Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why you should not get a tattoo

I take requests for posts and one of them was to write about why one should get a tattoo and/or why one shouldn't. As a generality, I think there's no reason not to get a tattoo if you want one, but for fun, I thought it would be more amusing to write about why you should not.

You should not get a tattoo if you're planning on putting it on your lower back, to look cute with a bikini or above your jeans. If you are a man, I might say this is okay, but at this point, that placement of a tattoo is just another "tramp stamp" or the lovely "trailer trash tail light". If you feel inordinately proud of being white trash, go ahead and do it. Please consider the stretch factor of this placement, for it will look completely different depending upon what position you are in. A wolf's head might look fine when you are standing up but will be completely distorted when you bend over. The same with a sun, which seems to be a popular choice for this body placement. You can't see it, but it looks like crap when you aren't stock straight. If you want a butterfly with black tribal work around the edges, your tattooist will think very little of you, for he or she has done this one or two many times. Please do not bring in decals that you bought at Hot Topic. Four hundred people before you have done the same thing and they are way too small to tattoo properly anyway.

Do not get a tattoo in any place that can be seen by others. You may not live to regret it, but you probably will. It may be true that tattoos are more acceptable these days, but they are still a liability when you apply for most jobs.

Do not get a tattoo if you have any personality trait that leans towards perfectionism, or if you do, go to the best, most expensive tattoo artist you can find, and make sure that s/he does work that you admire. Otherwise, you will live with a tattoo that you will be constantly judging for the rest of your life. This rule also applies to you if you are an artist.

Do not get a tattoo immediately upon finding out bad news about anything. Memorializing bad memories is not good for your mental health.

Do not get a tattoo of anyone's name. You have heard this one before, I'm sure, but you'd be surprised at how most people think they are exceptions to the rule and that their particular love story will last forever. I'm sorry, but if you need to tattoo that special someone's name on you, you probably have a smaller chance than normal of staying together. Additionally, do not get a tattoo for anyone else, even if it does not include their name. If the request is prefaced by the words, "If you really loved me. . ." head for the hills, forget the tattoo and reconsider who you are dating (or are married to).

Do not get a tattoo to prove something. If you are a man, unless you are in a gang and it's mandatory, do not get a tattoo that is supposed to make you seem more macho. If you are a woman, do not get a tattoo that flaunts your anger at gender specific imagery (like getting a typically macho tattoo). I should know about this last one. I have not one "feminine" tattoo and when I see a woman with a full sleeve that's filled with beautiful flowers, I really wish I had the money for laser removal. My left arm is totally covered with stylized flames (and a bunch of other crap, like most tattooists).

Do not get a small tattoo on a large area unless you are absolutely sure you will never want another tattoo. People who want their arms sleeved usually have a bunch of garbage that tattooists have to work around or cover up. Also, if you are a man and you have a tiny tattoo on a big body part, you might as well be wearing a sign that reads "I am a wimp."

Do not get a tattoo to show that you are a unique individual, for if you do, you are doing the same thing as a lot of other unique individuals, thus proving you are not. If you are hell bent on pursuing this line of reasoning, "I have a tattoo, therefore I am unique", look through all the tattoo magazines, the photos in tattoo shops and ask your tattooist if they've done your oh-so-very individual tattoo before. If they say yes, think of something else. If you can't. walk away.

Similarly, do not get a tattoo because you want the world to know how much you like something. Go get a t-shirt. That way, when you're sick of Godsmack or cute fairies, you can stop wearing them and move on to whatever your new interest is, if any.

Do not get a tattoo for any reason. What the hell is the point? If you want to memorialize a moment in your life, you have many other options, like writing it down, taking a photograph or the least work of any option: just remembering it.

If you are getting a tattoo because you like the artists' work, buy a painting. If you get sick of it, you can take it down.

The truth is, if you do get a tattoo, you will stop noticing that it is on you very quickly, so none of the reasons not to do it matter much except for other peoples' judgments. If you really want to do it, go right ahead. Please be smart and pick a tattoo artist well. Make sure you see photographs of their work (and that they are indeed photos of their work and not cut from a magazine). Better yet, go to someone whose work you've seen in person. Do not try to convince a tattooist to do something that they advise against or have any objections to, especially if they've told you it is ugly or say they've being doing an awful lot of the same thing lately. Drive, take a bus or fly to someone whose work you admire. Remember, you are not getting a haircut. This is permanent, so spending the extra time or money to go a long distance for your tattoo makes sense. Think of it like heart surgery. If you lived in a small town that had only the local doctor, would you go to him for heart surgery because you don't want to expend the time or energy to go elsewhere? I think not.

But really, why are you getting a tattoo, anyway? As a heavily tattooed person and an ex-tattooist, I have forgotten the reasons why it once seemed important. And now I can't wear flowered shirts because they clash with my left arm.

Image note: Tattoo flash, artist unknown, circa 1940. This reminds me that about half of the drawings of the American flag have the colors of the stripes in the wrong order. The stripe that is underneath the stars should be white. I found this out the hard way. I did a large tattoo on a man's forearm that was of an eagle with a big, tattered flag fluttering in the wind behind it. This man was ex-military and even brought in a flag for me to look at (did he think I was from another country or something?) Anyway, the flag in the image was very confusing, for it had many folds and was all ripped up, so I took a permanent marker and put a big red R in every stripe that was to be red. I asked the man to double check it himself, to be absolutely sure that I had it right. The thing about tattoos is that I couldn't put the red in right there and then, because you need to put the black in first so you don't muddy up the colors.

Well, four hours later the tattoo was finished and it looked great. I bandaged him up, got paid and thought I'd had a good day. Twenty four hours later or so I got a call from this guy. He sounded distraught. He didn't come right out and say what he was upset by, but instead asked me, "Can you cover up red with white ink?" I answered him, "No, it just comes out pink." Then he started to half cry, half yell at me. The stripes were not in the right order. There was a red stripe under the stars. But we had marked the stripes! Nonetheless, he started talking about the possibilities of laser surgery and I got nervous. That's quite an expense and I didn't want the bill. So, I offered to give him his money back, of course (though many tattooists would not have) and apologized. I added, "If you don't point it out to people, they will not notice." But he didn't think so, especially around his military friends.

I really felt for this guy. It was his only tattoo and it was screwed up. I was curious, however, as to how much of my flash had it right. It turned out that about 55% percent of it was wrong. So, I started asking military people, when they came in, to look at flags and tell me if they looked okay. Not one person ever identified the flags with the incorrect stripes. I think back on that man, who sounded like he was going to cry, and hope that he hasn't spent all these years pointing out the mistake to others. It was a good tattoo and people just don't look that closely or even know. Ask someone and see if they know the answer.


Country Mouse said...

This is a wonderfully interesting - AND very thought provoking post. I wish it was standard reading for everyone who walks into a tattoo shop. Could you make it enjoyable enough for yourself to write a post on the positive aspects of getting and living with a tattoo? I would really enjoy that and I KNOW you have some very good points to make from that angle. My only squabble to your abstract debate would be the discussion of "macho" tattoos on women. To say "squabble" is silly of me since I think your post was written mostly in jest (though much of it ends up being stellar advice). I just wanted to say that I love my "macho", skate punk-ish tattoo. It's very large and resides on my lower right leg. It's kind of a "day of the dead" style skull with wings, flying over a gold crown - the crown rests on a big red rose. To me it's actually fairly genderless because it represents my personality so well. I'm a woman with particular tastes that might seem unorthodox - but that's society's constructs not mine. I always think my tattoo makes an aesthetically pleasing contrast with a dress or skirt. I also know your tattoos well and have always thought your sleeve tattoos (correct term?) look particularly beautiful on you.

Somewhat off topic but still on the subject of tattoos -I remember you once told me that regret was part of the process of living with a tattoo. Would you be willing to write a bit about that (as I don't think my memory of what you said does justice to the concept you were trying to explain)?

Anonymous said...

Great advice. I have been thinking about a tattoo, now I will think extra hard before I decide. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Julie for such a thought provoking article. My 18-year old granddaughter is seriously considering a whole-back tattoo. I'd like for her to wait at least until she's 25 when her frontal lobe is comeletely developed. It's not unitl then that humans have reached their full reasoning power.

JTF said...

I totally agree with this writer's thoughts here and the only reason why i got a tattoo was because my brother was the artist and havent seen him in over a decade. during the two 6 hour sessions we talked about everything any two brothers could talk about and caught up on most of the lost decade. my tattoo reminds of my brother and our family. the fact that he cant be here because he has his own family in another country is understood. I dont talk about my half sleeve or show it off, because it will always be a for me - a reminder of my brother that i was very close to growing up.

Anonymous said...

Great advice about not getting a small tat on a large space unless you're sure you're not going to want another one there later. (And it makes a guy look like a wimp). And the thing about flowery/butterfly tats coming into age when daggers through skulls were once the mainstay is a good point too. Now you're stuck with testosterone on your arm.

Anonymous said...

Well Written Words of Wisdom. My girlfriend got three tattoo's when we were in our early 20's. She was living in San Francisco and it seemed like a very hip thing to do. I remember asking her how she was going to feel someday when she got "old" (I was thinking 50 at the time) and had the daily reminder of her twenty-something-self staring at her in the mirror. She declared her forever- love of her permanent ink. Now in our 50's, her feathers and butterflies look as ridiculous as much of our behavior did back then. Buy art is what I say! It changes as we do, and can be moved around on a whim, and can be given away when we no longer like it.........

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