Why Do People from Different Cultural Backgrounds Have Varying Perceptions Regarding Tattooing?

Tattooing is a contemporary practice which is considered to be a social stigma and an art. While individuals carry different perceptions regarding tattooing, these perceptions may also differ between cultural groups. This research paper studies the perceptions of three pairs of individuals who are Indian, German, and American in Danny’s tattoo studio. The research has concluded that Americans are most comfortable with the process, while both Indians and Germans are not as much. These attitudes can be associated with three key themes which include conservatism, symbolism, and influence of others. Germans are conservative, consider tattooing to be an adventure, and are influenced by their family and colleagues which is why they are tattoo averse while Indians are the same but consider tattooing to be a fashion. Americans are independent, not conservative, and perceive tattoos to be an expression of freedom which is why they are at ease with the procedure.

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The adoption of Western fashion is a contemporary trend which prevails in numerous countries all over the world as people originating from different ethnicities enthusiastically indulge in various fashion practices. However, in contemporary society, fashion and self adornment is not only limited to clothes and accessories but also includes painful processes such as cosmetic surgery, multiple piercings, and the popular process of tattooing (Hammer et al, 1979).
Tattooing is a highly popular contemporary trend and is practiced widely by people of various ethnicities for different reasons. Some people use tattoos as a way to decorate their bodies, some have a symbolic context, and some use it as a way to hide other marks and scars on their bodies, etc,. However, it is often seen that people from different cultures have varying perspectives regarding the art of tattooing and behave in different manners while in the process of getting their tattoos made (Thomas, Brannen, & Garcia, 2010).
As tattooing is becoming widely accepted by society and while considered a social stigma by some, is considered an art by others. Thus, it is important to understand why these cultural differences in perception prevail in this process (King, Perez, & Shim, 2013). This will also vividly shed light upon the various reasons that people get tattoos and why this painful process has gained the popularity that it has. Thus, this research paper will seek to examine how people of different nationalities react to tattooing and what perceptions they hold regarding the process. It will also question the various reasons that people of different cultures get tattoos and the various influences that affect their decision. For this purpose, the research question of this paper is:
“Why do people of different cultures have varying perceptions regarding tattooing?”
This study will also allow people of different cultures to be “self-aware” and realize their own behavior patterns. People may hold fears, prejudices, or certain opinions for a particular reason but may not be aware of why they act in this particular manner. Accordingly, many people do get tattoos done but are not aware of the various factors that influence their decision to get the tattoo done and their behavior while getting it done compared to others. Thus, this study will shed light upon the intercultural behavior involved in this social process (Chen, 2010).
2.Key Themes in Research:
The main analytical core of this research paper is to analyze in depth the differences in opinion that automatically exist within individuals belonging to different ethnicities regarding a popular but painful fashion procedure. Thus, this research paper emphasizes upon the study of ethnography in which it seeks to properly understand the behavior of individuals in context of their culture and explain their behavior and psychological processes by studying an aspect of their everyday lives. Thus, this study seeks to examine the routine behavior of individuals seeking to get tattoos applied on their bodies while observing them in a natural setting and questioning them regarding their perspective and feelings during the process spontaneously (Antoszewski et al, 2010).
The research paper seeks to emphasize upon three key themes which include the description of the differences in behavior of different individuals during the tattoo application process, their reasons for applying the tattoo, and their perceptions regarding the process of tattooing. Thus, this study seeks to use a combination of observation of behavior and expression of opinions as a means to understand the behavior of individuals from different cultures with regard to this process.
Accordingly, the following research question was formulated for the purpose of this study:
“Why do People of Different Cultural Backgrounds Have Different Perceptions Regarding Tattooing?”
This particular question was chosen because it provides an in-depth exploratory view of the issue being studied, which is to understand why the differences in opinion regarding tattooing exist. This question was also chosen because in order to properly justify answering this research question, all key themes included in this research must be properly explored.
3. Research Methodology:
The research setting is Danny’s Tattoo Studio in the Nottingham Trent area and the research sample consists of two Indian males, one American female and one American male, and one German female and one German male. Thus, this study revolves around the behavior and opinions of these six individuals while sitting in Danny’s tattoo studio. The researcher interacted with these individuals within the natural setting of Danny’s Tattoo Studio on various days through the course of two weeks. In each of these pairs, one individual was getting a tattoo and the other was an observer, yet all of them were not at the studio at the same time.
The sampling method used was random convenience sampling as the participants of the study were chosen randomly and as was convenient for the researcher. However, once a person of one ethnicity was interviewed, the researcher exerted effort into being able to find another person of the same ethnicity in the opposite situation in Danny’s tattoo studio. This was done in order to ensure that there was enough information to be able to make comparisons and draw conclusions in the study.
The sample chosen clearly represents the behavior of individuals belonging to three different nationalities and from completely different continents while either viewing the tattooing process or getting a tattoo done themselves. While the whole population of interest is very large, it is impossible to interview all of them. Thus, while this sample is rather small, as two people of each nationality were interviewed, the sample is appropriate for getting a general insight regarding the differing opinions and behavior of people of these origins.
However, the limitations of the sample are that it may simply represent the views of these individuals personally and may not be representative of the behavior of the entire population. Thus, it is difficult to make generalizations. Moreover, the observation of this sample may be subject to researcher bias or interpretative bias and the respondents may also be subject to hiding their true feelings and responding dishonestly (Aslam & Owen, 2013).
The research setting was most convenient for the researcher and fulfilled the requirements of being in the Nottingham Trent Area and is also a highly busy tattoo studio which provides services to individuals of all nationalities.
3.2 Access:
The research site was accessed by the researcher by gaining explicit permission from the owner and explaining the nature and purpose of the study. The researcher visited Danny’s tattoo studio 8 times during the course of two weeks for approximately 2-3 hour periods each. The ethical implications of the study were also explained to the owner. The participants were informed that they were being questioned for the sake of a research study, the research question was not explicitly told to them in order to avoid biasness or in responses or to avoid effects of ethnocentric behavior.
3.3 Process:
The researcher went to Danny’s Tattoo Studio on eight various occasions in a period of two weeks and simply sat there as an observer viewing various people coming into the studio to get their tattoos done. The researcher randomly chose a candidate to observe and recorded his/her behavior during interaction with the tattoo artist and during the process of getting the tattoo done. Once the process was finished, the researcher approached the candidate and asked for a few minutes of his/her time for a short interview regarding the person’s perception of the tattooing process. Once the researcher had interviewed someone of one ethnicity, he tried to randomly find someone of the same ethnicity who was accompanying someone getting a tattoo within those two weeks. This process was repeated until the researcher had successfully observed and interviewed three pairs of people belonging to three different ethnicities.
Thus, this study uses observation and interviews as data collection techniques because both are needed in order to gather information regarding the behavior of the participants and their perceptions and opinions. While these methods are most appropriate for this study, they carry the limitations of being subject to interviewer bias and lacking reliability and validity. The results of the study may be different if a different sample is chosen. However, the research has been designed to eliminate the effects of such biases to the maximum possible extent. Further research can be conducted by re-testing a sample of people of the same ethnicities in another tattoo studio to see whether the same results are observed. However, the sample population may also be affected by factors such as individual personality, age, background, education, and other factors not directly related to culture (Koch et al, 2010).
3.4 Ethics:
Ethical approval for the study was gained from Nottingham Trent University Business School and an ethical approval form was signed by both the researcher and the researcher’s tutor. The ethical dilemma involved in the study was keeping the information gathered confidential and not violating anyone’s right to privacy. All participants of the study were informed that the information gathered was being used for a study and all signed a consent form (Appendix B) expressing their consent to participate in the study.
There were no other major ethical dilemmas faced during the course of the study.
3.5 Personal Involvement:
While observing people in the tattoo studio was slightly uncomfortable for the researcher, the researcher enjoyed the casual environment. While some people were not willing to participate in the study, and data related to them was not used, the participants chosen were rather enthusiastic about responding to the researcher. While slightly surprised at being approached at first, all participants eased into a casual friendly conversation regarding their views about tattooing.
4. Analysis:
Description of Observation:
Research was carried out on eight separate occasions in which the researcher visited Danny’s tattoo studio for two to three hour sessions. On one such occasion, Karan Agarwal, a 26 year old Indian student at Nottingham Trent University, came into the studio to get his name tattooed on his bicep. Karan asked for the tattoo to be of medium size and to be located on his upper bicep where it would be visible when he wore sleeveless jerseys. During the tattooing process, Karan flinched numerous times and did not appreciate the look of the sharp instruments used during the process as he openly said, “Are you going to use that thing on me as well?” However, he continued with the tattooing process and was grateful when it was over.
On another occasion, Rija Jana, a 24 year old Indian and living in the Nottingham Trent Area, entered the studio accompanying her Spanish friend. Rija had no tattoos on her body but had multiple ear piercings and a belly button ring as well. Despite insistence from her friend to get a small tattoo, Rija seemed reluctant to try tattooing and simply refused to get one in the end. While viewing the tattooing process, she seemed a bit uneasy especially when her friend flinched and screamed during the application of the tattoo to her midriff.
The researcher met Jennifer, a 28 year old American working in a company nearby, who was getting a large tattoo of a vulture on her back. Jennifer previously had a few other smaller tattoos which included one of her ex-boyfriend’s names, a small ying-yang sign, and her initials on her knuckles. She seemed completely at ease with the tattooing process as she had undergone it numerous times before and was in constant conversation with the tattoo artist.
Similarly, the researcher met Kyle, a 25 year old business student, who accompanied a friend to the tattoo studio. Kyle had a single tattoo of his birthday etched across his bicep and was accompanying another friend who was getting a large tattoo for herself. He seemed enthusiastic about the process and was actively giving the tattoo artist tips regarding the design.
The German male that was getting a tattoo in Danny’s was Kevin, age 27, who was choosing a small tattoo of a fire design across his knuckles. It was his first tattoo and while he felt a bit queasy about it, seemed enthusiastic as well.
The last participant that the researcher met was Shania, age 31, who was accompanying her Spanish boyfriend to the tattoo studio but surprisingly seemed less than enthusiastic about the fact that he was getting her name tattooed on his back. She flinched more than her boyfriend during the tattooing process and according to the researcher’s opinion, seemed to be rather disgusted.
While all of these individuals expressed various behaviors in the tattoo parlor, some similarities and a few key themes could be derived from their interview and which will be discussed further in the report.
4.2 Conservatism:
Trends can be seen in the manner in which participants reacted to tattooing through associating their behavior with the level of conservatism in their culture. Americans have the least conservative culture and have an essence of freedom about them which was seen in their willingness to get tattoos in extraordinary parts of their body and their lack of unease with the procedure (Roberts, 2012). This was also observed in the sizes of their tattoos which were large and rather visible. When asked about the reasons for getting the tattoos, Jennifer simply said, “Because I like them, they make me feel sexy”. This can be explained through Hofstede’s cultural dimensions as the USA is categorized as a highly individualistic and masculine society. It is also categorized as an indulgent society, which is the sixth dimension of Hofstede’s cultural values (Migliore, 2011).
However, the slightly awkward behavior of Indians regarding the tattooing procedure can be associated with the fact that they originate from a somewhat conservative culture. Hofstede categorizes India as a collectivist, feminist, and restrained society (Migliore, 2011). While piercings, lots of jewelry, and other colorful fads are part of the norm, tattooing is still not perceived as acceptable and is seen as a new procedure for them (Roberts, 2012). Thus, Karan was getting a small tattoo while Rija completely refused to get one at all and expressed no desire for one in the future.
While Germans may have a more open culture in other terms, their cultural conservatism may exceed the conservatism of Indians. Germans are very proper and simple in terms of fashion and due to their simplicity; they may be tattoo averse (Jensen, Arnett, & McKenzie, 2011). Hofstede ranks Germans as an individualistic, masculine, and uncertainty avoidant society. This may explain Shania’s attitude towards the tattooing process and Kevin’s anxiety during the tattooing procedure (Minkov & Hofstede, 2012).
4.3 Symbolism:
The varying perceptions of individuals belonging to difference cultures also depend upon the symbolic meaning that the procedure of tattooing holds for them. For Americans, tattooing is more an expression of freedom or a means to express their creativity. Some of them, like Jennifer, consider it to be a way of making themselves feel better or being rebellious. Thus, Americans are more enthusiastic about the tattooing process and perceive it as an art. However, for Indians tattooing is more of a fashion or something used to decorate themselves. Moreover, it may also express their degree of conformance to Western culture and as a way of appearing more Western. Thus, they are more cautious about the tattooing process and perceive it more as a fashion rather than an art or having more symbolic meaning. Germans, consider tattooing to be an adventure or a slight diversion from the ordinary. While Shania totally disapproved of the process, Kevin’s willingness can be defined as his desire to do something different for the sake of fun. Thus, Germans are not as much at ease with the tattooing process and may regard it somewhere between a social stigma and a trend (Kauff et al, 2013).
4.4 Influence of Others:
Attitudes regarding tattooing also differed with the level of influence exerted by pressure and power groups in the lives of individuals belonging to different cultures, such as their parents. Indians lack of complete comfort with the process can also be associated with the fact that they usually have close-knit family networks and many live with their parents all their lives (Wenzel et al, 2013) as Hofstede ranks them as a collectivist and feminist society (Migliore, 2011). Thus, their culture promotes the influence and decisions of parents, which are seen as an authority group to them. Rija stated that, “My mom will freak out if I ever get a tattoo. I’d probably be thrown out of the house.” Thus, this shows that the perception of her parents regarding tattoos is of importance to her.
However, while many Americans can be highly family-oriented, the influence of parents upon American adults is relatively less than in other cultures. Americans are considered independent and take their own decisions. Thus, their perspective regarding tattooing is more liberal.
Germans are also highly family- oriented and somewhat old-fashioned as Hofstede ranks them as an uncertainty avoidant culture (Minkov & Hofstede, 2012). They are also highly professional which means that along with parents and family, colleagues may also be a very important authority group. Thus, belonging to a simple and rigid culture, Germans are more tattoo averse and are not as open about the idea of tattooing (Ferriera, 2011).
5. Significance and Conclusion:
The study, while having limitations in being able to generalize its results, produced some interesting information which can be associated to cultural behavior. While showing different behavior within each individual regarding the tattooing process, it showed various cultural trends which were similar in their behavior regarding the way they perceived tattoos and the reasons for getting or avoiding them, the sizes of tattoos they got and where they placed them, and the level of conservatism and influence of authority groups in their culture and lifestyle (Wahlrab et al, 2009).
Interacting with each of these individuals was a highly invigorating experience and provided a lot of useful information. However, if this study were to be replicated, it would be recommended to use a larger sample size and the research method of a closed-ended questionnaire if possible to eliminate the possibility of biasness and to enable reliability and generalization. However, adopting this method would require more time than a two-week period and appropriate questionnaire structuring (Jacobsen, 2010)
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Aslam, A., & Owen, C. M. (2013). “Fashions change but tattoos are forever–time to regret.”British Journal of Dermatology.
Chen, G. M. (2010). “The impact of intercultural sensitivity on ethnocentrism and intercultural communication apprehension.”Intercultural Communication Studies. Vol. 19(1)pp. 1-9
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Hammer, M. R., Gudykunst, W. B., & Wiseman, R. L. (1979). “Dimensions of intercultural effectiveness: An exploratory study”.International Journal of Intercultural Relations. Vol. 2(4) pp.382-393
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Koch, J. R., Roberts, A. E., Armstrong, M. L., & Owen, D. C. (2010). “Body art, deviance, and American college students.”The Social Science Journal. Vol.47 (1) pp.151-161.
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Appendix A: Field Notes
First Observation: Karan
·Got a small tattoo made on bicep
·Felt highly uneasy during the procedure
·Does not have previous tattoos
·Seemed to be a rather fun-loving person
·Expressed reason for getting tattoo as “it’s in” and “it’s the thing that everyone is doing nowadays”
·He also thought it looked good when he wore sleeveless jerseys while playing basketball
·Said he would have probably never done the same while back in India
·Said he belongs to a conservative family
·Remains in contact with his parents and siblings on a daily basis

Second Observation: Rija
·Had multiple piercings and a belly button ring
·Was accompanying a friend to the studio
·Felt uneasy during the process
· Was reluctant to get one of her own
·She said her mother can bear piercings but she would freak out if she got a tattoo and she would be thrown out of the house
·Said she never desired to get a tattoo although she thought that they were cool to some extent and a recent trend
·She said they look good on some people and do not look good on others
·Said she belonged to a relatively liberal family in terms of India but would still be considered conservative in the West
·Said she valued her mother’s opinion to a great extent

Third Observation: Jennifer
·Had multiple tattoos and was here for a large tattoo
·Said she felt tattoos were an expression of freedom and creativity
·She said she got them because she likes them and they make her feel sexy
·Had one of her ex-boyfriend’s name
·Said she lives alone and used to live with her boyfriend but is now dating around
·Had a steady job and was planning a pleasure trip soon
·Was of a rebellious nature

Fourth Observation: Kyle
·Thought tattoos were fun and were highly inspiring
·Thought his tattoos represented his personality
·Lived with his girlfriend but said he calls his parents often
·Was highly relaxed during the tattoo process and deep in conversation with the tattoo artist regarding football, dating, and food and giving tips regarding the design
·Was rather talkative and cheerful
·Was accompanying a friend

Fifth Observation: Kevin
·Thought tattooing was something adventurous and different to do
· Said his parents would never believe he did it no matter how small the tattoo was
·Said he was heavily influenced by his parents’ and colleagues opinions and hoped he’d get a proper job regardless of his tattoo (joking manner)
·Was slightly uneasy about the procedure and considered it painful
·Said he was a very simple guy who had hardly ever worn his hair in spikes let alone get a tattoo previously but now he wanted to be a bit on the wild side

Sixth Observation: Shania
·Thought tattooing was gruesome and disgusting
· Was highly disturbed by the tattooing procedure and had to step out for a few minutes
·Seemed to be angry at her boyfriend for getting it done and was not showing encouragement
·Said she was a banker and a very simple girl
·Said her standards were highly conservative and she disapproved of adornments which harmed the body
·Said she would never get a tattoo; did not even have a piercing

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