In the tattoo world there is a common phrase, “tattoos are addictive”. Once received the freshly inked are said to start envisaging other potential designs, placements and projects. Perhaps this propensity could be simplified into economic terms and, considering the highly detrimental lasting effects of bad tattoos, rightly be classified as an addiction.
Outside of genuine cultural practices popularized tattooing trends can broadly be considered as a post-modern, flattening of heritage. It is now perfectly common to see those of clear Caucasian descent with full traditional Japanese sleeves. Non-Buddhists covered in Thai temple writing they couldn’t read or translate if their life depended on it and Polynesian armbands on Americans that haven’t left the country. The intent is not to restrict or judge their choice simply to state that the markings themselves have now frequently been reclassified as stylistic preferences.
There is no way to objectively classify taste. As history is often overlooked or mashed together, skill in application and design is everything. ‘Authenticity’ now rests with the tattooist. Irrespective of the subject matter there are two differentiating principles: talent and uniqueness. In the same way that Picasso would not have painted a great Jackson Pollack – talent arises from the selection of and dedication to a specific set of techniques. This does not imply that the content need remain uniform. Every artist has a particular skill set best suited to their own formula of creativity. Talent connotes a representative skill set whereas uniqueness means the artist does not rely on works already completed. Without their skill set work is reduced to duplication. In tattooing, technique is an additional consideration. Using skin as their canvas an artist might be gifted at recreating classic paintings or portraits. The uniqueness here is not derived from the designs per-se but from the artists’ ‘proprietary’ application technique.
The classifiers of talent and uniqueness set a reasonable benchmark of quality. The difference between good and bad body art being potentially harmful duplication without proprietary or noteworthy technique. A bad tattoo is then a culturally void, inferior replication. On top of which tattoos, except for painful and costly removal, are permanent. A bad tattoo might not only be artistically substandard but could damage the skin and remain an indelible public scar (damage here referring both to the possible physical and aesthetic detriment). Changing personal or cultural significance of these markings are, by their locked temporal nature, unforeseeable. The full extent of the harm able to be caused by a bad tattoo is then too primarily realizable well after the procedure.
When judging bad tattoos quantity becomes a contributory concern. A single bad tattoo might stand out as such when viewed in isolation. Whereas a person that has dedicated significant portions of skin to bad tattoos may transform these pieces into a ‘collection’. The dedication itself lending authenticity or credibility to the substandard work which is then able to be viewed as a whole. In a ‘strength in numbers’ kind of mentality, a bad tattoo collection might often be held as an a-posteriori, justifiable choice.
In pre-internet years ignorance to the various levels of quality possible in body art might have been a plausible rationale for the selection of substandard work. This coupled with much higher barriers to entry for international travel and the likely geographical proximity of average studios meant options may have appeared to be limited. Today the average cost of tattooing classifies it as more of a luxury pursuit. If one could afford a large tattoo from a typical studio one would also most likely have sufficient means to acquire adequate disposable income for others. Meaning the average tattoo-seeker would be able to research multiple studios as well as travel further away from home for the appointment.
In an open economy the fact that artists who produce exceptional work and artists who produce substandard work still exist affirms two points. Firstly, there is wide spread recognition of the differentiation between the two. Secondly, there remains a demand for both. Here we can explore the choosing of good or bad tattoos in economic terms. The most influential psychological factors of selection being immediate gratification and addiction.
Actions can be simplified into perceived costs and rewards. Costs actions are those that require resources for completion. To file your taxes, pay your bills, go to school or finish the housework could all be considered costs. Actions with anticipated benefits are rewards. Usually rewards make you feel good or add value. The question of gratification, immediate or delayed, then comes down to the perceived costs and rewards of an action within a timeline.
A person can be said to be ‘sophisticated’ or ‘naïve’ when it comes to understanding the perceived costs and rewards of their choices. The more in line one’s own understanding of the actual costs or rewards of a given situation is with their choices the higher the level of sophistication. A naïve is someone unable to properly reason or consider the effects of their actions. Immediate gratification has negative connotations because costs are avoided and only perceived instant rewards sought, potentially leading to greater albeit delayed costs. A sophisticate could be distinguished by their capacity for delayed gratification.
Self awareness should not be overly celebrated just quite yet though. It has been concluded in numerous studies that recognition of a problem with self control might conversely worsen the situation. Sophisticates may reason that since they know they might have a problem with something down the line they might as well get it out of the way and do it now. Here we venture into the idea of addiction. In consideration of delayed or immediate gratification the addicted mindset can reason that the worse the potential future indulgence might be, the less damage current indulgence poses. The predilection for indulgence or immediate gratification then becomes a justifiable pursuit based on self-predicted behavior. In either sophisticates or naives the timeline over which actions will properly be judged is often skirted for a variety of reasons.
Although traditionally linked with chemical dependencies such as drug and alcohol consumption, addiction encompasses a range of behaviors. To be addicted is to be psychologically hooked to a certain action or set of actions despite the consequences. Just as smokers inhale regardless of the cancer warnings on the packets, sex addicts continue promiscuous behavior despite knowledge of possible self harm. Once classified as an addict choices can become physiologically affected too. There have been descriptions of the addicted brain being hardwired to pre-accept an opportunity for indulgence in said addiction. Meaning if you were to ask the decision for the drug addict to have another hit may have been affirmatively made before they were able to consciously process or even reply to the question.
An argument for tattooing to be exempt from an addiction classification could be made. Certainly there is no evidence that tattooing poses long term health risks in the same way that nicotine or alcohol abuse does. And in most countries it is a legal activity usually restricted to consenting adults and generally poses no risk of incarceration. However, proceeding with permanent bodily alterations with knowledge of one’s’ inferior selection can be considered a form of self harm.
As classified in the Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV-IV-TR), self harm is listed as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. Often used as a coping mechanism for deep seeded feelings usually of stress, inadequacy, anger, anxiety or depression. Bad tattoos, if viewed as self harm, are able to meet both the attention getting and anger dissociative behavior symptoms (two commonly attributed motivations of self harm). Far from splurging with an unhealthy meal, having a big night out or treating yourself to any indulgence – tattooing is a permanent marking with little to no chance of alteration. People can lose weight, take medication and even scars can heal. However, the placement of ink on the dermis remaining visible for a lifetime is a single, largely unalterable action. The deliberate selection of a bad tattoo and possible subsequent conscious or unconscious repetition is more akin to a type of body dysmorphia.
To reiterate the previous differentiation bad body art is the potentially harmful, culturally void duplication performed without proprietary or noteworthy technique. The repercussions of selection commonly overlooked due to an often non-temporal misalignment of the actual associated costs and rewards. In other words, the timeline for the tattoos presence is generally inconceivable. Therefore the rewards of immediate gratification are inflated. A reality that is later masked through commitment to the ‘collection’. In a world of options the conscious choice of an inferior tattoo, whether credited to any range of emotions from subculture participation to ease of application, is a form of self harm.
This conclusion might beg the question, why choose to be tattooed? The sophisticated course of action would be the initial selection of a unique piece from a talented artist. Despite the higher initial costs, gratification is delayed for the sake of expertise and distinction. Therefore irrespective of personal preference or changing viewpoints, a good tattoo in and of itself remains artistically valuable. Yet only when consciously deliberated in light of the facts does this choice become yours.