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Tattoos: From Social Taboo to Social Acceptance


The purpose of this research paper is to summary and comment upon the changes in perception with regards to tattoos by the society over the years. While the unanimous acceptance of tattoos in the society has not yet occurred, tattoos have moved from being a taboo subject to gaining some respectability and popularity with the masses. The paper will begin by giving a brief introduction as to the history of tattoos so as to create a good background on the subject. From here, the various connotations that tattoos have elicited in the past will be highlighted. The study will then provide a discussion of tattoos and the modern society therefore revealing the factors that have led to the acceptance and rejection of tattoos. The explanations for acceptability of tattoos show that there are still factors in existence which prevent tattoos from universally accepted. Nevertheless, the paper demonstrates that tattoos are no longer a taboo in our society.

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The question of self identity has been on man’s mind from ancient civilizations to our modern times. Man has throughout history sought ways in which to distinguish himself from others of his kind so as to create a unique identity for himself. Tattoos offer to aid man in his quest for self identity and expression by availing to him a means by which he could show how unique and different he is to everyone else or give him a platform on which to proclaim his allegiance to a certain creed. Tattooing as an art has evolved from the early days where it was the exclusive premise of sailors and prisoners to being widely acceptable and even fashionable to the general population (Ricci 2004). With its growth, the social acceptability of tattoos has made giant leaps. In these modern times where democracy is rive and freedom of expression is its holy grail, there has been a change in the perception of tattoos among the general population. This paper argues that tattoos which were once a social taboo have evolved to become not only socially acceptable but also hugely fashionable in some circles. This paper will begin with a brief review of literature on tattoos and proceed to showcase changes that have occurred in the society regarding tattoos.

Statement of the Social Problem

Rio and Bianchini (2005) note that tattoos hold and have always held different meanings to different people throughout history. However, in the early days of our history, the gross generalization of the reasons as to why people wore tattoos led to prejudicing of the tattoo adorners. These prejudices and stereotyping in minds of people led to formation of various notions concerning people with tattoos and as Hesselt (2007) acknowledges, most of the preconceived notions were of a negative nature. However, the popularization of tattoos in modern times and the taking up of more open-minded and tolerant attitudes by the society has led to the acceptance of tattoos.

Review of Relevant Literature

Tattoos are marking which involve ink being permanently inserted under one’s skin. The modes in which tattooing is done have changed over time from primitive usage of blades and stones to more sophisticated methods which use electric pens. The significance of tattoos differs from culture to culture and has been seen to change through time. Their roles range from being decorative in nature, as a mark of belonging to a particular group to displaying rank and social positioning of an individual. Tattoos can be traced as far back in history as 3300BC in the Egyptian society where the markings found on mummified bodies from Egyptian tombs attest to the presence of this tattooing culture in ancient Egypt (Rio & Bianchini 2005). These tattoos were largely of an aesthetic value and they also served to show the social status of the wearer. The Greeks on the other hand used Tattoos for communication among the nation’s spies. By use of the tattoos present on a hidden part of the body, spies could identify each other while on hostile grounds and also tell ranks.

Levy (2008) observes that in the ancient Asian communities, tattoos where used to show social standing. Girls where marked to show their place in society as well as to define their area of specialization and hence one only needed to look at the markings on a girl’s body to tell if they were married or otherwise. One can therefore see the functional role which tattoos played in this society. Interestingly, in western culture, the Britons used tattoos for social status identification as was exhibited by the tattooing of family crests on one’s body. The use of tattoos was not solely limited to this as tattoos were also used for ceremonial purposes where they played a decorative role.

However, the history of tattoos is not all rosy and as DeMello (2004) bleakly writes; tattoos in the slave-trade days were the distinction between the colonizer and the colonized. The slaves where “tattooed” with their owners mark and hence from this one could tell a free man apart from a slave. This being the case, bearing a tattoo was not so much a personal choice but rather a sign of lack of personal choice. In other communities and the Japanese in particular, Criminals were tattooed and hence marking them as society’s misfits for life. This negative undertones of tattoos are some the reasons why most people and especially those with some religious inclination shun tattoos (Levy 2008).

The electric tattooing machine patented by Samuel O’Rtiely in 1981 is arguably the invention that popularized tattooing and made it attractive to more people (DeMello 2000). Before the birth of this revolutionary machine, tattooing was a slow and painful business which was conducted by hand using needles and ink by a relatively small number of artists. The Electric Tattooing machine changed all this by making the experience less painful and all more affordable as it could now be conducted by a wider number of people. In the present day, tattoos have enjoyed wide spread acceptance by all classes of people and with the increasing affordability of tattoos and wide range of artwork being tattooed, the craft is enjoying unprecedented blooming. Ricci (2004) rather humorously comments that with the mass embrace of tattooing, it is more unique this days to not have a tattoo than to have one which beats the sense of having a tattoo as a symbol of unique identity.

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Tattos and Modern Society

Reasons for Rejection of Tattoos

While the adorning of tattoos by an individual is held as a matter of personal choice and preference, there are a variety of reasons that led to most societies regarding tattoos as taboo in the past. To begin with, tattoos come in various forms ranging from those of a religious nature to those that are undeniably obscene in nature. Tattoos may also have deep rooted meanings which may be associated with their positioning and their content as well (Hesselt 2007). Hence a tattoo that would otherwise be benign in nature can be viewed as derogatory based on its content and positioning. This inflammatory attribute of tattoos led to their rejection in earlier societies where harmony and peaceful coexistence where desirable.

One of the features of tattoos that made them contentious is their outrageous nature. Rush (2005) contends that some tattoos are displayed for nothing more than their shock value or to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker. Examples of these tattoos include pirate flags on the arms, spiders on webs on the neck or nude images on the arms. The primary objectives of these tattoos are to shock the onlooker and hence this category of tattoos is bound to elicit negative reactions from people. As such, people in the past found such tattoos distasteful and as Levy (2008) emphasizes, this was not acceptable in a society that was deeply conservative and traditional in nature.

In reality, most people who get tattoos are in fact ignorant as to the deeper meaning of the tattoos they get but as the old adage goes, ignorance is no defense. While some tattoos are innocent and benign in nature, others are malevolent and emanate from a turbulent and bloody past. Gang affiliation tattoos are especially notorious for their negative messages and it would be imprudent for ignore this especially in a social setting. In an organization, an employee sporting a gang affiliation tattoo will be perceived by a customer as belonging to this gang regardless of the truth in this. This may cause the customer to avoid the particular organization in future as a direct result of the employees tattoos. It is for such reasons that tattoos are still viewed with some caution especially in the business world.

Acceptability of Tattoos

As has been reiterated throughout this paper, there has been a change in the perception of tattoos in our society. The law has to some extent helped advance the cause of tattoos especially with regard to tattoos of a religious nature. People can therefore sport a “religious tattoo” without fear of reprisal, discrimination or firing by employers. The legal backing of tattoos is especially necessary in business settings where employers have a right as to the dress code of the employee.

While the shock value of tattoos was previously despised, in modern day, this attribute might actually lead to an expansion of business interests and immense entertainment for the people. This is especially the case in show businesses whereby the overall aim is to entertain people by means of shocking them or amusing them or any other means conceivable. According to DeMello (2000), the entertainment business was the first to take up tattooing in modern times and also popularize it among the masses from the days of the travelling circuses where circus members possessing body long tattoos were major attractions to the television era where photos of tattooed celebrities e.g. Marilyn Monroe were widely publicized and broadcasted.

Tattoos can also, to a small extent, have a positive impact on mainstream business and social relationships. This is especially so when the tattoos are of a religious nature and people are of the same believe. This stems from the fact that people always tend to gravitate towards people with whom them share believes with. As such, a person will feel “at home” if the person they are interacting with sports a tattoo that identifies him as belonging to the same creed. However, this is a double edged sword as it might happen that a person has a strong dislike for the faith in which the other person so publicly belongs to.

Another factor which has led to the acceptability of tattoos is the fact that tattoos are no longer a permanent state of affairs and in cases where one feels that their tattoo is invoking too much negative sentiments, one can seek ways to erase the offending tattoos. Rio and Bianchini (2005) theorize that the emergence of laser removal techniques has to some extent led to the popularization of tattoos. This, they argue, is because a person no longer needs to fear that the tattoo will be forever a part of their lives as they can erase the tattoo if need be. This is especially appealing to young people who may want to experiment with new fashions.

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Summary and Conclusion

Despite the popularization of tattoos in modern day, and their acceptance by mainstream media as well as popular culture, they still remain a touchy issue with some people in the society. From this paper, it has been established that the extensive negative connotation associated with tattoos is a thing of the past. This is because the society has acknowledged that tattoos come in wide variety and it would be unfair to classify them all as having a particular meaning. People now acknowledge that tattoos come in various sizes and colors and portray a myriad of sentiments and this being the case; one should not be judged based on the tattoos they adorn.

In addition to this, anti discriminatory laws have also led to the tolerance towards people with tattoos. These laws protect against people being discriminated especially in the work environment as a result of tattoos. As a result of such measures by the government and various other lobby groups, people are no longer scared of being discriminated against because of their tattoos. Popularization of the tattoo culture by famous public figures has also led to the increase in tolerance and acceptability for tattoos.

However, as has been demonstrated by this paper, there still exists some inhibit ions to tattoos and their acceptability is mostly on a case by case merit. As such, one should be sensitive to the needs of others and take care to ensure that their tattoos do not intentionally offend others. This will lead to the further acceptance of tattoos as the favorite means of self identity and expression in our society.


DeMello, M. 2000. Bodies of inscription: a Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. USA: Duke University Press.

Hesselt, M. D. 2007. The World of Tattoo: An Illustrated History. USA: Mundurucu Publishing.

Levy, J. 2008. Tattoos in Modern Society. USA: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Ricci, J. 2004. The Point Is Self-Expression, Say Tattoo Enthusiasts. Web.

Rio, D. and Bianchini, E. 2005. Tattoo. USA: Courage Books.

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Rush, A. J. 2005. Spiritual Tattoo: a Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing and Scarification. Berkeley, CA: BookFirst.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 24). Tattoos: From Social Taboo to Social Acceptance. Retrieved from


StudyCorgi. (2021, December 24). Tattoos: From Social Taboo to Social Acceptance.

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"Tattoos: From Social Taboo to Social Acceptance." StudyCorgi, 24 Dec. 2021,

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Tattoos: From Social Taboo to Social Acceptance'. 24 December.

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