Aaron W. Voyles discusses college men using tattoos to talk about their emotions.
When I was in graduate school, I decided to get a tattoo of a Gemini symbol on my back. I picked it because the back was supposed to be a less painful area and the symbol was small enough that I figured it would be quick. I also figured a Zodiac tattoo could be pretty simple so an artist I didn’t know couldn’t mess it up too badly.
I went with the Gemini tattoo because I felt like it was a big part of my personality. I felt the traits associated with Gemini described me well, and I wasn’t particularly articulate at talking about who I was so I thought maybe it would be a window into that.
From a masculinity perspective, when I look back at this situation, the manliness of the tattoo was able to provide me cover to talk about my personality or my emotions. I could talk about more vulnerable aspects of who I was because I had gotten this tattoo. It even had the added bonus of making me seem “deep” and thoughtful.
I worked with a colleague a few years ago who had a similar experience with his tattoo, so we decided to start looking into how the students we had felt about tattoos. We wanted to know if tattoos could help open that same window it had for us for other college men to talk about their emotional identities, process past trauma, or connect more deeply to one another.
From the research we conducted in focus groups and group interviews, we found the answer was both yes and no. While we did not conduct a wide ranging study across multiple institutions, we met with men repeatedly at the institution at which we were working and the contradictory nature of the results were what sparked me to continue the conversation about men by becoming an author here at The Good Men Project.
What students told us was that tattoos did reveal their sense of self and that they were willing to discuss themselves with others, but typically this was only true if they had a pre-existing relationship with those people. Otherwise, they would make up a reason that they had the tattoo or brush off a discussion on it. For students who had relationships, it seemed that tattoos did help them have a pathway to talking about themselves more.
For strangers outside those relationships, there was no connection. The students expressed that they wanted to still appear tough and badass to people they didn’t know. Students repeatedly showed us that their more masculine appearing tattoos were put on their arms and other places where they would be prominently displayed. Tattoos about more personal things were put in hidden or more intimate places.
What we found was that when students were in the moment with us, talking to us, the tattoos provided multiple discussion opportunities. Students were excited to share about their tattoos and non-tattooed students were interested in learning more about their peers. Sharing that space and having a topic of discussion that was manly allowed for the conversation to swirl into a place where students shared about loss, pain, depression, and more.
We wanted to continue the discussion, and knowing that college men spent a lot of time online, we took it to Facebook and asked men to share their stories and pictures of their tattoos. For that, however, we saw very little participation. What participation we did see mirrored what we had found in our interviews: students were not sharing the same deep stories to strangers or discussing their identities through tattoos. The idea of posturing as manly continued through the online interactions rather than being broken down by them.
In all, it was an interesting, if unsurprising, glimpse into men. In the same way that videogames or lifting weights provide the needed masculine guide for men to discuss their emotions, so does tattoos for us. Learning the stories of men’s tattoos helped me know the male residents at that school better than I had in previous years. Perhaps my own journey with my tattoos helped me learn myself better as well.
Like all important interactions, our success was based on setting up an environment of support and trust as much as it was about appearing manly. Tattoos are just another avenue to use to help us learn more about each other and ourselves, so I am happy to say I have no regrets from adding the Gemini symbol to my back those years ago.
Ditching the Dunce Cap is a weekly Friday column from Aaron W. Voyles on the University of Texas-Austin. He welcomes your comments. This column is not affiliated with the university.
—Photo Tucker Leary/Flickr
—Edits by Nancy Lien
Also in Ditching the Dunce Cap:
Everybody Wants to Fit In. Everybody Wants to Stand Out.
That Time Snuggleupagus Made Me Uncool
Video Games as a Way to Connect with College Men
Broken Lantern Blues
My “Career” as a Rock Star
Do We Just Complain About College Men?
To Ditch the Dunce Cap
Can You Manage the College Male?
“Have at it, Boys” and College Men
Becoming a Beard Mentor
College Made Me Think I Hated Beer
An Ode to My College Roommate
When Will You Grab Your Saw?
If the Shoe Fits, Cheat