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More from The Guardian‘s archives.

The article from May 10, 1961 concerns an American study on tattooed sailors. Multiple tattoos appeared to suggest emotional maladjustment — masking underlying anxiety or sexual concerns. Emphases mine below:

The conclusion that the practice of tattooing among sailors is prompted by emotional maladjustment is one of those put forward by Mr RP Youniss, of the Catholic University of America, as a result of a psychological survey carried out among several hundred sailors of the US Navy. The research was carried out at the naval medical research laboratory at New London, Connecticut.

The main tool of the investigation was a form of psychological personality test which has been developed principally for use in the US Navy (it is called the personality inventory barometer) by a modification of the “Taylor manifest anxiety scale.” Two groups of sailors selected at random were tested by this means and also examined for the presence of tattoo marks and questioned about their motives and intentions in this respect.

Mr Youniss found that a one-off tattoo presented little to no connection with anxiety on the part of the wearer.

On the other hand sailors with more than one tattoo were found to obtain higher scores in the personality test, and thus to be significantly more emotionally maladjusted. Amongst these men, the men who declared their intention of accumulating still further tattoos were significantly more maladjusted in terms of the tested scores.

Mr Youniss comments that the practice of tattooing may be “an attempt to resolve, deny, or symbolically ward off anxiety,” and suggests that this anxiety is most often sexual in character.

It would be interesting to conduct a similar study today. What would tattoo wearers say in the 21st century? Would the same hold true for piercings? So often we read or hear that piercing fanciers enjoy the pain involved in the procedure. Surely that, too, is a way of warding off anxiety, if only temporarily.

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