It's gonna get sappy up in here.
I both love and hate the Internet. I love it because I can feed my obsession with one man a cappella groups. I love it because if I really wanted to I could educate myself to post-graduate level in a subject without setting foot in a classroom. I love it because it gave me a chance to meet one of my favourite opera singers.
I hate it because, given the chance, it’s really sad how many people will jump on the opportunities to be entitled, judgemental assholes.
There’s a lot on the web about tattoo culture. Just like many other subcultures, tattoo culture has absolutely thrived since the advent of the Internet. There are entire networks of websites dedicated to sharing tattoos, informing people, showing off your own body art — or, if you’re a tattoo artist, your work — and debunking some of the myths that surround both the process of tattooing and the culture that encompasses it. Where as little as 15 years ago tattooing really might have been seen (at least in the West) as a mysterious, invite-only subculture, the sheer wealth of information out there now makes it infinitely accessible to people who might never have considered getting a tattoo before.
I live in San Francisco, which is extremely tattoo-friendly, but even in less liberal areas I’m never surprised any more to see a guy walking down the street with a half-sleeve peeking out from under the sleeve of his T-shirt, or a girl with a lyric from a song above the waistband of her jeans. I’ve seen tribal tattoos, text, references to video games, quotes from books, animals, flowers, geometric designs, pinup girls, cartoon characters, pictures of family members, and once, on a beach, a full-back tattoo of a cherry tree that was so beautiful I’m pretty sure the girl who had it was afraid I’d stalk her home when she caught me staring. The days when tattoo was synonymous with heavy black gang symbols or tribal tramp stamps are definitively over. There’s just too much information out there now for anyone to realistically buy into the stereotypes any more.
That wealth of information — that rich and ongoing discussion about body art and the people who choose it — is why I get so angry when I see articles like this one doing the rounds on Facebook. In it, the author takes a grievance over a heavily-tattooed girl beating her out for a waitressing job and spins it into a firmly-held conviction that body art is “terrible and tacky and degrading,” espousing notions about tattoo culture that seem like they arrived here by Delorean from 1998. To her mind, the tattooed are making no effort to be employable: They value the fleeting pleasure of a rebellious act more than they appreciate the longevity of a tattoo, and girls who indulge in body modification (and the boys who like them) are engaging in the Madonna/whore dichotomy popularized by noted scientific theory adherent, Sigmund Freud.
It’s aggravating to me because, while it’s still true that certain subcultures are more likely to have tattoos than others and that a lot of people still get tattoos that are ill-advised, it’s also an incredibly narrow-minded, outdated opinion to have about tattoo culture as a whole. At its worst, body modification can absolutely be cheap and tacky, and I lose count of the number of websites I’ve seen ridiculing terrible tattoos. But at its best, tattooing can produce incredible works of art that use the human body as their canvas, and between best and worst there’s an entire spectrum of tattoos that are beautiful, meaningful, evocative, or just plain cool.
Growing up I was precisely the last person anyone would have expected to get a tattoo. I had one piercing in each ear, I always tied my shoes, and I typically buttoned my shirts all the way up — not out of any real modesty about my body, but because I had a slightly compulsive need for symmetry. My style loosened up a little as I got older, but to this day I get uncomfortable if my underwear peeks above the waistband of my jeans, no matter how pretty the underwear or how miniscule the peek. I like for things to be in their proper place, and — generally speaking, at least — I’m a good girl.
It’s not just about my style, either. I show up to work on time, I’m polite to strangers (even on the Internet), I rarely drink enough to get drunk and the couple of times I’ve tried weed it really didn’t do anything for me. When I snuck out of my dorm at boarding school it wasn’t to go drink or smoke down by the cathedral, it was to go to the movies or to go for a starlit run around the park. Funnily enough, to this day even the friends who’ve heard me curse like a sailor with Tourette’s insist that I don’t swear. I’m not exactly a square, but no one would call me a rebel.
When I got my first tattoo, it wasn’t because it meant something, or because some event in my life precipitated a huge shift in my identity. It was because I’d wanted one since I was 11, and I figured why not.
I don’t think I knew many people with tattoos growing up. My frequent babysitter had multiple piercings and her friend Dave had at least a half-sleeve, but that was about it for folks I knew with body modifications. I genuinely have no idea where my fascination with tattoos came from. I just remember one summer day when my best friend Emily and I were about 11, getting ahold of some henna from an Indian friend (leftover from a wedding, I think) and deciding to give ourselves temporary tattoos. Emily did a dragon down my arm, and I copied a Deviantart picture of a phoenix in full flight onto her back. Neither tattoo lasted very long, but while they did they were pretty cool.
After that, I played around with henna tattoos frequently for the next couple of years, usually giving myself a new one every couple of weeks. At school I kept them covered with the regulation long-sleeved shirt, but even if a teacher noticed, I was able to exploit a convenient loophole in the school rules: Indian students frequently showed up to school with their hands and arms covered in henna after religious celebrations and weddings, and since the students were a pretty diverse bunch, their Caucasian friends were usually given a pass on henna designs as well.
Somewhere along the line, I think playing around with henna tattoos became a study of my developing body. I changed more between the ages of 11 and 13 than I have in the 12 years since, and as I changed, so did the nature of my designs. I became more aware of the contours of my body and the designs changed to reflect that. If anything, making art on my body helped me process my changing shape, the designs I drew on my arm and shoulder becoming more curvilinear and sinuous as I developed curves and muscles where I hadn’t had them as a child.
By the time I was 15, my body had pretty much settled: petite, fairly proportionate, narrow in the torso, and a little wide in the hips. So, too, had the nature of my designs: always snaking down the left scapula, with some detail — a wing or a tail — extending out to my left bicep. They were more complicated than I could typically draw on myself by that point, so the henna tattoos gradually stopped; but I could always envision them. Just like the cherry tree I had so admired on the woman at the beach, they followed the forms of my body, curving where the muscle did like a window through my skin to the anatomy beneath. By that point I had it narrowed down to three possible designs: a dragon (for which my mother, ever the enabler, had offered to pay to add the Hogwarts motto), a phoenix in flight, or a prowling fox.
Just before I turned 24, a local tattoo studio offered a Groupon deal for first-time customers. At the time I had just made some good money for some writing work, I was feeling strong and independent, and the tattoo studio, when I visited, was clean, well-lit, had impressive portfolios for all its artists, and answered all my questions about sanitation and hygiene in a way that told me they definitely had their act together. I bought the Groupon, and it was decided: I was getting a tattoo. Fixing on the design was almost as straightforward. I didn’t want to be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo since the movie had just come out, and a friend already had a phoenix on her shoulder, so I decided to go with the fox. I don’t remember feeling any doubt about the decision nor any fear that I’d hate it a year or 10 years later. I already knew how I wanted it placed and how it would complement the muscular forms of my back, and a few months’ detailed work with an illustrator gave me a design that was exactly what I’d had in my head and been unable to draw myself. A year later, I still get a little thrill of pleasure every time I look down at my arm and see the fox tail curling over my bicep.
The point of the story is that my tattoo doesn’t really symbolize anything, but it isn’t meaningless either. I didn’t get it as an act of rebellion or of self-actualization. I wanted a tattoo — I’d wanted one since I was 11 — and when the opportunity arose, I got one. It hasn’t stopped me getting any jobs, it hasn’t stopped me wearing anything I want to wear, and it hasn’t stopped me getting dates. In fact, I’ve even had guys who are declaratively anti-tattoo let out a low whistle of approval when they see it for the first time. I love it because it’s beautiful, and everyone else seems to think so, too.
A friend of mine — a performing magician — has an ace of hearts tattooed on his forearm because he likes having an ace up his sleeve. Another friend has a quote from Harry Potter on her arm because support from her friends in the fandom got her through a traumatic experience. A gay couple I know have wedding band tattoos, a colleague’s girlfriend has a cartoon elephant on her chest. All of these inked-up people have two things in common with me: We’re all pretty normal, as these things go, and we all love our tattoos. Not anywhere in any article decrying tattoos can I find anyone who remotely resembles any of us. We’re all just people who chose to express ourselves on our bodies.
That’s the crux of it, really. In the linked article, the author asks, “. . . when have tattoos not been associated with historically subjugated or oppressed people?” And the answer, aside from when they mark a coming-of-age or success in battle or the demarcation of one’s tribe or a particular spirituality or the commemoration of a fallen comrade or protection against evil spirits — or that period in the late 19th Century when it was common practice among European royals to get a tattoo — is right now. Doctors, lawyers, artists, accountants, musicians, magicians, and good girls like me have tattoos, and they don’t need to mean or be associated with a thing. “Because I like it” is a perfectly good reason to get a tattoo.
“Because a girl with more ink than me beat me out for a job” is a terrible reason to hate them.
Dani Colman is a freelance writer and the lead entertainment contributor for toovia.com. She lives and works in San Francisco, where she also teaches writing for comics and graphic novels. Follow her on twitter at @DirectorDaniC, or read her pop culture criticism on Medium.
Reprinted with permission from Human Parts. Want more? Check out these related stories: