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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