One in seven Australians are sporting a tattoo according to a study conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) earlier this year. The national study surveyed 8,656 Australians between the ages of 16 to 64 years and showed that Aussie men are more likely to possess a tattoo than Aussie women. However, women in their 20s are more likely to have tattoos than men in the same age group.

Previous studies indicate the growing trend with about one in ten Australians having tattoos in 1998 and one in eight having tattoos by 2002. Since the current study reports one in seven people with tattoos based on data that is seven years old—it was conducted in 2004-2005—the tattoo landscape may have shifted further during that time.

Industry research firm IBISWorld confirms this in their estimates that the Australian tattoo studio industry grew at the rate of 5.5 percent annually between 2007 and 2012 and is expected to reach $96 million in revenues this year. The industry is expected to grow annually at the rate of 3.2 percent over the next five years. There are now more than 300 tattoo studios in Australia providing employment to more than 2,000 people.

Reasons for getting a tattoo

Globally, the most commonly referred reasons for getting a tattoo include decoration, art, fashion, and expression of individuality.

Tattooing is most popular among Australians in the 20 to 39 year age group. According to McCrindle Research, by 2009, one in four Australians of the Gen Y group— those born between 1982 and 2001—considered having “body art” as an ideal way to celebrate their coming of age. Only one in 20 in their parents’ generation—the Gen X, born between 1961 to 1981—and just 3 percent of the baby boomer generation before them considered tattoos an appropriate way to celebrate their 21st birthday.

Who has tattoos in Australia?

Tattoos are popular among men and women and by no means confined to specific demographic groups in Australia. However, some groups are more likely to get a tattoo than others.

In the NHMRC funded study, almost one in four Aussie men in the 30 to 39 age range surveyed reported having a tattoo. Those below 20 and those above 40 were much less likely to sport a tattoo. Tradesmen (23.1%) and unskilled workers (18.1%) were more likely to have tattoos compared to associate professionals (15%) or professionals (9.4%). Tattoos were equally popular among Australian born males and those who were born elsewhere.

Age, level of education and partner status was also associated with tattoos among Australian women. As with the men, tattoos were more prevalent among women in the 30 to 39 age range compared with women who were less than 20 and those above 40 years of age. Women with postsecondary education were also less likely to have been tattooed. Among women, unskilled workers (17.3%), tradespersons (14.9%) and associate professionals (15.9%) were equally likely to have tattoos compared to professional women (9.8%). Women who reported having regular partners that they were not living with were more likely to have tattoos than the other groups. Australian born women (14.3%) were much more likely to have tattoos compared to women who had been born outside Australia (10.3%).

For both men and women tattoos can be associated with risk-taking behaviors like smoking, cannabis use, and having a greater numbers of lifetime sexual partners; and in this aspect Aussies with tattoos are similar to tattooed people of other nations.

Some people who get tattoos do so without much contemplation, as an impulsive action while they are young.

Tattoo removal

“If the Aussie tattoo industry is on a growth curve, so is the tattoo removal industry, naturally”, says Louisa McKay of Costhetics, the Australian cosmetic medicine website. “The Cosmetic Physicians Society of Australasia (CPSA) announced recently that its members have seen an 15 to 20 per cent increase in requests for tattoo removal in the last three years.

“Reasons for tattoo removal too are changing over time. Two American studies from 1996 and 2006 showed that the reasons as well as the profiles of people who wanted tattoo removal had changed within a decade. The first study had more men seeking tattoo removal, whereas the one a decade later showed higher demand among women. These women—mostly white, single, college educated and between 24 and 39 years of age—had on average had their tattoos when they were around 20 years of age. “They wanted tattoos removed because their quest for uniqueness had turned into stigmata and had led to negative comments and clothes wearing problems.”

Other reasons why people have their tattoos removed include aesthetic, social, employment, family or partner pressure, change of lifestyle or partner and incompatibility with present attitudes and values. Enhancement of self-esteem is also a factor in tattoo removal.

While the majority of people who have tattoos are satisfied with their decision and the results, the regret over some tattoos can place a huge psychological, social and financial burden. Some people report spending decades before making a decision to have tattoo removal.

Professional reasons for tattoo removal go beyond mere thin skin or worries about perception. A study about patient care providers with visible tattoos and piercings found that tattooed female providers were perceived as less professional than male providers with similar tattoos by the patients.

The burden of tattoo possession appears to be heavier for women, leading the way for stories like this one from Tattooed and Bothered and many on the list of tattoo issue videos from Dear Prudence’s agony aunt column.  This is why the CPSA is warning people to “think before you ink”. You may want to take your time and think about consequences, of how things could change, and what circumstances or events may make you regret your body art.

“Women are not turning away from tattoos,” says McKay of Costhetics. “We are resorting to have tattoos in locations where their exposure can be limited by choice. That way, only those we do not mind seeing tattoos can see them. And for the most part, it cannot carry the same social or professional stigmas that women have encountered in the past.

I found the discussion in one study pretty interesting. The researchers say that: Motivation, treatment, and cost, in terms of money, pain, and risk of disfigurement all entered into the decision making to have their tattoos removed. Strong elements of purchase and possession risks were documented as well as an improved sense of self and maturity. The patient’s maturation was in contrast to the notion of a waiting room filled with ill-behaved stereotypical tattooed individuals. Most participants impulsively obtained their tattoos for internal expectations of self-identity at an early age and were still internally motivated to dissociate from the past and improve self-identity.

“How true that is! People with tattoos nowadays are not all stereotypically ill-behaved types as would have been the case decades ago. And that is what I was referring to when I said the profile of tattoo wearers is changing. These days celebrities—actors, musicians, sports personalities—and respected professionals have tattoos, adding an aspirational factor for the young, beyond celebrating independence and expression of self identity.”

There are a number of methods of tattoo removal. Laser tattoo removal is by far the most popular.

Risks associated with tattoo removal include disfigurement by scarring, hypopigmentation and hyperpigmentation. Laser burns, inflammation and infections are also likely, especially if the removal is by a non-medical personnel, without medical supervision.

Costs of removal can be many times more than the cost of getting a tattoo. The same goes for the time taken for removal, because it may take multiple sessions to remove a tattoo. Tattoos with multiple colours are the most difficult to remove and take much longer because each separate pigment must be removed individually using different laser frequencies.

It is interesting that most research studies on the risk of tattoo acquisition and motivations for removal agree that impulsiveness, poor decision-making and subsequent personal regret are frequent motivations for removal.

Says McKay: “Most people—it is mostly adolescents and young adults who have tattoos—are also not really aware of the medical risks of getting a tattoo or the potential psychological burden inherent in tattoo possession. That is why there is universal agreement among researchers and medical professionals that public awareness and educational programs for youth should discuss how to reduce risks and promote rethinking and putting off their inking decisions.

“Our mission at Costhetics.com.au is helping consumers understand cosmetic procedures and their multiple options as well as the potential risks and complications before making cosmetic medicine choices. We believe that a well-informed consumer is a safe consumer. We are happy to be playing a positive role in this consumer education process.”

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