When I was a kid (I think that was about 300 years ago), the only people who had tattoos were found at amusement park side-shows, on the docks occupied by Marines and sailors, and in a few other places you were discouraged by your parents from approaching. Tattoos were rarely associated with either high-class or high art.
Things have changed.
First, lots of people have them, young and old. Second, there is (thankfully) less prejudice against those who are inked. Third, the art of tattooing appears to have improved, and some of the images are pretty darn impressive, original and beautiful. And you just read that from someone who loves Rembrandt and Renoir.
But, there is still the question: should you or shouldn’t you? I’m going to address the pros and cons here from the perspective of someone who has a lovely cousin who is heavily into getting them, many patients of mine who had them, and many people of my vintage who have a kind of instinctive and negative reaction to the idea of getting inked.
Here is what one lady has to say:
I didn’t start getting tattooed until I was in my forties and they still look awesome to me. If you google old people with tattoos, you will see that what I’ve just said is true of all of them. People just say they will look bad because they like to criticize tattooed people.
As far as work is concerned, it has never been a problem for me. I wear long sleeves and let’s face it, I’m not really a professional of any kind (although this woman does have a college degree). G.S. I think a lot of the people in my son’s generation are more concerned with that. My lifestyle is different now, so I really don’t have to care about employers. I would never take a job where they were uptight, but I don’t really need a job. (Perhaps those who aspire to professional positions do need to consider this, however unfair the discrimination might be). G.S.
To understand why I get tattooed, you’d have to know who I am. I was a hippie in the ’60s and ’70s and my friends were mostly musicians, artists, fashion designers, and actors. I have always been part of the counterculture. I married into the music business. As our kids grew up, we had to settle down quite a bit and give them a more mainstream lifestyle. But, as I’m sure you know, you can’t deny who you are forever without costing yourself a lot.
When our children were in their teens, I had a number of moments that I might call epiphanies. I realized that I didn’t have to be the perfect PTA mom anymore. Tattoos were getting popular and I thought they looked really interesting, so for my daughter’s 19th birthday we decided to get tattooed together. I will never forget that night.
First, I have to tell you that just about all tattoo artists are actually fine artists or musicians — real professionals. So, anyway my daughter and I went to a shop and while we were getting tattooed we were talking to the guys there. I soon realized that I was having a great time, more fun than I ever had with the PTA ladies and the church people! I also recognized that there is an amazing counterculture that is built around body art.
That experience started me looking at tattoos and talking to a variety of tattooed people. I saw some amazing art and I decided to get more. At first, I always got them where they couldn’t be seen. For years I thought about getting a “sleeve,” which is what an arm fully-covered with tattoos is called. I found an artist whose work I really admired. Finally, I decided to go ahead. Now, it took a really long time to get my arm done — over 30 hours. And it really hurt. So, when other tattooed people see me, they have a lot of respect for not only the art, but for anyone who has spent that much time in pain getting tattooed.
I was not, however, prepared for the amount of attention I started getting. I live in the suburbs and the suburbs aren’t very forgiving toward alternative people. And, I’m not gonna deny it, tattoos are popular with some lower class elements of society, like people in prison. So, although it has gotten to be more acceptable in the years since I first started, most mainstream people still see the body art subculture as a negative aspect of society.
I have received some really rude comments from stupid people. I live in the Bible-Belt. The crucial thing for me is, I used to keep who I really am to myself. Now I can’t. I am such an “alternative” person in a lot of ways. I am drawn to the edgy side of life. I am kind of unusual even within the body art culture because of my age and because you don’t see that many tattooed women. But it has helped me in that I can now express myself.
My tattoos are really important to me personally. They have a lot of meaning to me individually. They were designed for me and only me. I have one that is all about my dad (who died when I was very young). Of course, there are a few small pieces I would do differently now. But I’m not tired of them.
On the negative side, there are times when I wish I didn’t have so much of my body covered by tattoos; like when I go to the doctor. Or when everyone is staring at me.
But the whole experience has helped me to see who I am. It has been part of the process of finding myself, something that some of us in any generation have a tough time doing. Especially for me, born into an almost immigrant family with very conservative values, my uniqueness was rarely valued. But, like I said, who you really are comes out whether you like it or not.
Beauty, as the old saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a position that I have been a bit slow to come to since I listen to Beethoven and Brahms and Bach and tend (still) to think that little else offers anything like their art. But, the friend I just quoted enlightened me and humbled me, helping me realize that I’m in no position to judge in that way; that no one is. Taste is not as simple as right and wrong.
Yes, some of the tattooed are doubtless trying to get noticed. Surely, some are trying to stick a figurative thumb in your eye and show contempt for a world that, after all, is often contemptible. And, I suspect, that at least a few of those into body art simply want to fit in with whatever crowd they wish to belong. But is that any different from buying a Gucci handbag or driving a Lexus or wearing a Brooks Brothers suit?
I learned something from this thoughtful lady, as a therapist must if he or she is to be any good at all. We are often taught by our patients, friends, and acquaintances. The world is quite a school, but, just like school, you must pay attention. What did I learn? To look for the personal meaning in body art and be less ready to jump to judgment, something that seems to make us feel superior, but does much needless harm.
In the 1950s it was unimaginable to almost anyone in the USA that there might ever be a black President. Homosexuality wasn’t disclosed and was almost universally and publicly mocked. The acceptable world was mostly white bread and mayonnaise, which left lots of people out. Things change. It is your body, after all, and the art you put on it harms no one. While I’m not likely to try it myself, I’m more open and accepting of it than I’ve ever been before.
In 2000, in a Vice Presidential Debate, Dick Cheney, a man with a gay daughter named Mary, said:
I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into. We live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everyone.
Perhaps there should be a book, something like a high school year book, that we update from time to time. I guess Facebook is like that. But one that requires us to say a few words in summation of our life. And if I could write that summation for the lady who is the subject of this blog, it would go something like this:
I was lost and now I am found. I did no major harm and, in fact, raised two fine children and am helping raise one of my grandchildren. I met and married the man I love and decorated a body that he loves with beauty as I see it. I had a heck of a good time doing it too, and met a lot of neat people along the way. I don’t preach, but if you watch me and have a problem with tattoos, you still might learn something from my example: you might discover just a little about why some people like me decorate our bodies in the way we do and ask yourself why that bothers you.
It is a philosophy and description of a life — dare I say, something that might eventually serve as an epitaph and bring a smile, at least to me. Not many of us do better.
The top photo of a son and his mother was taken by Jeff Stelle and Kat Moya in Columbus, Ohio. They are the same mother and son mentioned in the post. The second image is the Traditional Tattoo of the Datoga People, Tanzania by Kathy Gerber. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.