Tattoo Culture: Beyond Skin Deep

Understanding Perceptions of Nonverbal Means of Expression and Identity

Project: Conduct a contextual research project that relates to a unique community in Savannah, Georgia. The project should result in offerings and discoveries that provide value to community members. 

Concept: The tattoo culture in Savannah is very prevalent and contrasts the otherwise conservative nature of the historic southern town. Our project looked to the tattoo culture in Savannah in order to dive deeper into nonverbal means of expression as a whole. We wanted to uncover the drivers behind nonverbal expression in order to inform designers about the nuances within potential consumers. Other realms of nonverbal means of expression include fashion, product ownership, and group associations. The tattoo culture served as the perfect case study to dive deeper into the psyche of stylistic groups and individuals. 

Role: As a two-person team, my project partner and I took on several roles! I maintained and organized the process book, conducted interviews, performed interactive survey events, and created both analog and digital maps of our findings. My project partner did many of these things as well but focused more heavily on secondary research. We both took part in all aspects of the project and had a great deal of fun meeting with tattoo community members. My project partner even got a tattoo during the study (for research purposes of course...)!

View full process book here

Design & Planning

Opportunity Statement

As we seek a greater understanding of the tattoo culture in Savannah we will learn how to recognize discrepancies between intention and perception, the impact of current social patterns on nonverbal means of expression, the power and presence of nonverbal expression as a means of defining cultures within society, and how geography, demographics, and spatial distribution relate to physical expression. These research revelations can lead to equal employment initiatives for those with tattoos, real-estate awareness for tattoo artists and shop owners  in Savannah, and the creation of a research model focused on nonverbal expression and its impact on industries and culture. These industries may vary from fashion to automobiles to service professionals. Therefore, understanding the psychological rationale behind self-expression and identity through personal style or ownership is critical to marketing and corporate success.

Research Questions

Question 1: Does the geographical layout of Savannah influence the types of tattoo demographics within each respective area?

Question 2: Are there patterns between perceptions about tattoo culture and meaning within the community versus outside the community (per respective geographic area)?

Question 3: How does the psychology of tattoos relate to social branding, personal identity, and self expression?

Question 4: How have historical trends of tattooing manifested themselves within the city of Savannah?

Question 5: How do gatekeepers within a variety of business types either inhibit or promote the tattoo culture in the workplace?

Value Proposition

For designers and distributors of goods or services marketed towards personal expression who are looking for a deeper understanding behind why potential consumers choose particular means of nonverbal expression, our study provides critical examples of cultural expression through visual cues and an adaptable method for studying the psychology behind cultural delineation via personal style. We do this by interviewing and observing both members of society within and outside the tattoo culture in order to more deeply understand the culture in relation to overall context and purpose. This will reveal the internal and external psychology behind nonverbal expression. Unlike a superficial study of existing perceptions about tattoo culture, our study will dive deeper into the community to gain stronger meanings behind decisions of permanent artistic self-expression rather than focusing only on the visual result as an art form alone. This will allow our research to be applicable to many forms of nonverbal self-expression.

Secondary research

Primary Research: Fieldwork

Our primary research methods included interviews, observations and interactive surveys. Our interviews consisted of four groups: tattoo shop owners and tattoo artists, tattoo community members, non-tattoo community members, and local business owners. During observations, we shadowed tattoo artists in their workplace environment and my research partner practiced participation by getting a tattoo. Our interactive survey was conducted with both SCAD students and Savannah community members. We received approximately 300 data points. The design of the interactive survey revealed where participants had tattoos, their gender as determined by color, and an image or description of their tattoo. It was highly successful and engaging.


analysis models

ecosystem map
opp map

video animation