Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Why Do People Get Tattoos and How Do
They Impact Interpersonal Relationships?

Mark Celano (Psychology) studies the psychological implications of what are called “visible body modifications”– tattooing, body piercing, and scarification. His dissertation research looks closely at why people get tattoos and how their body art is perceived by others.

And yes, he has a couple of tattoos of his own, he admits with a smile.

“I am most interested in popular forms of body modification that are somehow stigmatized or frowned upon by parts of mainstream society,” he says. He studies both “the reasons for engaging in body modification and the interpersonal associations of possessing visible body modifications.”

Body modification fascinates him “because it is nearly universal, takes many forms – both culturally sanctioned and non-sanctioned – and it can be examined from a variety of psychological perspectives. Certain types of body modifications, such as permanent tattooing, body piercing, and scarification, are both common and stigmatized at the same time in Westernized culture. I am interested in what might motivate certain individuals to engage in practices that are stigmatized, as well as what psychological and interpersonal benefits individuals may obtain from these practices. In particular, I am interested in how people use body modification to document important life events, structure their social identities, and overcome difficult past experiences.”

Although permanent tattooing has been a longstanding and normative practice in non-Western cultures, it has grown in popularity over recent decades. Current estimates of the prevalence of tattooing in the United States range from 14-36% among adolescents and adults, according to Mark's research. “Despite the popularity of tattooing, however, negative attitudes toward individuals with tattoos are pervasive and nearly universal, and people with tattoos are seen as less attractive, motivated, honest, and intelligent than individuals without tattoos,” according to some studies he cites in his dissertation. In contrast, other researchers have found that “individuals with tattoos are sometimes viewed as healthier, more creative, unique,and artistic than those without any body modifications. Existing evidence, therefore, suggests that attitudes toward individuals with visible body modifications may be ambivalent in nature.”

Mark is looking into this by undertaking two separate studies “designed to assess the motives for acquiring permanent tattoos and to examine the intra- and interpersonal effects of possessing either a concealable or visible tattooed identity.” In the first study, participants come into a psychology lab and interact with a series of individuals, some of whom display tattoos. These interactions are videotaped and later coded for a variety of variables such as the apparent friendliness and warmth displayed by the participants. “The study is specifically designed to assess if and how the presence of visible body modifications affect interpersonal interactions.”

The second study will use “an experience-sampling study design to investigate the motivations for acquiring tattoos as well as tattooed individuals’ responses to perceived discrimination,” he says. He will recruit about fifty paid volunteers who have tattoos by posting flyers in the New Haven community. The volunteers will complete online surveys about their life histories and everyday experiences over the course of ten days, and Mark will analyze their answers.

“I hope that my research can begin to quantitatively highlight the many positive functions body modifications serve for those who acquire them, and to further explore associations among mental illness, negative life events, and the acquisition of body modifications.” He is especially interested in exploring “both the interpersonal functions (e.g., social identity formation) and intrapersonal functions (e.g., emotion regulation) of popular body modification practices.”

Mark earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell with a major in human development. While there, he worked for three years in a social psychology laboratory, where he gained experience that he has put to use in his own research. He has a broad-based interest in his field that includes environmental influences on the development of psychopathology and evidence-based psychotherapies. In addition to his research, Mark serves as one of the assistant student directors of the Yale Center for Anxiety and Mood Disorders.

“Coming to Yale for graduate school provided me with the unique opportunity to combine many of my interests in psychology,” he notes.

Mark Celano

Mark Celano