Why Do People Get Tattoos?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on August 12, 2019
    Last Updated: November 28, 2020

Ever since they left their ancient and tribal settings and have become a part of modern culture, tattoos have been fascinating and puzzling onlookers.

If you have never seriously considered getting a tattoo, you might be wondering just what motivates people to get something so permanent etched onto the skin – and to put up with the pain that comes with it.

Or if you do have tattoos, you might be wondering whether your reasons for getting them are similar to everyone else’s.

When you ask tattooed people about why they decided to go under the needle, you’ll discover that there is no one reason for doing it. Ask enough people and you’ll start to notice there are some common themes.

To help you understand why people get tattoos, we’ll discuss the seven most common reasons for getting one.

Because of Their Culture

Tattooing is an ancient practice. The earliest evidence of a tattoo dates back to roughly 3100 BCE. In many cultures, the practice of tattooing the skin is an extension of ancient rituals or traditional aesthetics.

The Maori, for instance, use traditional tattoos as social markers rather than mere fashion statements. The tattoo marks them as members of a particular family or tribe and identifies where they stand in the social structure.

While the designs and styles of these cultural tattoos have in some cases evolved and departed from their traditional counterparts, they nevertheless retain this cultural purpose.


In some cases, the tattoos have no history as part of a long-established culture but still serve as a marker of affiliation to a subculture.

Members of biker or prison gangs, political fringe groups, or even straight-edge punk rockers and vegans might get certain tattoos as proud displays of their membership (official or unofficial) in these groups. Having these permanent symbols can also bolster their sense of pride and belonging to these groups.

To Get Something Personal or Meaningful to Them

Some find that the permanence of a tattoo or even its conspicuousness makes them ideal for marking something of personal significance.

Unlike tattoos used as markers of tribal or cultural affiliation, these tattoos indicate something of significance to the individual, not their community as a whole.

Although these are often intensely idiosyncratic (sometimes to the point of being indecipherable by anyone other than the person with the tattoo), there are a few common themes in this type of tattoo.

 Tattoos commemorating the birth of a child, for example, are common, as are those that are meant as a tribute to a deceased loved one. Many will also tattoo a slogan, motto, or saying that they hold dear and use to orient their lives, whether it is a classical one such as “memento mori” or something more modern like a song lyric.

Because They Just Like the Look of a Certain Tattoo

Many people are drawn to tattoos simply because of their beauty or because they look cool.

Even if they attach no broader significance to the tattoo, they might be compelled to get one because they are enamored with a particular design or image and want it permanently inked on their skin.

Others use tattoos as a kind of permanent fashion accessory – a way of complementing their overall look or personal aesthetic. This can be the case whether it’s simply a small star or heart displayed discreetly on the wrist or a full sleeve of colorful ink.

To Express Individuality

Have you ever noticed that your eyes sometimes just gravitate to people with tattoos? There’s something about tattoos that can really make someone stand out in a crowd.

For some people, that is their biggest appeal. They feel like their own person and want a way to display that. They don’t just want to look like any other anonymous individual, so they get tattoos – often quite prominent and bold ones – so they don’t just become another person who blends into the background.

For others, it’s a bit more localized than that. They don’t just want to stand out in a crowd, but they want something that will be a physical manifestation of their personality. They get tattoos, in other words, to express something about themselves. Whether they’re quirky, badass, or intellectual, they want a tattoo will display that side of them.

To Rebel

Tattoos may be growing in popularity, but they still haven’t been completely accepted, especially in some circles.

People often get tattoos to defy cultural norms, family expectations, or push the envelope in professional settings.

A woman who has always been regarded as a “little princess” by her family, for instance, may start to chafe at that label and its expectations. Getting tattoos might be a way to push back against this perception and make a statement about her opposition to it.

Those who turn their backs on their religious or cultural upbringing might also get tattoos as a signal of their new lifestyles and their break with the past, especially if the religion or culture they are leaving either prohibits or frowns upon tattooed skin.

Others might sport tattoos to show that they are not conforming to some of the expectations of their professional roles. It’s not unusual now to find tattooed creatives working in corporate settings. Some attorneys, politicians and business people are getting tattoos to show that they are pushing the envelope of what is acceptable within their profession.

However, rebellious tattoos can often become regretful, sometimes months or years after the initial inking.

To Cover Imperfections

Sometimes, tattoos are used partly for cosmetic reasons. They can cover over or even incorporate certain imperfections in the skin (such as scars, stretch marks, varicose veins and cellulite) to make them less prominent and visible; and the fact that tattoos won’t be going out of style in the foreseeable future means that this permanent form of cover-up is an attractive proposition.

Tattoos can be used by people who want to mask just about anything from stretch marks and scars to beauty marks and discoloration. They’d much prefer people to see a butterfly, the logo for their favorite band, or some painted skulls than the blemishes they feel selfconscious about.

Because They Are Addicted to the Pain or the Process

This can seem especially strange to those who can’t even fathom getting a tattoo due to their fear of needles or because they blanch at the thought of how much pain would be involved. However, some people get tattoos precisely because they want those sensations.

Getting a tattoo is a unique experience. It involves voluntarily subjecting yourself to a painful (though not excruciating) procedure, sometimes for hours on end. Plus, the payoff is often euphoric – people seeing their finished tattoo for the first time are often overwhelmed with joy. It’s sort of like the “runner’s high” people get when they try to beat their marathon time: the association with those intense positive feelings at the end can make you crave the endurance test that got you there.

Of course, this doesn’t usually explain why people get their first tattoos. Most people who feel the urge to go through the process of getting tattooed have already been tattooed before for some other reasons (probably one of those listed above).


Deciding to permanently modify your body is an intensely personal act (and it might soon be one of medical importance). Even when it’s done for traditional reasons, it’s still a conscious individual decision to live up to cultural standards. Because of this, there is no singular reason people get tattooed.

Still, there are some common themes. If you’ve ever found yourself looking at a heavily tattooed person wondering what they were thinking and when they decided to get all that ink, we hope this article helped you answer that question.

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