Vegan Tattoos

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Vegan Tattoos

I’ve been noticing a lot of tattooed vegans recently*. At vegan events and in vegan cafes I’ve seen vegans with tattoos of vegetables, animals and most obviously the word ‘vegan’ emblazoned on their skin. I’m not suggesting that my noticing tattooed vegans proves that there actually are a lot of tattooed vegans, or that the number of vegan tattoos has increased. As a tattooed person I tend to notice other tattooed people, and as a vegan my eye is always drawn to vegan messages. These two factors lead me to exhibit a strong confirmation bias* for noticing and remembering the vegan tattoos I see. Like when your friend tells you she’s pregnant and you suddenly see what seems like thousands of pregnant women parading around your local area, I am perpetually primed to spot vegan tattoos. And as a skeptic I am perpetually curious about motivations and about what all this vegan ink means to the people who sport it.

Confirmation bias duly noted, I must admit that I suspect that there has been an increase in vegan tattoos over the last ten to twenty years. This is because the number of vegans has increased and the number of tattooed people has increased. In fact we are experiencing what many have called a ‘tattoo renaissance’* which has seen tattoos move from indicators of tribal, gang or military affiliation to a mainstream fashion accessory. Twenty three percent of people in the U.S. have at least one tattoo*. My intuition that proportionally more vegans are tattooed than average non-vegan members of the public has little direct evidence to support it, but there are some suggestive indicators that this may be the case. The most tattooed age group are people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two*. Sometimes called millennials, this age group is well represented within veganism. An estimated twelve percent of millennials consider themselves ‘faithful vegetarians’*. In his book Veganomics* Nick Cooney reviews many studies of vegan and vegetarian demographics and concludes:

When we look at all of the studies together, and factor in misreporting, it’s clear that young people are more likely to be vegetarian than any other group.

If young people are more likely to be vegan and more likely to be tattooed it seems reasonable to suspect that vegans are more likely than the general population to be tattooed.

Though tattooing has become much more popular, it is still more common among ‘alternative’ or counter-culture groups, especially with regards to larger or more conspicuous tattoos. It will not surprise any vegan to hear that members of alternative subcultures are widely represented in the vegan community. This leads me to speculate that people who are drawn to non-conformist lifestyles and fashion choices may be less likely to conform to our culture’s attitudes toward animals, and therefore be more likely to become vegan. This would go some way toward explaining why interests such as alternative medicine, meditation, ankle bracelets with bells on and veganism cluster – and for many reasonable vegans make uncomfortable bedfellows – they all challenge the dominant paradigm*.

Many have perversely delighted in the irony of seeing vegans with a fondness for tattoos. Tattoo ink (like most ink) traditionally is made with animal ingredients, specifically animal-derived glycerine, bone char and shellac. Moisturising creams and soap used during tattooing and for aftercare could contain animal products, and some of the major brands of transfer paper (used by tattoo artists) contain lanolin*. Like almost everything, there are vegan alternatives. In fact many of the major ink brands are vegan; there are plenty of vegan moisturizers and soap, and at least one brand of transfer paper is guaranteed to be lanolin-free*. It’s easily possible get a completely vegan tattoo if you ask a few polite questions and do a little research. Many tattooed vegans have done this. Some haven’t because they are not concerned about small amounts of animal by-products, because they do not consider the research ‘possible or practicable’* or because they are unaware that there are animal products involved in tattooing.

As the popularity of tattoos has increased, so has the research into the motivations of people who get tattooed. Most of this research has focused on tattoos as a way of forming, asserting or maintaining identity. This analysis from a University of Arkansas researcher is typical:

People use tattoos as a way to find meaning, permanence and stability — and thus a coherent identity — in an increasingly complex and fragmented world.*

One researcher documents in the field notes of an article entitled ‘The Tattoo Renaissance: an Ethnographic account of symbolic consumer behaviour’:

Using the tattoo to express the inner self was probably the most commonly stated motivation for acquiring a tattoo. As one artist described: “with most clients, it is to bring a little bit or a lot of their inner self out for others to see.*

This article draws upon the concept of the ‘extended self’*, which is a term proposed by Russell Belk in 1988 to explain how people interact with their possessions. He argued that our possessions can come to embody and fortify our sense of self by representing our emotions, values, memories and group identities. Belk would have perhaps nodded along with the protagonist in the movie adaptation of Fight Club* when he said:

I would flip through catalogs and wonder, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection.

and wryly shaken his head at the character Tyler Durden’s speech:

You are not how much money you have in the bank.
You are not the shoes you wear. You are not the contents of your wallet.

The authors of ‘The Tattoo Renaissance’ see tattoos as an example of a consumer product that, more permanently than any other possession, can act as ‘part of a system of signs forming a public persona.’ Vegan tattoos make public a moral choice and a philosophical position and they clearly define the tattooed person as committed to a vegan identity. Vegans may be proudly displaying their vegan tattoo to communicate something about their inner self.

By talking to people with tattoos that clearly identify them as vegan I’ve gained some insight into their motivations. This comment from ‘Becca’ is representative:

The number one comment I get when people see my wrist tattoos is ‘What, in case you forget?’… And yes, in a way they are. They’re a reminder of the commitment I’ve made to the animals and to myself, lest I ever lose sight of why I’m vegan.*

This seems like more than self expression, perhaps falling in the category of ‘creating and maintaining’ identity. Unfortunately I can’t find the source for the comment that originally inspired this article which I saw several weeks ago on a thread about tattoos on the vegan subreddit*. One of the contributors had chosen a fairly popular design – the word ‘Vegan’ tattooed in large text on his arm. He remarked that the tattoo ‘would serve as a giant fuck you to his future self if he ever decided to go back to eating animal products’. Less articulate than Becca but no less astute, the comment lead me to wonder if having a vegan tattoo ‘works’ to sustain the tattooed person’s commitment to veganism.

Tattoos of vegetables or animals may be popular for vegans, but non-vegans could sport this imagery too. The chances are, if someone is displaying the word ‘vegan’ tattooed on their body, they identify as vegan. There has been research into the effectiveness of writing down goals and commitments, and the evidence suggests that the act of writing down an intention improves an individual’s chance of achieving their goal. In her research, Gail Matthews of Dominican University concludes:

The positive effect of written goals was supported: Those who wrote their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write their goals*.

In his 1984 book ‘Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion’ Robert Cialdini discusses the psychological power of writing with reference to marketing. Cialdini outlines two of the important features of a written declaration of intent: it provides physical evidence that a commitment has been made, and can be made public. He argues that humans have a desire to be and be seen as consistent*. Once a written commitment has been produced, the urge to maintain integrity and the appearance of integrity provide two strong pressures to act in accordance with the written declaration. Cialdini explains:

Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure—a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us.

Cialdini quotes multiple studies to support his assertion that written commitments are dramatically more effective than verbal or internal commitments** and supplies examples of this quirk of human psychology being utilised in situations as diverse as the Chinese POW camps during the Korean war, where prisoners were instructed to write mildly anti-American or pro-communist statements*, and modern marketing where consumers are instructed to write one hundred words about why you love product X to win a prize.

If, as Cialdini quoting the Amway corporation, says “There is something magical about writing things down”* then could writing on ones own body in permanent ink be even more magical?

The pain of getting a tattoo could also contribute to the internal pressure to maintain a commitment. We tend to value things more when we have undergone discomfort to achieve them. Research by Elliot Aronson of Stanford University and Judson Mills U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Unit supports this ‘common observation’*. They found that once someone has submitted to uncomfortable initiation they value their membership to the group more highly. They suggest that this is due to a kind of post-hoc rationalisation which goes something like ‘this group must be wonderful or I wouldn’t have undergone such discomfort to become a member’. Other researchers have observed similar effects in people who get tattooed:

The decision to submit to the tattooing needle is a modestly painful initiation rite. The design substantiates your choice: makes it physical, touchable, enduring. The commitment can be a kind of conversion experience.*

When researching this article I spoke to a friend who is an established tattooist and asked her what she thought about vegans and tattoos. Despite using vegan tattooing equipment she had never tattooed a vegan message on anyone’s body, but she did remember covering up a few ‘straight edge’* tattoos for people who had given up on that lifestyle choice. I wondered out loud if maybe they had remained abstentious longer due to their tattoos, and she very rationally remarked that that was an impossible question to answer. I can’t conclude that getting ‘vegan’ tattooed on your body will guarantee your continued commitment to veganism, but it does seem as if such a tattoo could serve as a ‘life hack’* to help people maintain their commitment. The research that I’ve explored certainly suggests there is more to tattoos in general and vegan tattoos specifically than a passing fad those pesky millennials will regret. I’m not going to rush out to get the word vegan tattooed anytime soon but I will continue to regard those who do with interest and respect.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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