Friday, August 29, 2008

"Should I get a tattoo?"

I've got four unfinished blog posts in my drafts folder and a few more in my head. There's just too much to write and think about - Obama's speech last night and McCain's pick of Palin as his running mate both loom large in my mind.

Yet, this post will address something I don't think about much - why a person should or shouldn't get a tattoo. I've had three days of Feedburner analysis of traffic to this blog, and an awful lot of it comes from Google searches like "Should I get a tattoo?"

I don't want knowing that to change what I write about, but since the entry called "Why you should not get a tattoo" keeps getting hits (and it was not meant to be "advice"), I figured I needed to write more about this topic.

My gut reaction, as an ex-tattooist and a heavily tattooed person, is that if you need to ask strangers whether or not you should get a tattoo, you should not do it. On the other hand, if you do get a tattoo and live to regret it, it's not a big deal (unless you've put it on your face). Most people who are tattooed forget that they even have tattoos. My left arm is completely covered in tattoos and I do not notice it. To me, it's just my skin.

I once read a comment from Henk Schiffmacher (aka "Hanky Panky"), a long-time tattooist and tattoo historian, who said "tattoos are all about regrets." I thought this statement, and some of the reasons he mentioned for believing that, were dead on.

Tattoos are our lives permanently etched into our skin. It doesn't matter if you have a tiny little flower or a full sleeve in this respect. Whenever you look at your tattoo and really see it (for as I mentioned, you will indeed stop noticing it after a while), you will always think of the day you got it, or if not that specifically, at least the general time period. Looking back is always filled with regret of some kind. If you got that tattoo when you were 18, you'll think of your youth. You may still feel fine about the image or not (and if you don't, there's yet another regret), but either way, you are challenged to live with your past through the tattoo.

The power of the tattoo as an anchor that ties us to our past is powerful. There's not much in this society that can do that. We are a society in which almost anything we've done can be undone, mistakes atoned for and forgiven, and lives changed at whim. We can remake ourselves very easily - change our names, move thousands of miles away to places where noone knows our history, have multiple careers and marriages and incarnations, but our tattoos are still with us. Even if you get your tattoos lasered off (which few people actually do), you'll bear the scar.

I've often wondered why tattoos have become so popular. I think there are two significant reasons (though I'm sure there are more than these). The first one is that I think a lot of people have a deep seated need for ritual that mark passages in their lives, and that tattoos serve that need. The other reason is that tattoos do keep people aware of the choices they've made in their lives, and even if we don't consciously want to be reminded that, say, once we were such avid dope-smokers that we tattooed pot leaves all over our bodies, we unconsciously do want to be reminded of where we've been, so we can either stay that way, change or at least honor our lives.

So, even though I reflexively say "don't get a tattoo if you have any reservations", a part of me thinks "go right ahead. It's no big deal." I'd caution against tattooing parts of your body that can not be covered up, for there still are people who will judge you immediately and even if that's "not right", it's a fact of life. Why should one tattoo keep you from getting a job you want? Some people might say of me that I'm too conservative on this point, but seriously, I think it's somewhat childish to not see that a tattoo in a highly visible place is sending the message "I think I'm different from the norm." The person interviewing you for a job does (usually) not want to know this. That's reality. Would you show up for a job interview in pajamas? You may say this is a stretch of reasoning, and it is, but it does amount to pretty much the same thing.

We may value individualism in this society, but only up to a point.

Now that I'm coming to a close on this post, I realize that I do indeed have plenty to say about tattoos, even though I don't practice the art any more. I think it's important, perhaps, that people without the agenda of selling you a tattoo answer questions about them. And to the woman who googled "Can I get a tattoo when I'm sick?" I want to say "Yes, but it's not a good idea." If you want to know why, leave a comment. I'm done for now.

Photo note: Thanks, Eric, for letting me tattoo this image exactly the way I envisioned it.


Jeremiah said...

As a person that waited long enough to be sure I was ready giving a 3 year min of thought in each idea. I now have a full sleeve tattoo that I am pretty happy with. We have all had those moments when we thought about getting something tattooed that looking back now was a blessing. There is a really funny blog of bad tattoos and bad ideas that you should take a look at. Good luck in all you tattoos and THINK BEFOE YOU INK!

Abigail said...

I've been considering a tattoo for at least 10 years. I don't think it's ever going to happen! I simply cannot decide upon the right one. So I think at this point, there isn't going to be a right one.

I wish I could get a temporary tattoo, that would last, say, a year or so... just random thoughts.