Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tattoos: In your face (and everywhere else)

While in Hawaii recently, I noticed far more tattoos than just a year earlier, and most were the unavoidably visible sort that cover entire shoulders and arms, whole legs and calves and often large swaths of the body. And many were in indelibly brilliant hues, greens, reds and yellows so vibrant they caught my eye--though I preferred not to look.

Then, I returned to the Northwest as it hosted the second annual Jet City Tattoo Expo, a convention aptly located, as it seems nearly every local barista is well pierced and often tattooed.  The Pew Research Center reported this month that 36% of all "millenials" aged 18-25 have a tattoo, while 40% of those aged 26-40 sport at least one.

I respect each person's decision to "decorate" his or her body as desired, but this new popularity has me puzzled.  Even as tattoo parlors proliferate, publicity about "tattoo regret" abounds, and new techniques for removing them are profitably burgeoning.

A 2006 study in the American Academy of Dermatology journal, found that a quarter of those who did go under the needle want its evidence removed.  But most people don't have the money or tolerance to attempt the arduous process of lasering or otherwise erasing the injected ink, with little chance of obliterating the original tattoo anyway.  It takes several treatments to remove a tattoo--as many as 20 with colored ink, just to annul the original art, but it's impossible to completely restore skin.

While in Hawaii this time, I saw lots of scapulae sprouting drawn-on wings of varying sizes.  I saw enough complex swirls and detailed designs swooping from neck to elbow to consider this a real trend.  Of course, when the temperature never dips below 70 degrees, people remain in a state of partial undress that allows observation.  That's how I was able to note  the change from just a year before.

Given that everyone knows tattoos are basically permanent, and that humans tend to change their minds and their bodies over time, what fuels this recent surge in tattooing?  It's been popular with an edgy segment of the population for a long time, definitely, but the number seems to have swelled.  Please explain.

I'll admit that even with so much exposure, I haven't gotten used to seeing anyone's body--especially young women--marked with dark or colored ink. I sincerely try to ignore people's externals and focus on their words and deeds.  But even though I don't want to dwell on another's tatoos (or piercings), just forcing myself to not look or not think about them when they're right in front of me distracts from the content of the moment.

That's why tattos are in your face, no matter where they're visibly located.  Could that be part of the reason to get one (or more)?

 I understand a desire to express oneself, but for me, what I want to express changes with my moods, location, situation and people surrounding me.  Expression with fashion or non-permanent adornments like nail polish, hair style or jewelry makes sense because these can represent a moment, a whimsy, or even a philosophy, and wearers can vary it or not.  But your skin?  I just can't understand why skin is a canvas rather than a protective organ of the body that should be preserved and respected for its health-sustaining and life-enabling qualities.  Isn't the body in its God-designed natural, healthy form beautiful?

I've heard arguments that a tattoo was a personal remembrance of a significant event, person, anniversary or accomplishment.  That doesn't explain to me why trusting someone else to permanently etch the skin should be that remembrance.  Why not plant a tree? Why not wear a special necklace?  How about making a donation to a charity that will help others?

I appreciate the artistry of people who can draw. But to dig one's "pen" into another person's skin?  Wouldn't those artistic talents affect the world more if used in a medium that could be displayed, and appreciated by many?

So I have three questions: Why would people want to be tattooed--and why is this phenomenon becoming more prevalent?  And, aren't today's tattoos likely to be viewed differently by their owners and society in another 50 years?

I have to look at them. So I'd like to understand them.  Thanks for any insight you can provide.


  1. First off- I can totally understand your perspective. When I first met my husband, he was totally opposed to tattoos. I, on the other hand, had been planning to get a tattoo on my 18th birthday for over four years (I was 17 at the time). He tried to convince me using most of the same arguments you gave. I told him that the tattoo I wanted to get (the symbol of the trinity and a favorite verse) was more than just a "fashion statement" or a "trend" but a tangible, permanent sign that I belong to God.

    Yes, I can wear a cross, or a religious t-shirt, or carry a bible, but this tattoo isn't just to advertise to others that I'm a Christian (although I did hope that it might spark a conversation about God with those who might otherwise never discuss such things with me) but also a sign to myself that my relationship with God is as permanent as the ink on my ankle- nothing can separate me from the love of God.

    Now, I'm not saying that every Christian must go out and get a religious tattoo, I'm just explaining what my tattoo means to me. Once I explained all this to my (at the time) boyfriend, he not only understood, but approved and even came with me and held my hand as I got the tattoo. The pain of the needle also made me think of how no matter how much that hurt, it was not one iota of the pain that Christ experienced on the cross, dying for my sins. And every time I look at that tattoo on my ankle, I remember that.

    I have since gotten two more tattoos, neither necessarily "religious" but both represent very important people in my life, my sister and my husband. While these might seem more "frivolous" they are still both very important to me.

    My husband is still not a big fan of my tattoos, he understands why I got them and can appreciate the artistic value (he especially likes the one I got for him!). He's still on the fence about whether or not I should get one representative of my children someday when I know I'm done having kids, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it!

    As I said, I understand and respect your point of view, I'm also not crazy about people who get tons of tattoos just because it's trendy, or pick a tattoo out of a book just because they think it's pretty. They will regret it at some point in their lives if they didn't give the matter some serious thought beforehand. As for me, it's been almost nine years since my first tattoo and I haven't regretted it once and don't anticipate that I ever will.

    I hope this gives you some insight into the mind of a tattooed individual!

  2. Bethany, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response. I still have trouble understanding why a tattoo was your chosen mode of expression, especially since it displeases your husband. A Jewish view would suggest our bodies are tools God loans us and therefore not "ours" to change, other than to care for them in order to better serve God.

  3. Oh how different the world would be if more people thought ahead!

  4. One shouldn’t get tattoos on whim, mainly because they are permanent and very hard to remove. Tattoo removals are quite a grueling process that takes more than a bit of time, especially if it involves a variety of colors and a large design. While I don’t think it’s just a passing fad, I do hope they would think long and hard before getting one. Because getting a tattoo for the sake of getting one is just not worth it.

    Carmelo Crouch @ Pasadena Tattoo Removal