretations vary depending on the viewer’s own background, it was possible to make cer-tain shared assumptions about tattoo owners. Amateur Indian ink tattoos for example, always seem to show that a person is reckless or does not care about their appearance. Yet it was interesting to think that every tattoo has a story worth telling, regardless of its aesthetic appearance.

In some of our class discussions, I was surprised by the amount of students who had tattoos and the vast array of reasons why one would change their appearance permanently. I was also taken aback by other students’ interpretations of tattoo bearers. Some judged tattooees as eccentric and interest-ing with lots of stories to tell; whereas, I have always associated body art with negative traits. We discovered that tattoos are provocative because they invite people to judge you and I personally would not choose to be judged like that. Discussing ideas about those who have tattoos also made me realise that I don’t have any because I am not affiliated with any particular group and I would prefer to blend in rather than be an outsider. I would prefer to not stand out for any reason and I would not enjoy the negative attention tattoos receive from people (like myself prior to this module) who assume that inked people are deviant. Furthermore, I have lived a relatively sheltered life in a conservative family so it made sense to me to learn that people who engage in risky behaviour are more likely to have tattoos.

The module on deviance and stigma reinforced my beliefs about tattoos and I was not surprised by the studies which revealed that tattooed young people were more likely to drink more and engage in sexual activity at a young age. Apart from that, my attitude towards tattoos has definitely changed since the beginning of this module. For one, my family have always said that a person will one day wish they had not gotten a tattoo — now I have learned that in the UK most people do not regret their body art at all. Due to my upbringing and the cultural beliefs of Bahraini people, I also thought that tattoos were a sign of deviance but now I know that they can express emotions and feelings or be part of a person’s religion and culture. I even have a newfound appreciation for prisoner’s tattoos as every piece of body art reveals the biography of the bearer.

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