What does a tattoo signal?

by on September 3, 2014 at 7:17 pm in Economics, Law | Permalink

WE RECENTLY wrote about how a tattoo affects your job prospects. A paper from Kaitlyn Harger, a PhD student at West Virginia University, takes it a step further. Ms Harger found data from Florida and looked at what happened to people when they left prison. But her dataset was different: she knew which prisoners were tattooed.

Lots of employers are loth to employ people with tattoos. The US Army, for example, recently tightened its rules on body art. Ms Harger suggests that tattooed ex-cons, shunned by the legal labour market, slip back into criminality as a means to earn a crust: hence higher recidivism.

Her results are striking. On average, someone lasts 5,000 days (about 14 years) before finding themselves back in the cooler. A tattooed ex-con lasts half that (see chart).

That is from Free Exchange, there is more here.

1 Jason September 3, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Reverse causality?

2 XVO September 3, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Clearly the tattoo is causing the behavior. It couldn’t possibly be some other factor which causes both tattoos and criminality. Ban tattoos.

OR better yet launch a campaign for tattoo’d people’s civil rights. Tattoo acceptance now! “Just because I got a face tattoo of a swastika doesn’t mean I should be discriminated against” says an honest reformed citizen “I just want to work hard and earn a living, is that too much to ask?”

3 The Other Jim September 4, 2014 at 9:22 am

I think “tattoos correlate with idiocy” would have saved you some typing.

4 athEIst September 4, 2014 at 11:19 am

I have a really visceral disgust for a tattoo of any kind. It is one of the few things I am so judgmental about. But beyond that I always think “How Stupid.” It is with you forever…our until it becomes a blue splotch. The new multicolor ones I guess will become a brown splotch. How stupid can one be to get one?—and they’re not cheap!

5 Sigivald September 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Sounds like a personal problem.

On topic, I think the better explanation is “the sort of prisoner who gets prison/gang tattoos is highly overrepresented in that sample, and also incredibly likely to re-offend”.

6 Maurice de Sully September 3, 2014 at 7:53 pm

The better questions is what does thinking that the “tattoo signal” is the primary explanation for the noted delta signal?

7 Dan Weber September 3, 2014 at 7:55 pm

We need a randomized controlled trial, where people leaving prison are given tattoos. Preferably without their knowledge.

8 andrew' September 3, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Profiling? Time preferance? I was always mildly jealous of having the energy to pull off bad ideas.

9 Alex Weiner September 3, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Huge selection bias here; aren’t those with tattoos significantly more likely to be in gnags?

10 anon September 3, 2014 at 10:22 pm

why is that selection bias? i think the buzzword you are looking for is “correlation != causation”

11 mkt September 4, 2014 at 3:16 am

Selection bias is an example of correlation not implying causality. But selection bias is a more specific term. (I suspect however that they’re fundamentally identical; I’m guessing that every example of correlation != causality can be re-cast as an example of selection bias.)

12 bob September 3, 2014 at 9:04 pm

1/(1+kt)

13 Willitts September 3, 2014 at 9:15 pm

How do they enter the average if they never return to prison?

14 mulp September 3, 2014 at 9:35 pm

That is a stupid metric for this, clearly lazy thinking.

The median time to return to prison is obviously far more logical and able to deal with one hopes is a long tail of people who leave prison and never return even after living 50 years.

I bet the reason is the median for those with and those without tattoos is only a month or two apart.

15 Anon September 4, 2014 at 2:00 am

Sadly many people don’t understand the difference between median and average. Moreover many of them seem to have some function determining public policy.

16 mavery September 4, 2014 at 8:44 am

It’s just a censored data point. There are widely accepted methods for dealing with such data. It gets trickier if you assume that a portion of the population will never return to prison given an infinite time span, but for modeling purposes, it doesn’t always make a practicable difference. Plus in this case, you have to deal with the fact that some people will die without going to prison but would’ve gone back to prison at some point had they not died. Again, this may not make a practicable difference, but it’s something that should be considered.

But as mlup said, the median is probably the more relevant metric, anyways.

17 Steve Sailer September 3, 2014 at 9:27 pm

The logic behind men getting tattoos seems pretty clearcut: this is who I am for life! USMC, Thug-4-Life, whatever, and the harder the location is to cover up with clothes the better. But, women generally want to follow fashions, which, by definition, change rapidly. So, what is the feminine logic, if any, behind getting tattooed?

My wife recently talked a lovely young waitress on Lankershim Blvd. out of getting a gigantic tattoo (the young newcomer to SoCal explained that “I feel like my body is a blank canvas”) on the grounds that she doesn’t need to be creative because she can create a baby.

But that leads to the question of what’s the purpose of tattoos for women who wouldn’t wear the same shoes for six months? Is it too signal to the kind of guys she likes (e.g., drummers) that you are the type of guy I like? But what if after another year here in L.A. she decides that while she liked drummers back in South Dakota, now she likes producers and agents? Tattoos are class markers, and might work against attractive young women rising in class by marrying well.

Is getting tattoos something guys suggest to discourage hypergamy? Or is it something that other women suggest out of the usual feminine malice?

http://www.unz.com/isteve/a-question-about-tattoos/

18 we should all talk to each other if possible September 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Your wife is a mensch!!!

19 Marie September 4, 2014 at 12:12 am

Agreed.

20 Marie September 4, 2014 at 12:13 am

I have a friend who noted that a tattoo can’t be repo’ed.

21 John Doe Smith September 4, 2014 at 12:24 am

> I have a friend who noted that a tattoo can’t be repo’ed.

They also can’t be used as collateral, so I’m not exactly sure what his point was…

22 Marie September 4, 2014 at 9:41 am

Her point, of course, was that subconsciously people are looking for something they can hold on to that no one can take away from them.

The huge wave of tattooing that followed the huge waves of foreclosures is what inspired her thought, but you could easily say we live in very anxiety-provoking times where your spouse could leave any moment, your job could disappear any moment, your house could go or you could be kicked out of your rental, and the culture even says your kids need to be with other people most of the day — and particularly if you’re a man, they could get entirely yanked away from you.

Most of these apply more strongly, of course, to the kinds of folks — middle to lower class — that get big old tattoos all over. But of course, the more you have the more you have to lose, hence the furtive covered tattoos of the professional classes.

It’s a theory.

23 Urso September 4, 2014 at 10:43 am

I think it’s a good one. The reason people are attracted to tattoos – their permanency – is the very reason they’re such a terrible idea. But the average 18-21 year old has no concept of how drastically he or she will change within the next 5 years, much less over a lifetime.

24 albatross September 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Was there a huge wave of tattooing after the wave of foreclosures?

25 Marie September 4, 2014 at 6:37 pm

“Was there a huge wave of tattooing after the wave of foreclosures?”

Sorry, should have said the wave that seemed to follow. Anecdotal. Just seemed to kick in to high gear, but maybe I just moved into an area that had more malls.

26 Marie September 4, 2014 at 6:39 pm

“The reason people are attracted to tattoos – their permanency – is the very reason they’re such a terrible idea. ” This is what I just can’t get over, at a gut level. I can see doing something that will last, but doing something so it will last? It’s almost like thumbing your nose at the future self you dread seeing emerge.

27 mkt September 4, 2014 at 3:19 am

I have a friend who noted that they do depreciate however: she (herself a grandmother) said that as the body ages and the skin sags, the tattoo will change shape, most likely in unfavorable ways. Unless the tatoo artist is unusually fore-sighted and skilled.

28 The Anti-Gnostic September 4, 2014 at 8:41 am

Now that so many women have been getting tattoos for so long, I have the opportunity to point out to my daughter how atrocious a 20 or 30-year old tattoo looks on a middle-aged women.

29 Marie September 4, 2014 at 9:38 am

Yes, they certainly depreciate!

30 Sigivald September 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm

So, what is the feminine logic, if any, behind getting tattooed?

Aesthetics, just like a whole lot of men.

(Increasingly, of course, tattoos are not class markers, though historically they have been.)

31 Amy September 4, 2014 at 8:57 pm

So, men get tattoos for reasons of identity, but women are too shallow / fickle to be getting tattoos for that same reason? The only hypothesis you can come up with is that women get tattoos to signal to the kind of man she wants?

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t intend to get any. But I sure as hell can imagine reasons to get one that have nothing to do with fashion or men!

32 Larry Siegel September 4, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Yeah, and guys who wouldn’t be caught dead with the same girl twice have tattoos that say “KAYLIE” or something similar in huge lettering. Says something about the hidden desire for commitment, I guess.

33 Mark Thorson September 3, 2014 at 9:42 pm

Someone needs to study relevant parameters with regard to cops. Do tattooed cops shoot more unarmed suspects? Do they fare as well when testifying in court? Police departments are prohibiting cops from having visible face and hand tattoos:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2741994

34 Eric September 3, 2014 at 11:37 pm

If I’ve got two job applicants of equal qualifications and one has a visible tattoo and the other doesn’t, I’m probably going to hire the non tattoed one. Visible tattoos often signal poor judgement. Perhaps that’s why many men like to see tattooed women (she probably has bad judgement-I could probably have sex with her!). You know I’m right 🙂

35 Marie September 4, 2014 at 12:04 am

You probably are.

36 8 September 4, 2014 at 12:07 am

They don’t call it the tramp stamp for nuthin’

37 Steve Sailer September 4, 2014 at 12:12 am

I’m standing at a coffee shop once on Ventura Blvd. and the guy next to me, who looks like an unemployed bike messenger, says, “Hey, check her out!” At a table outside is an absolutely beautiful young woman showing an album of pictures of herself to a man. She’s clearly a professional model of some sort. The only thing wrong with her is that she has about eight visible tattoos. “Very pretty,” I reply.

“And look at her tattoos!” the former bike messenger enthuses.

I interpreted that as meaning that she must be a really bad decisionmaker, so maybe my new friend has a chance with her.

38 Dan Weber September 4, 2014 at 10:07 am

Maybe he was simply attracted to tats. You know, it happens.

OTOH, never misunderestimate “she probably has bad judgement-I could probably have sex with her”.

39 mavery September 4, 2014 at 8:47 am

But isn’t it impressive that the tattooed individual has managed to achieve the same level of qualification while facing the disadvantages associated with having a tattoo? That person has clearly got more stick-to-it-ivness and drive than his unadorned competitor.

40 bob September 4, 2014 at 10:02 am

meh these days even the good girls have tattoos. “ooo I’m so edgy!!!”

41 Urso September 4, 2014 at 10:47 am

Yes but then you’re talking about 2″ butterflies that are purposefully placed somewhere no one can see them. Not the same thing.

And for SWPL-types, visible tattoos are usually an indicator that they are (or consider themselves) an artsy/creative type, and has nothing to do with being a badass, much less a gang member.

42 Marie September 4, 2014 at 12:11 am

Some tattoos are specifically gang related, and some are specifically prison gang related.
It seems likely that if some white bread no one like me recognizes sometimes when a tattoo is one of those, many employers also recognize it. Especially employers at businesses ex-convicts are applying.

And yes, it seems pretty likely that someone who chooses to brand himself as a gang member who has been in prison is more attached to criminal activity than someone who doesn’t.

It would be interesting to see a comparison between guys with tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe and guys with a teardrop tattoo.

43 Willitts September 4, 2014 at 12:27 am

They are usually the same guys.

44 Marie September 4, 2014 at 9:42 am

I think there’s a Venn diagram in there somewhere, sure.

45 Sigivald September 4, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Admittedly, there’s a Venn diagram in every two sets…

(I absolutely concur on your basic hypothesis, as well.

For the most part, “prison and gang tattoos” and “I just like tattoos tattoos” are different.

Different enough that a lot of employers ought to be able to tell the difference, and will.)

46 8 September 4, 2014 at 12:20 am

Offer ex-cons free tattoo removal when they leave prison. Then you can have another two test groups, those who stay tat-free and those who don’t.

If you don’t know what a tattoo signals, you might have a tattoo or be the type of person who thinks being judgmental is the highest form of sin. I would be more likely to hire an ex-con with a tattoo (but not a gang tattoo), who at least has a plausible reason for having it, than a hipster doofus with a tattoo.

47 Willitts September 4, 2014 at 12:25 am

How about making tattoo removal mandatory in prison?

48 Thor September 4, 2014 at 1:08 am

Good luck with that. What about making home economics, or elementary personal finance, or politeness, mandatory in prison?

We could go out on a limb and ask that prisons be drug-free. On the reasonable principle that drugs aren’t actually healthy for potentially violent people with impulse control problems. Again, good luck with that.

49 Anon September 4, 2014 at 1:58 am

+100

50 Marie September 4, 2014 at 9:43 am

How about we make training to be able to remove tattoos mandatory in prison. My husband thinks that will be the huge business in five or ten years. Guaranteed employment.

51 Mark Thorson September 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

California prisons are smoke-free. A non-smoking prisoner sued the prison system, and their response was simply to ban smoking throughout the system. I wonder what happened to that guy.

52 Walt September 6, 2014 at 11:55 am

Smokes and their confiscation has always been a good way to keep prisoners in line. They don’t care about beatings, deduction of rec time, visitation denial. It will all come back around. Take away their smokes and there is physiological trauma. Cheap too. Allowing prisoners to smoke is their own motivation to stay in line.

53 Ray Lopez September 4, 2014 at 12:41 am

Signaling behavior, like the game of Chicken. It’s been said that Central Bankers trying to inflate their problems away should, instead of jawboning, show up to their meetings wearing an open collar Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. Shows they are serious about not combating inflation.

54 Steve September 4, 2014 at 6:12 am

A tattoo signals wearers wanting to differentiate themselves uniquely. Unlike acquiring a possession, a tattoo will not be the same on another person.

55 Mondfledermaus September 4, 2014 at 10:47 am

That is what I don’t get.. not even when I was young, How could you do something that everybody else is doing to be unique?

56 Sigivald September 4, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Everyone else might be getting “a tattoo”.

Unless it’s The Same Tattoo Everyone’s Getting, nobody else is getting the same one.

(Disclosure: I don’t have any, and don’t do anything “to be unique”. But I’m an outlier that way.)

57 bob September 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Everyone’s body is unique to begin with so getting a unique tattoo doesn’t make it any more unique it just makes you a member of the group of people that have tattoos. The problem with most tattoos is that most folks are not interesting enough to think of or create an interesting one.

58 Larry Siegel September 4, 2014 at 9:46 pm

I rebelled against the establishment by smoking pot, along with everybody else. Everybody marching to the same different drummer has been going on for quite a while, hasn’t it?

59 Brian Donohue September 4, 2014 at 8:48 am

Weird comments. I know lots of people with tattoos, almost all of which are not exposed. So I guess they signal…nothing.

A certain cast of mind, which interprets all human activity as a form of signaling, can’t process this.

60 Urso September 4, 2014 at 10:49 am

That doesn’t mean they signal nothing; it just means they act as a signal something only when the tattooee wants them to. Best of both worlds, I guess. Of course going to the beach is the best way to suss this out – I was astounded by what % of people were tattoo’d. Much higher than you’d think walking down the street. Most tattoos are not face tattoos or even sleeves.

61 rpenm September 5, 2014 at 1:34 am

Self-signalling is also a thing.

62 Nathan W September 4, 2014 at 10:51 am

Buy American. Support Your country. Fight crime.

Hire people with tatoos 🙂

63 Tattooed John September 4, 2014 at 11:33 am

I’d be more interested (and I think other folks would be as well) to see any evidence indicating whether or not having a visible tattoo, non-visible tattoo or no tattoo affects employment for non-incarcerated people. Certainly having been released from prison is a signal in itself, and last time I checked MOST people have not been to prison so this study doesn’t provide any useful information for the majority of people (though now I wonder how many in prison read The Economist). FYI, I have 5 tattoos totalling about 30 hours of needle time. All of them are covered by a t-shirt and shorts. I am a successful engineer for a large global company who is smart enough to have Marginal Revolution in my daily reading. I have an engineering masters degree. But I’ve never been to prison, so I’ve got that goin’ for me.

64 Sigivald September 4, 2014 at 2:26 pm

I’d also like to know location and type data.

Face and neck tattoos seem likely to have a more negative association (if only because more “hardcore prison/gang tattoos” are facial and neck tattoos).

Likewise, as above, the Traditional Prison Tattoos ought to have more negative association than something Obviously Artsy, for most people.

(Not, perhaps, for the people above who have some Personal Issue with tattoos.)

65 J September 4, 2014 at 2:37 pm

50% of women 18 to 35 have at least one tattoo…

66 Anon September 4, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Fwiw, I profile gang members for a living and one marker I use is tattoos. However, the type, amount, color, and quality of the tattoos of a member of a transnational criminal organization is *radically* different from the fashion/art tattoos that most of the readers here are likely witnessing in their daily lives.

And more importantly, in my work, tattoos mean ask questions, because tattoos only signal possible gang affiliation when found in combination with a pattern of criminality (even low level dismissals), drug use, location of residence, location of family etc. OR when it directly references the gang in question (by name or the name in code). A single gang-like tattoo without the other markers signals nothing criminal.

So two different populations and two different signals entirely that people who need to pay attention to them (LEOS and miscreants) differentiate easily.

67 Axa September 5, 2014 at 9:59 am

OK, to the trained eye gang tattoos are completely different to fashion tattoos. Employers also know how the difference or just stick with a no-tattoo policy?

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