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The Psychology of Tattoos and Piercing

A woman showing images tattooed or painted on her upper body, 1907.

A psychologist would tell us that of the four basic human needs are a need for love, a need for security, a need for recognition and a need for adventure. The need for recognition over the past centuries was satisfied with accomplishing feats of strength, appropriate competitiveness and combining the need for recognition with the need for adventure.

Both tattooing and body piercing go back centuries, but was not universal. Primitive people, both in ancient and modern times tattoo themselves.  It was seldom if ever seen in more advanced societies, not so much because people didn’t know it existed, but chose not to practice it.

As tattooing exists today, it is very much of an art. The skill and craftsmanship is often outstanding. I suspect, however, that the beauty of it has little or nothing to do with one’s motivation. There has to be a strong psychological need to cause people to want to identify with a group in a search for acceptance and recognition. To tattoo ones self is a serious undertaking. It is not like putting on a costume or a uniform which can be taken off, but a very permanent fixture that will remain with you for the rest of your life. Doctors have not always been successful in removing a tattoo thus restoring the body to a default state.

Our concern is to view the subject as it pertains to the 21st century. Present day psychological needs only borrow from a procedure which existed in the past and from many global locations. The reason for tattooing today has little if anything to do with the reasons for its existence over the centuries.

When tattooing and body piercing was introduced to Europe, there was no strong feeling one way or another. The early Christian missionaries in China, in an attempt to identify with the people they were trying to convert, tended to copy many of their customs, including being tattooed.

Some of the Christian groups followed the Hebrew belief that man should not alter that which God had created.

The Mormon Church leaders take a strong view in opposition as do the followers of Islam. Today, some tattoo websites offer pagan images thus giving us our first modern day look at motivation. It can be a means to cry out against organized religions.

Often today, it is seen as a vogue, a way to show that you are part of an “in” group, a desire to show that you are not a social outsider. Like anything else we must study the degree in which it is practiced. Traditionally, sailors of the world, including that king of Norway, had tattoos. It was not unlike a fraternity ring, a symbol of unity. Even this aspect today is not all that much related to this type of motivation, but now a psychologically pathological manifestation.

Taken to extreme, as is often seen today, strongly suggests a more profound set of psychological circumstances. If your self image is so poor, if your need for recognition, your overall feeling of insecurity is so pronounced, you will go to this extreme to address it. You may not know it, but you are telling the world things about yourself that you in reality would not like having known. On the one hand you want to stand out as being “cool”, being in your mind positively different, but in reality you are sending a message of your very pronounced weaknesses. Anyone, therefore who wants to emulate you by having tattoos, is using you to show them a way to deal with their own inadequacies.

Psychologists believe that some types of body piercing boarder on a masochistic type of personality. There can be a difference between having a small gold stud or a diamond placed in your nose and the involvement of your genitalia. Although earrings are ancient and associated with many cultures, this has, up until now been placed in the different category. Now, with often many piercings thus enabling a large number of objects to be attached to the ears, this is typical of modern times and the psychological ramifications. At least to date, we have not emulated some primitive tribes with a bone inserted into the nose.

There is today what is known as “jail house tattoos”. There are many factors associated with this procedure. Because they are crude in every sense of the word, they can be painful thus communicating that you’re brave and powerful.

More often than not, they have cryptic messages, they can identify you with a particular group thus indicating that you are conforming to a particular code. More than anything else it communicates that you are no longer a person in your own right but a part of a larger and more powerful group. Just as was the case in the German camps, tattooing was instituted by force.
It is not the task of psychologists to sit in judgment, but to point out and reflect on many facets of human behavior. If you want to have tattoos or body piercing, it might be a good suggestion that you ask yourself “why?” What psychological needs do I have or characteristics that could in fact be addressed in other ways?

Sometimes, tattooing is a permanent procedure which might actually be addressing a temporary set of conditions. Many times, certain types of body piercing can be easily reversible, but seldom a tattoo.

Our lives and our circumstances are constantly changing. What may be a present day condition, could be one that no longer will exist in the future. A tattoo which says “John loves Mary” may not have meaning any more when John now loves Betty.

These are factors that need to be considered before this and any other actions are taken to alter that which we once were.

About Alfred Jones

Alfred Jones has a Ph.D in psychology, advance studies in law and education. He is an Egyptian scholar having taught in the UK, USA and China. He is a former consultant to the San Jose California Egyptian Museum. Author of 7 books and over 20 articles for professional journals.