The illustrated self: Construction of meaning through tattoo images and their narratives

Amy Elizabeth Littell (2003)

This dissertation is a qualitative research study that explores the narratives of individuals with tattoos to better understand the personal meaning that their tattoos hold. When considered together with the visual symbols represented on an individual's body, one's relational history and a current measure of ego functioning, the content and construction of individual stories may provide clues as to the motivation for becoming tattooed and the role that the tattoo plays. It is posited that the tattoo may serve a protective function in individuals who have experienced relational loss and injury to the self, by establishing a visible boundary and symbolic representation in the skin. Following a brief introduction, a historical review of the literature examines the functions that a tattoo serves within a personal and social context, illustrating trends that have endured over time and across cultures. Studies are presented that explore the psychological functioning of tattooed individuals, the tattoo as an externalized representation of the wearer's internal life and the way in which narratives provide a route to meaning making. The problem statement asks how individual meaning is constructed through symbolic tattoo imagery and the accompanying narratives about those images and their relation to self. It is hypothesized that master themes will emerge within the stories of tattooed individuals that reveal a relationship between the presence and content of tattoos, early relational loss and injury to the self (physical/emotional), and current ego functioning. Research methods are discussed, including information regarding subject selection and protection, and a review of the measures and procedures for data collection. A description of the thematic and content data analysis methods employed is provided. Findings in this study support the hypothesis that master themes of early relational loss and injury to the self are present in the life stories of tattooed individuals, and that tattoos provide corrective and protective functions by establishing a visible boundary and symbolic representation in the skin. The hypotheses and methods are examined in a discussion that addresses the study's limitations and lastly, clinical implications of the study, together with directions for future inquiry are discussed. It is hoped that this research will enhance the understanding of the function of the tattoo in our society today and dispel antiquated assumptions.