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Posted June 1, 2012

Congress 2012

Tattoos not about rebellion, says Newfoundland researcher

Memorial University researcher finds tattoos have become self-expression

Waterloo —Tattoos are no longer about being rebellious. They have become symbols of self-expression, says a researcher at Memorial University, Newfoundland.

And the words, messages and symbols used in tattoos are becoming more complex, the expression of deeper and more complex emotions and feelings.

Chris Martin is a Master’s candidate at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador who is studying the meaning of tattoos. He is presenting results of his work at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Martin says his research shows people get tattoos to express things about themselves – their feelings, their beliefs or elements of their own past.

And he says people who see the tattoos need to appreciate that there is nothing simplistic about their meaning.

Martin became interested in the topic of tattoos when one of his supervisors, Dr. Stephen Riggins, urged him to write about what he knows. Martin, who has five tattoos himself, decided to explore the personal and social meaning of tattoos, and how those meanings change.

As he interviewed people with tattoos, he came to understand that the meaning behind the tattoos was way more complex than he imagined. He found himself researching unusual topics or looking up obscure books to understand the meaning of what he was seeing. A single tattoo might reference both ancient Greece and contemporary Japan – and represent a complex set of emotions.

“Self-expression is in,” says Martin. “The designs are becoming more complex, and so are the emotions. It’s no longer about representing being part of a gang. It’s becoming more a sign of expression and representation of the self.”

Martin said he could never have guessed at the meaning of some of the tattoos until he asked about them. Weeping seraphim, for example, might be a memorial to a dead sibling.

Researching tattoos had some unexpected problems. Martin says that most people were excited to show their tattoos and talk about them. But it wasn’t always easy to show tattoos that were on certain body parts. So to avoid any potential issues, he had people take photos of some tattoos before discussing them.

“At the end of the day it’s art,” says Martin. “And that’s why the interpretation of the meaning of tattoos is so large.”

And he says that as with art, people will either like the tattoos – or they won’t.

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