Will Permanent Ink Drive Permanent Adolescence?

An eye over the planetThe emergence of a mainstream tattoo culture since the 1990s – one that has gone ballistic in the past decade – raises interesting questions about maturity and changing identity.

Tattoos were originally more about visible membership of a group rather than establishing individual identity. They displayed the subculture to which you belonged. Once they were the province of triads and the Yakuza, bikie gangs and sailors.

A gentle slide into the middleclass counterculture in the 1960s accelerated into Celtic bicep bands and tramp stamps, then exploded into what we see today.

We all try on identities when we are in our teens and twenties. It’s part of maturing, and it’s something people do to different extents. We didn’t all go Flock of Seagulls in 1983, we didn’t all go Goth, and we didn’t all go Grunge in 1993. But most of us embrace one or several fashions, interests or occupations before we settle as individuals.

But unlike hair, clothing or musical styles, the identity represented by a tattoo is constant in the face of its wearer’s changing beliefs, prejudices and peer groups.

What psychological research into personal commitment and consistency would suggest is that faced with the permanence of this image, people are likely to adjust their beliefs to suit their fixed-ink reality.

People have a natural desire to feel they are acting and speaking consistently with their beliefs. Experiments have shown that when people are forced to act in certain ways that are initially inimical to their beliefs, after a certain time their beliefs alter, with no conscious desire to do so, just in order to maintain their constructed view of themselves.

What makes fashionable tattooing interesting is that it is a permanent revelation of a temporary identity.

And that mismatch leads to some interesting speculation. Given that an individual’s social, cultural and political beliefs usually change over time, what effect on that change can we expect from the prevalence of visible tattoos with cultural meaning?

A visible tattoo – not one of those modest rebellions like a rose on a buttock – is a public commitment. At its most pretentious, it is a public commitment to a social, cultural, sexual or political view. At its least it is a public commitment to a passing fashion.

Given people are stuck with those tattooed commitments it would suggest they will stick more firmly with the adolescent or early-adult beliefs behind them.

And it suggests that we may well have an extended generation of petty countercultural rebels hanging on to attitudes their non-tattooed peers will have dropped years before.

Like a 70 year old with Led Zeppelin hair and a leather vest, in forty years will we have a cohort of thousands of tattooed wrinklies permanently committed to the petty transgressions of burlesque, footpath-skating and graffiti?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.