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Tattooing: Is it art or is it a deviant act Tattoo is becoming a popular and trendy practice in our society nowadays. Not only the teenagers, more professionals i.e. doctors and managers also tattoo. To look back on the history and development of tattooing over the past centuries, the meaning of and reasons for tattooing have been continuous changing as well as the people’s attitude toward it. Some argues that tattooing is a sign of beauty while there are many people against it due to its irrationality. Thus, it is a debatable topic of defining tattooing is art or deviant act indeed. If tattooing is art, should people appreciate this act and encourage it? However, if it is a deviant act, does it mean our society is in danger when there is the growing number of tattooees?

This social issue is closely related to our daily life. In this paper, it is going to analyze the nature of tattooing by the aid of the research of tattoo-related websites and figures as well as interviews of the people who like tattooing, also, it will argue to what extend tattooing is being deviant act in our society in regards to two sociological perspectives: functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives.

Tattooing means inserting some colored material or ink into the top layer of skin. It originated in some tribes in which people want to disguise themselves when hunting. The time passed, some tribes would use tattoo to record and pass on their cultures. Years later, some people have been using tattoo as the identification of a particular party or belief such as in a same religious group to express their loyalty. As tattoos were essentially permanent markings, people started to use it to distinguish criminals. Since then, tattooing is being linked to negative, evil and some may even viewed it as a deviant act. 1

Deviance, to a large extend, is a behavior that violates the norms or rules of a particular society while norms are rules of behavior which telling what people should act or should not act under some situations. Norms are varied across culture and over time, people can learn them through socialization and be aware the norm with the aid by agencies of socialization i.e. family, schools and media etc. Therefore, for the case of tattooing, a significant number of people have the collective conscience that tattoo is not accepted in a society. Then this act will be considered as the deviance.

As the society changed, however, tattooing is a fashion and some may praise it as the art today. One of the tattoo websites has been linked to different websites which are related to art and culture. For example, it links to the website of Hong Kong Arts Centre. Through the connection between these two websites, it intimates a message that tattoo could be considered as art. They are certainly related. Then the more audiences get this message via the internet, the more people who believe tattoo is not a big deal and view it as a form of art to express their ideas only.

However, at the same time, it is interesting that this website as well as another tattoo website is linked to other body piercing WebPages. This is not a special case. Many introduced tattoo have the similar phenomenon. Frankly, tattooists claimed in these hyperlinks that body piercing is also a form of body art same as tattooing. When clicking into the body piercing websites, it is awful that the people are seemed to damage their bodies but not representing their beauty. It is hardly to be acceptable in our mainstream society. When the body piercing websites linked to the tattoo websites, their relationship may call in question: is tattooing a deviant act that is problematic and unacceptable so it should be prohibited? 2

On the other hand, it seems that more people accept and even embrace the art of tattooing. Teenagers admitted in interviews without concealment that they have tattoo on their bodies. “I think for most teens, it's because they want attention or to fit in with their other friends who already have them, or just to look cool… Sure, I think it’s really cool,” Lin said, 19, a proud owner of two tattoos. She got both tattoos when she was 15 years old. Indeed, people have tattoos done for lots of different reasons. Some may due to the social and cultural reason that the religion and traditional customs have to tattoo for representing their loyalty. Most of the reasons for tattooing, however, are personal. Apart from memorial, people mainly influence by the peers to tattoo for identification or a type of ideas expression.

Durkheim had suggested that our society is a complex system that composes of interrelated and interdependent parts together to produce stability and solidarity. When there are the rapid social changes, it may destroy the traditional solidarity which weakened the collective conscience. This leads to the dysfunctional state of anomie. In such a situation, society no longer offers a clear standard to guide our behavior, therefore deviance increases naturally.

As in today’s society, people pursue the fairness and human right. People have more choices to express their own ideas or their identifications. However, there are still some restrictions such as the norms and the law to control people. Then people may in an anomie status. Some would choose tattooing to express their own ideas because they claimed that it is mainly because of its uniqueness. They can do the thing that human is difficult to tolerate while can symbolize the individuality of a person. “A tattoo is there forever. That means you can have something different forever from the other…,” Amon reckoned. In fact, tattooees want to stand out of the society while getting the identification from the others by their own choices.


By the perspective of functionalism, in addition, tattooing should exist in our society. Durkheim argued in Anomie Theory that deviance is necessary for society because it can fulfill two critical functions: boundary maintenance and adaptive function. Firstly, deviance has a boundary maintenance function which can reinforce sense of moral superiority and maintain solidarity. The second one is adaptive function. It introduces social and cultural changes by challenging collective conscience and adding some new ideas. Like tattooing, it allows people to rethink our norms. Some even started to argue tattooing is acceptable and appropriated. It should be considered as an art work which needs huge demand of craftsmanship rather then a deviant act.

Briefly speaking, Durkheim Functionalism tends to attribute purposes and needs to society itself. For example, the function of tattoo is to allow us rethink the weakness of norms. This shows that his analysis is too ideological. He has raised the function of deviance but there is not an adequate explanation of the existence of deviance i.e. tattooing. Besides, Durkheim always puts emphasis on the connections between conformity and deviance in various social contexts. However, tattoo, in a large extend, is not to serve for the social cohesion. People tattoo mainly because of their personal reasons. Functionalism cannot clear account for it in terms of intended consequences and just imputes the problem to the social life. .

On the other hand, in the modern society, although people who are participating in tattooing are still in a minority group, the interviewees showed that they do not concern the other’s opinions “I know that people may have misunderstanding on my behavior and personality but it is something that I can expect. They just don’t understand me,” Amon said, 23, an art student who are addicted to tattooing. The bad comments do not impact their own ideas and attitudes toward tattooing because they believe that it is a personal and private act. They insist that they do not have to get the endorsement from the others.


However it has certainly proved that people who tattoo would receive the negative sanction from the public. Frankly, the negative sanctions are served to punish and prevent the deviance. It could be formal or informal. Not only has the sanction from the society, the family and peers also had similar reactions toward tattooing. For instance, some parents feel shocking and unacceptable about their teens’ body art. “My mom doesn't like tattoos and piercings and I'm pretty sure she would prefer I didn't have them at all,” Lin said. The interaction between the tattooees and their parents can indicate tattooing is a deviant behavior.

By the perspective of symbolic interactionist, they believe that norm and deviance are subjected to negotiation instead of fixed. Since deviance is a socially constructed phenomenon, Becker believes that there are the dominant social group make the rules and apply them to the particular people and label them as “outsiders”. The act only becomes deviant when others perceive and define it as such.

Thus, labeling not only affects how others see an individual, Edwin Lemert argued in Label Theory that labeling influences the individual’s sense of self. For the primary deviants who may act in original reasons such as biological and psychological factors, generate the negative reaction from others. Then these reactions transform negative definition of the act to be the definition of the person. Deviants start to amend their self-concepts to incorporate the label. Finally, persons who take on deviant self-images as secondary deviants and commit other deviant acts that fit the labels what we called deviancy amplification. Thus, the deviant behaviour no longer generated by the original factors but generated directly by person’s self-image.

Honestly, a lot of discrimination against the tattooees. It is known that tattoo marked on the skin may only affect the appearance of a person but should not have any impact on the job performance. However, 5

employers still prefer employ the non-tattoo one. Since there are still many people believe that tattooing is unacceptable and inappropriate, the tattooees may even be discredited just due to a little mark on their skin. However, once the tattooing is labeled as the deviant act, the one who has tattoo will also be labeled accordingly. Therefore, it is unavoidable to be discriminated by the others.

Besides, the tattoo one always is being linked to be some sub-culture groups, for example, the gang and puck. Goode (2005, p.334) also stated that “tattooing is deviant not only for its direct symbolic meaning; it is also deviant because people who wear a tattoo tend to be symbolically connected with deviant groups and categories. When a teen girl wears a tattoo on her arm, people would scare her without asking her intentions of tattooing. Her parents may even worry that she has met some bad friends or she has become a member of the triad society. Later on, more people will label that she is a deviant. According to the labeling theory, there is a high possibility that the girl believes she is deviant and act other behavior to suit this label.

Like the interviewee, Lin. She showed her ignorance to her mother which strengthens the image of rebellion. Besides, she seemed to neglect the negative opinion from the others. She often just spends her time on playing with her friends who addicted to alcohol and smoking. Invisibly, Lin has integrated into a sub-culture group. Hence, people who has tattoo may also be considered as a member of a sub-culture group.

To conclude, after summarizing the data from interviews and research, people who love tattoo are considered tattooing as the art in regards to its presentation of beauty. On the other hand, by two mentioned sociological perspectives, functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives, tattooing is 6

being deviant act in our society. To a large extend, what is deviant is most definitely relative to the audience making judgments about the behavior. The symbolic interactionist perspective can be clearer to explain how tattooees being labeled as deviant. Therefore it is more convincing that tattooing is a deviant act because of the deviance label.


Bibliography Downes, D & Rock, P 2003, Understanding deviance: a guide to the sociology of crime and rule-breaking, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, NY Giddens, A 2009, Sociology, 6th edn, Oxford : Polity Press Goode E 2005, Deviant behavior, 7th edn, Prentice Hall, NJ Lai, Wan Wa Veronica. “Deviance and Social Control.� University of Hong Kong School of Professional and Continuing Education Community College, Introduction to Sociology. Hong Kong. 15 Oct. 2009. Lindsey, L & Beach, S 2002, Sociology, 2nd edn, Prentice Hall, NJ Marson, P 2004, Tattooing, Oxford : Heinemann Library, UK Rubington, E & Weinberg M.S. 2005, Deviance: the interactionist perspective. Pearson, Boston Reference of websites Female Chinese tattooist, browsed on 3 November 2009. Jimmy Ho Tattoo: browsed on 7 December 2009 Tattoo: browsed on 3 November 2009


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