Per Request: Stylish Tattoos

how to choose a tattoo

Here’s a subject that is likely to raise some hackles, and rightly so: what is a stylish tattoo? Are there any that will be acceptable in both the boardroom and the bar? Does it matter? Should you ink yourself up to your heart’s content and the hell with squeamish body-art-conservatives?

Tattoos are permanent, expressive, and highly personal. The clothes you wear broadcast how you feel today, or this week, or this season. The images you have drawn on your skin broadcast information about your inner self every day of your life. So, as you can imagine, people feel strongly about tattoos in general, and their own tattoos in particular.

I have somewhere between three and six tattoos, depending on how you count my full back piece which includes some bits that were accumulated over a decade or so. I got each of these tattoos at an important turning point in my life. The symbols themselves are deeply important to me, but, interestingly, are not themselves tied to the events which prompted my various trips to get inked. I wanted to commemorate my own growth and change, and I did so by taking symbols from my insides and transferring them permanently to my outsides.

None of these were snap decisions. Months of thought and consideration preceded the parlor visits. No alcohol was involved, and no anger. No rebellion crossed my mind, and no one was talking me into or out of taking the plunge. I certainly considered aesthetics, but never fashionability. These are mine, and you can see them. That’s how it works.

Now. If you’re reading this, you’re a grown-up and grown-ups can make their own decisions. But as tattoos gain popularity and acceptance, more and more people are making trend-focused tattooing decisions, which can lead to tattooing regrets. So I’m going to give you my opinions about that – at risk of life and limb – in the hope that I might talk a few people off the ledge who THINK they’re ready, but truly aren’t. And here we go:

If you don’t KNOW, don’t go.

Knowing what you want tattooed on yourself is like knowing you’ve found your life partner. I shit you not: You need to be that sure. And it can come like a bolt of artistic lightning, or it can come on slowly over months or years. Just like love, this knowledge can take many paths. But if you have doubts – and I mean any niggling, tiny, whispery, itty-bitty baby doubts – just wait. What’s your rush? You’ll know when it’s time, and you’ll know what you want. And then you can go.

If you need to ask someone else’s opinion, don’t go.

See above.

Think about placement.

Few people want tattoos on body bits that are absolutely impossible to conceal with clothing. You just don’t get a lot of face, hand, and throat tattoos. And the folks who choose those areas are making choices about their careers and lifestyles by artistically altering those body parts – and they know that. Concealment is a lesser, but still important, concern for anyone jonesing for arm, ankle, and nape tattoos. If you work for a bank or law firm, are you prepared to limit yourself to pants-no-skirts by getting a permanent ink anklet you can’t show at the office? What if you want to wear your hair up or get a pixie cut someday, and can no longer mask the Celtic knot on the back of your neck? Will it matter to you? Some icons lend themselves to certain placements, it’s true. But give some serious consideration to the work-arounds you may have to orchestrate if you’re putting an image on some fairly public skin.

Ask yourself why.

People get tattoos for every reason under the sun, and I’m sure many will disagree with me here, but I believe that you should get a tattoo because YOU WANT IT. Any other reason may lead to regret: upping your cool factor, showing your boyfriend how much you adore him, making a statement about what a deep thinker you are, because butterflies are pretty … none of these cut the mustard. That last one is especially troubling to me. Yes, tattoos are body art so they needn’t be emotionally significant or anything other than beautiful to their owner. But a symbol or image that is beautiful or aesthetically appealing to you right now yet holds no other personal significance may lose its importance and allure over time. A symbol or image that is aesthetically appealing and significant has a better shot at remaining important – or, at the very least, capturing a specific sentiment or helping you recall/preserve a life-era – over time. You will be permanently etching a symbol into your flesh. Want it for yourself, or do something else. There are a million ways to express ourselves that aren’t permanent, painful, pricey, and public. (I honestly can’t tell where Samantha’s opinion actually falls, but still loved reading her post on getting tons of tattoos as a youth that are now no longer trendy or particularly meaningful to her. She also has a Chinese symbol with an unknown-to-her-at-the-time meaning on her neck … more about that below.)

Avoid flash.

If you walk into a tattoo parlor and need to peruse and pick something off of the walls of flash art, you are probably not ready. You should be able to share a rough idea or drawing and work with your tattoo artist to perfect it. Grabbing something off the racks of pre-fab iconography is a signal that you’re getting inked for the sake of getting inked. If you have a rough idea of what you’d like but aren’t sure about the details, I recommend perusing Pinterest – my own tattoo inspiration board is here. This will allow you to mull styles, placement, and design from the comfort of your own home instead of at the parlor right before diving in. Less pressure, and many, many more options to spark your inspiration.

Make sure you know what it means to everyone.

Asian language characters are very popular tattoos with non-Asian-language-speakers because the characters themselves are beautiful. This is true of Hebrew, Arabic, and several other languages with elegant letters. But unless you read and speak a language that utilizes logograms, you may not be aware of possible additional meanings. Many of these characters represent several words or ideas, depending on context. Are you absolutely certain that the Japanese character for “truth” doesn’t also mean “chicken pot pie” under certain circumstances? Also, if you don’t read the language and are choosing the character from flash art, how do you know it means what the parlor says it means? Husband Mike has the word “gratitude” on his forearm. He didn’t feel the need to get it written in Thai or Korean because it would be prettier. His native English worked just fine. This is a pet peeve of mine, I know, and I can’t help ranting a bit because it just irks me to no end. But putting my own overly-emotional reactions aside, I can assert dispassionately that selecting words or symbols that may have hidden or unknown meanings is ill-advised. If you opt for actual words and language, you should know full well what your tattoos are telling people about yourself. Don’t let your word-based tattoos tell people you’re ignorant.

Ask yourself: what will this say about me?

This may seem contradictory to the idea of getting tattoos for yourself and yourself only. But there are certain things we love, think, and believe that can remain internal. Tattoos are the things we love, think, and believe that we want to celebrate and declare publicly and daily. Especially if you’re inking a spot that isn’t regularly covered by clothing, give some thought to the impressions you’ll give via your tattoo. Try this list for starters: what will your boss, barista, bus driver, best friend, and busboy think? Put yourself in their shoes and imagine. You may end up not caring one smidgen what anyone thinks, but it is still a worthwhile exercise.

I have seen astonishing beauty and creativity of personal expression in tattoos. I have seen trendy, tasteless, and terribly-executed tattoos. I love my own tattoos as much as I love my carefully curated wardrobe, and for the same reasons: it makes a visual statement about me. I tell people things with my tattoos before I ever tell them anything with words, and that is powerful and beautiful and good.

Seldom can we predict which decisions we will later regret, but tattoos often fall into that slim minority of predictables. Careful consideration of the factors outlined above may help you avoid a body art mistake. Piercings heal and hair can be re-dyed. Tattoo removal is painful and expensive. Be sure before you bedeck your bod.

And when you are sure, enjoy. There is nothing quite like a bright, proud, gorgeous new tattoo to make you feel awake and alive and fabulously individual.

Originally posted 2008-05-21 06:47:00.

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11 Responses to “Per Request: Stylish Tattoos”

  1. Michael McGraw Photography

    A well-reasoned post, but I have a comment on the asian characters. I have gratitude on one arm and am looking for something for my other forearm. Ideally, it would be the word, “Candy,” but that might cheapen the statement of gratitude on the other arm.

    Perhaps “Candy” in Hebrew might look cool and also celebrate my passion.

  2. fresca

    Mike, you could also substitute a quality for the thing. “Sweetness,” say.

    Or, conversely, you could get MORE specific, but in an oblique way:
    “Milky Way,” for instance…
    (One of my favorite candies = one of my favorite galaxies = the name of the pilgrimage I went on across Spain [Compostella, or Field of Stars].
    OK, so maybe *I* should get that tatoo!)

  3. Sal

    Haha, yeah it was pretty amazing. But I had to stay indoors and sit perfectly still for many hours to get it to look that good. Pretty hair, but temperamental … and much more manageable at shoulder length!

  4. Shannon

    Great post!

    I have three acquaintances who went into a tattoo parlour one sunny afternoon and got the same three frangipanis across their lower backs in green, blue and pink. The guy did a really poor job on all three and if you ask any of them why they got it done, two will say “Because she wanted us too” and the other one will say “Because frangipanis are pretty”.

    Sad! All three don’t talk to each other any more.

    I am muttering covetously about your hair now *mutter mutter*

  5. ~B~

    Great posts on Tats. I did not get my first tattoo till I was 24, I had 6 of them picked out since I was around 21. I just wanted to make sure that everytime I thought about it/them I still liked them. I have gotten only 2 of them so far…and I am craving to a get another one. Now on one of them you will shake your head in a no no manner. I got Japanense symbols on my ankle, inside of my ankle going up and down. NOW I did however look up bad,courageous,good and humble on several different websites to see if they were the same, and got a book from the library on them too. So I took in what I wanted done. I just wanted the nice, thick, simple black strokes to put what my life has taught me on my body. Bad things made me courageous, the good things made me humble. I want to put life too but have yet to find a symbol for it that does not change on every new source. =)

    I think tattos are artwork you carry around with you and you must think about what you really want. This is the first time I have came upon your blog and have read several different posts. I love your bluntness and openess. Plus I am a fellow natural curly hair chick. I have hair past my shoulder blades and am sadden that Graham Webb making waves has discontinued their gel. Anyways ….enough babble from me. I will be back to read some more.

  6. QuiteLight

    I am actually bookmarking your article for the next time someone is thinking about getting a tattoo. I have 2 small, coverable tattoos myself, but design ones regularly for my mate & my friends. The hard part is not shaking when I draw, I'm so nervous!

    I wait YEARS after I have a concept & the art before I go ahead. All be these 2 have faded away in that period.

    While I do agree 100% with your comment about knowing what symbols mean before you bedeck your body (Brittany Spears "Unique" kenji (sp?) actually means "Odd"), my symbol was for the Chinese year of the Tiger, so it seemed appropriate. I wanted to remind myself that I WAS brave & fierce & loyal, when I wasn't feeling those things. It really worked; you emblazon something on your flesh, you BETTER live up to it!

    There has been only one draw back; about 2 years after I got my little Tiger symbol at the base of my neck, Chinese characters AND that location got reeeeeally popular. Now I know how the first girl to get a dolphin on her ankle must feel!

  7. Andrea

    Thanks for a great article! I have a large upper back piece that I will begin work on in two weeks. I cannot wait. I have been planning this tattoo in excess of 3 years. I'm going to be 40 this year, so I feel that I'm certainly mature enough at this point to have a grasp on who I am and where my life is (hopefully) headed.

    You so rarely hear the words "tattoo" and "fashion" together, I loved seeing this. New to the blog and totally digging it, thanks!

  8. DarcP

    Your hair is amazing in this photo 🙂 I’ve been wanting a tattoo but the pain and the permanentness of one has scared me off so far. I enjoyed all your posts on your tattoos.

  9. Sarah Katz

    Sal, thank you for this insightful, well-founded, and respectful post on tattoos.
    I wish more people read this and reacted this way in the tattoo world. Props!