Tattoo Consumption: Risk and Regret in the Purchase of a Socially Marginal Service

ABSTRACT - This paper employs a sociological perspective to examine the consumption of a socially disvalued service -- tattooing. The concepts of purchase risk and possession risk are used to discuss the tattoo consumer's experience with the unconventional service. The tattooee's strategies for dealing with these forms of risk are presented in detail and are used to lay the groundwork for a general understanding of the problems encountered by the consumer of deviant goods and services.


Clinton R. Sanders (1985) ,"Tattoo Consumption: Risk and Regret in the Purchase of a Socially Marginal Service", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 17-22.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 17-22


Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut at Hartford


This paper employs a sociological perspective to examine the consumption of a socially disvalued service -- tattooing. The concepts of purchase risk and possession risk are used to discuss the tattoo consumer's experience with the unconventional service. The tattooee's strategies for dealing with these forms of risk are presented in detail and are used to lay the groundwork for a general understanding of the problems encountered by the consumer of deviant goods and services.


In a recent article reviewing the current theories which dominate discussions-of consumer behavior, Zielinski and Robertson (1982) stress the need for more work grounded in a sociologicaL perspective. A sociological orientation is of particular importance when, as Ln the case of services, social interaction is a primary characteristic of the production-selling-consumption process. Recent work in the "production of culture-' perspective (e.g., Hirschman and Wallendorf 1982, Sanders 1982, Peterson 1976) also points to the utility of employing a sociological focus when dealing with the process by which cultural products are created and disseminated. Cultural production-from the making of a Hollywood film to the application of a tattoo -is a realm of behavior especially suited to sociological analysis in that it is most basically a form of -collective action (Becker 1976) in which actors employ shared frames of reference (conventions) to orient and construct their social interactions.

In addition to its relative inattention to a sociological perspective, the consumer research literature contains few, if any, discussions of the consumption of socially marginal, deviant, controversial or unconventional goods and services. While the analysis of socially disvalued commercial activities -prostitution (e.g., Bryan 1966), drug dealing (e.g., Adler and Adler 1983), the distribution of pornography (e.g., McKinstry 1974) and so on- is common in the sociological literature on social deviance these discussions rarely take into account the categories and insights employed by consumer researchers. In addition to its intrinsic interest, there are a variety of reasons why the examination of socially marginal commercial activities might be of concern to consumer researchers. Disvalued social activities are typically embedded in subcultural groups which provide norms and values which direct and shape patterns of cultural choice (Peterson 1983, Nicosia and Mayer 1976). Knowledge of gatekeeping, opinion leadership, innovation and other features of subcultural impact is directly relevant to an understanding of the social process of consumption. Since many cultural products which eventually find their way into mainstream commercial realms have their roots in the creative activities of marginal groups, the study of these activities provides insight into the dynamic process of cultural diffusion (Hirschman 1981, p. 78).

Secrecy, problems and commitment characterize marginal commercial exchanges. The deviant consumer is, therefore, commonly involved in an overtly conscious, richly complex process of choosing products and services which are central to his or her self-definition. Consequently, the study of deviant consumption can help to shed light on consumer involvement in decisions shaped by the meaning of products and services with regard to the consumer's understanding of personal identity and other central features of symbolic consumption (Hirschman, 1980, Sirgy 1982). Further, since these commercial activities are potentially discrediting, the marginal consumer normally experiences considerable risk when planning, carrying out and evaluating the exchange. Attention to these neglected areas of consumption may help to expand understanding of perceived risk and its impact on consumer decision making (Ross 1975).

This paper focuses on the microworld of tattooing as a basis for examining some of these issues. The data for this discussion were collected during 54 months of participant observation in the commercial tattoo studios which are the central interactional settings of the tattoo world. The qualitative information consists of detailed ethnographic descriptions of the social action which revolves around the complex process of buying and selling the tattoo service. The field data also contain verbatim transcriptions of interview-conversations in which I was involved as an ongoing, regular interactant in the studios. Additional research material was collected through lengthy, semi-structured interviews with 13 tattooists and 20 tattoo recipients. These interview data allowed me to enrich and refine the analysis inductively generated in the course of the field work phase.


The socially disvalued phenomenon of tattooing is a service which involves the direction of a tangible action by a skilled craftsworker at the body of a client/ consumer (Lovelock 1984, pp. 51-52). As is the case with haircutting, plastic surgery and similar quasi-tangible services, tattooing: (l) requires that the customer be present throughout the service delivery, (2) entails a close personal involvement between the client and service worker, (3) is a relatively nonstandardized service, and (4) is produced only upon request. Further, the tattoo service involves technical skills with which the client is commonly unfamiliar and which he or she finds difficult to evaluate. While the service is sold, produced and purchased simultaneously, the relative permanence of the service outcome means that appreciation or dissatisfaction continue long after the service interaction is terminated (cf., Kelly and George 1982).

Tattooing is, therefore, a consumer service which is low in search qualities - attributes the buyer can determine prior to purchase. Reliable information on tattooing is almost nonexistent in mainstream social circles and most members of American society have had little or no direct experience with tattooed people or the settings in which tattoos are applied. Tattooing is also a service in which experience qualities - characteristics the client can determine and evaluate only after purchase- are extremely high. The specialized tattoo service is also high in credence qualities attributes the consumer is unable to ascertain and assess even after having been involved in the purchase experience. Few tattoo consumers, especially first time recipients, possess sufficient knowledge to judge the technical merits of a tattoo or evaluate the relative quality of the service delivery (see Zeithaml 1984 for a discussion of these general issues in service delivery).

The tattoo is perceived by the purchaser as an "expressive symbol" (cf., Hirschman and Stampfl 1980, p. 18), a purposive alteration of the body which has meaning for the wearer and for those with whom he or she interacts. In conventional social circles the tattoo is commonly stigmatizing. It signals discrediting information about the tattooed individual's character to those who become aware that he or she is so marked. This generally negative social definition is, however, usually not shared by members of the subcultural reference groups with which the tattooed individual interacts or identifies. The tattoo mark is typically both an associative symbol - signifying, at the very least, some connection with other tattooed people - and a symbolic object closely tied to the wearer's self identity (cf., Goffman 1963).


It is common for the person entering the tattoo setting to experience considerable anxiety, especially when he or she has little or no prior experience with tattooing. The novice client possesses, at best, minimal knowledge of what the tattooing process entails. Because of the limited number of tattoo studios available in most areas, the potential client generally has little opportunity to compare prices and quality of work. The tattooee does know that the tattoo is permanent and that the application process involves some degree of pain. "Does it hurt?" is the most common question the first-time client asks the tattoo artist. Tattooing also entails the violation of significant norms governing the interaction between strangers. There are few settings in everyday life in which extensive physical contact, the willful infliction of pain and exposure of intimate parts of the body are routine aspects of secondary interactions (Sanders 1983). These factors - inexperience, permanence, expense, pain, exposure and physical contact - cause the tattoo consumer to experience a significant level of risk.

The anxiety felt by the novice tattooee may be understood within the context of the standard categories used by consumer researchers to analyze perceived risk (see Ross 1975, Jacoby and Kaplan 1972). Even when he or she chooses a small design the tattoo client, armed with minimal pre-purchase information, encounters an unexpectedly high financial risk. Confronted by this risk the tattooee may attempt to bargain for a lower price - a practice which is not acceptable in most commercial tattoo studios. It is also common for the initiate to shop on the basis of price alone. The question, "What can I get for $25?" is defined by the tattooist as indicative of the consumer's ignorance and lack of commitment. As one tattooist observed with considerable heat:

"It's amazing to me! Some guy will blow $200 on coke and sit around the kitchen table and snort it up in 45 minutes. Then he comes in here and you tell him that the tattoo he wants - a tattoo he is going to wear for the rest of his life - costs $200. He says, 'that's too much, what can I get for $100. ' It's just stupid."

It is interesting that this feature of low involvement purchase - selection on the basis of price - is so common in what should, by all rights, be a high involvement commercial transaction (Assael 1984, pp. 80-102).

The tattoo process is also more time consuming than most novice clients anticipate. Typically, tattoo artists are reluctant to make appointments. Except in the case of complicated custom work, tattooists usually work on a first-come-first-served basis. The novice tattooee is commonly required to confront the issue of time 1088 (cf., Roselius 1971) as an aspect of risk.

The waiting tattooee may fill the time reading the magazines or playing the amusement games provided in most studios, but it is more common for the customer to use the time to increase his or her knowledge of the tattoo process. The client will watch as the tattooist prepares the pigments, adjust tattoo machines and services other clients.

Psychological risk is another facet of the tattoo purchaser's anxiety. The novice, painfully aware of the permanence of his or her choice, experiences uncertainty around such key factors as whether the tattoo design is appropriate and whether the body location specified is wisely chosen.

For most tattoo consumers physiological risk generates the most anxiety. As mentioned earlier, the anticipation of pain is a major factor in the tattooee's psychological set. In addition, the nebulous lay knowledge of tattooing often holds that the tattooee risks contracting hepatitis and other diseases from tattooing, that infection is common and that some people have negative physical reactions to the pigments used in tattooing. Most tattoo artists are overtly aware of, and take great pains to avoid, these potentially negative consequences. The majority of studios are kept scrupulously clean, equipment is autoclaved or kept in anti-bacterial solutions, tattoo needles are not used on multiple clients and unused pigments are discarded rather than being put back into bulk containers.

Tattoo clients are also concerned with the social risk involved in their decision to have their bodies indelibly marked. While various subcultures positively value tattooing as a symbol of commitment and belonging, the tattoo is still commonly defined as a stigmatizing mark by members of mainstream society. The consumer is aware of the potential negative social consequences of being tattooed. Employers, parents and other representatives of "straight" society are justifiably seen as interpreting the tattoo as a symbol of the general deviance and untrustworthiness of the wearer. For example, one woman, when asked about the large rose and snake design she carried on her upper arm, stated:

"I wanted something different and I'd never seen a tattoo like this on a woman before. I really like it but sometimes I look at it and wish I didn't have it. " (When is that?) "When I'm getting real dressed up in a sleeveless dress and I want to look...uh, prissy and feminine. People look at a tattoo and think you're real bad...a loose person."

General uncertainty about technical features of the tattoo application process and the resulting social and psychological consequences of tattoo possession also add to the novice recipient's experience of risk. The client does not have sufficient information to ascertain whether the tattoo service will be, or has been, delivered competently. The tattooee is also concerned about whether the tattoo will meet the social and aesthetic needs he or she has, often vaguely, defined.

As a marginal service, therefore, the purchase of a tattoo entails considerable risk. Lack of familiarity with the purchase setting, anticipation of pain, uncertainty about social and psychological consequences and other unknown factors lead the client to experience a high degree of discomfort. While a certain level of risk is characteristic of all service interactions, it is particularly significant in settings in which marginal or deviant services (e.g., illegal abortion, prostitution, tattooing) are produced and consumed. In addition, because of the potentially negative legal, social and psychological consequences of acquiring deviant or marginal consumer products (e.g., illegal drugs, pornographic materials), a high degree of risk is a key feature of all deviant consumption. The typical strategies by which conventional retailers reduce perceived risk are not commonly utilized by suppliers of deviant products and services. Retailers of socially disvalued goods and services rarely offer guarantees of satisfaction, legal recourse is generally not available should the consumer experience dissatisfaction, quality is not standardized, purchase settings are commonly dangerous and unfamiliar, and there is a general understanding that the supplier is not altogether trustworthy.


In order to reduce the risk inherent in receiving and carrying a tattoo, the consumer makes use of one or more of a variety-of choice options. The purchase risk reduction strategies entail taking steps to decrease the consequences of having a bad experience in the purchase setting while increasing the certainty that the purchase encounter will proceed smoothly and result in maximum satisfaction of defined needs. The tattooee, aware of the potentially negative physiological and psychosocial effects of having a tattoo, also attempts to deal with tattoo possession risk. These risk reduction strategies entail decreasing the chances that negative consequences will result while increasing the likelihood that the tattoo purchase will be positively defined and meet the buyer's needs (see Table l for a summary of risk reduction strategies).



Typically, the novice tattooee limits his or her commitment and minimizes the potentially negative social consequences. The first tattoo is usually small, relatively inexpensive and placed on a body location which is easily hidden from strangers or casual associates. A small design decreases both purchase and possession risk. It is inexpensive (financial risk is minimized) and quickly applied (physiological risk is minimized). Choice of a small tattoo placed on a readily concealable body location also acts to decrease the potential negative social consequences of tattoo possession.

The general public commonly assumes that many people who get tattoos are intoxicated at the time. Actually, most commercial tattooists frown on overt drunkenness and refuse to work on obviously inebriated customers. It is difficult to get them to remain still and to follow the instructions by which the tattooist controls the tattooing interaction. It is, however, common for first-time tattooees to have a couple of drinks or use some other form of depressant prior to submitting themselves to the process. Rather than being intended as a de-inhibitor, alcohol is used as a chemical mechanism for reducing the physical and psychological consequences of the risky purchase encounter.

As is common in service interactions generally, the tattoo consumer attends to key features of the service delivery setting and the in-shop experience in order to gain information which will result in the reduction of risk. The cleanliness and order of the studio, the quality and variety of the "flash" (sheets of available standard designs displayed on the studio walls), the appearance and demeanor of fellow customers and photos of past work are important sources of evaluative information. The character of the customer's interaction with the tattooist is also important, since this is the primary source of the information he or she uses to calculate trust.

The literature on patient satisfaction with medical service (e.g., Ben-Sira 1976, Greenley and Schoenherr 1981) persuasively demonstrates that the client's evaluation of the service is, to a major extent, shaped by his or her interactional experience with and relationship to the service deliverer. As is the case in medical service characterized by high credence qualities, the tattooee's postpurchase satisfaction is based, to a great extent, on the psychosocial care provided by the artist. Tattooists who display a friendly demeanor, patiently attempt to answer the client's questions, allow the customer to play a significant role in shaping the service outcome and behave in what is defined as a "professional" manner are most likely to have satisfied customers. Experienced tattoo collectors who purchase custom work and who have developed a personal relationship with an artist consistently express the highest level of satisfaction. On the other hand, tattoo initiates with little or no experience and who impulsively decide to be tattooed in the first studio they enter are far more likely to regret their decision.

As would be predicted on the basis of the literature on high risk purchases (e.g., Cunningham 1967), tattoo consumers who have been satisfied with past work and who choose to get additional tattoos display considerable "brand loyalty." Returning to a tattooist who has provided satisfactory service in the past significantly increases the certainty that the performance of the service deliverer will be acceptable. The artist's technical and creative skills, while perhaps not of the highest caliber available, are a known quantity. Another reason for the loyalty to a particular tattooist typically shown by returnees is found in the personal relationship which is a core feature of all service interactions, especially those which involve significant perceived risk and are correspondingly high in experience and credence qualities (cf., Zeithaml 1984). Tattoo collectors cultivate and value the relationship with "their" artist. They routinely visit the studio, even when not desiring work, to socialize and discuss tattoo lore. They act as part of the tattooist's "performance team" by testifying to his or her skill, displaying completed work to potential clients and generally helping the tattooist to maintain interactional control over the tattoo setting (Sanders 1983, p. 3; see also Goffman 1959). By fostering a personal relationship with the tattooist the collector is increasing the chances that his or her work will be of the best technical quality possible and thereby maximizing the likelihood that he or she will be satisfied with the service provided. This connection between posit personal interaction and service quality was a theme which arose frequently in my conversations with tattooists. One artist put it this way:

"I can assess people when they come in the door. I know what it is going to Cake to please that person and who not to waste the effort on. I don't mean not do a good job on someone, cheat them. It's always going to be done properly in here, and they're going to get what they see on the flash, but the people I'm doing the creative work on, the people that come in on Sundays, they're my friends, you know...There's a difference between doing it and putting your heart into it...I'm not going to put any extra effort into something or get into custom free-hand stuff on someone I don't have the rapport with and I can't spend that time with. n

A satisfied customer is important to the tattooist. Satisfied clients return for more work and are more cooperative during the tattooing process. Most importantly, the satisfied customer is a walking advertisement. As is generally the case with services, word-of-mouth communication is the major source of new clients. Satisfied clients provide potential tattooees with vicarious information about the experience qualities of the tattoo service, instruct others on the standards by which one may judge quality work and help to decrease the anxiety which may be keeping interested individuals from submitting themselves to what they perceive to be a high risk situation (cf., Zeithaml 1984, pp. 193-194; Robertson 1971).

In short, attending to features of the purchase setting and the character of tattooist/client interaction help to increase the likelihood that the purchase encounter will entail minimal risk. Patronizing a tattooist who has a reliable reputation and/or has performed in a satisfactory manner in past purchase encounters similarly helps to increase the consumer's confidence in the service delivery setting. Satisfied clients, in turn, educate potential customers thereby helping to draw them to a service setting in which they can anticipate minimal purchase risk.

For most first-time tattoo recipients, getting tattooed is a highly social act. The majority of initiates enter the studio in the company of close associates who act as "purchase pals" (cf., Bell 1967). Companions help to reduce purchase risk by consulting with the tattooee about design and location, providing social support for the decision, commiserating during the painful application process and by helping to fill waiting time. Purchase pals also aid the recipient by acting as surrogate social evaluators. They increase the buyer's certainty that tattoo possession will have minimal social and psychological impact by reacting to and validating the consumer's decision.

Postpurchase satisfaction is also based on the evaluation of the buyer's reference group. As with purchase pals, valued associates, through their response to the service outcome, help to confirm the client's decision (cf., Ben-Sira 1976, p. 6). Associates increase the tattooee's certainty that tattoo possession entails minimal social risk within the context of primary relationships. Negative responses of those whose values and perspectives are not shared by the tattooee also tend to reinforce his or her decision. In fact, those recipients who positively evaluate their tattoos often use the response of others as an indicator of cultural and personal compatibility. For example, a young woman with a ring tattoo on her right hand observed:

"It seems as though I can actually tell how I'm going to get along with people, and vice-versa, by the way they react to my tattoo. It's more or less expressive of the unconventional site of my character right up front. Most of the people who seem to like me really dig the tattoo, too" (quoted in Hill 1972, p. 249).

It is uncommon for tattooees to express dissatisfaction with being tattooed per se. Those that do express regret tend to focus on the inferior craftsmanship of the service they receive. Concern with inferior quality is most commonly exhibited by more heavily tattooed people who have amassed sufficient experience to be able to evaluate the technical merits of their collection. One heavily tattooed interviewee, for example, emphasized quality and aesthetic issues when asked if he regretted having been tattooed.

"I don't wish I didn't have any (tattoos). Well, I do regret this [he indicates a crudely rendered flying money design]. It just seems out of place with everything else...I don't know why I got it. P [artist] did it when he first got here. You can see how bad his work was then. He scarred me up. I figured I would see what kind of work he did so I picked something simple with only a few lines. I've been trying to find something for a year to cover it up; something that will go with the rest of my work."

As seen in the above quote, regretful tattooees tend to feel personally responsible for the unsatisfactory work they have acquired. They blame themselves for choosing to patronize a particular studio or artist prior to engaging in adequate shopping or other forms of information search. They also attribute their regret to having chosen the wrong body location or design, not communicating their desires more effectively to the artist, or not conscientiously following the aftercare instructions provided by the tattooist. This attribution of dissatisfaction to errors of consumer choice encountered in tattoo recipients is a feature of the postpurchase regret of service clients generally. This tendency to blame the self is understandable given the central interactive nature of service delivery (Zeithaml 1984, pp. 196-197).

Due to the relative permanence of tattooing, there are only a limited number of options available to the dissatisfied tattoo customer. If disappointed with the technical quality of the work the tattooee may return to the original artist and request to have the piece relined or recolored. Most reputable commercial tattooists will agree - albeit reluctantly--to redo their own work free of additional charge. The most common option chosen by regretful tattooees is to have a 'coverup" tattoo placed over the unsatisfactory image. In many commercial studios covering up or extensively reworking badly executed tattoos accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the business.

Individuals who regret having chosen to get a tattoo have three major options. Most simply, they can conceal the offending tattoo with clothing or flesh colored makeup. A far more extreme response is seen when dissatisfied tattooees attempt to remove the design themselves. More commonly, extremely dissatisfied tattooees will seek the services of a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. The major medical approaches to tattoo removal are dermabrasion, salabrasion, surgical excision and vaporization of the tattoo pigments through the use of a ruby or carbon dioxide laser (see Goldstein, et al. 1979). Most of these techniques result in unsightly scarring, and none can return the dermis to its pre-tattooed appearance and texture.

The regretful tattooee, having made a purchase decision which is practically irreversible, experiences a high level of cognitive dissonance. If the more extreme options presented above are not defined as viable, the individual must find ways of readjusting his or her perceptions of the tattoo in order to regain some degree of psychological comfort. Typically, consonance is achieved by seeking information which helps to disconfirm the negative evaluation or by adjusting one's definition of the tattoo so as to see it as having positive attributes (see London and Della Bitta 1984, pp. 694-697; Assael 1984, pp. 47-49; Cummings and Venkatesan 1975 for general discussions of dissonance reduction strategies). The tattooee may seek out other tattooed people who can provide information which will support a definition of the tattoo as being of reasonable, if not outstanding, quality. The tattoo work carried by others also provides a basis for direct comparison of technique and design. Since much commercial tattooing is of mediocre quality at best, it is likely that the dissatisfied tattooee will have little difficulty finding work which is inferior to his or her own. Alternatively, the regretful tattoo recipient may readjust his or her perception of the meaning of the disvalued tattoo. While the work may not be entirely satisfactory technically or creatively, it can be seen as having other positive attributes. For example, when asked why she did not get a coverup over a crudely rendered "homemade-' tattoo, one interviewee replied:

"I was going to get it covered but I decided not to. I've had it since I was 16 and I guess it is part of me now. It is the first tattoo I boyfriend did it with a needle and india ink. It reminds me of what I was into in that part of my life. It's a way of marking the changes."


Examination of the tattoo service provides the foundation for a general understanding of the consumption of socially disvalued products and services. Deviant commercial encounters are characterized by a high level of risk which derives from the buyer's lack of familiarity with and perception of danger within the purchase setting, nonstantardization of the product and the limited options available should the product not perform in a satisfactory manner. The deviant customer attempts to reduce purchase risk by carefully attending to features of the purchase setting, entering the setting in the company of purchase pals, fostering a personal relationship with the seller and patronizing those who are defined as reputable based on past satisfaction or word-of-mouth information.

Because of the discrediting potential of deviant goods and services and the variability of their quality, the consumer also experiences possession risk. In order to reduce possession risk the marginal consumer is selective in revealing his or her deviant tastes and actively seeks validating evaluations from knowledgeable associates.

In the event that the deviant product or service does not adequately meet the consumer's defined needs, he or she may seek redress from the seller, attempt to locate another source or reevaluate product performance and defined needs so as to regain some level of cognitive comfort. The secrecy, potential danger, financial risk and paucity of reliable suppliers which characterize deviant consumption severely limit the options available to the dissatisfied marginal consumer.


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Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut at Hartford


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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