Recently, I prepared to get myself one final 40th birthday gift: a tattoo. I had never been tattooed before, but I thought I was as ready as I would ever be to get one. My tattooist, a talented artist named Ian, had drawn my tattoo in advance after we had an initial meeting when I had told him my idea, shown him some photographs and put down a (nonrefundable) $100 deposit. But, as I walked into Little Vinnie’s Tattoos in Finksburg to actually get tattooed, I was having second thoughts.
First, I was not entirely certain that the tattoo I had asked Ian to prepare was something that I would want on my body forever. Forever is a long time. I realize this a little more with every year that goes by, and there wouldn’t be a simple means to get rid of it if I woke up one day and decided the tattoo wasn’t for me. Sure, I could get a cover-up tattoo, but that runs the risk of replacing one mistake with another. Or I could get it laser removed, but that would be expensive, especially on top of the price of getting the tattoo in the first place.
Second, and more importantly to me, I was not entirely sure I was a “tattoo person.” Research has shown that tattoos are associated with several personality traits and behaviors that, to be entirely honest, I don’t believe are characteristic of me. For instance, a lot of research shows that people with tattoos tend to be more extroverted (i.e., social and outgoing) than non-tattooed people. But I see myself as a fairly shy person, and it takes a lot of effort for me to be social. I like to stay at home, and if I must go out, I prefer to watch people around me interacting with others than to do it myself.
Another common trait of tattooed people is that they tend to be high in what social scientists call “sensation seeking.” Tattooed people find more enjoyment in things like riding roller coasters, parasailing and cliff diving than non-tattooed people. As for me, I like having my feet firmly on the ground and avoid anything that triggers a “bottom-falling-out” sensation in my stomach.
Finally, there is a robust body of literature that indicates tattooed people are more likely to be socially deviant (i.e., rule- and norm- violators) than those who are not tattooed. Tattooed individuals are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors, use and abuse drugs, and commit crimes and be arrested more frequently than those that are not tattooed. But I am happily married, seldom use any drugs harder than Miller Lite, and rarely break the law beyond the occasional traffic violation. In other words, I tend to be a straight arrow — or a square, depending on your point of view.
I didn’t think that getting a tattoo would change who I am, and I didn’t fear that I would be ostracized or censured because of it (modern society is pretty accepting of most tattoos). But I did think long and hard about what people who did not know me might think I am like when they saw that I was tattooed. Research suggests that this wasn’t an entirely unfounded concern: people make assumptions about what a tattooed person is like, and I feared that by getting tattooed I would be engaging in a type of false advertising. I would be telling people that I was an extroverted, sensation-seeking social deviant, when I am really the opposite of those things.
As Ian dipped the tattoo needles in tiny cups of jet-black ink and began to drag them slowly, inch-by-inch, in deep scratching lines across the skin of my bicep, he must have sensed my second thoughts.
“Just so you know,” he said, “this officially makes you more badass.”
For a minute, I wanted to tell him that he was wrong. That I wasn’t a badass and would never be one. But instead, I kept my mouth shut like the good introvert that I am, and, two hours later, it was all over. As I stood in front of the mirror in Ian’s booth and looked at the now permanent drawing of a chrysanthemum and knife on my upper arm — a reference to a book title — I thought to myself: “Maybe I am more badass.”
D. Ryan Schurtz (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University.