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Tattoos linked to deviance?

February 1, 2010

Tattoos linked to deviance?

Study makes connection, but ink fans say it’s not true

Jeff Robertson’s knuckles may say “punk,” but he says he’s as harmless as the tattoo of his baby kitten on his right thigh.

The 28-year-old founder of the Canadian chapter of the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation has more than 20 individual tattoos that meld together to make two “sleeves” covering both his arms. His latest one is of a Samurai panda.

He spends his days devoted to the charity, trying to raise awareness for the disease that severely affects his mom, but a new report has him — and other tattooed folks — pegged as a deviant.

Texas Tech University’s study, which will be published in March in the Social Science Journal, says that people with two or more piercings or tattoos are more prone to deviant behaviour, which includes excess drinking, smoking pot, being promiscuous and being willing to cheat.

“I know dozens of people who are covered in tattoos who have never drank,” Robertson said. “I don’t see this having any clout whatsoever. I see tattoos as an improvement to what we’ve been given. I like to think of the body as a blank canvas and to one’s discretion what they add to it.”

And much of his art has significant meaning — especially the green ribbon, which is the symbol for organ donation.

“The butterfly was for when I found out my mom was having her second liver transplant and butterflies are a universal symbol for organ donations, as well,” he said.

Researchers asked 1,753 students from four American colleges — two state-supported public schools and two highly selective religious institutions — and found 37% reported at least one piercing and 14% were tattooed.

Four per cent reported having seven or more piercings, four or more tattoos, and/or at least one piercing in their nipples or genitals.

Students were asked about parts of their lifestyle, including drug and alcohol use, sexual activity and whether they cheat on tests.

What they found was “sharp differences in the levels of deviant behaviour among those with just one tattoo versus those with four or more, and among those with just one to three piercings versus those with seven or more,” reports sociologist Jerome Koch, the paper’s lead author.

“Results indicate that respondents with four or more tattoos, seven or more body piercings, or piercings located in their nipples or genitals were substantially and significantly more likely to report regular marijuana use, occasional use of other drugs, and a history of being arrested for a crime.”

Well, of course the report is skewed, said Joey Nixon, co-owner of Adrenaline Body Piercing and Tattoos on Queen St. W. The majority of his clientele is in the 16-25 age range — nearly the same demographic the university report focuses on.

“One study I found dictates that 44% of students, attending a four-year college, drink alcohol to binge levels or greater. Maybe it’s the likelihood of hazing that’s contributed to binge drinking and not tattooing,” said Nixon, 39, who opened up his tattoo and piercing establishment two years ago. He also has shops in Montreal, Vancouver and New Jersey.

“In the ’90s, there was an insurgence of yuppie Harley bikers and weekend warriors of doctors, lawyers, businessmen to let the wind run through their hair as they went up the interstate. Are we saying that these people with four- to seven-year degrees are all of a sudden deviants because they’re moving away from the norm? In that context, any minority must be deviant.”

And while the history of tattoos span more than 5,000 years and changed meaning from the time Greeks branded slaves and criminals to today, where reality TV shows such as Miami Ink and celebrities like Kat Von D and Angelina Jolie have made getting skin ink much more mainstream.

“Not that long ago, in the ’40s and ’50s, it was all sailors … you kind of had to be badass or biker, those were the types of people who got tattoos,” said Joe Pinto, who runs Toronto Ink, an informal tattoo association in the GTA.

“Nowadays, it’s grandmothers, musicians. Some kids these days are just completely covered in tattoos all up their necks. They look like hell, but they’re such nice kids and respectful and polite.”

Pinto, 49, vehemently says even he deviates from the study’s findings. He’s a father of three living in Georgetown, has nine tattoos, works in the hotel industry and books indie rock concerts in his spare time.

“I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t do dope,” he said. “I know people who smoke and drink and party their faces off and raise hell and they don’t have any tattoos. I go home and I’m pretty boring.”

But parents remain alarmed.

Helen Jones, of the Association of Parent Support Groups in Ontario, said that while it wouldn’t be most parents’ choice for their child to come home with a single tattoo, they would tolerate it. Still, two is too many.

“(Having a single tattoo means) you might be on the road to disaster, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be redirected to make better choices,” Jones said.

“One tattoo or piercing is a good indication of a little rebellion and pushing the envelope. Not enough to create any real damage but enough for satisfaction that you’ve done it. People who get tattoos and piercings — maybe that’s the only thing they think they have control of. They may feel disenfranchised.”

Not only that, parents are concerned about health issues that may arise from getting tattooed or pierced.

Nixon contends that his shop has a number of health and safety procedures, including the use of a modern autoclave to sterilize needles and tools.

“People need to group us with the medical community,” he said. “Automatically, we’re seen as deviants. Every one of my practitioners have updated versions of piercing or tattoo anatomy as well as cross-contamination controls.”

The Texas researchers suggest the traditional subculture of piercing and tattoos associated with deviant behaviour has been “encroached upon from the outside” by the increasing acceptance of body art. So those who feel a part of this subculture “may need to modify or extend their behaviour to maintain social distance,” which could mean we could see more penis or nipple piercings.

While Statistics Canada doesn’t have data on the number of tattoo and piercing jobs done each year, there’s no doubt that body modification is very popular, especially with those age 18 to 22. Health Canada reports between 73% and 83% of women in the U.S. have had their ears pierced. U.S. studies show that the number of women with tattoos quadrupled between 1960 and 1980.

According to the CBC, in 2004, 47% of males and 53% of females in Canadian prisons had tattoos.

The number of tattooing and piercing shops in Canada has increased dramatically in the last few years. Toronto Public Health estimates there are roughly 150 piercing and tattoo shops in Toronto alone, which they inspect annually.

“There are more shops than I’ve ever seen,” Pinto said. “Walking into a shop is like walking into a fast-food place or spa.”

So is it deviant to get tattoos, or do tattoos cause the so-called deviant behaviour?

“It’s the ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of thing,” Robertson said. “It’s such a farce to me that people think that because I have tattoos, I’m any less of a decent person. I have more tattoos now and I’m doing more good in my life. I’m living a healthier, cleaner lifestyle now.”

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