“When I first told people back in 2016 that I was getting my first tattoo, the most common response I got from those who were already inked themselves was ‘You’re going to get addicted to getting tattoos’. I found this notion a little ridiculous – I was nervous enough just getting a small one on my ankle. I couldn’t imagine getting hooked on something that was not only expensive, but painful and permanent. Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve since gotten two more tattoos, each one progressively larger and more detailed, and I’m already planning my fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. As I was warned, I have indeed gotten hooked. For me, it’s both because I love how it makes me feel about my body, and because I’ve gotten to discover a new form of expression in my mid-30s. According to a 2018 report from Statista, roughly 46 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and 30 percent of these people have two or three –19 percent have up to four or five. Clearly, other people love getting inked just as much as I do. But while tattoos can be fun to have, are they actually addictive?
This opening quote is by Amy Semigran, a journalist who interviewed me earlier this year for an article she was writing on addictions to tattoos for the online magazine Mic (‘Are tattoos really addictive? There’s a reason you keep coming back for more’). Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I’ve written various articles on the psychology of tattoos over the years including articles on stigmatophilia (sexual arousal from a partner who is marked or scarred in some way, which can also include body tattoos), the use of extreme tattooing in films, a look at the TV programme ‘My Tattoo Addiction’, and an article on whether having tattoos makes women more sexually attractive.
In my interview, I told Semigran that in order for a person’s behaviour to be deemed an addiction, it needs to meet my six specific criteria: salience (where tattooing becomes the most important thing in a person’s life), mood modification (e.g., the euphoric feelings that accompany tattooing), tolerance (the gradual build-up of tattooing with the individual spending more and more time engaged in tattooing), withdrawal symptoms (negative psychological and/or physical consequences as a result of not being able to get tattooed such as extreme moodiness or irritability), conflict (tattooing compromising other areas of the individual’s life such as personal relationships and education/occupation), and relapse (returning to tattooing after a period of abstinence). Therefore, I told Semigran that tattooing does not meet my criteria for addiction. I also added that while many behaviours can become impulsive, addiction relies on constant rewards or reinforcement. Alcoholics, gambling addicts, or drug addicts feed their habits with frequent rewarding experiences (at least in the short-term) but even the most heavily tattooed people are not engaging in the behaviour regularly.
However, it is feasible that tattooing could be a behaviour that results in constant preoccupation (e.g., constantly thinking about getting the next tattoo, looking at tattoo designs, reading tattooing magazines, talking with other heavily tattooed individuals and sharing experiences, working as a tattooist, etc.). However, constantly being preoccupied by tattooing is (in itself) not a problem, unless of course it starts to cause serious conflict with other day-to-day activities. Semigran also interviewed Dr. Daniel Selling (a psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group in New York) for her article. He was quoted as saying:
“The word addiction in the context of tattoos is misused…while you can’t have a tattoo addiction, per se, it can be a dependence where you feel some elements of need and withdrawal…and perhaps spend too much time or money getting work…Being tattooed can also lead to an adrenaline rush of sorts. It’s the body tolerating annoyance and pain coupled with excitement and change”.
I agree that some people can spend too much time or money or spend money they don’t have on getting tattoos, but this is not addiction (and I would also argue that it is not dependence either). For many people, getting tattoos might be more of a passion than a problem, and there is nothing wrong with being passionate about what you do. I am passionate about work and some people describe me as being addicted to work or of being a ‘workaholic’ but given there are almost no negative consequences of me working hard and loving my job, it certainly can’t be viewed as an addiction.
As Semigran pointed out in her article, for many people, their passion and interest in tattooing is something that enhances their lives rather than interferes with it (this is exactly the same as my assertion – published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Substance Use) that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it. Semigran interviewed Lisa Orth, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Lisa Orth who has around 100 tattoos). She said:
“It’s an incredible feeling to be able to permanently customize yourself with artwork. [The] feeling of self-expression can be an empowering experience…It’s one of the main reasons [my] clients come back again and again. Tattooing can be a way of engaging with, and taking possession of, one’s body in an active way…[It] can allow people to define themselves visually in a way that forces the observer to see a person as they most authentically see themselves. That’s a big draw (so to speak) for those who repeatedly get inked…Getting tattooed is one of the remaining rituals in our culture that are physical, mental and emotional challenges, where you come out transformed on the other side”.
Again, this explanation has nothing to do with addiction and everything to do with self-identity and passion. Many addiction psychologists, would also add that if he behaviour causes harm or injury to the individual, it may also be a sign or symptom of possible addiction. However, Semigran quoted American psychologist, Dr. Tracy Alderman from an article she wrote for Psychology Today examining the extent to which tattooing and body piercings can be classed as self-harm.
“[E]njoying a rush is different than participating in self-harm. Since tattooing is a needle penetrating skin, that can potentially feed someone’s desire to feel pain or change their appearance due to unhappiness with themselves…Once in a while there will be cases in which piercing and/or tattoos do fit the definition of self-injury. But overwhelmingly,self-injury is a distinct behavior, in definition, method and purpose, from tattooing and piercing”.
I read Dr. Alderman’s article and her views mirror my own when it comes to the psychology of tattooing:
“[A] main issue separating self-injurious acts from tattoos and piercings is that of pride. Most people who get tattooed and/or pierced are proud of their new decorations. They want to show others their ink, their studs, their plugs. They want to tell the story of the pain, the fear, the experience. In contrast, those who hurt themselves generally don’t tell anyone about it. Self-injurers go to great lengths to cover and disguise their wounds and scars. Self-injurers are not proud of their new decorations”.
Semigran also quoted Dr. Suzanne Phillips who recently wrote an article for PsychCentral entitled ‘Tattoos after trauma-do they have healing potential’. Dr. Phillips notes:
“[A tattoo being used] to register a traumatic event is a powerful re-doing…It starts at the body’s barrier of protection, the skin, and uses it as a canvas to bear witness, express, release and unlock the viscerally felt impact of trauma”.
There’s no doubt that tattooing has become part of mainstream culture over the past two decades and there are a number of scholars who claim in the scientific literature that getting tattoos can be potentially addictive (such as Dr. Ivan Sosin; Dr. Allyna Murray and Dr. Tanya Tompkins; see ‘Further Reading’ below) but based on my own addiction criteria I remain to be convinced. However, whenever I think about the psychology of tattooing, I am always reminded of the saying: “Tattoos are like potato chips … you can’t have just one”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alderman, T. (2009). Tattoos and piercings: Self-injury? Psychology Today, December 10. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/the-scarred-soul/200912/tattoos-and-piercings-self-injury?amp
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Kovacsik, R., Griffiths, M.D., Pontes, H., Soós, I., de la Vega, R., Ruíz-Barquín, R., Demetrovics, Z., & Szabo, A. (2019). The role of passion in exercise addiction, exercise volume, and exercise intensity in long-term exercisers. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-018-9880-1
Murray, A. M., & Tompkins, T. L. (2013). Tattoos as a behavioral addiction. Science and Social Sciences, Submission 26. Located at: https://digitalcommons.linfield.edu/studsymp_sci/2013/all/26
Phillips, S. (2019). Tattoos after trauma-do they have healing potential? PsychCentral, March 27. Located at: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2012/12/tattoos-after-trauma-do-they-have-healing-potential/
Semigran, A. (2019). Are tattoos really addictive? There’s a reason you keep coming back for more. Mic, July 3. Located at: https://www.mic.com/p/are-tattoos-really-addictive-theres-a-reason-you-keep-coming-back-for-more-18166085
Sosin, I. (2014). EPA-0786-Tattoo as a subculture and new form of substantional addiction: The problem identification. European Psychiatry, 29, Supplement 1, 1.
Szabo, A., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z., de la Vega, R., Ruíz-Barquín, R., Soós, I. &Kovacsik, R. (2019). Obsessive and harmonious passion in physically active Spanish and Hungarian men and women: A brief report on cultural and gender differences. International Journal of Psychology, 54, 598-603.
Although I have already written a few blogs on extreme tattooing (including one on the television show My Tattoo Addiction), I have to admit that I don’t find excessive tattoos attractive in the slightest. I don’t mind one or two discreetly placed tattoos but women that are covered in them are a complete turn off for me. Most scientific studies that I have read on women’s tattoos tend to show that I am in the majority as seeing them negatively. For instance, a 1991 study carried out by Dr. Myrna Armstrong and published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship surveyed 137 career women all of who had tattoos. The authors reported that:
“Strong support for the tattoo was expressed by the significant person in the woman’s life and friends, while mild support was perceived from mothers, siblings and children. Respondents cited a lack of, or negative response from their fathers, physicians, registered nurses and the general public. Misunderstanding of what a tattoo means to the individual and stereotyping of women with tattoos continues”.
Dr. Daina Hawkes and her colleagues examined students’ attitudes towards female tattoos in a 2004 study in the journal Sex Roles. They examined both size and visibility of the tattoo. Among the sample, 23% of females and 12% of males were tattooed. The results showed that both men and women had more negative attitudes toward a woman with a visible tattoo than those without. The authors also reported that:
“The size of the tattoo was a predictor of evaluation only for men and women who did not have tattoos themselves. Finally, participants with more conservative gender attitudes evaluated all women more negatively, beyond the effects already accounted for by gender differences”.
In a 2002 issue of Psychological Reports, Dr. Douglas Degelman and Dr. Nicole Price examined what people thought about a photograph of a 24-year-old woman with a black tattoo of a dragon on her left upper arm compared to the same woman without the tattoo. Participants were asked to rate the woman on 13 different personal characteristics and results showed that the compared to the control photograph, the tattooed female was rated as less athletic, less attractive, less motivated, less honest, less generous, less religious, less intelligent, and less artistic. A similar 2005 study using the same technique – also in the journal Psychological Reports – by Dr. John Seiter and Dr. Sarah Hatch, found that a female model with a tattoo was rated as less competent and less sociable than the control photograph of the same woman without a tattoo.
Using a different methodology, Dr. Viren Swami and Dr. Adrian Furnham published a paper in a 2007 issue of the journal Body Image and asked their students to rate social and physical perceptions of blonde and brunette females with different degrees of tattooing. The students were asked to rate how physical attractive and sexual promiscuous the women were as in addition to estimating of the number of alcohol units consumed by the women on a typical night out. The authors reported that:
“Tattooed women were rated as less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than untattooed women, with more negative ratings with increasing number of tattoos…[Additionally] blonde women in general rated more negatively than brunettes”
This latter study interested Dr. Nicolas Guéguen who has carried out many different studies examining what makes women more attractive. In a 2013 study on the effect that female tattoos have on males published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, he made the following observation about the study by Drs. Swami and Furnham:
“On the one hand, Swami and Furnham’s (2007) results showed that such negative evaluation associated with tattooed women would probably decrease their attractiveness for men. On the other hand, if such women are perceived to be more sexually promiscuous, this could lead men to perceive them as having greater sexual intent. Thus, physical cues that inform them regarding the receptivity of a woman are important. Hence, tattoos could lead male observers to infer that a woman may have greater sexual intent, which, in turn, could lead them to approach such a woman more readily…A survey recently conducted by Guéguen (2012b) showed that tattooed and pierced French women experienced early sexual intercourse. However, the study did not show whether early sexual intercourse can be explained by the fact that women reported interest in both sex and tattoos and piercings or whether women wearing tattoos and piercings experienced more sexual solicitations from men, which, in turn, increased the probability to have sex earlier. Thus, one way of evaluating the mechanism associated with this relation is to test whether men’s behavior changes depending on the presence or absence of a tattoo on a woman’s body”.
As a consequence of these studies and observations, Dr. Guéguen carried out an interesting experimental field study on a French beach and predicted that women with tattoos would be more likely to be approached on the beach by men. To do this, Guéguen placed a temporary tattoo on a woman’s lower back (or not in the control condition), and all the women were asked to read a book while lying flat on their stomach on the beach. Guéguen carried out two experiments and reported:
“The first experiment showed that more men (N = 220) approached the tattooed [women] and that the mean latency of their approach was quicker. A second experiment showed that men (N = 440) estimated to have more chances to have a date and to have sex on the first date with tattooed [women]. However, the level of physical attractiveness attributed to the [woman] was not influenced by the tattoo condition”
Despite the significant results, Dr. Guéguen did note that his studies had a number of limitations. Firstly, the women only had one visible tattoo. The study by Swami and Furnham (outlined above) showed that women were rated as increasingly unattractive the more tattoos they had (i.e., attractiveness was negatively correlated with the number of tattoos). Guéguen also noted that the previous experimental studies involving the visible showing of a single tattoo tended to involve the women’s upper arm. Here, the tattoo was on the woman’s lower back which (according to Guéguen) could have made a difference to the men because it “is near the genital area of female bodies”. Dr. Guéguen also went on to note that:
“It would be worth testing whether a tattoo exerts the same sexual attractiveness effect regardless of the body area where it appears. Only one tattoo design was tested in our two experiments, and it would also be worth testing various designs and the height of the surface area occupied by the tattoo. Furthermore, only attractive women confederates participated in these two studies, and researchers might elect to test the effect of tattoos depending on various levels of female attractiveness. Another issue is that the women confederates were not informed about the real objective of the study and previous research on this topic. However, they may have unconsciously behaved differently when wearing a tattoo, which, in turn, influenced the men’s behavior”.
There are clearly many different avenues that research in this area can go. However, this is one area where public perception may significantly change over time (now that tattoos are in the cultural mainstream). Although my own views on tattoos are unlikely to change, that doesn’t mean others won’t.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Armstrong, M.L. (1991). Career-oriented women with tattoos. IMAGE: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 23, 215–230.
Degelman, D., & Price, N.D. (2002). Tattoos and ratings of personal characteristics. Psychological Reports, 90, 507–514.
Gueguen, N. (2012). Tattoos, piercings, and alcohol consumption. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 36, 1253–1256.
Guéguen, N. (2012). Tattoos, piercings, and sexual activity. Social Behavior and Personality, 40, 1543–1547.
Guéguen, N. (2013). Effects of a tattoo on men’s behavior and attitudes towards women: An experimental field study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1517-1524.
Hawkes, D., Seen, C.Y. & Thorn, C. (2004). Factors that influence attitudes toward women with tattoos. Sex Roles, 50, 593–604.
Henss, R. (2000). Waist-to-hip ratio and female attractiveness: Evidence From photographic stimuli and methodological considerations. Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 501–513.
Seiter, J.S. & Hatch, S. (2005). Effect of tattoos on perceptions of credibility and attractiveness. Psychological Reports, 96, 1113–1120.
Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2007). Unattractive, promiscuous, and heavy drinkers: Perceptions of women with tattoos. Body Image, 4, 343–352.
Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have taken a passing interest in body tattoos both in relation to those who are sexually aroused by them (see my previous blog on stigmatophilia) and the representation of tattoos in films. I also have to admit that I’ve been watching the UK Channel 4 television series My Tattoo Addiction (mainly because it had the word ‘addiction’ in the title). Although I aim to look at the issue of ‘tattoo addiction’ in more academic terms in a future blog (so apologies for those of you wanting something empirically-based), but I just wanted to quickly examine whether any of the people featured across the television series could be classed in any way as ‘addicted’ to having tattoos.
Most of the time, the programme simply followed various British people where a story involving a tattoo made good (in this case ‘car crash’) television but had nothing to do with ‘addiction’. For instance, one story involved a trans-gendered individual who had his wife’s name tattooed on his arm but then changed gender so she had it changed into another different tattoo representing a symbolic transformation from man to woman. Another moving case story was of a woman who had a double mastectomy following breast cancer and then had nipples tattooed onto her reconstructed breasts following cosmetic surgery. A regular segment followed the events in one of the many tattoo parlours in Magaluf (in the Spanish island of Majorca) where almost all the people filmed were on ‘18-30’ type holidays. All of these appeared to be completely inebriated and having tattoos they would ultimately regret. Most of the cases featured young men and women having the names of people they had met that night and/or bizarre designs (such as the ‘burger nipple’) tattooed on their buttocks (at least that’s the take home message I took from it).
A number of the cases followed described themselves as having an “obsessive personality” and at least two of the cases were arguably obsessed with fictional literary characters that resulted in lots of tattoos (but I’ll come back to them in a minute). One of the men filmed for the documentary was 34-year old Mark from Buckinghamshire, and described by the programme as a “full blown tattoo addict”. He started off having a sole tattoo done when he was 22 years of age “then two, then three…and now it’s crept up on to [his] head”. Mark’s tattoos included one of the glamour model Jordan (i.e., Katie Price) with the words ‘Rape Me’ written across her chest, another of Audrey Hepburn with a sadomasochistic ball gag in her mouth, and another of a prudish Victorian lady reading a pornographic book about anal sex. When asked the reason for getting such extreme tattoos, Mark simply said he liked “the individuality, the outlet, and the shock factor” of his tattoos. Shocking, arguably. Addicted to tattoos? Not by my criteria.
Arguably one of the most sensational segments of the series was the controversial body art styled by tattooist Woody (who had gained much “notoriety for his challenging artwork”) including a tattoo of Adolf Hitler holding a large piece of paper with the words ‘Gas Bill’ on it. Woody claimed he liked his tattoos to “make statements”. The whole of his chest and stomach was taken up with a single tattoo that simply said “Pure F**king Hate” and his back was taken up with a single tattoo that reads “100% C**T” (without the asterisks – I just thought I’d add those for my readers with a sensitive disposition).
Of all the people featured in the series, two most caught my interest (psychologically), Jay – a 29-year old bodybuilder from Kent, and Kathy – a 52-year old woman from Reading. Jay was first described as having a “secret in his attic”. Since he was a boy, he has been an avid collector of super-hero action figures. His whole attic was full of unopened super-hero action figures (thousands of them it looked to me). His collection obsession was argued by Jay to be no different to someone who collects stamps – “just on a bigger scale”. The programme claimed that his “obsession [was] growing and manifesting itself in a new way” because he was getting his back tattooed with eleven large female super-heroes (the programme showed him having his sixth one done in a marathon 10-hour session). The programme narrator then went on to say that although Jay had only just started getting tattooed, he was already giving as much dedication to his tattoos as he was to his collecting.
Jay claimed that whenever he did anything in life he always ‘gave it his all’ and that his reasons for getting super-hero tattoos ran deeper than most. He has dedicated his whole life “to the pursuit of physical excellence” and in his early twenties competed in the World’s Strongest Man competition. Unfortunately, he had to give it up after a serious heart failure but now devoted to bodybuilding despite being on heart medication for the rest of his life. It appeared to me that Jay was constantly replacing one highly salient activity with another (much like ‘reciprocity’ found in addicts that give up one addiction only to replace it with another).
He was told by a friend to fill his life with “something positive otherwise you’ll self-destruct”. It was during this period that Jay’s interest in super-heroes took on greater significance. It helped him come to terms that he would never reach his dream of becoming the world’s strongest man. I also noticed that around his house there were many items of super-hero memorabilia and accessories along with loads of super-hero DVDs. Jay questioned himself as to whether he has an obsessive or compulsive behaviour. His response was something that I would wholeheartedly agree with given my views on the differences between healthy and addictive behaviour: “As long as the obsession doesn’t ruin my life, why is it such a bad thing? With what I’ve done it’s given me the life I’ve got…it’s the will to do what I do, the best I can”.
Kathy began her story by recounting that in 2010 she had “stumbled across the book that would change her life forever [about a] young and unassuming girl that doesn’t fit in, and comes to the attention of [a] family…it’s just a love story”. The narrator claimed the book “spoke to Kathy in a way she had never experienced before”. The book in question was Twilight (the young adult vampire-romance novel by Stephanie Meyer). She went and got The Twilight Saga DVDs and became “totally hooked”. The books and DVDs weren’t enough and she started getting Twilight characters tattooed on her body to the point where her whole back is now covered in them, along with her arms, legs, and upper chest. Kathy’s husband Colin was “very tolerant” of Kathy’s tattoos and his only stipulation was that he didn’t want her to have any tattoos on her face. The interviewer asked Kathy if she had an “obsession with Twilight” to which she simply replied that she did. While being filmed at a local tattoo convention, Kathy says that:
Every two weeks after pay day she got another tattoo. At the time of the programme she had undergone 91 hours of tattooing and was just about to have another tattoo put on some remaining space on one of her legs. Most of her tattoos were of (or related to) the character Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson). Kathy’s husband Colin was “very tolerant” of Kathy’s tattoos and his only stipulation was that he didn’t want her to have any tattoos on her face. The interviewer asked Kathy if she had an “obsession with Twilight” to which she simply replied that she did. While being filmed at a local tattoo convention, Kathy says that:
“Tattooing is addictive. This is my form of getting my fix. It’s not a bad thing. Obviously there’s a certain amount of pain [but] it’s what I get a buzz off now”.
Although a late starter in the tattoo world, Kathy said she couldn’t now imagine a life without tattoos and that without them her life would be “very boring” and that she wouldn’t be the person she now is. However, she admitted the tattoos had caused family conflicts. She hadn’t spoken with her brother in five years because he was too embarrassed by her tattoos, and her father refuses to be seen with her in public. Her sisters were more supportive and noticed that the tattoos had brought Kathy “out of her shell”. The tattoos had apparently turned Kathy from a “wallflower” into someone quite extrovert.
I was interested in how she came to tattoing so late in her life. Kathy revealed that became very depressed after the death of her 63-year old mother in 1999 and it was then that her weight started to balloon through overeating, and she developed a very low self-esteem. She refused to have photographs taken and was “ashamed” of what she looked like. After becoming “hooked” on the first Twilight book, she said it gave her life focus. She had now read it so many times she’s had to buy new copies as well read copies had become dog-eared.
She then bought the music soundtracks and then started exercising to the music. She would even exercise in front of the DVDs for two or three hours at a go. It was then she started losing weight and began getting tattoos. She said that the tattoos gave her focus and was a permanent reminder of how she had got her life “back on track” and kept her “feeling young”. The constant new tattoos were “costing [her] a small fortune – just over eight and a half thousand pounds so far”. She then went on to say that in terms of what she has planned in the future, the total cost of the tattooing will be between £17,000 and £25,000. She says it’s keeping her “permanently broke” but despite the cost she’s “not stopping”.
Based on the information in the documentary, both Jay and Kathy appeared to display elements of addictive and obsessive behaviour. However, I would argue that the addictive elements are more to do with something external to the tattoos (i.e., super-heroes and bodybuilding for Jay, and the Twilight story for Kathy) rather than the tattoos themselves (even though Kathy said that the act of getting tattoos was a buzz and addictive). There appeared to be some conflicts in both of their lives (health, financial, and/or family conflicts) although none that suggested that either were truly addicted to anything (tattoos or otherwise). For both of them, the behaviour they engaged appeared to make them feel better about themselves rather than being something negatively detrimental. As I have said time and time again, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from them.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Duggal, H.S. & Fisher, B. (2002). Repetitive tattooing in borderline personality and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 190–192.
Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23, 27-57.
Raspa, R.F. & Cusack, J. (1990) Psychiatric implications of tattoos. American Family Physician, 41,1481-1486.
Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J. & Kappeler, P.M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image, 4, 87-95.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t mind a bit of ‘pop psychology’ every now and again (and have even wrote articles defending it – see ‘further reading’ section below). I’m also someone who believes that art not only imitates life, but life can sometimes imitate art. This has led me to write academic articles on films (such as The Gambler) to see what extent the film represents the reality of psychological conditions. I’m also someone who uses film clips as teaching aids as sometimes film or a two-minute film clip says more than any academic paper about a particular psychological concept. (For instance, I think the film 12 Angry Men probably says more about the psychology of minority influence than any paper I’ve read on the topic). All this preamble is by way of saying there’s not a lot of academic research in this blog, and is one of the few times I will just write about whatever is on my mind.
Anyway, I was travelling back from a work trip to South Korea recently and caught up with a lot of films that I had been meaning to watch for some time. I watched four particular films on one plane flight – Eastern Promises, (released in 2007), Tattoo (2002), Red Dragon (2002), and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) – where (quite by coincidence) tattoos were a fundamental part of three of the four story lines (perhaps somewhat ironically, the plot of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has little to do with tattoos). Soon after after I got back from my South East Asia trip, Channel 4 then screened a television documentary called My Tattoo Addiction. This got me thinking about how tattoos have become part of the mainstream and how for some people it borders on the obsessive. In a previous blog I briefly looked at the sexually paraphilic side of tattoos when I wrote about stigmatophilia (i.e., individuals being sexually aroused by scarring but now seems to include those who are sexually aroused by tattoos and piercings). However, today’s blog takes a brief look at the non-sexually obsessive elements of tattoos.
In the film Eastern Promises (directed by one of my favourite directors David Cronenberg), the actor Viggo Mortensen plays the character Nikolai Luzhin who is the driver of a man who used to be of high standing in the Russian mafia. I’m not going to reveal any of the story line but all the tattoos in the film tell the life stories of incarcerated Russian criminals who typically have dozens of tattoos all over their bodies. Here, the constant adding of tattoos is part of the subculture and has a purpose that has nothing to do with style or fashion, and is more to do with life history and psychological identity.
To acclimatize to his role, Mortensen researched and studied Russian gangsters (called the ‘vory’) and their tattoos. More specifically, he worked with Dr Gilly McKenzie (a Russian Mafia/organized crime specialist who worked for the United Nations) and watched relevant documentaries like The Mark of Cain that contains an in-depth examination of Russian criminal tattoos. For instance, in researching this blog I have since learned that among Russian prisoners (i) an upwards-facing spider tattoo refers to an active criminal, (ii) a pair of eyes on the underside of the abdomen refers to the person being homosexual, and (iii) a skull inside a square (as a finger ring) refers to a robbery conviction. Mortensen’s tattoos were incredibly realistic (so much so that when making the film, he had dinner in a Russian restaurant in London and the other diners stopped talking out of fear!). Mortensen also admitted that:
“I talked to [real Russian gangsters] about what [the tattoos] meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they’d been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were. Basically their history, their calling card, is their body.”
Given the title of the film, it’s not surprising that the film Tattoo (directed by German film director Robert Schwentke) features tattoos as fundamental to the story plot. The main underlying story involves a serial killer who is obsessively murdering people for their tattoos (i.e., the body tattoos are viewed as a work of art by thekiller). The subject of killing people for their tattoos has been covered in other stories (most notably by Roald Dahl in his short story Skin) but the film is very good and unlike Eastern Promises where the seemingly obsessive motivation for the tattoos is a statement about life history and belonging to their cultural group (the vory), in this film the people who have all over body tattoos are a walking piece of art and the obsession is with the unseen protagonist.
I ought to mention there is another (1981) film called Tattoo (directed by Bob Brooks) that is about tattoo obsession. In this earlier film, Bruce Dern plays the character Karl Kinsky, a mentally unstable tattoo artist who makes his living by creating temporary tattoos for models. Kinsky becomes obsessed with a model (Maddy), kidnaps her, and forces her to wear ‘his mark’ (i.e., a full body tattoo). He keeps her captive as he creates his masterpiece on her body. The strapline on all the film posters says it all: “Every great love leaves its mark”.
In the film Red Dragon, (based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name), one of the film’s main characters (Francis Dolarhyde) has a huge tattoo of (surprise, surprise) a red dragon on his back because of his extreme obsession with William Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and what he feel it represents. The tattoo covered all of Dolarhyde’s back, and extended onto his upper arms and down onto his buttocks and legs (although this doesn’t win the prize for the most tattooed man in a film – that surely must be ‘Carl’ played by Rod Steiger in the 1969 film The Illustrated Man).
What I find fascinating about all these films is the different ways that psychological obsessions can manifest themselves, and how the stories involving tattoos are totally believable because tattoos have become so much part of Westernized culture over the last decade. Not only that but tattoos have become ‘normalized’ and call into question academic research into excessive tattooing. For instance, I recently read a 2002 case report by Dr. Harpreet Duggal on repetitive tattooing as an obsessive-compulsive disorder that talked about excessive tattoos being linked to those with an anti-social personality disorder and being a “self-mutilatory behaviour”. Their report (which was only written a decade ago):
“Tattooing has been viewed as an act of self-mutilation (Raspa & Cusack, 1990), the latter being a characteristic of borderline personality disorder. The noteworthy aspect of this case is that tattooing initially represented an act of self-mutilation in consonance with the underlying personality disorder. However, later it became repetitive and had a ‘compulsive’ quality to it, though not a true compulsion by definition. There are rare reports of self-mutilation taking on a compulsive pattern but this mostly occurs with cutting and burning acts”.
This leaves me wondering how heavily tattooed celebrities like David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Robbie Williams, and Angelina Jolie would feel if they read how their behaviour might be pathologized by psychologists and psychiatrists alike?
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Duggal, H.S. & Fisher, B. (2002). Repetitive tattooing in borderline personality and obsessive- compulsive disorder. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 190–192.
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Raspa, R.F. & Cusack, J. (1990) Psychiatric implications of tattoos. American Family Physician, 41,1481-1486.