Evolutionary Psychological Science

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 151–165 | Cite as

Shirts or Skins?: Tattoos as Costly Honest Signals of Fitness and Affiliation among US Intercollegiate Athletes and Other Undergraduates

  • Christopher D. LynnEmail author
  • Taylor Puckett
  • Amanda Guitar
  • Nicholas Roy
Research Article


Body art that lesions the skin can result in infection, making tattoos and piercings inherently risky forms of expression. Evolutionary theorists have posited two complementary hypotheses for the popularity of tattooing and piercing in the face of less dangerous options. The “human canvas hypothesis” suggests that tattooing and piercing may be hard-to-fake conscious or unconscious advertisements of fitness or affiliations. The “upping the ante hypothesis” proposes that tattooing and piercing are costly honest signals of good genes in that they injure the body to show how well it heals. We sampled two student populations in the USA to test three related predictions: (1) intercollegiate athletes would be tattooed and pierced at higher rates than other undergraduates to signal fitness, (2) athletes would be more likely to get college- or pro sports-related tattoos than other students, and (3) tattooed or pierced intercollegiate athletes would have lower rates of tattoo- and piercing-related medical complications. We used chi-square and separate logistic regressions of athlete status on tattooing, piercing, and related complications. Study 1 (n = 524) did not find support for predictions but included only a small number of athletes with body modifications. Study 2 (n = 6004) found no main effect for athletes but did find an interaction effect for athletes-by-gender (p = .005). Athletes were also more likely to have college- and pro sports-related tattoos, and football players and male swimmers/divers were more likely to be tattooed in general than other undergraduates (p < .05). Finally, we found positive relationships between tattooing/BMI and BMI/tattooing complications (p < .01), supporting a costly honest signaling function irrespective of athlete status. Both hypotheses were falsified for piercing. Our findings support tattooing as a fitness and affiliation signal that is highly context-dependent.


Tattooing Piercing Costly honest signaling Intercollegiate athletes Undergraduates BMI 



We would like to thank Becci Owens, Daniel Henderson, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on previous drafts of this manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA

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