Tattoos have long since become commonplace in the United States: Forty percent of households now include someone with one, according to a recent survey, up from 21 percent in 1999. Apart from their fashionability, does this tell us anything about America?
Consider what we know about people who get tattoos: They're not evenly distributed across the population, but tend to be found in families with relatively less education. Fifty percent of people with a high school diploma or less live in the same household with a tattooed person (or have one themselves), compared with 22 percent of those who have attended graduate school. A more detailed survey from 2004 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found similar results: Forty percent of those without a high school diploma had a tattoo, while just 14 percent of people with a college or graduate degree did. (The numbers are lower because this study examined individuals, rather than households, and because it was done 10 years ago.)
The 2004 survey also showed that tattoos were much more likely to be found among younger adults and among people with three or more days of jail time, with military service, or with any experience with recreational drugs. In general, these findings fit the expected pattern — that tattoos are most popular with people who are less educated and who engage in riskier behavior.
But do the tattoos in turn affect people's lives and behavior?
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New research suggests that in some ways they don't. Lower earnings among people who have a tattoo is not so much associated with the tattoo itself. The researchers — at the University of Miami, Temple University and the University of California at Berkeley — found that once they adjusted for education and other characteristics that might reduce earnings, the effect of the tattoo became statistically insignificant. In other words, tattooed workers tend to earn less than the average, but they would earn less than the average even without a tattoo.
However, another study found that having a tattoo can make it harder to get a job. These researchers, from Coastal Carolina University, presented 192 restaurant managers with a resume and photograph of a potential worker, and asked whether they would hire the person. In one variant of the photograph, no tattoos were visible. In the other, the person's arms appeared to be covered in them.
The result? Visible tattoos reduced the probability of being hired by 18 percentage points, from 88 percent to 70 percent. The negative effect was more pronounced for female applicants than for male workers.
Other research suggests tattoos inflict harm beyond the labor market — by significantly raising the chances of contracting hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. The injection of color pigments to create a tattoo involves puncturing the skin 80 to 150 times a second. If the instruments are not fully sterilized, infections can be transmitted.
All of which might make you wonder why anyone would get a tattoo. The economist and Freakonomics writer Steve Levitt once noted that because tattoos are costly and hard to undo, they must serve as a signal of something:
The fact that tattoos are (essentially) permanent makes them very powerful signaling devices: the more costly it is to take an action, the more powerful the signal that action carries. … Because tattoos are painful to get and close off some legitimate job-market opportunities, it isn’t hard to see why tattoos serve a purpose for people engaged in activities that make it likely they will eventually end up in prison. Most of the young people getting tattoos, however, aren’t on that path.
Here is my own guess: The rise of tattoos reflects a broader trend of anti-establishmentarianism. Having a tattoo is a permanent symbol of rebellion, signaling that you don’t buy into the norms established by an out-of-touch elite. Any labor-market or health risks involved are easily trumped by the satisfaction of showing that you’re willing to play by a different set of rules. If that's the case, expect tattoos to become even more popular, as long as most Americans' sense of opportunity and upward mobility remains limited.