Ever since primitive times, human have adorned themselves with various kinds of body art. While earlier this stood for tribal affiliation or indicated hierarchy in a community, today tattoos are more personalized. They can range from making fashion statements to naming the object of one’s romantic love. And yet not everyone may feel the same way about a partner getting inked. But what is the deal with women particularly, do they like men with tattoos or does all that scrawling on the body turn them off?
Tattoos have long existed as a sign of social status, as a mark of one's passage through life. Evidence of tattoos has been found in places as far-flung as ancient Egypt, Greenland, Siberia, and New Zealand. Tattoos appeared in western popular culture after England's Captain Cook encountered it in the South Pacific in 1769. Naval merchant and sailors soon spread the art to Europe and America and while it was longed looked upon with repulsion in the drawing rooms of genteel society, the association of seamen and tattoos ended up lending the latter an air of rough masculinity. The birthplace of the American style tattoo was Chatham Square in New York City. At the turn of the twentieth century it was a seaport and entertainment center attracting working-class people with money. Samuel O'Riely who patented the first electric tattooing machine came from Boston and set up shop there. While till now tattoos had existed as examples of a rough and ready masculinity, with World War I, the flash art images changed to those of bravery and wartime icons. After the war, tattoo parlors opened in cities with military bases close by, particularly naval bases. Because of this background of naval association, tattoos also came to be seen as travel markers - one could tell where a person had been by their tattoos.
After World War II, the association of tattoos and masculinity took another form by their identification with bikers and particularly sported by Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando – then the epitome of an abrasive but attractive masculinity, the typical bad boy who was nevertheless irresistible to women, particularly to good girls. In an article titled, Muscles, Motorcycles and Tattoos: Gentrification in a new frontier, authors Karen Bettez Halnon and Saundra Cohen 1, mention that tattoos along with muscles and motorcycles, make up “ three important ‘symbolic neighborhoods of lower class masculinity’”. It is this appeal of a rough masculinity that attracts women to guys sporting tattoos. Apart from the fact that it getting a tattoo demands a rather high level of pain threshold, tattoos - at least in popular Western culture - have been associated with a high-testosterone kind of sexuality. The type of guy who sports tattoos may not be the kind a girl can take home but he certainly would be the one to give her a breath of freedom from stifling social norms and mores. The tattooed guy and biker is the quintessential bad boy - He is the guy your mother warned you about and precisely for this reason, you cannot seem to get him out of your mind. It is quite likely that he would stand his girlfriend up on dates, ask her to pay his bills and even flirt with other girls right before her eyes. But the same time he is unpredictable, outrageously non-conformist, knows so well how to give women a good time that they couldn’t care less what the world thinks of him. And precisely because so many of these traits are exactly what the good girl you would like to do herself, that she can’t help admiring this guy and even falling in love with him.
But then all women may not feel the same way about a guy who has got himself inked. There is something about tattoos that still gives the feeling of being primitive, probably because of the origin of tattoos as a marker of tribal and communal status. Even the method of tattooing with needles and ink has something distasteful about it. Then again tattoos have had a long association with working-class culture and later delinquent sub-culture too, all of which still carry some negative feelings. Women who like sophistication and class are unlikely to be attracted to men sporting tattoos. Finally getting something inked on your body – more or less permanently – is like doing something unnatural with the body. Accessories and adornments are fine since they can worn and taken off but tattoo is painful, unnatural and because of its method, potentially dangerous too. All these concerns may make some women squeamish about men with tattoos.
On the whole though, attitudes towards tattoos have changed considerably from the time when it was sported only by hard-drinking sailors and delinquent bikers. In fact authors Halnon and Cohen mentioned above explore in their article how the ‘symbolic neighborhood’ of tattoos, bikes and muscles has been transformed from lower- to middle-class distinction in the consumerist culture of post-modern society. Today tattoos are considered more as fashion statements; indeed a small tattoo at certain places on the male body may even act as a turn-on for some women. The growing acceptance of body art in mainstream contemporary culture is further underlined by the fact that tattooing today is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business in the United States. Still more incredible is the fact that the single fastest growing demographic group seeking tattoo services is middle-class suburban woman.
Sexual attraction is after all a very personal matter, what one finds appealing in a partner may be a turn-off to another. So while tattooing still carries associations of an ambivalent past, today the art form is firmly making its way in the arsenal of traits that men and women use to attract each other.