Are Tattoos Mainstream, or Still Taboo?

Tattoos are becoming so popular that it’s difficult to go anywhere without seeing some ink. The latest data available shows that one in five adult Americans now have at least one tattoo. With this kind of popularity, many are quick to claim that tattoos are “mainstream” and “no longer taboo in the least”, but I can’t say I completely agree.

People have been associating tattoos with mainstream culture for quite a long time. The Chicago Tribune published an article in September of 1993, talking about the growing popularity of tattoos over the previous 20 years.

Signs Of The Times: Tattoos

According to a catalog for a recent Chicago art gallery exhibit of tattoo art, in the last 20 years alone tattooing has emerged from being primarily an artistic expression of prison inmates or those in the armed services to an immensely popular art form with mainstream Americans.

Ten years later, National Geographic printed a similar story.

Tattoos—From Taboo to Mainstream

In the United States, tattoos once identified their owners as perhaps a bit unsavory. The art was often associated with rowdy sailors or prisoners, but has now become a part of mainstream American culture.

Fast forward another ten years to today and I can show you dozens of articles making the same claims. One, published recently by the Daily Beacon, the campus newspaper of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, titled ‘Tattoos lose taboo status on campus’, had this to say:

It may be 2012, Crigger said, but, “we do still live in the South.”

“Due to the more conservative population here, the impression that tattoos are favored by mostly outlawed bikers and sailors does still exist,” Crigger said. “However, having been in and around tattoos for the last decade, one can definitely see them moving in a more mainstream direction.”

If tattoos were an “immensely popular art form with mainstream Americans” way back in 1993, how can we say that they are still just “moving in a more mainstream direction” nearly 20 years later? I see proof on a regular basis that many of the old stereotypes still exist today, but the degree to which they exist varies based on where you live. The South, which has the lowest concentration of people with tattoos, seems to be holding onto the stereotypes a little bit stronger than other regions.

One of the issue I have is how the term “mainstream” is actually used.

main·stream   [meyn-streem]
1. the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend: the mainstream of American culture.
4. belonging to or characteristic of a principal, dominant, or widely accepted group, movement, style, etc.: mainstream Republicans; a mainstream artist; mainstream media .

There is definitely some room for interpretation here. Principal and dominant are pretty clear, but widely accepted is a rather arbitrary term. By my interpretation of the definition, you cannot call tattoos themselves mainstream until tattooed people outnumber those without tattoos, and right now that just isn’t true. 21% of adults in the U.S. have tattoos, which makes them quite popular, but far from dominant. And, the fact remains that a large portion of the un-inked population still have negative feelings towards people with tattoos.

Looking at this table from the 2012 Harris Poll is very telling:


“Please complete the following sentence: ‘Compared to people without tattoos, I think people with tattoos are…?'”

Base: All Without Tattoos




No Difference









































How can something be considered mainstream when 50% of people without tattoos find those with tattoos to be more rebellious and 45% find them less attractive, 39% less sexy, 27% less intelligent? I can understand the results regarding attractiveness or sexiness because those are very subjective things. But the fact that nearly 1/3 of people think there is a correlation between tattoos and lower intelligence is a disturbing number to me. Until I see a significant rise in the the percentage of people answering “no difference” for most of these attributes, we still have a lot work to do.

When speaking about tattoos and mainstream culture, we need to be careful with our wording. There needs to be a distinction between saying that tattoos are mainstream and saying that tattoos are popular among mainstream Americans. Being popular among the mainstream means that pretty much anyone is likely to have a tattoo today, no matter what their social status. They are no longer reserved for just the rebellious among us.

This is not the same as saying that tattoos themselves are mainstream. There are no numbers to support the idea that tattoos are the dominant or principal trend in our culture. Some may call this semantics, but I see a distinct difference here.

The popularity of tattoos has been trending upwards for many years now, but I feel that there will be a limit and we may never reach a point where tattoos can truly be called mainstream.


Another Article Spreading False Statistics on Tattoo Regret

I stumbled across an article on the Durango Herald the other day titled ‘When Ink Stinks’. As if the title wasn’t bad enough, the tagline, or subtitle, of the article is ’60 percent of people with tattoos have regrets’.

This figure is over 4 times higher than the latest data that I am aware of, so of course I wanted to know where it came from. Reading the first paragraph, it was immediately obvious that the author did a bit of research on the history of tattoos based on her mention of Ötzi the Iceman. Score 1 for Wikipedia. Next up was some statistical data taken from the recent Harris Poll on tattoos. Conspicuously missing from this data was the stat showing that only 14% of people with tattoos had any regret.

Reading further, I finally found it. A quote from Patty Purcell, licensed Esthetician and Managing partner at Four Corners Laser & Aesthetics.

“Durango is pretty tattoo-friendly, but 60 percent of people with tattoos have regrets. I haven’t even started really marketing yet, but I already have a waiting list,” said Purcell.

This is something that I have seen over and over again. People in the tattoo removal business always grossly overestimate the number of people who want tattoos removed and isn’t hard to figure out why. The target audience of the tattoo removal business is obviously going to be people with tattoo regrets. I would expect to see a similarly inflated number if a tattoo artist was asked about the percentage of people wanting tattoos, based on the people visiting a tattoo shop.

The worst part is that the author is obviously aware of the Harris Poll which directly contradicts the figure published in the article, so there really is no excuse.

Publishing figures like this only helps to perpetuate the stereotypes commonly associated with tattooed people. While not a truly negative stereotype, the idea that a majority of people will eventually grow to regret their tattoos is frequently used as ammo against tattoos in general and paints a very inaccurate picture of people with tattoos. Some anti-tattoo people see it as a huge “I told you so” and in their minds it validates the idea that tattoos are a bad decision.

Another important, but often overlooked, fact about tattoo removal is that just because a person has a tattoo removed, doesn’t mean they regret all of their tattoos. It simply means they no longer want that particular tattoo. Whether it is removing the name of an ex boyfriend or girlfriend, or just making space for a newer and bigger tattoo, removal is not an admission that you now hate tattoos. Can you claim someone regrets their tattoos if they have a single piece removed, even though they are otherwise covered in ink?

Until someone can show me new data to prove otherwise, the fact remains that an overwhelming majority (86%) of people with tattoos do not regret them.


Do you regret your tattoo?

Five women, all of whom had their tattoos done more than 15 years ago, admit whether they regret their decisions today.

I’ll let you read the details of their stories in the article, but out of the 5 women, only 1 said she regretted her tattoos. When you read her explanation, you find that her answer is only partially true. She has 2 tattoos, one that she regrets and one that she doesn’t.

Out of this small sampling, only 0.5 out of 5, or 10% have regret, which is not far off from the 14% found by the recent Harris poll.


One in Five U.S. Adults Now Has a Tattoo

Finally, a new Harris Poll about tattoos was conducted. The previous poll dates back to 2008. The percentage of people who reported having tattoos is up to 21%, and contrary to what the laser technicians want to believe, the percentage of people who regret their tattoos has dropped from 16% to 14%. Also of note, fewer people now consider people with tattoos more likely to commit deviant behavior than in earlier polls.

The poll also questioned how non-tattooed people perceived those of us with tattoos. 45% think people with tattoos are less attractive, 39% say we are less sexy, 27% think we are less intelligent, and 25% think we are less healthy.

Popularity of tattoos continues to rise, regret seems to be slowly fading and some of the negative connotations are down slightly, but we still have a long way to go before the stigmas are completely gone.