Tattoos: Public Skin & The Fear of Flesh

If like me, you are a fan of body art and are often distracted by various on-line media sources; you may have noticed the influx of tattoo-related articles in recent weeks. The Guardian in particular has been quite tattoo-laden, and it’s always good to see positive coverage of body art in the mainstream media. However, what isn’t so good is the public comments that these articles undoubtedly always attract.

It still astonishes me just how many people feel the need – time and time again- to put finger to keyboard and enlighten the rest of us with their judgments, opinions and anecdotes about various tattoo-related hilarities: usually involving how dirty tattoos look, how ‘awful’ tattoos look on ageing skin, and one recent comment that told us we certainly wouldn’t want a tattooed surgeon operating on us in our hour of need (?!).

As a tattooed person, these are all things I’ve heard before, and hear/read repeatedly – especially in the comments section of such articles, and as a tattooed person studying tattoos as a PhD subject, I have an added interest in these public reactions.  I began this blog to explore my academic thoughts in a more informal context, the ideas shared here aren’t extensive and may need some work – I may have even changed my mind in a week’s time, who knows?!

I’ve been doing some reading and thinking around the Grotesque, carnivalesque and ‘space’ (of which we fill, not the planet-type space!), and what with these infuriating comments coming thick and fast, it got me thinking….

 When does skin become open to public comment and opinion? When does our or my skin become public skin – something open to opinion and derogatory judgments? Why do people think it’s acceptable to openly talk about how awful they think somebody’s skin is? In any other context, expressing our disgust at somebody’s body/skin/identity would be considered socially unacceptable, so what is it about tattoos that transgress these social boundaries of etiquette and common decency?

 Tattooed people are constantly left in a position where-by we are defending our choices, and ‘proving’ ourselves to be decent human beings. Yes, it’s our choice to become tattooed, and some people – a lot of people- don’t like tattoos, and that’s fine, of course. It is also ok for these people to express their views, obviously.  I’m not saying that it’s not, what I am wondering is why tattoos provoke such a reaction, and why people feel the need to express their dislike, distaste and disgust.

 On my reading around The Grotesque Body, I have been considering how as a society we actually don’t like bodies. We don’t like oozing, fleshy, functioning bodies. We are conditioned into liking ‘perfect’ bodies – the clean, the smooth and the compact. We don’t like talking about the stuff that bodies produce, (we are lead to believe by sanitary product advertisements for example, that menstrual blood is blue for goodness sake). Bodies scare us – hair, blood, guts and goo – YUK.

 I would take a guess at the majority of tattooed people being pretty much OK with the oozing, leaky, imperfect body. We have to be: sitting for hours at a time, bleeding and in some degree of discomfort, the healing and after-care– you get to know your body quite well. We are embodied subjects, at one with our bodies. And it’s my suggestion, possibly even hypothesis (for fear of sounding like an ACTUAL SCIENTIST) that this is what some (not all) non-tattooed people fear. I will point our here, that I know many non-tattooed people who are completely ‘at-one’ with their bodies, and they don’t judge tattooed people. Tattooed bodies (heavily tattooed bodies specifically) represent positive excess, and we as a society are not meant to engage with any kind of excess.

A tattooed body is a strong, powerful body – it says, “fuck you, I’m not adhering to your social norms and mainstream ideals of what it is to be beautiful”…. And some people don’t like being addressed like that: being stared back at by the bodies they were staring at in the first place.

 Tattooed bodies are a new kind of beautiful, a new aesthetic – a scary prospect perhaps. Tattooed bodies are not docile bodies, and that, to some people is just not acceptable.

If you would like to read about the grotesque, carnivalesque and some other stuff, you may like to read these if you haven’t already:


The Female Grotesque by Mary Russo

Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin

Extreme Beauty by J Swearingen and J Cutting-Gray

Space, Time and Perversion by Elizabeth Grosz

In the Flesh by Victoria Pitts


8 thoughts on “Tattoos: Public Skin & The Fear of Flesh

  1. tattooedtoff says:

    I agree so much with what you say but admit to finding myself lucky in terms of public reaction. Although I am well on my way to a bodysuit, none of my coverage is public unless I choose it to be. Maybe because I am a man and quite old, mostly the reaction I get ranges from astonishment to delight, when I do show my skin.

    But the stuff you write about means it is hard for me to consider highly visible tattoos and function as I wish in my section of society.

    I am surprised not to get more comment from the general public. I agree it is extraordinary that people feel free to make personal comments about tattooed people that they wouldn’t do to other people in society. It must all be about fear.

    • emmacbeckett says:

      It’s actually really lovely to hear you get mostly positive reactions. If I think about my own experiences, I have had only few negative comments or ‘looks’ but mostly people are just interested and a lot of people say positive things. I think this is why I’m so astonished at just how many people write really judgmental comments on on-line articles about tattoos. I wonder if these people are so vocal when in the company of a tattooed person, or if they keep their opinions for cyber space only?!

  2. Sarah says:

    Sorry to be late on the response to this post. I’m finishing off a paper on SuicideGirls and perceptions of tattooed women. I think, at least from my experience, tattooed women get a more vocal response to their body work compared with men. It is much more ‘acceptable’ for men to have large tattoos, more visible ones, or be seen as more attractive with them.

    I have not got many tattoos, or particularly large ones, but I have about half a dozen scattered and I have faced a small backlash. From comments like ‘you’d be so much prettier if you didn’t have..’, to ‘what happened to you as a child’ (not joking), to the most offensive comments based on perceptions of promiscuity based on body modifications. These comments I will try to make as polite as possible, include ‘you’re the sort of girl you’d have a one night stand with but wouldn’t introduce to your mother’, to a group of men discussing how they were going to hold me down and find my other tattoos. I wish I was kidding. I don’t know if these experiences are exclusive to tattooed women, but there is a public relationship with the private sphere of tattooing. People are fascinated with tattoos, either positively or negatively, and they want to ask, challenge, discuss, compliment, insult or relate to an individual’s choice of body art.

    Braunberger (2000) I says something about this: “When a woman’s body is a sex object, a tattooed woman’s body is a lascivious sex object […] when a woman’s body is spectacle, a tattooed woman’s body is a show”.

    I don’t know if any of this is relevant, but I couldn’t help but chime in.

    • emmacbeckett says:

      Thanks for this comment Sarah – I think you echo many of the comments experienced and heard by probably most tattooed women at one point or another.
      There is a lot to be said about the presumed link between tattoos and sexuality, tattoos and promiscuity. There’s a paper in there somewhere!
      I think the comments that stuck with me most is somebody telling me how much he liked tattoos on women, but he wouldn’t want his wife getting one…. read as, I love tattooed women to gawp at, but I wouldn’t want to marry one”. Urgh.
      I really like that Braunberger paper…..

      I’d love to read your paper when it’s finished 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        There is quite a bit of research hinting towards the link between promiscuity and tattoos, and I’m working on connecting it to the wider argument of my paper on the objectification of tattooed women.

        I just don’t understand some people. Dare to be different, right? It’s funny how tattoos which are personal, are a public matter.

        I really have to go back to that paper and get it finished off. I keep stopping and starting, because my dissertation topic is a different area entirely.

        As soon as it’s done, I will send it, because I’d be interested in getting feedback from you.

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