Tattoos: an extreme and very permanent form of personal branding

I previously addressed personal branding at a professional level, this article will look at personal branding at a physical level, in regards to tattoos.

As with products, personal branding relates to defining ourselves by conveying a set of characteristics through associations.  In the case of physically branding, this means defining ourselves through the way we dress and maintain our bodies.

Wearing certain clothes says something about us.  By wearing certain shoes for instance, associations made with the shoes and their brand are, to a certain extent, passed on to us. Furthermore, a girl who wears a lot of make-up and maintains herself perfectly will be regarded as caring about how she looks, a guy with long dirty hair and a disheveled beard, less so.  Whilst these physical attributes are worthy of a discussion in their own right, the rest of this article will be dedicated to a particular branding we apply to our bodies, tattoos.

One point to keep in mind: how people perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves can often be very different.  This article deals with the former.  Some may argue that tattoos are not about what other people see, but about ourselves. Concretely though, people’s judgement eventually affects us in some form and hence must at least be considered.

Getting a tattoo

The simple fact of having a tattoo says something about you.  How exactly people interpret it varies immensely, but most people have an opinion. As soon as someone knows you have a tattoo, to them, you fall in a category of sorts. To some it may be trendy or cool, to others it may evoke criminality or trashiness. The number, locations, and by virtue of these, the visibility of tattoos, also says something about a person.  If you have sleeves, and/or neck tattoos, or even face tattoos, then it says you want people to see them. If you have a small one on your shoulder, it says you like the idea, but want it expressed more subtly.

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What your tattoo shows

We have seen how merely having a tattoo says something about you to many people, now let’s address what the tattoo actually shows.  Generally speaking there are two types of tattoos: purely aesthetic ones and those with a meaning.  The former may be a tribal tattoo, some flowers, sometimes even a drawing, but they are meant to look good, not to really say anything about the person.  However, by having such a tattoo, you are indeed saying something about you, you’re expressing how important aesthetics are to you.  The latter, meaningful tattoos, can also be aesthetic, but their primary “raison d’être” is to express something about the person.  Meanings may vary from a souvenir of an event, to support for a cause, to important symbols and mementos of important people we have lost.  Whatever the tattoo is meant to express, you are saying that this is one of the important things in your life. If someone has a poker hand tattooed on their arm, one will assume they are very passionate about poker. If someone has a rugby tattooed on them, one will assume they passionately love the sport, and so on.

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Think of this, if someone saw you without accessories, without clothes and out of any context, without communicating with you, all they would know about you would be based on the ink you chose to have on your body.  Thus, tattoos are the most fundamental form of personal expression and hence branding. They are also one of the most permanent ones.

For ever…

Aside from laser surgery, which should be only be a last resort and not even considered when initially getting inked, tattoos are permanent .  This is a crucial element, both in terms of how it affects people who have them, but also in how they are seen.  Most people, when discussing a tattoo negatively, will begin with the argument “That will look terrible when they are old…”.  Hence, the permanent aspect of a tattoo adds a whole new dimension to how it is viewed.  In a way, getting a tattoo is not only saying that you care or are passionate about something, but also that you think you will feel this way for ever.  To relate to commercial branding, a company may associate itself with a value event or person for a certain time period, but after, they can re-brand however they want.  With a tattoo you are , in essence creating a bond for life with whatever it is your putting on your skin.

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In conclusion, when getting a tattoo, for whatever reason, always consider how certain people will see you as part of the “tattoo family” (this term was actually used by the tattoo artist who did my first one).  The associations with having tattoos vary from really cool to trashy, so consider what people in your circles will think.  Also, and especially if it is in a highly visible place, consider what a neutral eye will think of the tattoo design itself, no matter what great story lies behind it.

Finally, and this is the most important point:  clothes can be changed, companies can be re-branded, but, save the use of expensive and excruciatingly painful laser surgery, tattoos are a very permanent form a branding, so make sure that it is an aspect of your brand that will survive the test of time.

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