Jade Cuevas / Paisano Plus
UTSA communication senior Roger Garcia knows a few heads may turn as he walks through campus.
Instead of looking at his face, hair, or eyes people will be looking at his arms — or more likely — at the tattoo sleeves that cover them.
“Older professors will be looking at my tattoos — not really my face or anything,” Garcia says. “I think Huh, I wonder what they’re thinking.”
Though tattoos date back 5,000 years to Egyptian civilization as a mark of elite status of women, they have held a steady tabooed reputation in Western cultures. Historically, they have been associated with tough and rowdy communities like circus performers, sailors, bikers and gangs.
Today, not much has changed. Those with tattoos are more socially accepted, but the stigma associated with tattoos is as permanent as the tattoo itself.
For many people, being inked is linked to acts of defiance against societal norms rather than more positive connotations like art or self-expression that people with tattoos attribute.
Garcia is not bothered by the stigma. In fact, he has some fun with it.
Every semester, on the first day of class, Garcia wears a long-sleeved shirt (yes, despite the Texas heat). Then, on the second day of, he wears short sleeves.
“I kind of like having the professors form their own opinions of me,” Garcia explains. “On the first day I make sure I say something or get involved in the classroom discussion. Then when I go back with short sleeves you can kind of tell a little difference when they look at me.” In the past, professors have even told him to wear long sleeves when presenting in class.
According to Garcia, his little experiment also garners interesting results from his classmates.
“I guess it’s because I’m such a soft-talking, easy-going person. When I show up the next day they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you had tattoos. You don’t seem like that type of person,’” Garcia says.
But can having a tattoo really make you a “type of person”? UTSA graduate student Lisa Oakes may have an answer.
The psychology major surveyed 221 UTSA students, showing them four photos of the same woman with different tattoo scenarios. In the first photo the woman wears no tattoos. In each of the other three photos, the woman sports a single tattoo on her upper right arm: a butterfly, rose, or skull and crossbones. The respondents rated the four photos according to attractiveness, sexiness, intelligence and warmth.
From the survey, Oakes found that respondents attributed the following qualities to the tattooed woman in each photo: more open to sex without commitment, having a higher sex drive and being less selective.
“The big reason for doing this research was that findings of previous studies were inconsistent with each other,” Oakes says. “Some found perceptions of tattooed women as promiscuous and some did not. Future research will help with understanding whether women with tattoos are really seen as worthy of the label ‘promiscuous.’”
Oakes continues to expand her work by adding more variables into the study for her master’s thesis — a good idea considering the increased popularity of tattoos.
According to a 2012 poll from Harris Interactive, a marketing research firm, 1 in 5 American adults has at least one tattoo with 86 percent of claiming he or she has never regretting it.
Yet, despite the increasing popularity, the poll also found that 50 percent of people without tattoos perceive people with tattoos as rebellious.
Although, one would wonder how anyone could ever think of Garcia as a rebel. Always smiling, joking and all around laid-back guy, it seems like he could barely hurt a fly.
Pointing out his first and favorite tattoo — the eye of Ra — Garcia tells his story.
“I was going to Afghanistan and heard a lot about things. And it’s (the eye of Ra) a sort of good luck charm because it means protection in the afterlife.”
Garcia notes how his experience in the infantry was a major influence. Seeing his mentors, leaders and friends with tattoos made the idea of having one more appealing.
“Everybody had tattoos. Everyone was working on sleeves and stuff,”
Garcia says. “They would actually have parties where you’d pay a tattoo artist to come over to someone’s house. It was clean and I thought it was cool.” His interest in tattoos intensified, moving him closer to getting his first one and — eventually — his sleeves.
It’s a reminder that usually tattoos mean more to a person than their aesthetic appeal. The personal meaning elevates them to a form of storytelling.
Ray Peña, a San Antonio native tattoo artist who owns Family Traditions Tattoo Company with his wife (), helps people tell their story through tattoos.
When searching for his shop location, Peña faced many rejections. “Everything was ‘no, no, we don’t want that,” he says. “A lot of the anchor tenants have contracts that state a certain business won’t be opened next to them.” Peña gives the example of how one wouldn’t regularly see a tattoo shop next to a Starbucks.
“Everyone has their own reason for getting a tattoo,” Peña says. “Tattoos, in my eyes, help people. I’ve covered a lot of suicide scars, reconstructed nipples for women who have had breast cancer. It has a meaning to everyone and has a purpose.”
On a calm Sunday afternoon, one of Peña’s frequent clients, Ashley, has an appointment for an addition to her growing collection of body art. She’s gotten most of her tattoos for the aesthetics, having two tattoos with intricately designed owls. But today she will be memorializing her girlfriend who passed away. Ashley’s tattoo is of a feather floating in the wind with birds in the distance along with the words “Your wings were ready to fly, but my heart was not.”
Peña draws the tattoo twice as the two talk about the design and finalize details. When it’s time to begin the tattoo, the two sit quietly through the process, the hum of the tattoo gun and rock music fill the background.
Ashley looks at her tattoo and smiles.
Unfortunately, Peña claims something so meaningful to someone might still be frowned upon. But despite this additional permanent mark, Peña believes that the tattoo community will continue to thrive with more and more shops opening.
Unlike the stories of regretted tattoos, most people know what they’re signing up for when they get a tattoo. Many shops refuse to tattoo a client’s face or give a tattoo to someone under the influence. Waivers are not uncommon, letting you know the seriousness of the process. As for the stigma — most people ignore it, sort of.
“I’d say the majority don’t care (about the stigma) because a tattoo is very personalized; you do it for yourself,” Garcia says. “It’s generally easy to cover up if you feel you need to assimilate in a certain way.”
“But if I’m on my own time and doing my own thing I’m going to wear whatever I want to wear.”
And though Garcia and Peña have never met, they both live by the same philosophy on the judgment of people with tattoos: “To each their own.”