This has had a direct effect on how we view each other, especially at first glance. While we like to try and teach ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, the human mind has developed to rely on first impressions as an important tool for survival and procreation. Whether or not “love at first sight” really exists, we can generally tell at a glance whether someone is or isn’t attractive – and inked skin can have an impact on that assessment, for better and for worse.
These negative connotations are mostly cultural. We’re taught from an early age to associate tattoos with thuggery and antisocial behavior, and life imitates art, which imitates life.
We know this because a recent surge in tattoo art across cultures (especially in the West) has muddled and mitigated the effect of this negative connotation, meaning we are collectively less judgmental towards ink than we were ten to fifteen years ago. That means most people dislike tattoos on their mate not because they’re objectively unattractive, but because they’re subconsciously linked to unattractive personality traits and behaviors, reinforced by limited exposure to tattoos and those with them, and excessive stereotyping in media.
Nevertheless, the impact of a tattoo on mate selection and attractiveness remains an interesting look into just how quickly and superficially we categorize those around us.
Societal Stereotypes, “Loose” Women, and Angry Men
Early research on the correlation between tattoos and other risk behavior pointed at a clear parallel between having tattoos and unwanted youth risk behavior such as school problems, weapon use, violence, substance use, mental health issues, suicide attempts and earlier (but not risky) sexual intercourse.
But as the number of Americans with tattoos increased from just 16 percent in 2003 to over 30 percent today, more recent research finds that these correlations are much harder to spot. Tattoos have become so common that it’s harder to “pin” them on teens with difficult childhoods and socioeconomic troubles.
However, while the increasing popularity of the tattoo has helped normalize the practice again and pull it out of its disreputable state, societal stereotypes take a little longer to adapt to data. A 2017 study on men and women’s perceptions of healthy young men with and without tattoos revealed that, at a glance, women were more likely to rate young men with tattoos as healthier.
Women also rated men with tattoos as no more and no less attractive than their bare counterparts. Meanwhile, the men were more likely to rate other men with tattoos as attractive, but not more or less healthy. Both groups rated tattooed men as more aggressive, while women generally noted they would be unsuitable as long-term mates or fathers.
While both men and women considered tattooed men more aggressive, the men rated their competitors as more aggressive than the women did. This implies that tattoos played a greater role in intermale competition than mate selection for this study (i.e. men felt more strongly about tattoos on other men than women did).
For the other gender, tattoos are consistently seen as an aesthetic downside on women among surveyed men, with tattooed women being seen as less attractive and more sexually promiscuous. A small study focusing on lower back tattoos found that men were much more likely to approach a woman with a tattoo than one without a tattoo. Other negative connotations found in a 2007 study surrounding women with tattoos included that they were less religious, less intelligent, and less athletic, as well as more likely to drink.
It’s important to note the disconnect here between modern data and older research. As tattoos have become more commonplace in society, so has their impact on first impressions generally diminished. On a more personal note, we personally find this information irrelevant for real interpersonal contact. If someone is ready to judge you on a tattoo, they’re simply shallow. Plus, while tattoos seem to consistently rank men and women as less attractive, there are people who pick certain partners at least partially for their ink.
Tattoos, Piercings, and Stigmatophilia
A study on tattoos and sexuality determined that, based on the given sample size, individuals with tattoos and/or other body modifications (mostly piercings) have more sex partners than the general population, and participants with piercings where more likely to have steady partners than participants with tattoos, and had intercourse more often than the controls (people involved in the study without tattoos or piercings). 78 percent said their piercings are sexually exciting for their partners, and 82 percent of participants said their partners’ tattoos excite them.
This matches up with earlier research that suggested that people with tattoos generally were more sexually open. How attractiveness factors into this isn’t clear, but it is clear that there are obviously plenty of people who think tattoos are hot.
Specifically being turned on by tattoos and piercings (to an exceptional degree) is known as stigmatophilia, but “-philia” terminology is usually only used when referring to a form of attraction that is somehow debilitating (i.e. you can’t really get aroused without your fetish). A spade is a spade and finding tattoos hot just that: finding tattoos hot.