May 12, 2003
CONTACT: Carol Anderson

EMU Study Paints Different Picture About Tattoos and Body Piercing

YPSILANTI – Just as the perception of pierced ears has changed from rebellious to more socially accepted, so too may be the traditional view that tattoos and body piercings are only for gang members, criminals and social deviants, said Jeff Schulz, Eastern Michigan University associate professor of health education.

Schulz recently conducted a study entitled, “Tattooing and Body Piercing in a College Student Population,” to discover how many students get tattoos and body piercings and their motivation and influences to seek this form of body ornamentation. Ear piercing by both sexes was not included in the study since it is a commonly acceptable practice, said Schulz.

According to a national survey (Grief, Hewitt, and Armstrong, 1999), said Schultz, 60 percent of the U.S. population gets their first tattoo or piercing between 15 and 21 years of age. His survey of 1,028 EMU students revealed that overall 21 percent of the students had tattoos and 29.8 percent had a body piercing.

Almost half (49.3 percent) got their first tattoo at 18 years of age while 50.3 percent got their first body piercing before age18. Schulz said that in Michigan the minimum legal age to get a tattoo is18, while there is no minimum age for body piercing.

He identifies self-expression as the number one reason students decide to get a tattoo or body piercing (77.3 and 68.9 percent, respectively). The second most popular reason for a tattoo was to indicate a value for something or someone they cared about (30.6 percent). For body piercing, it was the image associated with the piercing (35.4 percent).

“It’s a time to experiment and a time to exert their freedom.” Schulz said of college students. “They like to project a unique image of themselves.”
The EMU study did not ask for details of the body ornamentation such as location on the body or specific image. In the past, the “flash” (heart with a name inside) tattoo has been very popular and next to the ear, the belly button is the location of many piercings, said Schulz.

Schulz said his initial interest in this topic resulted from his dissatisfaction with the amateurish tattoo he received about 15 years ago as a college student. The Chicago Cubs tattoo on his right leg hurt and bled for days. In addition, he said the artwork was not top quality and the lettering, “If it takes forever,” looked unpolished. As a life-long Cubs fan, Schulz said he still loves the team, but not the tattoo. He has since acquired three additional tattoos that he likes.

He said he was also disturbed by current literature from the “American Journal of Health Education” advocating that students refrain from body tattoos and piercings.

“I’m more open-minded and think we should reduce the risk rather than eliminate the behavior. People are going about it for self-expression and feel good about themselves (when they do it),” said Schulz.

His study found that the rate of body art was higher for females than men. Some 24.1 percent of women had a tattoo and 39.4 had a body piercing, while16.7 percent of the men had a tattoo and 12.2 had a body piercing. Schulz said women’s greater acquisition of body art may be linked to their greater participation in other health-risk behaviors such as smoking.

Schulz said students are also well informed about the health risks and the danger of contracting Hepatitis B, C or Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) even though there have not been any studies directly relating the diseases to tattooing or body piercing.

“People with a tattoo or body piercing who had these diseases were, many times, also in other high-risk groups, such as drug users,” said Schulz.
Schulz said he is planning to develop materials and programming for presentation during EMU’s freshmen orientation. The materials will explain what to look for when planning to get a tattoo or piercing, he said.

The study, funded by EMU’s graduate school, also found that tattooing and body piercing are viable health education topics. Students who have decided to get tattoos or body piercings want to know not only the cost, but which artists are the most health conscious.

“The worst choice would be to find the lowest bidder,” said Schulz.

Other factors students considered before getting a tattoo or piercing were the reactions of friends, family and perspective employers, he said.

For the next phase of his study, Schulz and his colleague, Christine Karshin, EMU assistant professor of health education, will look at how employers view tattoos and body piercings on elementary and secondary teachers.

For additional information, contact Schulz at 734.487.7120, ext. 2698.