Ink Photo Essay Project


Megan Kozak - Linfield College

Kay Livesay - Linfield College

Bill Miller - Allegory Commercial Photography

Colin Zestcott - University of Arizona

Research Assistants:

Kin Chan

Ali Filipski

Patty Roberts

Project Description:

Across a range of tribal societies and cultures, humans have adorned their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years (Pabst et al.,2009).  Tattooing has served as a means of personal, group, spiritual and religious expression and identification, and even as a form of marking others for extermination during World War II. Since the introduction of tattoos to the West in the mid 1700’s, tattooed individuals have been most strongly associated with masculine groups that are relatively distinct from the cultural mainstream (e.g., criminals, sailors and motorcycle gangs) and signaled deviance in those who transgress against social norms (Burgess & Clark, 2010).  However, over the past several decades the practice of tattooing has experienced a renaissance, becoming increasingly common across a range of ages, genders, social classes, and occupations (see DeMello, 2000; Laumann & Derick, 2006; Atkinson, 2004). In fact, an estimated 24% of the population has at least one tattoo (Laumann & Derick, 2006) with those who are inked citing a variety of motivations, including: beauty, art, and fashion; individuality; personal narrative; physical endurance; group affiliations and commitment; resistance; spirituality and cultural tradition; addiction; sexual motivation; and no specific reason (Wohlrab, Stahl, & Kappeler, 2007). 

Stereotypes are “belief structures that influence the processing of information about stereotyped groups and their members” (Jost & Hamilton, 2005, p. 210).  These mental representations typically exaggerate differences between groups, minimize within-group heterogeneity and lead the stereotyped out-group to be viewed more negatively.  Through a variety of social-cognitive mechanisms, including individual and sociocultural processes (e.g., ego justification, group justification, system justification, illusory correlations reinforced by media representations of traits and a given group), these beliefs tend to be rigidly held and when activated lead individuals to interpret others’ actions in ways that are consistent with the predetermined traits, labels and characteristics.  

For better or worse, visible tattoos make an impression and with tattoos gaining mainstream status, researchers have become increasingly interested in understanding whether attitudes and perceptions toward tattooed individuals have demonstrated a parallel shift away from negative stereotypical associations of deviance and undesirable traits as the group of individuals with tattoos has become increasingly heterogeneous (e.g., Armstrong, 1991; Armstrong, Roberts, Owen, & Koch, 2004; Armstrong, Roberts, Owen & Koch, 2002; Burgess & Clark, 2010; Degelman & Price, 2002; Forbes, 2001; Hawkes et al., 2004; Resenhoeft, Villa, & Wiseman, 2008; Stuppy et al., 1998).  Empirical investigations have revealed that social stereotypes of tattoos have changed somewhat, although the extent and nature appears to vary across different samples and methodologies.  For example, in their investigations of college students, Armstrong and colleagues (2002) have found that tattoos tend to be perceived as body art, not deviance. In contrast, experimental studies have tended to demonstrate that negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals persist, although evidence suggests that stereotypes may vary according to the nature (type, size, visibility) of the tattoo, as well as demographics of the perceiver (gender, tattoo status). 

One unanswered question, is whether active exposure to a range of tattooed individuals who vary in the number, type, placement and visibility of their tattoos and who represent membership across a range of sociodemographic groups (age, gender, social class, occupation) may shift negative stereotypes.  Since Allport’s (1954) early work on the importance of contact in reducing prejudice, researchers have found broad support to suggest the efficacy of intergroup contact in reducing prejudice (see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2004).  However, there has been no examination of intergroup contact as a means of reducing stereotypes and prejudice toward tattooed individuals.

The current study will examine the efficacy of exposure to images that are part of a broader photo essay by photographer Bill Miller entitled, “Ink” that depicts images of individual’s tattoos and includes the personal narratives and insights they share about why they chose their tattoos.  Several aspects of “ink” are consistent with current theoretical and empirical work that suggests that contact involving self-disclosure can encourage empathy, decrease intergroup anxiety/threat, and breed increased variability, familiarity and trust toward the outgroup (Kenworthy, Turner, Hewstone, & Voci, 2005, p. 284). In essence, having “contact” with a tattooed individual in which a perceiver can learn about the tattooed person’s motivation behind getting their tattoo(s) may allow the perceiver to adopt the person’s perspective and subsequently view them as being more human.

There are several phases to the proposed research:

  • Pilot study:  We conducted an experiment using a limited number of images and narratives to evaluate potential measures of attitude change toward tattooed individuals.
  • Community study:  We conducted a community study surveying attendees  at the “Ink” photoessay exhibit and comparing their post-test attitudes toward tattooed individuals with community members who did not attend the exhibit.
  • Implicit attitude study: In Fall, 2014 we will replicate the pilot experiment using a greater number of images and narratives and examine the degree to which it changes both explicit and implicit negative attitudes toward tattooed individuals

If you are interested in getting involved email me and complete a RA application.