I was recently asked by a lawyer friend getting ready to pick a jury whether he should ask members of the panel whether they have any tattoos. My general reaction was unless the case involved someone suing a tattoo shop then it probably wouldn’t be a meaningful area of inquiry and that time would be better spent asking about something else. Then again, part of jury selection is to not only find out what type of bias exists among panelists but to also ascertain how each individual juror’s personality characteristics and worldview will fit within the overarching group dynamic of the jury. Will a prospective juror fight hard in deliberations or cave, build consensus or be a contrarian, lead or follow, and will others be drawn to them or repelled? Does knowing about a tattoo help us answer these questions?

Society has undergone a rapid transformation from a time when tattoos were the exclusive body design of felons, Hell’s Angels, and rebellious types. Nowadays, one doesn’t even have to look carefully to see how mainstream tattoos have become and how many people you would never expect to have them, have them. Men in Armani suits, middle-age women, professionals, salespeople, appellate lawyers, the young, the old, the educated, the uneducated, the list goes on and on and on.

Roughly 17% of all adults have at least one tattoo, and that percentage increases for those between 18 and 45. So in a jury panel of 50 is it worth singling out those 8-9 people who have a tattoo? Probably not, as they might feel this line of questioning in front of strangers is an invasion of privacy and that you’re singling them out by making broad generalizations. Moreover, I do not think it is wise to use a precious strike on someone merely because they have a tattoo. However, if someone has major tattoo markings on their face, neck, or anywhere clearly visible then that person is accustomed to and maybe even likes the attention such a tattoo elicits. This juror is sending a message. Getting them to talk isn’t necessary but heeding the tattoo is wise.

By the way, my psychologist friend thinks that those with tattoos covering much of their body have a fear of forming and sustaining attachments to others. Many people will shun someone full of tattoos, so tattoos all over someone’s face and body may serve as a barrier to anything deeper than superficial personal interaction. However, those who can look past the shell of tattoos are less likely to turn away from that person once they penetrate through the wall of tattoos.

So what do tattoos communicate? People decide to permanently display something on their skin for many different reasons and motivations. This mode of nonverbal communication may have some similarities with how people dress and the intended message they are conveying to others. Most people with tattoos, and there are exceptions, wanted to do something unique that only few others were doing. Some people are candid and more than willing to share why they elected to get a tattoo and what it signifies. Others may take on a defensive posture when answering the question of why they have a tattoo, as if the question itself seems to search for criticism of people who have tattoos.

In voir dire, it is always good to start off with “softball” questions to make jurors comfortable talking to you about their underlying attitudes and beliefs. Some attorneys do this by asking about car bumper stickers or television shows people watch. I would not put tattoos in the same category, but if you ask prospective jurors in voir dire to, “Tell us all something about yourself, maybe your favorite hobby, a tattoo you have, something that makes you unique,” you might get jurors with tattoos to speak up without singling them out and putting pressure on them. Nevertheless, for jury selection, I tend to think asking about tattoos is not a good use of time and can even risk alienating members of the jury. If a potential juror’s tattoo is visible, maybe it means something, but keep in mind your reaction to the tattoo might be a judgment error based on your own biases about tattoos.

Alan Tuerkheimer, Founder of Trial Methods, is a Jury Consultant in Chicago.