Are tattoos just another fashion choice? by Rose Trappes



In modern society tattoos might appear to be nothing but an individual act of consumption akin to any other styling or decorative choice. However, this view elides the many other roles tattoos can play. Tattoos are artistically significant, can change our relationships with our bodies, and brings our past to persist into the present, both linking us with our past and forcing us to deal with it.




From Maori T¯a moko to sailor tats and tramp stamps, tattoos have a long and colourful history. In a recent article in The Conversation, Eduardo de la Fuente examines this history and then proceeds to characterise the role of tattoos in modern society (2015). According to de la Fuente, in modern Western cultures tattoos are seen primarily as a fashion statement, an individual’s choice about their personal style. Despite acknowledging that tattoos have ‘strong ritual and existential overtones’, de la Fuente characterises tattoos in modern society as a special kind of ’aesthetic choice’, that regardless of their history tattoos have become ‘an individual act of consumption akin to other styling or decorative choices’ (de la Fuente, 2015). And, what with the increasing rapidity of fashion trends, tattoos as a personal fashion choice are becoming increasingly risky and indeed are often a mistake.

I’d like to examine whether de la Fuente, and those who are inclined to agree with him, are correct. I will examine various aspects of tattoos and tattoo culture and conclude that tattoos are far more powerful than de la Fuente would have us admit. Tattoos are formative for our identity, a challenging form of art, a performative political practice, and a way to bring the past into the present.




Most of us care about the way we appear to others, whether or not we share the hyper-consciousness characteristic of many teenagers’ attitudes towards their physical appearance. We make choices (conscious or not) about what to wear, what haircut to get, how to talk, how to decorate our homes, and so on, often with the view to what kind of reaction others will have. We might be looking for a positive reaction (“gee you sure look swell today”, or “Raj is so cool, I wish I was like him”), or perhaps a negative reaction (like the teenager who aggravates their parents by dressing messily), or perhaps no reaction at all (if you just want to fit in so that no-one notices you). We, in a sense, ‘present a face’ to those around us through the aesthetic choices we make.

The face that we present then becomes our face, that is, our social identity. To see why, consider hipsters. If I wear vintage clothes and glasses, sit around in libraries and cafes, and ride an old bicycle everywhere (as I do), then I am presenting (intentionally or not) the face of a hipster. Now no-one is a selfdescribed hipster (least of all me!), since as soon as someone identifies as a hipster, they are no longer hipster. But plenty of people are hipsters, and this is because they present a face that fits into that category: they drink craft beer, have beards, eat kale, and so on. That is, people are hipsters (myself included) because they present as hipsters. So fashion choices not only act as symbols to tell people that I am a certain kind of person, but they also produce me as that kind of person. Once people recognise me as a hipster, I am a hipster, like it or not.

The fashion choices we make allow others to recognise us as certain kinds of people, contributing to our social identity.

Now most fashion choices that we make are about relatively impermanent things like what clothes to wear or whether to get a fake tan. This means our identities can change as we make dierent choices: one day I could choose to wear all black and dye my hair green and if I pulled it o I would become a goth. This kind of uidity is even expected. I may be a hipster now (even if I deny it), but I can easily change my outfit and wear contact lenses in order to fit into the Brisbane club scene. Likewise, most people have styles (`faces’) that
they only wear at work, and not with their friends on a Friday night.

There are some aesthetic choices, however, that are permanent. Piercings, cosmetic surgery, hair implants, and, of course, tattoos, are changes to our bodies that require a great deal of money and time to alter, and most will leave permanent traces (scars, stretch marks, etc.). Choices about these permanent changes will have effects that last forever, so our social identity will always be shaped by them.

People often choose to get tattoos in order to present a certain face, so that others see them in a certain way. According to de la Fuente (2015), ever since tattoos entered Western culture they have been symbols that say a lot about a person, symbols that determine a person’s social identity. For a long time all they said to a lot of people was “dirty” (prisoners and sailors). Over the years, they have been signs of individuality, of rebellion, of social status (`cool’), of group membership (bikies), of attractiveness (as tramp stamps once were), even of being a hipster.

Choosing to get a tattoo will shape our social identities for life. But if we change (and we all do), we might worry that the shape the tattoo gives to our identity will no longer \t”. This is one of the main reasons why people choose not to get a tattoo: the worry about future regret.

With the increasing pace of the world of fashion and the increasing fluidity of our identities, we appear to face a greater likelihood of such a situation. According to de la Fuente (2015), this is a serious problem: `As tattooing became more of a fashion statement, and less emblematic of group membership, it has become something we are more likely to regret or change our minds about. In an age of Ikea furnishings and short-term commitments, personal style is no longer permanent.’ Tattoos, as choices of individual style and identity in a rapidly changing world, are getting close to becoming nothing but a big mistake.




But tattoos, like fashion, can do more than just help to construct a social self. Fashion can be an artistic expression, in art galleries, on catwalks and on the street. The same can be said of tattoos. There are a number of different theories about what art is, but all of them have trouble including tattoos (as well as other non-traditional art forms, often including fashion).

Not all tattoos are art, just like not all fashion is art. But some kinds of tattoos certainly look like art, as can be verified by a quick look at galleries in the magazine \inked”. It is not unusual to specifically request certain tattoo artists because you admire their work, in the same way you might buy or commission a painting or a sculpture. And, just as an actor uses their body as a vehicle for a play, people can and do choose to use their bodies as a vehicle for tattoos. Getting a tattoo is also often described as a way of making your body more beautiful, turning the body into a work of art.

Tattoos could be seen as simply a way of wearing a painting, in the same way that you could wear a beautiful garment. But tattoos are not simply worn. They are literally inscribed into a person’s body, and they become a part of that body. The person is not just carrying them but embodying them, giving life or existence to the tattoo. The tattooed person is part of the artwork, much like an actor is part of the performance of a play.

Tattoos can be an artistic expression, like a living canvas with a constantly changing frame and gallery.

But unlike a play, tattoos don’t just happen in one place, for a limited period of time. They are moved around, covered and uncovered, seen from different angles in dierent contexts, touched, tanned, stretched and wrinkled. Tattoos are like a living canvas with a constantly changing frame and gallery.

With this changing space of appearance, the tattoo is a site of continual creativity. The tattooed person is part of this creative process, so they are at once canvas, artwork, and, along with the tattoo designer and tattooist, artist.

Tattoos are a strange hybrid of performance and visual art, and this has significance for our definition of art. But it also has significance for how we think of the role of tattoos in our culture.


Politics, humour and feminism


As well as being artistically valuable, tattoos can also make changes in the way we see and relate to our bodies.
Tattoos can be a way of asserting agency and control over body and the way it appears to others, especially when this isn’t a given. For instance, people who have suffered body image problems or long standing medical conditions sometimes get tattoos as a way to reassert and arm control over their bodies. Tattooing is a way to inscribe the body with something meaningful or beautiful, to reclaim it as part of you rather than the object of the medical profession or the gaze of others.

Likewise, a woman who gets tattoos asserts her living presence in her body and her choice in how that body is seen. Women are rarely given the power to determine how others will see and judge them|just think of all the comments that a woman in public receives about her body. In contrast, `The tattooed woman says, “You want to look at my body? I’ll give you something to look at!” Like other feminist artists, she asserts agency, directing the gaze according to her will.’ (Baltzer-Jaray and Rodriguez, 2012, p. 44)

Tattoos can also be a way of reappropriating the body for the purposes of humour. Humorous tattoos are often seen as tasteless, a bad decision or a mistreatment of the body. Of course some of them are.

Tattoos can repurpose parts of the body, often in humourous ways, challenging the way we usually see and understand bodies.

But some of them manage not only to successfully present the image of a tattooed person but also to challenge our ideas about the sanctity of the body and the seriousness with which we are expected to take our appearances. They can also repurpose parts of the body, giving it a dierent context and use (such as an arm tattoo that reads “to do list” or the use of your navel as the anus of an animal). Playing with the body in this way challenges the usual perceptions we have of bodies and of people.


The past returning


But fashion, art, and politics are not the only (or even the primary) reasons that many people get inked. People often get tattoos to memorialise something, such as a lost parent, a significant life event, or a meaningful idea.

These kinds of tattoos are far more than a fashion choice; while they will still contribute towards presenting a certain face to the people around you, and hence constituting your social identity, they are capable of far more. These tattoos memorialise something or someone; they are a way of writing the past on your skin, of literally incorporating what lacks corporeal substance.

Memorial tattoos do this intentionally, but it is something that all tattoos perform. Although a tattoo may lose its original trendiness, meaning or importance, it maintains a link to the time when it did have these qualities. The tattoo is a physical remnant of a choice you made in the past, constantly asserting your present continuity with your past self. Any kind of tattoo can be a way of corporealising our past, literally writing our past into the present.

Some people would rather not have their past written into the present, and it certainly can be inconvenient. No-one especially wants to have their ex-partner’s name tattooed on their arm, especially not when they are now in another committed relationship. But our discomfort might point more towards a deeper, troubled relationship with our past, and especially our past mistakes. We often wish to erase the past, to forget what brought us to a place and time. But having a tattoo refuses this possibility. Instead, it forces us to recognise our past and perhaps to rethink what it means to us. Through tattoos, we can develop with our past ever-present, and learn to live with it, to live in it and to live it out.

This kind of presenting of the past might even be more important today than in any time in the past. With the increasing rapidity of trends, news streams and Twitter feeds, tattoos present a rare chance to arm and maintain our continued existence through time.


Not just fashion


Thus, tattoos play a far more varied and powerful role than de la Fuente’s merely eeting and mistaken fashion statements. Tattoos serve the purpose of contributing to our social identity, in allowing us to present a certain face. Tattoos are a novel form of art, reworking the body as an artwork and the site of continual creativity, as the tattoo moves and ages with the wearer. Tattoos can also play an important role in altering our relationships with our bodies, challenging the ways of using our body that society deems to be normal and
acceptable. Finally, tattoos write the past into the present, making the past ever-present, linking us with our past and forcing us to deal with it.


Rose Trappes

Bachelor of Arts, Honours, Majoring in Philosophy

Bachelor of Science, Majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology




Baltzer-Jaray, Kimberly and Tanya Rodriguez (2012). \Fleshy Canvas”. In: Tattoos: Philosophy for Everyone: I Ink, Therefore I Am. Ed. by Robert Arp. Wiley Online Library, pp. 38{50.

de la Fuente, Eduardo (2015). More than a fashion choice: the everyday aesthetics of tattooing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s