Outfit post - Tattoos: Fashion statement or sexual device?

First it was Ari Marcopoulos’s short film “No Way Back” for Yves Saint Laurent men’s spring/summer ‘11 collection, featuring famed tattoo artist Mark Mahoney.  Then it was tattooist-to-the-fashion-elite Scott Campbell’s SS’11 collaboration with Louis Vuitton.

Tattoo art and fashion have never been more linked. Chanel – as well as Rodarte and John Paul Gaultier – sent models parading down their spring ‘10 runway adorned with delicate temporary tattoos; Chanel’s are now sold for $75.00 per sheet. Marc Jacobs enlisted Campbell again to apply temporary work on his models for the men’s SS’11 Louis Vuitton show. And mass retailers including Topshop have released temporary tattoos as well.

We all know that high fashion houses have done things like brand a trash bag, call it a trend, and have a waiting list before you say, “Omigod, that trash bag is $2,000?” For many aficionados, tattoos are not a passing trend, but high-end services like Jones’ have dragged tattooing out from under its slightly subversive rock and made it even more mainstream-friendly.

A few months ago, in the NY Times Opinion section, Steven D. Levitt at Freakonomics asked (and answers) the debate of why people get tattooed. He zeroed in on the one motivation he believes we possess to get inked (and do everything else): Sex. After rejecting the idea that "intrinsic beauty" isn't the reason most people get tattoos, Levitt suggests that it is the permanence itself which swayed 40% of people aged 26-40 to decorate their skin. The irreversibility of tattoos provides evidence of our commitment to a group, a person, or even an abstract concept. They are signals to the outside world - but, Levitt asks, "who are tattoo-getters trying to signal to?" His answer? Potential mates.

Levitt makes the assumption that tattoos are far more outwardly-directed than inward. He believes that, if it is visible to the public, it must be intended for public consumption. He seems to fall into the trap of equating tattoos with a specific attitude - one along the lines of the tattoo as a signal to the outside world that one is impulsive and likes risks. These are traits some consider attractive in the opposite sex.  He never uses the word slutty but the implication is there, especially when you consider his broader, sex-based argument.

Personally speaking, none of my 10 tattoos were birthed from a desire to attract men. I like the idea that tattoos are becoming more linked with fashion. I can't speak for every tattooed 26-40 year-old, but I can say this: Most of the people I know with tattoos get them for one of three reasons. Either A) They simply like how it looks; B) It is symbolic; and C) They want to be part of the inked tribe (and of course there is D: All of the above). For those of us with ink, it is usually more complicated than just signaling to the public that we are risk taking maverick-y oversexed types. And when a full 40% of American adults have submitted their skin to be permanently marked, maybe we need to stop thinking of tattoos as an outsider thing (or reduce them to base symbols of hypersexuality) and realize that they are really quite normal.

Do you have any tattoos? What was your motivation for getting them? What are your thoughts regarding Levitt's opinions regarding tattoos? And how do you feel about tattoos as fashion statements? Do you think they enhance or distract from a fashionable look?

Vintage thrifted sequin top; Current/Elliot tie-dye jeans; Jessica Simpson pumps; Forever 21 rhinestone bracelets; Forever 21 cross earring; TIKKR watch; Frye clutch


  1. I have four tattoos. It was never about being slutty. It was about having constant reminders of important things and making my world a more lovely place. I'm itching to get another... soon I hope. I like your disco top!

  2. I got a tattoo of a butterfly on the back of my neck when I was 19. I know, how subversive, right? (At the time I was unaware that approximately 50% of young tattooed females were also sporting butterfly ink.) It is now faded and worn out, and in my opinion, decidely amatuerish (back then I thought it was very well done). I got it because I could, and I chose a butterfly to - this is painful - symbolize my metamorphesis into adulthood. Groan!

    Since I can't see it I usually just pretend it is isn't there. I may even have it removed someday.

    That outfit is smokin'!

  3. I was outraged to read this tattoo = sex interpretation. Even your basic A, B, C, D solution hints at the possibility that there is some uncharted territory as to why people get tattoos.
    I myself have one, have had it done around my 21st birthday. It's very discreet, visible only when I'm in my bathing suit. It's deeply symbolic. Black ink, tribal style.
    Will I have more done in the future? I haven't discarded that idea yet. I've been toying with the idea for a couple of years now and I've finally narrowed down where I'd have it done and what would it be.

  4. i'm loving this sequined shirt on you and those jeans have such awesome fading! i agree that if i were to ever get a tatoo, it would be because it was a symbol of something and was purely for personal reasons. it is interesting that they are becoming such a fashion statement now!

    cute & little

  5. First let me say I ADORE that sequin top!! You find the best of the sparkly up there in Dallas; I'm going to have to take a drive upto Dallas to shop your favorites!

    I have 5 tattoos, and I got them because I like how they look, and each one has special meaning. The funny thing is that by looking at me, most people don't even know I have tattoos. They are all (except for the one on my inner ankle) in places that are only scene when I wear extra revealing clothes, a swimsuit, or am nude. I do think tats can be sexy, and I do feel sexy about mine, but that is definitely not the reason.

    Great post!!

  6. I have one tattoo. On my back and pretty much out of sight until swimsuit season rolls around. I got it a few months after I turned 18. I fall into the A and B category. I liked the way it looked and it was symbolic. I'm not sure how a big dragonfly in the middle of my back gives off a sexual vibe. So yeah, I think I would disagree with his assessment.

  7. I usually don't care why someone gets a tattoo so long as they aren't doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn't get tattooed until I was 24, a wise decision if I do say so myself considering how many people lament what the ink they got when they were younger.

    I also think it is important to point out that if you get a "trendy" tattoo you might feel that it looks dated later on in life. Remember the tribal tattoo craze anyone? What about tramp stamps?

    I always tell people to sit on your idea for a year then if you still want it go for it. I've talked myself out of getting many of designs and have been satisfied that I'm overly cautious when committing that precious real estate for life.

    I also think about what my tattoos look like in relation to what I'm wearing. I generally tend to dress really feminine to balance out my pieces and I've jokingly said when I get a full sleeve I'm going to start dressing preppy. Seriously though I love the look of large tattoos with more conservative looks, its a nice balance I think.

  8. Gosh I had so many almost-got-a-tattoo moments in my late teens and twenties. An idea of a star here, a shared tat with my brothers there. At 35, I am really glad I never got one. In the circles I swing, EVERYONE is tattooed, so it's actually more unique to NOT have one. haha.
    I would still consider it if the right occasion came along for something I wanted to keep with me always, though.

  9. I got my tattoo when two days before my law school graduation with two friends. I had been wanting one for years. In grad school, six years earlier, I picked out a design. It was simple: a silhouette of a black cat batting at some stars. Unfortunately, I did not have the courage and decided not to do it. Of course after moving a bunch of times, I lost the design. So now fast forward to age thirty, married, and about to be holding a law school diploma in hand. Two of my other friends decided they wanted tattoos as well. After scoping out the various tattoo artists in our town, we found one with a very zen feel. We made our appointments and a few hours later, we had tattoos. Mine is a black cat walking on my lower back (by the way, I never heard of the term tramp stamp until later - the term pisses me off.)

    So yeah, I did it as a celebration of me and my accomplishments. I think that is a pretty damn good reason!

  10. Mine is the siloutte of a black cat on my lower back and I got it at age 33 after my divorce. It is a symbol to me to remind me that I can remake myself and not to take myself too seriously and I spent some months deciding what to get and whether it was right for me. There wasn't anything sexual about it and it is rarely seen even if I am wearing a bathing suit (I usually wear one-pieces). It was purely for me and me alone.

  11. I've got no tattoos. Jewelry serves the purpose for me!

  12. Nice post. Nicely focused on tattoos. I can believe on your information. Mostly people attempt it because for style statement.

  13. So this is the infamous outfit. I can see why you blew them away.

  14. Just found your blog (love the top by the way)
    I got my one and only tatoo at the age of 47, my Mother was probably rolling in her grave! Mine is on the right side of my lower back and is very symbolic. I suffer from bipolar disease and the only thing that always makes me happy is spending time with my 3 girls, so I have a beautiful black and red tatoo of 3 little birds (Bob Marley "every little thing is gonna be alright")

    as for sexual, my very conservative husband didn't see it until it was done and still can't seem to figure out why...

  15. what an idiotic answer to the question -- i thought he was smarter than that. at age 40, i got 17 characters inked on my spine, the full length. they represent what i got from an extremely difficult life, and i put them on my spine to remind MYSELF of my courage (and i "feel" them there all the time). they are a tribute for myself, to my life. i was moved by a story in The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.

    To get a mate. geez.

  16. The idea of tattooing yourself for sex is odd. If you'd go to my blog you'll see I've just inked myself with a pretty big tattoo on my back. I've never thought of it as sexual. The only purpose was to remind myself an idea which is important to me and live by it.

  17. OMG, I can't believe you made acid washed jeans look cute. I never thought I'd say that. FTW!!!

    Tattoos: I'm with you, I disagree about our Freakenomics friend. I don't need a tattoo to attract the opposite sex. That would be quite the commitment to trying, though. Especially since mine are so easily hidden.
    xo, f
    The House in the Clouds

  18. Tatoos are not for *me*, but I seriously love they way yours look on you...you look sexy and super confident, and like they are just an extension of your seemingly vivacious personality. I would look like I was trying too hard to be something I'm not if I up and got a tattoo all of a sudden. You rock them though, and I love it. :-) If I ever had the balls to get one, I would love a discreet horseshoe...something very personal to me as a life long equestrienne. Horses keep me sane!


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