On Being a Tattooed Person

what its like to have tattoos

It’s been several years since I wrote about tattoos – mine or anyone else’s – and a few recent comments have reminded me that people are naturally curious about ink. I’ve got many tattoos myself, two of which are readily visible during the summer, and am fairly certain that I will get more over time. Each piece has deep personal and emotional significance to me, each symbol is important to me in its own way, and I won’t get any more ink until I know exactly what I want and why. I got my first when I was 23 and my most recent (a revision) a little over a year ago. I don’t get tattoos because they’re pretty or trendy or cool or work well with my outfits. I get them to remind me of milestones, losses, growth, life-changing events that I feel merit permanent tribute.

That said, I don’t “see” them every day. Not in the traditional sense of the word. To me, they are part of my body and, on most days, lost to familiarity. I would say that I am most aware of them when I shower because that’s when I am most likely to be touching and handling my own body, and that is when they are most likely to become touchstones and spiritual beacons. When I get dressed, though, I don’t think about how they impact my outfits because I consider them to be part of my skin, part of my self. And I chose the colors for important symbolic reasons and the placements based on how they worked with various symbolic meanings and with the topography of my body. Although I have been careful to avoid placements that would be impossible to cover, I have not given much thought to their clothing-related impact because it’s just not a priority for me. These symbols are very much mine. How my tattoos appear to observers is virtually meaningless to me. They’re as much a part of me as my freckles and wrinkles and scars, even if they are far less neutral to the observing eye. I acknowledge there is a discrepancy, but I’m perfectly comfortable with it, too.

I am fortunate to have avoided aggressive questioning about my tattoos from strangers, something that many other tattooed people deal with frequently. It baffles me that anyone would accost someone with tattoos and express disgust or dismay or disapproval because, although tattoos are obviously acquired by active choice, they are also renowned for their permanence. Asking someone, “Why would you do that to yourself?” or “Don’t you regret that choice?” is akin to saying, “Don’t you wish your eyes were blue instead?” A finished tattoo is a part of a person’s body. They may regret getting it, they may not, but your scolding will not change the permanence.*

Minneapolis is a very tattoo-friendly town full of amazing studios that turn out beautiful work. So in addition to being happy with my tattoos and valuing them for their personal meaning, I am used to blending right in with the tattooed folks in my hometown. When my choices are questioned, I’m always a little surprised. Tattoos are becoming more and more common and none of mine feature remotely controversial symbols or text. But not all areas are as ink-centric and not all people approve, which is understandable. Hopefully this post will serve as a reminder that people’s body choices are personal – whether they relate to hair, clothing, piercings, makeup, tattoos, or anything else. By all means, strike up a conversation if someone seems amenable, but keep an open mind. You can never know the reasons behind anyone’s choices until you ask.

Tattooed people are as varied a group as brunettes or petites. There’s no way to generalize about ANYTHING, and that is important to note. Loads of tattooed people have made their choices based on aesthetics alone or in part, have picked symbols that they don’t fully understand but that look beautiful and resonate, have made placement choices based on how their ink will interact with their clothing or personal color palettes. Loads of people have made their choices for reasons similar to mine, opposite from mine, and outside the realm of what you or I could imagine. People get tattoos for reasons that none of us may ever know that are all equally valid and personal.

*Yes, tattoos can be removed. It is a long, painful, expensive, and only semi-effective process in most cases. The disapproval of others is seldom the motivating factor in tattoo removal.

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59 Responses to “On Being a Tattooed Person”

  1. Heather

    I have 5 pieces of ink, only one shows under any work circumstances (and only then when I am sleeveless).

    If my body is a temple it is also my shrine. I have two pieces of handwriting (my dead husband’s and my elderly fathers). I saw a video of a woman (I wish I remembered who) who talked about her tattoos as part of her family history illustrated on her body – that he children know the stories of her tattoos and therefore know the stories of her life that are / were so important that she made them permenant. When she got asked “What about when you are 80???” she replied “I’ll be the tatted up 80 year old.”

    I’ve learned what sentiment survives the test of time for me (I do have one I would remove it is was easy and cheap to do). I’ll get more. They will be small and simple.

    My husband’s are big and lovely and just as important to him as mine are to me. I hope our son never chooses those earlobe expanders (I’d love somebody to talk about those if they have them — I just don’t get those) but we’ll be hard pressed to balk about ink when the time comes.

  2. Vicky

    I love this post!

    I have 5 tattoos myself, and I regret none of them.

    All of my tattoos are easily covered by professional clothing; but they’re all incredibly personal to me and full of meaning. They’re beautiful, and I always made sure I walked out of a tattoo shop with a piece of art.

    I’m getting a new one in September as well.

    I’ve never been accosted for my choices though; usually I just receive compliments on them. One of them, on my left shoulder, is a Sailor Moon tattoo – and I receive the MOST comments about that one. It makes me happy to wear my nerd on my sleeve!

  3. Versatile Style by Tracey

    Well, said! I am not a fan of tatoos, but totally support the rights of others to do so. When someone has a strong negative reaction it’s about themselves, not the tattooed individual. We as women seem to accept putting holse and piercing our ears, it’s really a choice that is no longer questioned… I wish for a society when creative expression is celebrated!!!

  4. Jacqueline Brooke

    Thank you for this post. It’s nice to see the subject treated without any aggression or defensiveness. I’ve had both positive and negative experiences in interactions with strangers regarding my tattoos and hope that culturally, America generally, will continue to become more open and less judgmental to others’ looks.

  5. A.B.

    Thank you for posting this! I also have five tattoos (four on my back and one on my ankle). While I do regret two of them and would love to get an awesome cover up for them some day… it’s my body and none of anyone else’s business.

  6. Christie

    I have 4. On my foot, a green ribbon for organ donation. Right calf, Winnie the Pooh for my godson. A Leo sign on my wrist and finally a runner on my left calf because at 41 I ran my first half marathon. No one says much. I like yours and have considered getting a pretty color one with no shading or outlining. At this point, I’m unsure as to what.

  7. Lorraine

    Currently I have 10 small – medium pieces. Several of them are pet portraits (One as a memorial and two for love of a living pet), my sons’ names, a line from a beloved song, a dream catcher (Growing up and dealing with a fear of death, dreams comforted me to not feel like I was “dying every night”) a tribute to my sister and our relationship, 2 freehand designs inspired by my Irish heritage and a Cross.

    I’ve always worked in a very tattoo accepting liberal environment (I was a teacher in the West Village of NYC) and didn’t really factor things like employment into my placement decisions, just my own taste. Now find myself residing in PA which can trend a bit more conservative. My ink hasn’t been an issue yet, and I see plenty around me with them as well. I have heard from others around me that they have been asked to cover their ink at work. Like you, I consider my ink to be a part of who I am, so I’m not sure that would work for me but in this economy…

  8. Janice

    Thanks for sharing your opinion. I think people who are against them are mostly older and remember when only sailors or shady people had them as I do. I try not to judge in this world. I have better things to do, like keeping my own self Godly. I do not care to have one, but do not look down on people who do, Same with piercings. I only have two holes in each ear, but my mother thought it was awful! Every generation has a trend that the former generations do not think much of. I do appreciate learning the why and reasoning. Thanks again.

    • Sally

      I think you’re right, Janice, in that some of it is generational. There are several older men who go to my gym whose tattoos look like very old military ones, and seeing them always reminds me that tattoos and tattooing have changed a lot in a fairly short period of time.

  9. Mistie

    I love tattoos! I have five total, but I’m working on making two of them into a sleeve. I have tattoos because they are personal and relate to specific milestones, but most of my tattoos I have because they remind me of a concept or theory I love AND because they are beautiful. I don’t care if anyone else loves them or finds them beautiful, but I do. Don’t get me wrong, I can tell you a twenty minute story about what each of my tattoos means to me, but a big part of it for me is the art.

    I’m an artist. I love color and form. And I love that I have some really amazing works of art that I carry with me at all times. My body is a canvas. I don’t know. I guess in that way tattoos–the art form–matter to me in the same way that poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, etc. matter to me beyond individual works.

    As far as scolding goes, yes, I’ve been scolded. It’s interesting to me because I tend to get more looks than my equally tattooed husband and WAY more verbal scoldings. But I’m a petite woman, and he’s a large man, so I guess most people feel more entitled to comment on my body and my choices.

  10. Danielle

    I am also a tattooed person. The only time when I feel uncomfortable about my tattoos is when I show them for the first time in a new office. Also, I was in Vietnam in the autumn and I sort of felt like people were looking at me more than usual. My grandma is the only one who makes the “you know those are permanent” comments. I always offer to take her with me next time I get one! I love my tattoos because they remind me of strength, travels, love and life.

  11. Alison

    I love your tattoos and like you I plan to get more as well. My first tattoo I got on my ankle because I was exclusively a pants wearing person at the time. I designed it myself and although it isn’t something I would design at this point in my life it is a part of me. It’s my most visible. My second a snowflake in the sun on my back is my favorite and wish it was more visible. But, I don’t see that one often and like you is usually upon showering that I remember it’s there. It too was designed by myself but was drawn by my tattoo artist and wow that collaboration was fun eye opening and I feel the best way to get what you want.

    The next one will be much more visible. I am planning a tribute to my sister who has past away. It will be on my upper arm visible to all when I wear short sleeves. She will never be forgotten and is always on the forefront of my mind everyday.

    I guess the only time I have made certain to cover my tattoo was upon interviewing for jobs. I just make sure to wear pants or boots. I feel at that time it’s best to cover until you know the company’s policy on visible ink. If they don’t have a policy then once you have the job it’s not a big deal to show your ink.

    Thanks for talking about ink, I love to see what others feel and what they have chosen to put on their body. I find tattoos to be fascinating.

  12. Leah

    I have a giant tattoo on my thigh. It’s a shiny chrome sleeping robot. I love it so much (when I got it I managed to work far more pairs of shorts into the rotation). I mostly hang out with tattooed people so I never really cop any flak for it, you tend to make friends with your tattoo artist once you’ve sat next to them for 30 hours or more. Some people don’t understand what it is or why I’d get it but they’re always polite about it. It definitely makes me scarier and makes me noteworthy. I am “the girl with the giant tattoo” now when anyone needs to describe me, people assume I am tough. Which I suppose is true when you consider how long you need to sit with pain to get a big piece. I have a booking in July to start a sleeve. I feel like that is gonna change how I am perceived pretty drastically but I am rolling with it anyway. I’m old enough and tough enough to not care! I also predict that as my skin becomes more colourful my wardrobe is goign to morph into something more minimal as a counterpoint to my tattoos. Which I am totally ok with as they will be the most expensive accessories I’ll ever buy. Good thing the cost per wear is cheap πŸ™‚

  13. Miss__T

    Visible tattoos can limit employment opportunities. Even here in the liberal SF Bay Area I have 3 friends who work for tech and biotech companies, all of which state in their employee manuals “no visible tattoos”. Now, I think that each person has to decide what their own limits of “visibility” are — some people always wear long sleeves, etc., and it’s not a problem, but other people would feel very limited if they couldn’t wear sleeveless clothing and therefore have their tattoos visible. There are plenty of companies around here too that frown on “unnatural” hair colors, like pink or green. These issues of self-expression may be more of a problem for entry-level (or younger) employees, but it is a reality and needs to be considered, especially in areas/fields where the job market is highly competitive, the real-life priorities need to be considered. We can’t all work in artistic fields.

    • Lynn

      I could not agree more. I work with college students, and we have to tell them that if they want a career in one of the more competitive fields(business, law, medicine, teaching, etc.) to think twice about a visible tattoo. Law firms are now getting 100+ qualified applicants for every position, so why bother with someone who might turn off a more conservative client or judge? The choice is theirs, but it should be an informed choice. There are so many terrible “artists” around that we have also begun suggesting that if they get a tattoo make sure it is a good studio that hires qualified people so it does not look like prison ink.

    • Audi

      My experience in Bay Area biotech has been very different from what you describe, Miss_T. I’ve worked in the industry for 20+ years and at 4 different companies (2 large companies, 1 medium, and one start-up) and have had visible tattoos for my entire career, but not once have I ever been told to cover them or known of a company policy that specifies that I do so. I’m now in upper management and have up to 5 sizable tattoos that are visible on a near-daily basis. Unless your friends work in the legal, sales, or finance departments (which in my experience tend to be more conservative than the technical groups), I can’t imagine even a big pharma company taking issue with visible tattoos. But then again it’s true that when jobs are limited employers can afford to be more selective, even to the point of being arbitrarily discriminatory. It’s a chance we all take by making the choice to get a tattoo that can’t be kept hidden.

  14. CJ

    I wanted ink from age 17, but waited until I was 27 to get my first. I knew I wanted something meaningful that would stand the test of time. I knew it should not be something from pop culture that I wouldn’t care about in five years.

    I now have five pieces; four on my upper back (covered by work clothes), and one on the back of my neck that shows if my hair is cut short or pulled up. I have been questioned (by other inked people!) as to why I would get tattoos if I’m “not going to show them off.”

    My ink is for me, and for me alone. I show them off when I want to, in a swimsuit or tank top, not on demand.

    • malevolent andrea

      I have two small tattoos, one on my lower back (gotten in 1997, before the term tramp stamp ever existed, thankyouverymuch) and one on the back of my neck at the hairline. I’ve gotten comments that it’s interesting that they’re both on places that I can’t see myself, at least not without a mirror and some contortions. My reply is that they’re not there for me to see, they’re there for me to know that they’re there. πŸ™‚

  15. Tracy

    So glad you revisited this topic Sally! I actually was going through your archives for previous posts on tattoos a few weeks back because I was contemplating getting a half sleeve tattoo. Your posts along with many conversations with my husband, family, friends, and co-workers prompted me to go through with the half sleeve. Why did I fear getting another tattoo (I already have 3 but they are not visible)? Well this new tattoo would be out there for all to see. What would people think of me? Would this stifle my professional career? Would I be setting a bad example for my two kids (3 yrs and 15 mos)? In the end I decided this was a personal choice that symbolized my own unique beauty, success, growth, and love for my family. This was nobody’s decision but my own. So I got it! I now have a beautiful piece- Alphonse Mucha’s “Feather” on my left arm (shoulder to elbow). So far I’ve only gotten compliments and positive feedback. πŸ™‚

  16. Aziraphale

    I found this post fascinating, because some of your views on the topic of tattoos are so far removed from mine. In particular, I was struck by your comment “How my tattoos appear to observers is virtually meaningless for me”. I am a big fan of tattoos as well, but to me, a tattoo is art, and art is meant to be viewed. If I get more tattoos, they will be beautiful, and visible, but not symbolic. I’m not a spiritual person. I just love the look of a good design, of quality art. The reason I haven’t got more yet is that it will take some effort to come up with a design that is beautiful enough, and I haven’t got round to it. It’s got to be good, because as you say, tattoos are renowned for their permanence, and I like the idea of having one that covers my shoulder and upper arm, so people will be able to see it!

    There is no personal significance to the one tattoo I do have — I got it on the spur of the moment, without much forethought (or afterthought, for that matter, since it’s on my back and unless the topic of tattoos comes up, I forget it’s there) when I was in my early twenties. I was with friends; someone suggested we go get tattoos; I got on the bandwagon. End of story. I was very much the type that if fun was being had, I was hardly going to miss out. When you’re young, that’s as good a reason as any to get a tattoo, I think. πŸ˜‰

  17. Carol

    I have one small tattoo on my thigh (a rose) that I had done over 30 years ago. It’s easy to cover up. I have no desire to get another one and I agree with Miss_T who commented that they can limit employment opportunities. I work in academia, and although the dress code here is very casual, I don’t know of anyone (faculty, students, postdocs or staff) who has a visible tattoo. I think that some of the well done sleeves are quite beautiful but over the top for your average person. There are a lot of poorly done and tasteless tattoos out there too – my 21 year old niece has a big mermaid tattoo on her upper arm and it’s just not very good. She wants to teach art, and I don’t know how this will affect her job chances (or her wardrobe choices), since it’s too large to cover up with a short sleeved shirt. I agree that everyone has a right to do what they want with their own body, but people don’t always make good decisions. I’m curious to see if the trend toward large elaborate visible tattoos is just a fad. I’m sure that those of you who have special meaningful tattoos don’t care if they become less popular, and you shouldn’t, but I do think quite a few people get them just because it’s a cool thing to do right now.

    • Halo

      Interesting. I also work in academia (as faculty), and while I have no tattoos, several other faculty here do have visible ink. A lot of the grad students and postdocs I know also have lots of tattoos. My university is in a very rural area of a conservative state, too.

  18. Helen

    I’ve actually been thinking of writing and asking you about clothing choices and tattoos (as in, do the colors of your tattoos ever effect your choice of color in your clothing, etc). So now I have your answer! Great minds thinking alike and all that.

    I have 5 tattoos also and I got them for very similar reasons–to mark occasions or passages in my life. I am happy with them and don’t regret them.

    I have never had them effect my ability to get a job, to the best of my knowledge. In fact, I was once hired for a corporate job (in part) because of my tattoos–they considered it a “diversity hiring!”

  19. asher

    I have six dots around my left breast, put there by my radiation oncologist (they have to position the patient *exactly right* for each session. I have seen some more….willing ones that I admire greatly, but I have a different association with them, unfortunately…..:(

    • JB

      Thanks for putting this in perspective, Asher. I’m sure there are plenty of others – Holocost survivors or their families, for example – who have very emotional associations with tattoos that are not related to art or self-expression.
      Best of luck with your treatment. I will be thinking strong healthy thoughts for you!

  20. linB

    I do not have any tattoos. At a visit to a public park in northern Indiana over 20 years ago, my DH and I observed that we were the only people in the crowd who did not have tattoos … including the babes-in-arms. No one there questioned our decision not to get inked. We did not question their decision to get inked. I have seen some lovely tattoos, I have seen some unfortunate tattoos … I have fantasized about what I would choose to have inked on my body. All I decided was that I have some weird fantasies.

    It is a very personal decision for each of us, and none of my business which option someone else chooses! I do not feel empowered to pass public judgement on someone who chooses to have cosmetic surgery, or to color his/her hair, or to shave his/her beard/legs/armpits. Why would I pass public judgement on someone who chooses to get a tattoo? I admire the courage it takes to undergo the physical pain involved.

    • Ellen

      The babies had tattoos? That would bother me… it is not a choice that anyone should make for anyone else!

  21. Marsha

    I completely support everyone’s right to do whatever they want to their bodies and have never scolded anyone on their personal style choices. I don’t have any tattoos, and won’t get one unless it is medically necessary. Personally, I think they’re ugly. Even artwork that I would find beautiful on paper or the side of a building, in my opinion just looks hideous on skin.

    I’ve had a bit of a backlash in some circles for disliking tattoos. I’ve had people try to persuade me their tats are beautiful. Sorry, I just don’t see it. But why should they care about my opinion?

  22. Andrea

    Hi Sal,

    I have 3 tattoos, one covering my upper back, one on my forearm an one on my lower back (the dreaded tramp stamp). I love them and have no regrets or concerns about them. Save the one on my lower back, they are very colorful and elaborate. They’re not girly so that occasionally gets a comment but other than that I have never had anything negative said. I live in Seattle (highly tattooed area) and own my own business. My biz partner and I were joking – she is the only pro dog trainer we could think of in the area that _doesn’t_ have one. πŸ˜€

    Yes, tattoos can limit your professional life but then most decisions we make in life can impact later opportunities. Where to go to college or IF to go, what to study, where you live, who you marry (because then big decisions are done jointly), having children (or not)… These things are all choices we make, sometimes with lack of adequate consideration that can affect us for the rest of our lives. It’s /just/ a tattoo. I think sometimes people (my mother for instance and BTW, I’m 43) get a little overly focused on details that are not really that important in life. Wearing slacks or long sleeves are easy enough solutions (or laser removal, though that’s less easy) should a tattooed person find themselves wanting to hide them. As they become more common I suspect attitudes in professional settings will catch up.

  23. Kelly

    I do not have any tattoos and likely never will. However, both of my daughters have them. The oldest has several, that (in my opinion) range from beautiful to… questionable… and one of hers honors a person dear to her who died. The youngest has just one that I really think is astonishingly dumb. BUT, I would never, ever say anything critical to either of them. Their bodies are thier own, and beautiful to me no matter what. Same goes for everyone else.

  24. Leah

    When my mother saw my first tattoo – 9 months after I got it because it’s a small one on my hip – she cried (I was 19). Because apparently she was worried about what anyone who saw me naked would think? It seemed a little over dramatic for such a little, hardly-anyone-will-ever-see-this sort of thing.

    Fast forward approximately 15 years, and I found myself nervously telling her on the phone before she came to visit after I had my first baby, that since I was nursing she would probably be seeing my second tattoo (a mark of courage over my heart to mark my survival of my first husband’s suicide). I did not want a repeat performance of tears. She behaved much better, and when she saw it, she even asked me politely what it meant.

    My current husband and I have slowly been working on designs for “matching” tattoos (they will share an element such as a lock and key, not be the same). It feels great at 41 to finally feel free enough to mark myself in a more publicly visible way. I used to worry about employment issues, but I’ve gotten to the point of realizing that a company with a no visible tattoo policy is probably not going to be a happy environment for me for more reasons than the tattoos. I’ve already added a thick lock of pink/purple hair (the shade changes) that I don’t plan on giving up either!

    My mom hates the hair too.

    We live in the Portland OR area so ink is pretty common in our lives. I really enjoy asking people about theirs or just offering an admiring word for lovely work – to me it’s the same as saying, “Great shoes!” or “Where did you get that bag?” And I’ve not had one person not be nice and more than willing to talk to about it – even though they can’t tell I’m a tattooed lady myself. Well, not yet anyway…

  25. susan

    I’ve never done it because of the risk of infection and the added toxin load. Also, the ink does not stay in that area of your body, it moves in little bits over time, perhaps not visible, but bits of it move around your body. Your lymph system winds up working harder to detoxify your body. In the end, its not a natural pigment being put in the body. Sometimes the pigments have lead or traces of cadmium in them. I think that tattoos can be beautiful, but I’d never get one because of the possible harm it might cause. This article is the tip of it:

  26. DC

    I have one tattoo, and it was something I thought over for years beforehand. I frequently heard the “what if you regret it later” advice, and I wanted to be absolutely sure of the design and placement before taking the plunge. My tattoo is on my ankle so I can cover it when necessary, although the necessity doesn’t come up nearly as often as I first thought it would. It’s of a fictional character that I love, and it holds a lot of meaning for me. It really speaks to who I am as a person, and both the image of the tattoo itself and the tattooing process hold a lot of good memories. The best part is that a close friend (whose artistic ability I have always admired) both drew up and inked my tattoo, so it will always hold significance. I would love to get another one, but my husband isn’t fond of tattoos, so I made a deal with him that I would only get the one. I know it’s MY body, but he was supportive with the first one, and I figure he’s got to look at my body, so if tattoos aren’t his thing, I don’t need to ink up my body. The only time I’ve ever gotten”scolded” for my tattoo was right after I got it, by a guy that was very closed minded and not very pro-woman to begin with, so we often got into it anyway (we no longer hang out). But he acted so much more upset than my husband would have ever dreamed to be, and it was over MY body. I was very insulted by some of the things he said and basically told him it was none of his business. Other than that, I’ve found most people to be very accepting (even at work, where it’s on display quite often), and I’m sure if I found something very meaningful to me, I could get my husband to come around. πŸ˜‰

  27. Nan

    I got my first tattoo 35 years ago – long before tattoos were fashionable. I had an orchid tattooed on my upper back to disguise some rather serious cystic acne scars. Until I got my tattoo, I felt that people were staring at my scars. Getting a tattoo made me feel powerful and decorated instead of disfigured – it gave me the choice of what people were seeing. I also have double piercings in both ears and wear tiny diamond studs every day in the secondary piercing. I used to work for a surgeon and he absolutely HATED my tattoo. Whenever I wore something to work that covered my ink but was somewhat sheer, he would insist that I go to the clinic and have the nurse bandage it. He was a pretty insensitive boss and I finally had enough and left that position. I got another tattoo (a colorful fish) for my 40th birthday – and actually had a big fish nip me on the leg while I was swimming, so it must be pretty realistic! Nearing my 60th birthday, I think I have enough ink. I often get compliments on my “vintage” orchid these days…

  28. HM

    I have two tattoos. One I like, one…meh. Both can be covered easily though that has never been a concern for me.
    Have you heard the argument that your tats will look really horrible when you are in the nursing home and you might regret it then. I got a plan. I plan to get lots more tattoos in my 70’s so if I am ever in the nursing home my tats will be fresh and beautiful for the rest of my life.


  29. Virginia

    I have a butterfly on my hip that I got at 18 but I promise you it’s not as shallow as it sounds. πŸ˜›

    From about the age of seven or eight all the way up to my very early twenties I suffered from quite severe depression. It was a hard process growing up but I’ve finally got to a more comfortable and healthy place and that change made me who I am.

    I knew even at 18 that the hard times would make me a stronger person so I got a (pretty) representation of change and wanted one made of Celtic knots to represent my heritage and the interconnectedness of life. I’m the overstretched metaphor of a butterfly that had to spend time developing and then forcing my way out of my self made confines.

    It’s pink because I like pink.

  30. Heazure

    I have some not-very-prominent tattoos that are almost always covered up by my clothes (my whole upper back, a half finished upper arm sleeve because I got pain sensitive in the middle of it, a tiny literary tattoo on one shoulder). I actually dress to show off the tattoos in the summer sometimes — strapless black dresses are great for me. What I’ve encountered some push back from is that my whole left inner forearm is text tattooed. It’s Wittgenstein, my translation, in a really old typewriter font, ending a few inches from my wrist so it doesn’t show only if I wear long sleeves (and if I hike the sleeve up, even a little, forget about it). It’s beautiful text — many professional artists say it’s the best they’ve seen. Four years later it hasn’t faded or bled at all. In Portland or Seattle, where I have spent most of my post-college life, the placement hasn’t been a problem at all. Doctors and nurses have prominent tattoos! Visiting home (small town in the midwest), people are aghast at how I’ve mutilated myself. So silly. I don’t ever dress around hiding it.

  31. kathy

    Speaking for the older generation, (I am approaching the big 7-0,) I hope that everyone will consider the ravages of aging skin. If I had had the Titanic tattooed on my chest, in time we could have watched her sink. It would not be a question of the ink and colors being sufficiently fresh, but the unfortunate results of wrinkles and sags. When I was younger I was not blessed with smooth creamy firm skin. I was given to freckles, sunburn, acne, stretchmarks and now…wrinkles, – so when I see young people choosing such a permanent style of self-expression, it makes me want to weep. I fully understand any sort of self-adornment, but as there are henna and other alternatives, I would suggest that might be a better choice. I have seen skilled tattoo art and bad (and the bad is miserable), but I am mystified by people who have a tattoo and then choose clothing that cuts it off, so that the design makes no sense at all. So, one of the things that bothers me most is that it is so limiting. When one of my daughter’s friends was considering a tattoo, some 40+ years ago, I just suggested that she consider how it was going to look when she was wearing her wedding dress- would it mean that certain necklines or sleeves would be distracting? Would she want her tattoo in the photos at all? It was just something to consider. All that being said, when ever the subject comes up and people talk about what tattoo they would get- – – I always say that I would get a tattoo of a tape measure around my waist, and it would ALWAYS read 24 inches!

  32. Olivia

    I have four tattoos, the first of which is a rose on my shoulder blade. I simply wanted a tattoo and thought a rose was classy, lol. It was poorly done and faded, so about 10 yrs later I had it completely re-colored and it looks wonderful now. My second tattoo is a daisy on my toe. It comes from a song I learned as a child about having a tattoo of a daisy on my toe. I love it. Third tattoo is an animated alligator sporting a fedora and playing a trumpet, a la The Blues Brothers on my hip/lower back. One of my best friends has a similar one playing a saxophone. We had these drawn and inked in New Orleans for our 25th birthdays. By far it is my favorite. My fourth is two lizards in a yin yang position on my upper back. I picked it out of a book on the spur of the moment. I often forget about it because it has no meaning for me.

    Placement was chosen so they would be covered by clothing nearly all the time. My tattoos are for me and no one else. However, I have an idea percolating to mark the birth of my children and I might let it peek out of the neckline of my shirts. I’m 35 (tomorrow!) and I think I’m ready to let a bit more of my personality show.

  33. Susan

    Sally, I don’t have an issue with tattoos as I respect they are a private matter. I was surprised when talking to a friend who is a nephrologist (and a former medical school professor) to hear that there IS an issue with the ink residues migrating and damaging the liver. I live in a major medical center (Dallas) and this doctor tells me that they are treating liver damage from ink residues. I’m not sure that most who are contemplating a tattoo know about this risk.

  34. Patti

    I only have 2 at this time but have booked a session for my 3rd one next month. I was 44 when I got my 1st one on my back just below my neck … a crescent moon with 3 stars for myself and my 3 sons. I was 47 when I got my 2nd one on the left side of my chest … it is in memory of my oldest son twho passed away when he was 16. The artist even used the epitaph from my sons headstone in the design. It’s a beautiful piece that has garnered many compliments, even from complete strangers. My next piece is purely for fun and will be on the side of my right calf. Each placement was chosen with the ability to cover them up if need be but most days I’d rather choose clothing that allows me to show it off whenever I can.

  35. Erika

    My first tattoo was a pentacle on my thigh – statement of beliefs, permanent talisman. Then it progressed to showing the 5 elements (water, earth, fire, air, spirit), my familiars (cats) and tying it all together with roses and honeysuckle (some of my favorite plants, also full of symbolism). The last one (so far) is my arm band – a stylised pair of celtic dogs – again, my eternal dogs. Beliefs, loves, heritage.

    So – half thigh, armband and full back. All of them can be covered without effort, and my clothing generally covers it anyway. Sun is BAD for tattoos (I’ve met a 90 year old at a tattoo show, and he always kept his skin covered, worked in a very conservative industry, and even his oldest art had clean lines and beautiful colour. No retouching at all, even the yellows and reds. Also, Australia has a pretty high rate of skin cancers, so it’s just another reason to take care of my skin πŸ™‚ )

    I’ve never been scolded for my choices, but I’ve also been fairly discreet with them. My mother knows (and has seen me in the chair!), but my father doesn’t (and I think he’d have conniptions. Parents are divorced). There have certainly been workplaces where I haven’t shown my arm because of a couple of the people there (older, censorious males generally). Less because I care of their opinion (I don’t, it’s my skin, not theirs) than I can’t be bothered dealing with it.

    I don’t have the right to tell someone else what to do with their body, although I’ll offer an opinion if they ask. And I’m damned if they have any right to tell me what to do with mine. This is part of who I am.

    • Erika

      Forgot to add – my oldest tattoo is now 26 years old and still in great condition. For a long time, I was one of the most heavily tattooed women I know. Thankfully, those days are long gone and tattoos are much more accepted these days.

  36. SamiJ

    I’ve never understood why people say things like “you’ll regret that when you’re 80” — when I’m 80 I’ll probably be as wrinkled and saggy and brown-spotted as my parents–and I doubt tatoos will be the thing that mkes me look old/or outrageous. If ink is your biggest regret at 80, then you’ve lived a very staid life.

  37. Tenshi

    I only have got one tattoo, on my back. It goes from the top of my left shoulder to my right hip – dragonfies, lilies and some ornaments. It is only visible in its entirety when I’m not wearing any clothes at all, and being very easy to cover was an important consideration when I got it, since I wasn’t sure how it would affect my professional life.
    I’ve been far more drawn to tops and dresses with deep back necklines sind I got inked, because I love showing it off. It kind of does commemorate a rather tough time in my life since that was when I got it, as a promise to myself that things will get better, but apart from that, there is no real meaning to it. It’s just beautiful.
    I would like to get more, but only when I am absolutely certain about placement and motiv, and so far, I haven’t found anything that I really really want. My boyfriend would be opposed anyways, but if I really wanted it, he’d have to deal with that. It’s my body, my skin, my decision.
    I am asked quite frequently whether it hurt (it did, but way less than I feared), or whether it was expensive (ooooh yes, but also so, so worth it), but I haven’t gotten any really negative comments so far, apart from my mum, who thought it was too big. Most people react quite positively.
    As for getting wrinkled, saggy skin in old age – so what? I’ll be wrinkled and colorful, then. The tattoo will still be part of who I am.

  38. Bronwyn

    I have 2 tattoos; one on my leg which I got when I was 18. And one on my shoulder I got when I was 20. The first has an emotional tie with my mom; we both got tattoos (a present for her 50th!) and the second was more for me.
    I do want another tattoo, and I know what I want. I’m just waiting for the right time.

  39. Trillium

    Great post!

    I have 2 tattoos. I have more in mind, but just haven’t done it yet because money has gone to other places. πŸ˜‰ The 2 I have are both very personally relevant to me. I have a butterfly and a flower, which probably both sound typically “girly”, but they each have a special meaning to me. I got my first when I got divorced ( a very freeing experience) and the second in honor of my dad. They’re located so that they can both be seen if I’m wearing a tank top, but not if I’m wearing short or longer sleeves. I like showing them, I’m proud of them. I get quite a few compliments from strangers, and no one has ever given me grief except my mother. Why anyone would think it’s appropriate to give unsolicited criticism is beyond me.

    I love seeing other people’s tattoos and talking about them. Maybe there should be a photo gallery! πŸ˜‰

  40. Agnes

    A question for those of you who have tattoos: If a stranger approached you on the bus, complimented your tattoo and asked about the meaning, how would your react?
    I’m asking because I recently saw young woman my age with a very interesting tattoo (a chemical formula) and was curious about what substance it was. I was sneaking glances at her tattoo for quite some time until I got off the bus, but didn’t ask her about her body art since I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate. Next time, would it be alright to ask? How would you react?

    • Sally

      Agnes, I can only answer for myself, of course, but I am ALWAYS happy to answer questions about my tattoos when asked in curious/non-judgmental ways. Even though some of my own pieces are very personal, I have answers that I feel comfortable sharing with strangers.

      For what it’s worth, a great way to approach it is, “Excuse me, I was just admiring your tattoo. Would you mind telling me about its significance?” That gives the person the opportunity to say (hopefully politely), “No,” if they aren’t willing to discuss.

      Anyone else? Are you comfortable being asked about the meanings of your tattoos?

      • Jacqueline Brooke

        I know I’m very late chiming in here but was just reading back over comments- honestly, I hate when people ask me about the “significance”. I tell people I got mine because they are pretty; my personal life is personal. I appreciate compliments (“Beautiful ink!”) or a request for clarification (“Is that a phoenix?”) and that gives me an opportunity to expand if I want to without having to directly say no to someone. You wouldn’t ask someone about the significance of their dress choices, additional piercings or color of hair (anyone got the “does it match the carpet?”), don’t pry in to strangers’ personal lives. If they want to share, the compliment will be enough.


    hello SALL. I love life, I love art, I love my body, and I do not like tatoos on my body, I have none. The reason is because my style is changing all the time, every year, and I think something permanent will be a litlle too much and kind of overwelming for me. Big hug from viΓ±a del mar chile

  42. charlmarjo

    I have 3 tats, one on my upper right arm with my name, and two on my back with my kid’s names and birthdates. I sometimes regret the pacement and size of my name tat, but then I remember why I got it. My husband was in Bosnia for a year with the military and I was raising my 2 year old with very little help. It is a symbol of strength for me. I am a teacher and I usually try to keep it covered, only because he kids make a really big deal out of it (in a good way)! It makes me mad when people ask me if I got my name so that I wouldn’t forget it What a dumbass question! Lol

  43. Alyson

    Snap! You perfectly nailed my feelings on my tatts – they are important and beautiful to me. I wrote a post on my journey in this post some years back after making friends in the tiny village we moved to…they were errrr surprised to find their new friend had body art http://alysonhill.wordpress.com/2009/01/24/tattoo-you/ and thy got over it πŸ™‚
    Now I work in a high school with an ultra conservative Principal, so I largely keep them under wraps, but the senior kids enjoy my secret – which they inevitably discover in the four years, and hold sacred over the younger ones πŸ™‚

  44. charlmarjo

    Alyson, I read your article and it was spot on! People don’t expect me to have tas either tand it is funny to see their reactions!

    • Alyson

      Hey thanks Charlmarjo – there is certainly something entertaining in watching that 30 seconds while someone processes making sense of the incongruent person with tattoos πŸ™‚

  45. Alex

    I have two tats of my own, and I’ll be getting another this fall. (I only allow myself to get inked on my birthday; it’s my way of avoiding overdoing it.) The only people who have ever said anything genuinely mean about them were my dad and stepmom (when I mentioned getting a second, they said “you should get your other one removed instead”)… so I didn’t share my second one with them. I don’t see the point in inviting the hostility and criticism of something so important to me (which isn’t going away). Both of mine are easily hidden in professional clothing because I’m still starting my career and prejudiced interviewers are a real concern for me (my current supervisor has several beautiful visible tattoos and she said she still covers them up for interviews, despite having more than proven herself as an amazing librarian… some people just can’t get past it).

  46. LG

    I don’t have any tattoos, and it’s because I think I would get tired of them. And also because I love the look of skin itself. I wish there were tattoos that faded away instantly in five years! That would be kind of fun!

    I also might be “rebelling” against the norm these days by intentionally not having one, as lots of people around my age (I’m 32) have one or more.

    I think instead I go for jewelry and makeup because I can switch those out based on my moods. Fun!