One in Five U.S. Adults Now Has a Tattoo

There is a lot of culture and lore associated with tattoos from ancient art to modern expressionism and there are many reasons people choose to get, or not get, permanent body ink. A recent Harris Poll looks at the number of Americans who currently have tattoos, and what those tattoos may say about them. These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,016 adults surveyed online between January 16 and 23, 2012 by Harris Interactive .

Currently one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo (21%) which is up from the 16% and 14% who reported having a tattoo when this question was asked in 2003 and 2008, respectively. Tattoos seem to be most prevalent in the West — 26% of adults in that region report having at least one — compared to fewer in the East (21%), Midwest (21%) and South (18%). Adults aged 30-39 are most likely to have a tattoo (38%) compared to both those younger (30% of those 25-29 and 22% of those 18-24) and older (27% of those 40-49, 11% of those 50-64 and just 5% of those 65 and older). Women are slightly more likely than men, for the first time since this question was first asked, to have a tattoo (now 23% versus 19%).

Among those with a tattoo, most have never regretted getting a tattoo (86%) and three in ten say it makes them feel more sexy (30%). One-quarter say having a tattoo makes them feel rebellious (25%), 21% say both it makes them feel attractive or strong, 16% say it makes them feel spiritual and fewer say it makes them feel more healthy (9%), intelligent (8%) or athletic (5%).

However, among those without tattoos the opinions differ:

At least two in five say that people with tattoos are less attractive (45%) or sexy (39%);
One-quarter say that people with tattoos are less intelligent (27%), healthy (25%) or spiritual (25%);
However, having a tattoo seems to make little difference in non-tattooed people’s perceptions regarding strength and athleticism (82% say it makes no difference); yet,
Half of those without a tattoo say people with tattoos are more rebellious (50%).
This idea connecting tattoos with rebelliousness is not new, however, it may be waning. In 2008 among all adults (whether or not they had a tattoo) almost three in ten said that people with tattoos are more likely to do something most people consider deviant (29%) while 2% said people with tattoos were less likely to do something deviant and 69% said it made no difference. Today, the number of people who say adults with tattoos are more likely to do something most people consider deviant has dropped to 24%, and the number of people who say it makes no difference has gone up, to 74%.

Looking at some other forms of body art or expression, currently 49% of U.S. adults have pierced ears, which is consistent with the 50% who reported having pierced ears in 2008. Although ear piercing is fairly common, other piercings are not: only 7% say they have a piercing elsewhere on their body and 4% report having a facial piercing not on the ear. Only 1% of U.S. adults say that they currently have a henna, or non-permanent, tattoo.

Although tattoos may be gaining popularity (or at least frequency) among U.S. adults, the majority think that one should be an adult before being able to get a tattoo — 84% of U.S. adults say that young people should be between 18 and 21 years of age before they are able to get a tattoo without parental permission. 8% think those 16 or 17 should be allowed to get tattoos and 6% say that the age limit should be 22 years or older.

So What? Tattoos have long been a hobby for some, and with the recent proliferation of tattoo-related television shows, it seems interest in them may be broadening. Today 21% of U.S. adults report having a tattoo which is up from previous years. It seems that with the increasing number of adults with tattoos this permanent body art is becoming more accepted — fewer people think it is related to deviant behavior than before — yet among those without tattoos there are still several negative stigmas associated with having tattoos. It will be interesting to see how these trends evolve in the future — if more people continue to get tattoos will the negative connotations decline, or will the percentage of Americans with tattoos begin to stagnate or wane and the stigmas hold?