Fryske tattoo (instagram)

Can culture influence tattoos?

At present, tattoos are more common than they used to be. They have become a significant part of the media, a part of fashion and can even be trendsetters. However, tattoos have a rich history, and the concept itself is thousands of years old. Tattoos are ancient, and a pertinent example is the one of Ötzi- a mummy. Ötzi’s frozen body was found in the Ötztal Alps, in 1991. His body exhibited various crosses and lines, which scientists believe to be, in fact, tattoos with healing properties. As we can thus see, the tattoo practice was popular in ancient times as well, and they did not just have therapeutic properties, but they had many other uses as well (depending on the culture and geographic region etc.). Some would argue that tattoos have a communicative value as well, and such an example can be best represented by bikers, when the biker gangs appeared in the 70s (DeMello, 2000). The bikers’ tattoos showed their affiliation to their gang, but they also served as an anti-social statement, a form of communicating their negative views towards society.

That is why, nowadays, researching tattoos is still a challenge, because they seem to be evolving, carrying diverse meanings and gaining new characteristics. As a result, we are going to look at a study I conducted for my Master Thesis, which investigates differences that two different cultures might have in textual tattoos (tattoos that contain words). The thesis focused only on this type of tattoos, and not on picture tattoos, in order to be able to analyse the language chosen. Since culture can shape what a tattoo signifies, the study aimed to compare two contrasting nationalities, one Eastern, from a Romance culture (Romanians), and one Western and Germanic (the Dutch). Therefore, there were three main research questions:

  • Does the language of the textual tattoo differ between Romanians and the Dutch?
  • Is the meaning of the tattoo different?
  • Does the tattoo location (on a more hidden or visible part of the body) vary between the two cultures?

For the tattoo meaning, participants had the option to choose from different categories. Some categories were created by Carmen et al. (2012) as general, tattoo meanings, to which I added minor differences. The options the participants from the study had were:

  • Symbol of an important event, love or friendship/family
  • Allegiance to a group, fan base etc.
  • Marker of individuality, uniqueness
  • Related to study/work
  • Related to religion, spirituality
  • Related to art (music, film, books etc)
  • Other

Besides the main questions, the study also investigated whether gender had an influence on the meaning and location of textual tattoos. Before carrying on with the research and gathering data, some hypotheses were formed in order to see if the results will confirm or deny them. These were as following:

  1. Romanians would have more hidden tattoos than the Dutch
  2. English would be the predominant language choice for both cultures
  3. Women would tend to have more hidden, subtle tattoos than men, and their tattoo would also have a different connotation compared to men.

In order to gather data and analyse it, two types of research were carried out: one using questionnaires and statistics (with 65 participants- 31 Dutch, 31 Romanians), and one using interviews (face-to-face when possible, with a sample of 12 people- 6 Dutch and 6 Romanians). Participation was entirely voluntary and anonymous. The combined age range from the questionnaires and interviews was 19-54 years old, and all participants were randomly selected. The questionnaire was online, whereas most of the interviews took place at the participants’ houses, work place or a café (usually a place they felt comfortable in). When a face-to-face interview was not possible, it was conducted over the phone or by using video-chat.

Although the statistical results were not 100% significant (due to the low number of participants), there were indeed some trends that, coupled with the data from the interviews, seemed to support the hypotheses. For example, gender did appear to influence the location of tattoos, women preferring to get their tattoos on more subtle areas on the body. Moreover, women also opted for a small and pretty-looking tattoo, taking into consideration the feminine aspect and appearance of the textual tattoo. The first and most popular tattoo meaning for both men and women (from the two cultures) was the ‘Symbol of an important event, love or friendship/family’, but it was more prevalent in women. As for the cultural differences, the hypothesis about Romanians having more hidden tattoos than the Dutch seemed to be confirmed as well. However, hidden and visible areas on the body are relative, since, sometimes, a so-called visible spot can be hidden if need be. Results also showed that, in terms of language choice, Romanians had more English tattoos in comparison with the Dutch. The mother tongue was not a popular choice for textual tattoos for either of the cultures; however, it was slightly more common to have such a tattoo in the case of Romanians.

Naturally, these results are not written in stone. There is still enough room for research. First of all, a bigger sample of participants should be used, since it could eventually show significant results (statistically speaking), and would provide us with a clearer picture in terms of cultural differences. Moreover, at the time the study was conducted, other compelling and potential research questions came up, that could be interesting to answer in a future research. One question was related to social class and whether it could influence tattoo location and/or language choice. Another one was about regional differences or types of settlement (city or town) and their possible impact on language choice since, for example, English could be more popular in a big, cosmopolitan city than it would be in a small town. Tattoo visibility can still be submitted to further research, since, as mentioned before, ‘being hidden or visible’ can be ambiguous; thus, a clearer, objective distinction between a hidden and a visible area can be made (i.e. neck, hands and head for visible areas), possibly adding an in-between categorization such as ‘semi-hidden’ (for example the arms- which can be covered if the wearer desires to).

The proposed research questions were just a few of many others, but I believe the list could go on. This shows us that cultures might never cease to amaze us with how they manifest, and that culture can be “read” in many ways- from the way people act, dress, and even to tattoos.


Carmen, R.A. et al. (2012). Ultimate answers to proximate questions: The evolutionary motivations behind tattoos and body piercings in popular culture. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 134.

DeMello, M. (2000). Bodies of inscription: A cultural history of the modern tattoo community. Duke University Press.

Tudor, A. (2015). Language Choice and Cultural Differences in Textual Tattoos (Unpublished master thesis). University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

Ötzi, the Iceman


(Ofbylding op hiemside: instagram)