Tattoos and Moral Panic | Grace Briggs

Photo curtesy of @tattooness_com via Twitter

“As in all moral panics, an accusation is enough to destroy a person’s life. Hysteria trumps evidence.” 

-Carol Tavris 

In her book, From the Dance Halls to Facebook, Shayla Thiel-Stern introduces the idea of moral panic, which, while in a different context, can be used to understand the concept of the moral panic surrounding tattoos. For centuries, tattoos have been seen as a symbol of rebelliousness. This view comes from portrayals in the media of tattoos littering men and women who sold their bodies, committed heinous crimes, and did drugs.  

As described by Thiel-Stern, moral panic is an “irrational cultural overreaction about a phenomenon deemed deviant” (Thiel-Stern, 13). The nature of moral panic is widely depicted in mass media; it happens when journalists distort data or use flashy and misleading headlines to spark their desired reaction. This tactic has been used for centuries and remains effective in the 21st century with tattoos being one of the many targets of moral panic by mass media. The moral panic surrounding the subject is widespread, and while it has begun to diminish in recent years, it is still seen today. Tattoos are viewed as “deviant behavior” from the widespread moral panic in the United States–they aren’t seen for what they truly are: art. This is expressed by journalist Kathryn Hughes in her article published in The Guardian, where she expresses her upbringing with the association of criminal behavior surrounding tattoos and how – despite her attempt to get away from that prejudice – it’s still rooted in her today. Tattoos can be more than art; for some, they’re a means of self-liberation that are a constant reminder of loved ones and a different regard for one’s body.   

One of the most alluring things about tattoos is the liberation they can bring to individuals. For example, many women who have survived sexual assault will get a tattoo depicting their strength; a prevalent symbol is the Medusa tattoo. Additionally, many who have survived a suicide attempt or have lost someone to suicide will get a tattoo that includes a semicolon, which represents that your “sentence,” or life, does not end here. Like many other forms of memorial, these tattoos are sentimental and bring people peace. They harm no one and can belong to people from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, grocery clerks, anyone

When I lost my grandmother last October, it took a dramatic toll on my mental health. As someone who isn’t religious, I looked for any sign to feel that she was still with me. I saw a TikTok of a woman claiming to be a medium, saying that a recently lost loved one would come to visit in the form of a bird the next day. That very next day, I was practicing softball on the Bermuda turf on campus and saw a dragonfly buzz by and somehow felt a connection with it – like it meant something. It sat in front of me and stared at me before flying away, and for whatever reason, I felt some peace. Since that moment, every time I see a dragonfly, I think of my grandmother.  

When going for a walk around campus, I took in the silence and stillness of my environment, and I saw another dragonfly. Whenever I go for a walk, I see something that reminds me of her: flowers, the sun, anything and everything beautiful, so I want to get a dragonfly tattoo for my grandmother to constantly have a piece of her with me to bring me peace.  

Last summer, I got a large hip tattoo. I did it for myself, because it makes me feel beautiful and comfortable in my skin. When my uncle saw my tattoo for the first time, however, I starkly sensed the hurtful impacts sparked by a moral panic. When he saw the tattoo, he asked, “what the hell is on your leg?” With so much disgust in his voice, I knew an argument was coming. I told him it was just a tattoo, and he responded, “have fun living in the trailer park.” Hearing his disgust with my attempt at liberation and beauty hurt. He believes tattoos are for those with a lower economic status than him and therefore looks down on them. When I complained about his ignorance to my dad, his brother, he told my uncle, and my aunt, defended him by saying it was “just how he was raised.” Tolerance is not something you have to be raised with; it is a quality that kind human beings possess. Moral panic, as Thiel-Stern says, “cannot be solely blamed on mass media or how an individual is brought up, but it also directly involves the audience” (15). My uncle is a prime example of getting caught up in moral panic.  

Deviant behavior seems to be one of the most prominent associations with tattoos. Thiel-Stern describes an instance in a chapter of her book, “Punk Rock and a Crisis of Femininity,” where a teenage girl takes to dressing like a punk rocker. She is interviewed by talk show host Phil Donahue, who asks why she’s a “punker” and is going against society’s ideal depiction of femininity. She resists that view by saying she is just doing what makes her happy in her form of self-expression. Next, Donahue asks her if she is drug-free, and she responds, “yes I am.” Finally, he asks if it is a political statement and if she has some misgivings about society, to which she says there are issues in society, but this is not about that, it is about her form of self-expression and identity (Thiel-Stern, 122).  

While the Donahue episode was related to punk-rock culture and dress, it highlights how moral panic arises in a variety of social corners. The same goes for tattoos; people will ask if you’re an alcoholic or using drugs, they’ll ask if you’ve been to prison, or they’ll assume you kick puppies in your free time. Of course, some people with tattoos do these things, but there are also individuals without a single line of ink on their bodies who do these same things, if not worse.  

Moral panic stretches beyond tattoos; it encompasses every aspect of life in some shape or form. It has destroyed personal relationships as it did with myself and my uncle; it has stolen job opportunities from deserving individuals, destroyed many lives, and will continue to do so. Moral panic forces people to make improper and harmful assumptions about people and as a result, it causes them to say and think things without reason. It causes people to be shunned from society without explanation and looked down upon for something that brings them joy because, as Carol Tavris puts it, hysteria trumps evidence; and as a result of human nature, it always will.  

(Citations from From the Dance Hall to Facebook by Shayla Theil-Stern.)

One comment

  1. Grace as someone with tattoos, I definitely understood the moral panic you discussed and it made me intrigued to read Shayla’s book! When I got my first tattoo some members of my family were supportive and others kind of gave me side-eye and implied that it was stupid to get tattoos. When I got my second one, my grandmother actually made the comment that tattoos were unladylike. So I absolutely connect with your piece and I think it was a good description of something people with tattoos experience and struggle with.

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