by Henry Farrell on August 20, 2009

“Felix Salmon”: yesterday on the economics of tattoos:

Drewbie left me a comment this morning talking about people interviewing for jobs and not getting them, just because they had visible tattoos. I can well believe it. But at the same time, precisely because of this discrimination, I tend to both expect and receive much better service from people with visible tattoos. … Businesses with tattooed employees are signalling to me that they have better service, and as a result I’m more likely to try them out.

By coincidence, I’m reading Diego Gambetta’s new book, _Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate_ (Powells, Amazon, B&N), which has a lot to say about signalling via tattoos and other forms of visible self-mutilation. Gambetta argues that criminals often cover themselves with tattoos precisely because they ruin the criminals’ prospects to go straight; they allow the criminals to signal “that defection would be not so much unprofitable as impossible.”

Self-binding can also take the form of self-branding as found, for instance, in South African prisons:

bq. Erefaan’s face is covered in tattoos. “Spit on my grave” is tattooed across his forehead; “I hate you, Mum” etched on his left cheek. The tattoos are an expression of loyalty. The men cut the emblems of their allegiance into their skin. The Number [the name of the hierarchical system in Pollsmoor prison] demands not only that you pledge your oath verbally, but that you are marked, indelibly, for life. Facial tattoos are the ultimate abandonment of all hope for a life outside.

Neal Stephenson, in _Snow Crash_, proposed an America in which the collapse of government led communities to brand criminals faces’ with brief descriptions of their criminal tendencies, so that others in different communities would know to give them wide berth. Gambetta’s logic suggests that branding, whether voluntary or involuntary, could sometimes be in the criminal’s self interest – it serves as a costly signal of type. More generally, I’m enjoying the book a lot – the best bit so far is Gambetta’s lovely theory of incompetence as a signalling mechanism in Italian academia. Recommended.

Another longish extract from my book project. Corrections and suggestions of all kinds are welcome. I’m also thinking it might be good to have a website where it’s possible to look at, and comment on, all the draft chapters, but I suspect people prefer the atmosphere of a comments thread. Any thoughts on this?

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