Ink Me, Stud

By Published on .

In 1995, teen actresses Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone appeared in a popular video for the Aerosmith song “Crazy,� in which the rings in their bellybuttons played a much noticed supporting role. From that moment on, ears no longer held the monopoly at local piercing shops. Similarly, tattoos, traditionally associated with sailors and other tough guys, have crossed over into popular culture, and somewhere in the annals of recent history, the two became inextricably linked. In fact, many tattoo parlors today double as piercing studios.

But how deep in American life has the body decoration trend penetrated? According to an exclusive survey conducted for American Demographics by Internet research firm Harris Interactive, almost 1 in 6 adults have or have had a tattoo or a body piercing. More specifically, 10 percent of Americans have or have had a tattoo, 2 percent have a body piercing other than an earring and 4 percent have both. The nationally representative online poll of 1,009 adults was conducted between August 24 and 28 of this year.

Not surprisingly, young adults are the most active body artists. While only 4 percent of all adults have a tattoo and a piercing, 16 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 15 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds do. Conversely, none of the respondents who are 65 and older have or have ever had both a tattoo and piercing, and only 5 percent of senior citizens have a tattoo. However, it seems the preretirement group is a little more hip: 9 percent of those between the ages of 40 and 64 sport a tattoo.

When it comes to gender and race, body art appears to be an equal opportunity phenomenon. For example, 13 percent of men have or have had a tattoo or body piercing, compared with 18 percent of women. Similarly, whites (18 percent), blacks (16 percent) and Hispanics (14 percent) are almost equally likely to have embellished their birthday suits. Other demographic factors make more of a difference, however. For instance, body art and educational attainment are inversely related, according to our study. Twenty-two percent of those with a high school education or less are tattooed or pierced, compared with 8 percent of college graduates and 4 percent of those with a postgraduate education.

Among the general public, perceptions about those who choose to adorn their bodies run the gamut, although the most frequently mentioned adjectives are “rebellious� and “experimental,� suggested by 67 percent and 49 percent of Americans, respectively. (See chart, below.)

Elayne Angel, who runs a piercing studio in New Orleans called Rings of Desire, has been piercing people since the 1970s. She was surprised when she heard that body art still gets labeled “rebellious.� “I get more of a conforming vibe,� she says about her clientele. Last year, Angel pierced 5,000 customers, including 1,372 navels, 822 tongues and 708 nipples.

It is clear that most Americans consider it risky to have visible body art. Eighty-five percent agree with the statement, “people who have visible tattoos or body piercings should realize that this form of self-expression is likely to create obstacles in their career or personal relationships.� Seventy-two percent also agree that employers should have the right to impose body-art-limiting dress codes on employees. The level of agreement on these issues, however, depends on one's basic tolerance of body art, with the young and the liberal more sympathetic than the older, more conservative set.

Because Harris Interactive, unlike many other research companies, asks respondents about their sexual orientation, it is possible to test one historical hypothesis about body piercing: that piercing is still predominantly a gay man's pastime. While “gay leathermen� originally popularized body piercing in this country, according to Angel, now anyone is game. “It took two decades before piercings gained a friendly female face,� she says, referring to the navel rings of such stars as Britney Spears. Still, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Americans are twice as likely as the average American to be tattooed, pierced, or both (28 percent versus 14 percent), though only 12 percent associated the term “gay� with body art.

Some religions, such as Judaism, preach against tattoos and other types of body art, but only 20 percent of respondents in our survey say that their religion prohibits the practice. A more common motive for not getting tattooed is its relative permanence. Ninety-one percent of Americans agree that “people should be careful about getting tattoos because they are permanent.� But even if laser removal were cheaper and guaranteed to work, don't expect some of the more obstinate to flock to the tattoo parlor. Quite a few people — 56 percent — say they simply find tattoos and body art distasteful. The Dennis Rodman look is obviously not for everyone.

What Does Your Tattoo Say About You?

Fifty-seven percent of Americans age 65 and older describe visible tattoos or body piercings as “freakish,� compared with just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds who feel the same.

PERCENT OF ADULTS WHO ASSOCIATE THE FOLLOWING TERMS WITH VISIBLE TATTOOS OR BODY PIERCINGS, BY AGE:

TOTAL 18-24 25-29 30-39 40-49 50-64 65+
Rebellious 67% 63% 49% 71% 68% 65% 74%
Experimental 49% 57% 59% 53% 50% 48% 32%
Immature 49% 29% 32% 45% 47% 52% 74%
Freakish 39% 29% 34% 37% 32% 41% 57%
Alternative 38% 58% 77% 42% 41% 29% 10%
Artistic 21% 53% 34% 29% 23% 7% 3%
Normal 19% 46% 19% 20% 19% 18% 3%
Stylish 15% 29% 25% 13% 16% 11% 7%
Fun 13% 34% 27% 15% 10% 8% 2%
Gay 12% 12% 10% 16% 9% 10% 12%
Sexy 10% 22% 25% 12% 12% 3% 2%
Tough 8% 10% 9% 7% 7% 8% 11%
Source: American Demographics/Harris Interactive

You Spent $60 on What!?!

Eighty-four percent of Americans say they would be very or somewhat troubled if their grown child came home with a lip piercing, but only 54 percent would be troubled by their child showing up with a tattoo.

VERY

TROUBLED
SOMEWHAT

TROUBLED
NOT VERY

TROUBLED
NOT TROUBLED

AT ALL
Lip piercing 63% 21% 9% 7%
Nose piercing 57% 24% 11% 9%
Tongue piercing 60% 21% 11% 9%
Eyebrow piercing 54% 25% 12% 9%
Navel piercing 38% 24% 21% 16%
Tattoo 25% 29% 25% 22%
Source: American Demographics/Harris Interactive
In this article:
Most Popular