The Social Tattoo Project


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by The Social Tattoo Project
29 Monday 29th August 2011

Jenn Huang, the project's co-founder explains further: "We knew we wanted to do something good but realized that so many things that are deserving of attention just aren't given the time of day. [Society's] empathy is too transient, our attention spans too short. So we found the most permanent medium out there, tattoos, and decided to conduct a radical social experiment where we brought the two together."

Using Twitter, the group posted four trending topics - the Norway massacre, human-trafficking, Haiti's earthquake and the Japanese tsunami - and allowed followers to vote for the topic they most wanted to see tattooed onto one of the projects volunteers to 'make their empathy permanent'. To make things more interesting however, their volunteers "have no idea what their tattoos will be." That's right; people are volunteering to get inked with designs they have no input and no control over. And it's been surprisingly popular; "our first enquiry produced around ten volunteers. After we got picked up and the project gained a little momentum [that number started to grow]". Nor are they confined to the New York Area; it seems the project has drawn attention from across the globe as well as the USA.

#Norway tattoo - "the rose symbolises unity". Alas, we're not a huge fan of this design.

It seems the tattoos themselves have produced a mixed bag of results. Although the group are seemingly proud of all the tattoos produced, in Britain (where traditional American style tattoos have fallen out of fashion in recent times) there's been a lukewarm response to the aesthetics of the designs.

Back in America, the project has provoked an altogether more heated debate with some members of the public have condemned the project as an abhorration and affront to god, with one blogger saying “God gave it to you to glorify Him as is.” Others have compared the tattoos to little more than supped-up LiveStrong charity wristband. But Huang defends the project by pointing out “tattoos are permanent. Our volunteers can't take off their tattoos [like they would a wristband]; for the rest of their lives they must carry a banner for these causes."

#Poverty - remember Oxfam's 'Make Poverty History' campaign?

"We came into the experiment expecting resistance" Huang goes on to say before pointing out that the project is controversial for more than just its medium. "We're making a pretty bold statement by claiming that empathy is transient" she says, backing her observation up with a recent humanitarian example: "when revisiting old tweets about Japan, I remember being completely floored by the amount of love and support poured out by strangers on the web. Revisit these issues a couple months later, they are fighting for attention from social media users. It's just way too easy to move on." Sometimes, it seems, the truth is uncomfortable to hear.

#Japan - almost 6 months on, Japan has slipped from the headlines.

One thing the group did struggle with was choosing just four causes to support; “it’s strange to quantify social issues in this fashion. Almost every topic that has become a tattoo has been one of the more "popular" causes, especially Haiti and Japan. Issues like human trafficking, which people tend to be less aware about, haven't been as mentioned.” Added to that is the curious instance of issues being rated by ‘popularity’; “whether it's human trafficking or the terrorist attack in Norway, people were affected. To say one is more important than the other seems almost callous, that's why we tried to place trends with similar followings next to each other.”

Perhaps the one criticism of the project that is not so easy to explain away is the observation that being  tattooed with something relating to the mass-murder of Norwegian children for example is not only a very serious commitment - it's tantamount to being permanently marked with sorrow. But even on this point Huang is upbeat; “we don't want people to get these tattoos to remember all the sadness. Nothing can change if our empathy and attention to these issues expires, so having these tattoos means our volunteers will always remember and advocate for the cause they are tattooed with. These are tattoos that stand for empathy and convey the hope and solidarity that comes from that.”

#Humantrafficking -

The initial placement has now come to an end, but it seems that the project is cranking up a gear. “We’re getting in contact with tattoo shops that are willing to subsidize social tattoos, and connecting them with volunteers; the site will [continue] to publish content that emerges. In any case, The Social Tattoo Project gives ordinary people the chance to actually do something tangible to care every day. It's easy to give money, but tattoos are permanent and the stories they carry will affect many people.”


To find out more about the project, check their website, or donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee click here.

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