I have tattoos covering a good third of my body, which coupled with my being a woman, apparently gives people license to comment upon my personal appearance or offer their unsolicited opinions on it. Many, many times I have been advised–by people with no tattoos, and usually people with no vagina–that my ink is “pretty good” or that “this one would look cooler if X was added”. My arms have been touched and even stroked without my permission. People have told me their elaborate plans for tattoos. People have shown me some truly awful tattoos. Formerly incarcerated men are impressed by me. And people always want to know how much this shit costs. (A lot, OK? But I’m not going to tell you how much, because then you will freak out, even though I guarandamntee that you spend more on a month of cable and iPhone service than I did on my last tattoo. Plus, my tattoo’s permanent, and your iPhone will be obsolete next year. Just sayin’.)
Lest you think I am whining, let me explain. Generally speaking, people who get visible, large tattoos are not unaware that they may receive some attention because of them. And there are plenty of instances in which getting attention is not such a bad thing. Few of us are above wanting to look appealing to members of any sex, most of the time. Tattoos will definitely get you that attention, for better or worse. Some people genuinely hate them–I’ve had more people than I can count (and not all old men, either), scold me for sullying my skin with ink. Some love them. Most people fall into a sort of middle category, where they are interested in people with tattoos–and maybe they have a small one or two themselves–but they couldn’t imagine actually “going so far”.
This may be changing, however. The more I look around, the more tattoos I see. Once relatively uncommon unless you were a sideshow freak or a sailor, the generations after X have made tattoos in many circles more the norm than the exception. Generations above X are being forced to adapt, smilingly forced to hire or admit into grad school or even work for people who are covered in permanent ink. Tattoos no longer mean you’re a felon or a woman of ill repute–although plenty of felons and women of all kinds of reputes do have them. If you are one of the few people who doesn’t have one and doesn’t plan on getting one–but you do plan on talking/working/sleeping with someone who is substantially tattooed–here is a quick list of dos and don’ts that you may want to consult so as not to look like a dumbass in front of your cool new friend/coworker/sexy friend.
1. Do not touch the tattooed area without asking first. But you may want to ask yourself: why the hell do you want to touch it? A tattooed arm feels no different from a bare arm, unless it’s still healing. In which case, you really shouldn’t touch it, because it hurts.
2. If you are trying to pick up a girl that has a tattoo, you might want to think of another way to strike up a conversation other than asking about her tattoo. Realize that you are the 500th guy that day who has asked her about her tattoo(s). I’m sure you could think of a number of other things to remark upon. Those Cardinals! This crazy Missouri weather! Isn’t this a great song? What kind of beer is that? etc. etc. Personally, I find it AMAZING when men tell me that they like my outfit or my shoes, because men really never notice shit like that.
3. Do not make any value judgment on the size, location, content, or cost of the tattoo. It shouldn’t be up to the person to defend what they look like. Is the size too big for you? Well, it’s not your body. Is the location (i.e. skull, chest, face) not to your liking? Well, they’re the one who has to get a job with that. Don’t like the content? Well, you have no idea what unique and fascinating things have happened in that person’s life that may have resulted in them getting a zombie Hello Kitty tattoo. If the content is offensive, like a swastika, you should reconsider the bars you hang out in, anyway. And why are you asking how much it costs? How much do you spend on your fancy car payment? Your cable bill? Your organic kombucha? Maybe you’re the one wasting money. Also: the mantra “you get what you pay for” is true nowhere so much as the tattoo business.
4. Refrain from telling the tattooed person the many ideas for tattoos that you have and would like to get at some hazy point in the future. (When I get a job/graduate/have money/move out of my parents’, etc.) Who cares? If you are my age and you haven’t yet gotten a tattoo, chances are you probably aren’t ever going to get one, and that is totally fine. Tattooed people do not think that you are cooler for having ideas about getting tattoos and then not getting them. In fact, you are probably lamer.
5. If you have a shitty tattoo, do not show it to someone who has a really nice one, as though you are brothers in solidarity. The crooked outline of a skull you got from your ex-sister-in-law in a meth trailer with a homemade needle? Yeah, that really doesn’t compare to the 20+ hours I spent with clenched teeth as my artist carefully and laboriously brought a painting to life on my skin. Also, do not pull up your shirt or pull down your pants to show your shitty tattoo unless specifically asked to do so.
6. For the love of god, DO NOT ASK IF THE TATTOO HURT. I have no idea why people do this. I used to think I got this question because I am a female and perhaps dudes like to think that females are not as tough as they are when it comes to being tattooed. (Tattoo artists will tell you differently.) But I have heard people ask my brother and other male acquaintances whether their tattoos hurt, so despite my best efforts to make this about gender, I guess it really isn’t. The thing is this: every tattoo hurts. It’s a fucking needle being dragged and swiped and bored under your epidermis. It does not feel pleasant. Some places DO hurt more than others, but in general, tattoos=ouch.
7. Best not to ask what it “mean” or “symbolizes” or “represents”. “What is that supposed to be?” “What is that?” I feel like an idiot answering these questions. “It’s a woman picking an apple out of a tree.” “Oh, so it’s Eve?” “Well, sure. I guess Eve was the only woman who ever picked an apple out of a tree.” Some tattoos have deep meanings to people; mine generally have no meaning behind them other than I think they’ll look pretty. Surprisingly, this disappoints a lot of people (a lot of non-tattooed people) who apparently believe strongly that all tattoos should mean something very meaningful.
8. Unless you have a number of tattoos and are saying it just to be cheeky (and that’s acceptable), best to steer clear of using the word “ink”. It might be cliquish of us, but people with tattoos will just snicker behind your back if you tell them you like their “ink” or you’re thinking of getting “inked”. I’m actually snickering right now just remembering the last guy who said “ink” to me: a pudgy little dude with a goatee and miles of pasty un-tattooed flesh, who, after appraising me from head to toe, informed me without being ironic that i had “cool ink.” (Golly gee, thanks, mister!)
This is a mighty long list of don’ts–now what about some dos?
1. When you are engaged in a conversation about tattoos with someone who has them or has more of them than you, you should remember exactly that: they have them and you don’t, or they have more/bigger ones than you. So they probably know more about tattoos and getting tattooed than you do. So you should let them do most of the talking and volunteering of information. If they want to tell you how much it cost, great. If they want to tell you what it symbolizes, awesome. No value judgments on their choices, no assessments of their work–because your opinion is likely uninformed, and that’s just gauche.
2. DO ask people with great tattoos who their artist is.
3. DO exchange silly stories about tattoo experiences if you have them. Everyone loves a ridiculous tattoo story. (”I went with my friend to get her first one. We were 16 and in juvy…”)
4. DO say something complimentary and quick if you must. “That’s beautiful work” is always nice. “Good lookin’ arm.” “Great colors.”
Good luck out there!