A research study has come out, trying to define the relationship between body art and deviance among college students in America.

Remember the days of the Hell’s Angels? Of Sid and Nancy and Billy Idol? Remember when a piercing meant you were bad, but a tattoo meant you were badder? When gangs of the most "different" sort of people brandished their body art and flew their freak flags high, laughing in the face of all that is good and wholesome about the college-educated middle class…

Neither do I.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the days of anti-mainstream subcultures are still fresh in America’s collective memory. Counter-culture extremists were easy to recognize by their flaming skull tattoos and facial piercings, and the "good kids" were clearly discerned by the sweaters tied demurely about their shoulders.

That is no longer the case.

This new study, conducted by Texas Tech researchers, takes a close look at how much the number of tattoos and body piercings a student has directly correlates to their deviant activities.

In a report titled "Body art, deviance, and American college students" (these science types are direct), the team compiled data collected from 1,753 students. What they found might surprise you. Or it might be exactly the results you were expecting.

The results

Specifically, the research "differentiates and measures the relationships between escalating levels of body art and social deviance.” Since social deviance is a largely subjective idea, the researchers were forced to define and categorize it as a variable.

In this case, deviancy was categorized as overtly illegal behavior, as well as legal behavior contrary to social norms. The team further narrowed the legal side of deviance down to cheating on school work, drinking to excess and having multiple sex partners. The illegal deviance included marijuana use, other illegal drug use and arrests other than traffic violations.

The researchers defined body art in three ways: First, an escalating number of tattoos; second, an escalating number of piercings (single earlobe piercings were not included); and third, relegated to their own category, were "intimate" piercings — piercings of the nipples and genitals.

The idea was that a higher number of body art (number of tattoos and piercings) would equal a higher level of deviant behavior — extreme body art (intimate piercings and multiple tattoos) would equal more deviant behavior.

But even with these defined variables, "deviant behavior" is still up in the air when it comes to college students.

“I think every college kid is involved in at least a little bit of deviant or illegal activity,” said Robert Vanderberg from Stingray Body Art, a tattoo artist with over 16 years of experience. “They’re college kids."

What the researchers found was that for some deviant behaviors, there was no obvious corresponding rise in body art. For others, there was a clear increase in deviant behavior connected to certain kinds of body art.

For example, binge drinking was roughly the same across the charts, regardless of the subject’s amount and type of body art. The report theorizes that this is because binge drinking is a "typical" college behavior, part and parcel of parties and the freedom of being away from parental supervision.

Cheating on college work and having multiple sex partners was relatively unrelated to the amount of piercings the subjects had. Levels of cheating on college work remained mostly the same no matter how many tattoos the subjects had or didn’t have.

But the results really got interesting when the variables increased by the amount of body art and the level of deviancy.

The difference in deviance between the un-pierced and the pierced subjects, when it came to drug use and arrest histories, was drastic. In the categories of "monthly marijuana use," "other illegal drug use" and "arrests other than traffic" the percentages mount steadily as the number of piercings increases. The more deviant subjects had more piercings. Similarly, when it came to tattoos, there was a noted difference in deviant behavior between those with tattoos and those without. Over 70 percent of subjects with four or more tattoos admitted to being arrested for something other than a traffic violation. To put things in perspective, only 8.5 percent of the subjects without tattoos admitted to being arrested. Again, it would seem that the more deviant students were acquiring more tattoos.

Subjects with intimate piercings followed the trend of the other two groups. When it came to legal deviant behavior, there was little to separate them from their peers. But in regards to the illegal deviant activities, the subjects with intimate piercings were well represented. Over 24 percent of the subjects with intimate piercings admitted to using illegal drugs other than marijuana. Not quite 6 percent of the subjects without intimate piercings had used illegal drugs. Similarly, over 39 percent of those with intimate piercings admitted to being arrested, but barely 12 percent of those without intimate piercings had been arrested.

The research successfully drew a statistical connection between body art and deviant behavior, according to the variables they set up: The more extreme the body art, the more deviant the behavior.

A total of 37 percent of all the test subjects were pierced and 1 percent% were tattooed. Few of the test subjects (4 percent) had extreme body art: an intimate piercing, four or more tattoos, and seven or more piercings. Even with a relatively small amount of the sample adorned, the trends are hard to ignore.

Take it with a grain of salt

The research team was careful to admit its own limitations. Their subjects didn’t exactly represent a wide cross-section of college-going Americans. The study included students from four colleges: two public, and two private religious institutions. It isn’t explicitly stated, but since the researchers hail from Texas Tech, it’s assumed that the schools in question are in Texas. All of the test subjects were enrolled in entry-level sociology classes.

The test also doesn’t take into account the design of the students’ tattoos, only the number of them. Though this variable might have been impossible to test for, there is a noted difference between a happy dolphin tattoo on the small of your back and a portrait of Charles Manson on your forehead.

Stingray is located near BU on Harvard Avenue. According to Vanderberg, about a third of their clientele are college students. But the tattoos they get aren’t exactly symbols of deviancy. "Kids at Harvard get ‘Veritas’ tattooed on their wrist because they think they’re special. MIT kids get math equations. They get a lot of lettering, quotes, and song lyrics. They want a fairy sitting on a moon with a poem, and half the universe in the background, the size of a quarter on their hip."

The research team was more specific about the piercings they included as body art. A single piercing in each earlobe was not counted as significant body art, since most female college students, regardless of deviancy, sport earrings. A piercing in the cartilage of the ear was deemed body art, as were other facial piercings.

Of course, the very fact that they’re studying college students limits the subjects to mostly middle- to upper-class Americans, with the funds and/or gumption to make it into college. According to their report, 78 percent of the test subjects were between the ages of 18 and 20. Sixty percent of the test subjects were female. And a whopping 79 pecent of the test subjects were Euro-American — white.

But no study is perfect.

What does it all mean?

The statistics above narrow the sample of subjects down to a very particular demographic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it allows the conclusions of the study to be compared to studies of completely different demographics. In particular, it shows how these mostly 18-20, mostly female, mostly Euro-American, and all college-educated people compare to a traditionally different demographic: members of American sub-cultures.

Mainstream Americans have been getting tattoos for a long time. As Vanderberg put it, tattoos are in their Golden Age. "I think it’s great that something other than the counter-culture is getting tattooed. Really the upper-class or the higher middle class, those are the people who are getting the high dollar full body stuff, even though you never see it. New England is very liberal. It’s the Democrats’ Mecca. You can get a job with a facial tattoo. But the rest of the world is very uptight, and that makes you unemployable if you have any tattoo."

To quote from the study’s abstract: “With the increasing mainstream presence of visible tattoos and piercings among entertainers, athletes, and even in corporate boardrooms, we wonder the extent to which long-time enthusiasts and collectors regard the phenomenon as encroachment.”

How will sailors, motorcycle clubs, convicts, musicians, tattoo artists and other traditionally-adorned subcultures react to seeing their symbol of free-spirited individualism on the upper arm of a 19-year-old white college girl?

In other words, the connection between body art and America’s college students doesn’t make everyone happy, as you might imagine. But in this case it’s not simply their parents — the usual target of youth in rebellion — who are annoyed at the connection between body art and deviant behavior. This nuisance even goes beyond their concerned pastors or community leaders.

The research team posits that the people most offended by the body art of deviant college students are deviants themselves. Body art used to be a tried-and-true symbol of deviant behavior and counter-culture attitudes. It was so obvious a sign of the anti-mainstream, that a study like this would’ve been laughable.

"Bikers, whores, freaks, and sailors, that was it." Vanderberg said. "You had to have a pair to even walk in the front door. And no one was nice to you, no one helped to educate you."

Time was when a certain tattoo meant allegiance to a biker gang, military service, prison time or adherence to an extreme philosophy. Body art has been used by members of the straight edge movement to declare their abstinence from drugs and alcohol. It has been used as pictorial histories of convicts’ criminal exploits. Tattoos have been used as symbols of feats of bravery among sailors and the military. Perhaps the most widely-known use of tattoos is as symbols of identity among the motorcycle clubs of California.

But now, with middle-class college students adorning themselves as part and parcel of their "deviant behavior" (read: cheating on tests, binge drinking, and smoking the reefer), what does this do to the traditional status symbol of the counter-culture? Vanderberg said, "There are tattooed people, and there are people with tattoos. Tattooed people are different." If a binge-drinking sorority girl can get a skull and roses tattooed on her thigh, what does that same tattoo mean on a 50-year old female biker who’s seen more than her fair share of deviancy?

Does this detract from the meaning body art? Or does this mean that more college students are considering themselves counter-culture?

The research team believes that the connection between the college students’ body art and their deviant behavior will force a response from the old-school deviants: “We propose that tattoo collectors, artists, and piercers must not only increase the number of tattoos and piercings they have in order to maintain a distinctive sub- cultural identity, they are also more likely to solidify their out-group status with higher levels of other anti-social behavior.”

Therefore, because mainstream young people are using body art to symbolize their youthful transgressions, members of the tattooed subculture must respond in kind. Not only must they take their body art to new extremes, but they must also increase their deviant behavior to be more deviant than the actions of supposedly bad-ass college students.

But does the counter-culture agree?

Neither main nor stream. Discuss

Stingray Body Art on Harvard Avenue won Boston Magazine’s Best of Boston Award for the best tattoo parlor in 2006 and 2007. The establishment is home to nine tattoo artist and two body piercers. Judging by Stingray’s work, their title of Best of Boston is well-deserved. But they didn’t get there by catering strictly to counter-culture tattoo enthusiasts.

The parlor advertises a 10 percent student discount. With their location in the heart of America’s college town, it’s no wonder a large portion of their clientele is college students.

But students aren’t the only mainstream business to walk through the parlor’s doors. Every day, Stingray sees clients from all walks of life. "You name it, we do it,” Vanderberg said. “From retired folks to lawyers, teachers, doctors, investment bankers… we do it all. We’re located near the teamster area, so we have a lot of those."

It’s a large, clean, professional-looking shop on a main thoroughfare, a far cry from the stereotype of the shadowy, back-alley, have-to-know-somebody-who-knows-somebody-to-find-it tattoo parlor run by outlaw biker tattoo artists. Surely that parlor still exists somewhere, but parlors like Stingray have become the face of the body art industry.

The idea is to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of mainstream or counter-culture affiliation. "My job is to take care of you, make it look cool and send you away with a good experience and a smile on your face. My job’s not to judge what people get," Vanderberg said.

Not everyone likes this style. The research team writes, "’Old-school’ tattoo artists, as well as long-time collectors and enthusiasts, have expressed dismay and disgust at the emergence of such ‘posers’ regarding them as late to the game and playing it casually." Perhaps the problem of body art and deviance among college students is a matter of respect. Are college students intruding on traditions that aren’t theirs to borrow?

Vanderberg doesn’t think the change is all bad. "I think that it used to be people who were on the edge that got tattooed, no one else did. But now it’s not like that. It’s fashion. It’s like Uggs or Doc Martins or anything else. Trends will change, and they’ll get different stuff, and keep our industry alive." The times they are a’changing.

Whether or not body art is a symbol of deviancy in college students, it still might be perceived that way. "I’ve had situations where if you had tattoos on your hands and a cop pulled you over, you were a scumbag and you’re getting a ticket. That’s like saying anyone who’s black likes watermelon, or anyone who’s Middle Eastern is a terrorist," Vanderberg said. "I don’t think it’s right to judge anyone for the color of their skin. It’s that little 1/16 of an inch that makes us all so different, tattoo or not."

Biker gangs, bad boys and rock stars used to be synonymous with tattoos. These days however, skin art is definitely becoming more mainstream with each passing month. With body art becoming the norm, and tattooed college students experimenting with social deviancy, where is there room for counter-culture symbolism? When a tattoo and multiple piercings is no longer a symbol of radical individualism, what will radical individuals do to set themselves apart?

"Body art, deviance, and American college students" sheds light on a curious trend among America’s college students, but asks more questions than it answers about the new meaning of body art and deviancy.

About The Author

Bombshell executive editor Jess d'Arbonne works in book publishing. In her non-existent spare time she writes about nerd culture, books, feminism, and zombies. She's a Libra, a Browncoat, a self-professed geek, and nobody's fool. You can follow her on Twitter @JessDarb

7 Responses

  1. Tara

    It’s funny….I have 17 tattoos and 6 piercings (used to have my nipples, but that’s another story). I am a senior in college and I’ve never been arrested. I tried marijuana when I was 14…too young for a tattoo and only had my ears and labret pierced. I don’t consider myself to be “deviant” by any means. Kids are kids…which means they are going to do whatever they want especially if you tell them not to. Maybe the reason why the deviance was higher in the “modified” college students is because they actually have the balls to be honest. The majority of college students that I know that participate in “deviant” behavior don’t have any tattoos or piercings at all. This study was pointless! Instead of wasting time, effort/energy, and perhaps money on studies like this why don’t you focus on more important issues such as diseases, the economy, and the two wars that the U.S. is in?! Oh and for the record…when I said “you” I was referring to the researchers not the author of this article.

  2. Sister

    I work in a hospital and not all who get tattoos are deviant. There are nurses and administrative females I know who have permanent eyeliner (same thing). They have other tats as well. I am a Supervisor and I have a really nice one. I only have one, but I know of those that have many. Who are we to just? I have talked to young people who have done the piercing for a time, and its a form of expression. They can work, save lives, contribute just like anyone else!

    Some people have nothing better to do than to “look” for a reason.

    Peace. One love.

  3. Manna

    I don’t know if you realize it but Texas Tech lies in an area of the country that is so backwards and redneck that they still haven’t realized that the KKK is gone (or is it). They believe that Texas is going to succeed from the union, that outsiders (of the US) are trying to sneak in a destroy it, and that if you are not racist there is something wrong with you. I was told that the biggest problem with welfare is that “people sat on their porches and drank”. They haven’t even built porches on houses for 60 years, unless you are rich enough to afford it, or your house is over 60 years old. These people are not doing a survey but trying to start a fascist overthrow of the country. I think we need about 200,000 people to go to this place and show them what real people are about! Actually, I am amazed that this still exists 40 years after I thought that it was gone!

  4. mattram

    Did you consider that maybe you fell within that 30% of participants with the requisite numbers of tattoos/piercings who didn’t answer yes to the types of activities tested for?
    Or is that too logical? Maybe they should have tested IQ levels per number of tattoos/piercings. In fact, I think we have our 1st test subject…

  5. Wes

    If you want to know something about tattoo I recommend this list of books where text is more than pictures: http://www.unimaxsupply.com/books/scholars/scholar.htm
    This study is nothing new, but one of a stream of anti-tattoo rhetoric from Myrna Armstrong, “Texas Tech Tattoo Authority” who has spent more than 20 years writing negative articles after negative article about tattoo using words like pathological and deviant. These ideas were put to rest duing the lambroso-lacassagne debates at the turn of the 20th century and rejected universally.


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