The Permanence of Tattoos: Marked Bodies, Identities, and Symbolism in Emerging Adults
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For students, college is a transitional stage where new freedoms, privileges, and experiences may be gained. My research aimed to understand how these students’ experiences may be shaped by having tattoos and the decision-making processes that lead to getting a tattoo. My research goals for this project were to identify how tattoos may help college students construct their identities, add symbolic value to their lives, navigate relationships, and the ways that students process decisions around tattoo placement and design. Consequently, I asked the following research questions: How do tattoos influence identity in emerging adults? What is the symbolic value of tattoos for emerging adults? What decision-making processes inform individuals to get a tattoo, choose a specific design, and choose a specific location? What attitudes and stigma do individuals with tattoos experience? Through the use of participant observation, I was able to observe the choices that students make regarding their tattoo decisions. I found that displaying tattoos was an important way of exchanging social capital and gaining respect among peers, and that for some students this exchange positively benefited them and their mental state. In addition, while tattoos enhanced status among a person’s male and female peers, students were likely to conceal their tattoos from family members for fear of disapproval and social isolation. In particular, women were more likely to invest time thinking about how their tattoos may be perceived by others, including friends, peers, and strangers. Overall, my findings show that for these students, the benefits of increased social capital among peers outweighed the fear of judgement and stigma among family members and individuals from older generations.