Study connects body art and social deviancy
By Jess d'Arbonne
Feb. 10, 2010
A research study has come out, trying to define the relationship
between body art and deviance among college students in America.
Remember the days of the Hell's Angels? Of Sid and Nancy and Billy
Idol? Remember when a piercing meant you were bad, but a tattoo meant
you were badder? When gangs of the most "different" sort of people
brandished their body art and flew their freak flags high, laughing
in the face of all that is good and wholesome about the
college-educated middle class…
Neither do I.
But let's imagine for a moment that the days of anti-mainstream
subcultures are still fresh in America's collective memory.
Counter-culture extremists were easy to recognize by their flaming
skull tattoos and facial piercings, and the "good kids" were clearly
discerned by the sweaters tied demurely about their shoulders.
That is no longer the case.
This new study, conducted by Texas Tech researchers, takes a close
look at how much the number of tattoos and body piercings a student
has directly correlates to their deviant activities.
In a report titled "Body art, deviance, and American college
students" (these science types are direct), the team compiled data
collected from 1,753 students. What they found might surprise you. Or
it might be exactly the results you were expecting.
Specifically, the research "differentiates and measures the
relationships between escalating levels of body art and social
deviance." Since social deviance is a largely subjective idea, the
researchers were forced to define and categorize it as a variable.
In this case, deviancy was categorized as overtly illegal behavior,
as well as legal behavior contrary to social norms. The team further
narrowed the legal side of deviance down to cheating on school work,
drinking to excess and having multiple sex partners. The illegal
deviance included marijuana use, other illegal drug use and arrests
other than traffic violations.
The researchers defined body art in three ways: First, an escalating
number of tattoos; second, an escalating number of piercings (single
earlobe piercings were not included); and third, relegated to their
own category, were "intimate" piercings piercings of the nipples
The idea was that a higher number of body art (number of tattoos and
piercings) would equal a higher level of deviant behavior extreme
body art (intimate piercings and multiple tattoos) would equal more
But even with these defined variables, "deviant behavior" is still up
in the air when it comes to college students.
"I think every college kid is involved in at least a little bit of
deviant or illegal activity," said Robert Vanderberg from Stingray
Body Art, a tattoo artist with over 16 years of experience. "They're
What the researchers found was that for some deviant behaviors, there
was no obvious corresponding rise in body art. For others, there was
a clear increase in deviant behavior connected to certain kinds of body art.
For example, binge drinking was roughly the same across the charts,
regardless of the subject's amount and type of body art. The report
theorizes that this is because binge drinking is a "typical" college
behavior, part and parcel of parties and the freedom of being away
from parental supervision.
Cheating on college work and having multiple sex partners was
relatively unrelated to the amount of piercings the subjects had.
Levels of cheating on college work remained mostly the same no matter
how many tattoos the subjects had or didn't have.
But the results really got interesting when the variables increased
by the amount of body art and the level of deviancy.
The difference in deviance between the un-pierced and the pierced
subjects, when it came to drug use and arrest histories, was drastic.
In the categories of "monthly marijuana use," "other illegal drug
use" and "arrests other than traffic" the percentages mount steadily
as the number of piercings increases. The more deviant subjects had
more piercings. Similarly, when it came to tattoos, there was a noted
difference in deviant behavior between those with tattoos and those
without. Over 70 percent of subjects with four or more tattoos
admitted to being arrested for something other than a traffic
violation. To put things in perspective, only 8.5 percent of the
subjects without tattoos admitted to being arrested. Again, it would
seem that the more deviant students were acquiring more tattoos.
Subjects with intimate piercings followed the trend of the other two
groups. When it came to legal deviant behavior, there was little to
separate them from their peers. But in regards to the illegal deviant
activities, the subjects with intimate piercings were well
represented. Over 24 percent of the subjects with intimate piercings
admitted to using illegal drugs other than marijuana. Not quite 6
percent of the subjects without intimate piercings had used illegal
drugs. Similarly, over 39 percent of those with intimate piercings
admitted to being arrested, but barely 12 percent of those without
intimate piercings had been arrested.
The research successfully drew a statistical connection between body
art and deviant behavior, according to the variables they set up: The
more extreme the body art, the more deviant the behavior.
A total of 37 percent of all the test subjects were pierced and 1
percent% were tattooed. Few of the test subjects (4 percent) had
extreme body art: an intimate piercing, four or more tattoos, and
seven or more piercings. Even with a relatively small amount of the
sample adorned, the trends are hard to ignore.
Take it with a grain of salt
The research team was careful to admit its own limitations. Their
subjects didn't exactly represent a wide cross-section of
college-going Americans. The study included students from four
colleges: two public, and two private religious institutions. It
isn't explicitly stated, but since the researchers hail from Texas
Tech, it's assumed that the schools in question are in Texas. All of
the test subjects were enrolled in entry-level sociology classes.
The test also doesn't take into account the design of the students'
tattoos, only the number of them. Though this variable might have
been impossible to test for, there is a noted difference between a
happy dolphin tattoo on the small of your back and a portrait of
Charles Manson on your forehead.
Stingray is located near BU on Harvard Avenue. According to
Vanderberg, about a third of their clientele are college students.
But the tattoos they get aren't exactly symbols of deviancy. "Kids at
Harvard get 'Veritas' tattooed on their wrist because they think
they're special. MIT kids get math equations. They get a lot of
lettering, quotes, and song lyrics. They want a fairy sitting on a
moon with a poem, and half the universe in the background, the size
of a quarter on their hip."
The research team was more specific about the piercings they included
as body art. A single piercing in each earlobe was not counted as
significant body art, since most female college students, regardless
of deviancy, sport earrings. A piercing in the cartilage of the ear
was deemed body art, as were other facial piercings.
Of course, the very fact that they're studying college students
limits the subjects to mostly middle- to upper-class Americans, with
the funds and/or gumption to make it into college. According to their
report, 78 percent of the test subjects were between the ages of 18
and 20. Sixty percent of the test subjects were female. And a
whopping 79 pecent of the test subjects were Euro-American white.
But no study is perfect.
What does it all mean?
The statistics above narrow the sample of subjects down to a very
particular demographic. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it
allows the conclusions of the study to be compared to studies of
completely different demographics. In particular, it shows how these
mostly 18-20, mostly female, mostly Euro-American, and all
college-educated people compare to a traditionally different
demographic: members of American sub-cultures.
Mainstream Americans have been getting tattoos for a long time. As
Vanderberg put it, tattoos are in their Golden Age. "I think it's
great that something other than the counter-culture is getting
tattooed. Really the upper-class or the higher middle class, those
are the people who are getting the high dollar full body stuff, even
though you never see it. New England is very liberal. It's the
Democrats' Mecca. You can get a job with a facial tattoo. But the
rest of the world is very uptight, and that makes you unemployable if
you have any tattoo."
To quote from the study's abstract: "With the increasing mainstream
presence of visible tattoos and piercings among entertainers,
athletes, and even in corporate boardrooms, we wonder the extent to
which long-time enthusiasts and collectors regard the phenomenon as
How will sailors, motorcycle clubs, convicts, musicians, tattoo
artists and other traditionally-adorned subcultures react to seeing
their symbol of free-spirited individualism on the upper arm of a
19-year-old white college girl?
In other words, the connection between body art and America's college
students doesn't make everyone happy, as you might imagine. But in
this case it's not simply their parents the usual target of youth
in rebellion who are annoyed at the connection between body art and
deviant behavior. This nuisance even goes beyond their concerned
pastors or community leaders.
The research team posits that the people most offended by the body
art of deviant college students are deviants themselves. Body art
used to be a tried-and-true symbol of deviant behavior and
counter-culture attitudes. It was so obvious a sign of the
anti-mainstream, that a study like this would've been laughable.
"Bikers, whores, freaks, and sailors, that was it." Vanderberg said.
"You had to have a pair to even walk in the front door. And no one
was nice to you, no one helped to educate you."
Time was when a certain tattoo meant allegiance to a biker gang,
military service, prison time or adherence to an extreme philosophy.
Body art has been used by members of the straight edge movement to
declare their abstinence from drugs and alcohol. It has been used as
pictorial histories of convicts' criminal exploits. Tattoos have been
used as symbols of feats of bravery among sailors and the military.
Perhaps the most widely-known use of tattoos is as symbols of
identity among the motorcycle clubs of California.
But now, with middle-class college students adorning themselves as
part and parcel of their "deviant behavior" (read: cheating on tests,
binge drinking, and smoking the reefer), what does this do to the
traditional status symbol of the counter-culture? Vanderberg said,
"There are tattooed people, and there are people with tattoos.
Tattooed people are different." If a binge-drinking sorority girl can
get a skull and roses tattooed on her thigh, what does that same
tattoo mean on a 50-year old female biker who's seen more than her
fair share of deviancy?
Does this detract from the meaning body art? Or does this mean that
more college students are considering themselves counter-culture?
The research team believes that the connection between the college
students' body art and their deviant behavior will force a response
from the old-school deviants: "We propose that tattoo collectors,
artists, and piercers must not only increase the number of tattoos
and piercings they have in order to maintain a distinctive sub-
cultural identity, they are also more likely to solidify their
out-group status with higher levels of other anti-social behavior."
Therefore, because mainstream young people are using body art to
symbolize their youthful transgressions, members of the tattooed
subculture must respond in kind. Not only must they take their body
art to new extremes, but they must also increase their deviant
behavior to be more deviant than the actions of supposedly bad-ass
But does the counter-culture agree?
Neither main nor stream. Discuss
Stingray Body Art on Harvard Avenue won Boston Magazine's Best of
Boston Award for the best tattoo parlor in 2006 and 2007. The
establishment is home to nine tattoo artist and two body piercers.
Judging by Stingray's work, their title of Best of Boston is
well-deserved. But they didn't get there by catering strictly to
counter-culture tattoo enthusiasts.
The parlor advertises a 10 percent student discount. With their
location in the heart of America's college town, it's no wonder a
large portion of their clientele is college students.
But students aren't the only mainstream business to walk through the
parlor's doors. Every day, Stingray sees clients from all walks of
life. "You name it, we do it," Vanderberg said. "From retired folks
to lawyers, teachers, doctors, investment bankers… we do it all.
We're located near the teamster area, so we have a lot of those."
It's a large, clean, professional-looking shop on a main
thoroughfare, a far cry from the stereotype of the shadowy,
tattoo parlor run by outlaw biker tattoo artists. Surely that parlor
still exists somewhere, but parlors like Stingray have become the
face of the body art industry.
The idea is to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of mainstream
or counter-culture affiliation. "My job is to take care of you, make
it look cool and send you away with a good experience and a smile on
your face. My job's not to judge what people get," Vanderberg said.
Not everyone likes this style. The research team writes,
"'Old-school' tattoo artists, as well as long-time collectors and
enthusiasts, have expressed dismay and disgust at the emergence of
such 'posers' regarding them as late to the game and playing it
casually." Perhaps the problem of body art and deviance among college
students is a matter of respect. Are college students intruding on
traditions that aren't theirs to borrow?
Vanderberg doesn't think the change is all bad. "I think that it used
to be people who were on the edge that got tattooed, no one else did.
But now it's not like that. It's fashion. It's like Uggs or Doc
Martins or anything else. Trends will change, and they'll get
different stuff, and keep our industry alive." The times they are a'changing.
Whether or not body art is a symbol of deviancy in college students,
it still might be perceived that way. "I've had situations where if
you had tattoos on your hands and a cop pulled you over, you were a
scumbag and you're getting a ticket. That's like saying anyone who's
black likes watermelon, or anyone who's Middle Eastern is a
terrorist," Vanderberg said. "I don't think it's right to judge
anyone for the color of their skin. It's that little 1/16 of an inch
that makes us all so different, tattoo or not."
With body art becoming the norm, and tattooed college students
experimenting with social deviancy, where is there room for
counter-culture symbolism? When a tattoo and multiple piercings is no
longer a symbol of radical individualism, what will radical
individuals do to set themselves apart?
"Body art, deviance, and American college students" sheds light on a
curious trend among America's college students, but asks more
questions than it answers about the new meaning of body art and deviancy.