Ink’d: A look into the meaning and stigma of tattoos

Photo by Julieann Tran | The Signal

There’s everything to be sceptical about when it comes to tattoos. It’s an external, visible modification to your body that is there forever. And if you grew up with parents anything like mine, it’s something that’s just “neither attractive nor good for your job opportunities.” Coming from a moderately-religious Greek Orthodox family, there were plentiful of Christian friends who popped into our house as a reminder that “Jesus said writing on your body is a sin,” which in fact, was not a conversation Jesus bothered himself with. Until today, tattoos are often associated with a negative stigma of rebellion and ‘non-elite’ individuals who are ‘no one we should be hanging out with.’ That can be traced back to the revolutionary “teenager” era in the 1950s when boys with slicked back hair and motorcycles used body ink as a sign of rebellion. But the age of The Outsiders is long gone, but there’s still an uncomfortable lingering hint of unsureness about our trust in people who’ve chosen to colorify their bodies.

With this in the back of my mind, and being a relatively non-rebellious individual, I dove deeper into tattoos and the people who chose them when I confronted my itching desire for some ink. I wanted to understand the people behind the tattoos and whether the old stereotype still defined the reasons behind why they decided to modify themselves. With a built-in prejudice, I found myself surrounded by inked-up individuals earlier this year (goodbye comfort zone!) who surprised me with calm and positive attitudes and great presences to be around. I began easing into the possibility that individuals with tattoos weren’t ex-cons or drop-outs, and questioned why this was the perception a lot of us were brought up to accept.

Who are the people who choose to get all inked up, and why? The latter is a case-by-case answer. Some find deep comfort in physically carrying a meaningful symbol or phrase throughout their lives, while others view their bodies as a canvas to fill. As for the former, anyone can choose to have a tattoo.

Georgia State itself has more than a handful of individuals from all colleges that have chosen to modify their appearance. Nursing students covering up sleeve-long tattoo images, athletes bearing religious reminders, journalism students with a passion for tats; anywhere you turn, more students are choosing to mark their bodies. And further out of this liberal bubble, it seems like acceptance of tattoos is becoming widespread faster than we realize.

Not the wrong crowd

Dr. Desmond Goss, lecturer on sociology at Georgia State was my first glimpse of tattoos in academia. Goss has three tattoos, one of which I noticed my first day of class.
“When I began teaching, one of my goals as a professor was to decolonize the teaching process as much as possible. I wanted students to view me as a resource for support instead of a class overlord,” he said. “So, I wore plain clothes, much of which exposed my tattoos.”

That, he said, came with challenges from other professors and most importantly, his superior, who suggested to him once that he should “want to to think about looking less like a student.”

“Now, most of us understand that any ‘suggestion’ from our bosses is more like a mandate. And though he didn’t explicitly mention my tattoos, I felt that they were a significant part of his issue with my appearance,” he said. “I obliged, wearing a dress shirt, long pants, and neckties from then on. I did so to protect my financial security but it damaged my self-confidence – not only as a professor, but also as someone trying to do my part to dismantle the bureaucratic foundations of oppressive attitudes and behaviors.”

Goss also faced backlash from his parents, who were initially not supportive at all of his decision.

“They take a ‘your body is God’s sacred creation’ perspective. However, I suspect their religious objections were less dismaying than their concerns about my employment prospects and ‘falling into the wrong crowd,’” he said.

Right in the center of what Goss’ parents might call the ‘wrong crowd’ is Jenn Golgan, one of the most vibrant and friendly tattoo artists at Terminus Tattoo.

She’s hard to miss. With fiery eyes, stretched out ear piercings, a nose piercing, colorful hair and a couple dozen tattoos all over her body, Golgan runs the show wherever she goes. But that can sometimes be a challenge.

A sign of rebellion?

“I went to Vegas with my husband, we got first class tickets, and we went to board the plane [when] they called priority boarding for first class,” Golgan said. “And people were cutting us off, not thinking that we paid to get in there. Just because I look the way I look doesn’t mean I can’t afford to get on this.”

But saying something is not an option for her.

“I just shut my mouth, because if I make a stir and I act the way people expect me to act then it’s just proving to them that I am what they perceive,” Golgan said.

She’s no stranger to those perceptions. Though the teenager rebellion era is long-gone, body ink still acts as a signifier to some for the rule-breakers.

“This is the prejudice of looking this way,” Golgan said. “Because we’re the rebels, because we go against the grain, the perception that if you have tattoos you’re a bad person, you’re a criminal. It’s just always been that way.”

For Goss, the stigma lies in more than rebellion.

“Much of this stigma is likely due to the lineage of racist and classist ideology informing our cultural notion of respectability and professionalism. Many ethnic communities incorporate body modification into their cultural symbology. Over time, as the link between race and class solidified, even body modifications in white communities has become associated with non-elite identity,” he said. “Because of these associations with nonwhite, working-class, or otherwise “deviant” communities, tattoos are regarded as antithetical to the brand of professionalism our society requires of members of the professional elite (doctors, lawyers, professors, etc.).”

Inga Masic is a 23-year old Georgia State graduate, who recently finished getting her fifth tattoo. For her, other people’s opinions was never an obstacle in her journey of ink.

“My first tattoo were the seagulls on my back, and initially I wanted the birds to cover my back,” she said. “But my tattoo artist advised me against it. The case isn’t always that the tattoo artist knows better, if you know what you want, but it’s just that they aren’t qualified or confident that they can pull it off.”

Her third tattoo, a lion portrait lies on her wrist, and is one of her most visible tattoos.

“I’m a strong believer that tattoos shouldn’t define a person’s work ethics, abilities, character or make them think they’re not qualified to obtain a job they want,” she said. “So I was never hesitant about getting tattoos, my only hesitation was the look of style of the tattoo, and making sure that was right.”

Masic said the only person in her life who was cautious about her tattoos was her mother, who was more “conservative tendencies.” Masic assured her mom that if a job did judge her for her tattoos, it wouldn’t be a job she wanted to keep. And as a journalism major, having tattoos, Masic feels, doesn’t affect her talent on the keyboard.

A point that professor Goss also felt strongly.

“Ideally,” he said, “Any organization that would openly reject or punish an employee for having tattoos is not an institution that deserves my time and energy. The again, rejecting a job based on an organization’s moral character is not a privilege that many, including myself, can typically deploy.”

Masic always encounters objections when sharing her future tattoo aspirations. One of them was her “lack of a stable household” growing up.

“Ultimately, when people see my tattoos, they question whether I had a rebellious childhood or that my mother cared that I got my first tattoo in high school. Ever since high school and until today tattoos, for me are a form of expression and a way of letting go. Every time I get a tattoo it’s a sense of relief. It’s something that I have in my soul that I’ve now put on my skin,” Masic said.

And for her, the ink is addicting.

“It’s an itch you constantly want to scratch.”

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