What It's Like to Be a Tattooed Woman in a Small Town

Come summertime, all bets are off. I am a freak show, and I charge no admission.
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Mia Nickel
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Come summertime, all bets are off. I am a freak show, and I charge no admission.

After a couple months of living in Boston, there wasn’t much that I saw that could be classified as “out of the ordinary.” Ordinary became the guy on the subway eating a paperback novel to protest… something. Ordinary was sitting on the bus next to a cute little old guy in a three-piece tweed suit and Teddy Roosevelt glasses who shouted expletives at me until I finally got off five stops before I should have and walked the rest of the way.

But when I moved back to my rural Indiana town eight years later (it’s a long story), I found out that I was not at all ordinary, because a good portion of the population is pretty worked up about my tattoos.

I guess I’d be considered moderately tattooed, heavily in some circles. I have two full-color half-sleeves, one on my left wrist, two large ones on my back and a little one on my collarbone. (I also have a tramp stamp, but that one rarely sees the light of day.) 

In the winter, when everything is covered up under layers of clothing, I more or less fit in with the people with whom I share a ZIP code. But come summertime, all bets are off. I am a freak show, and I charge no admission.

A shot of my back tattoos from my sister’s wedding. Photo by Mallory Talty of Stereoscope Photography

A shot of my back tattoos from my sister’s wedding. Photo by Mallory Talty of Stereoscope Photography


We have a lot of church-going folks here. Like, not just Sunday morning with the occasional pitch-in, as I am wont to do. It’s Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening, Friday nights at the bowling alley and Saturdays for the canned food drives. 

As you can probably guess, most of these people don’t have tattoos. They also don’t have the balls to say anything to me about mine. But I catch them staring and hear their whispers – “Look! Look! Over there!” – while I’m trying to get through the grocery store or take my 3-year-old son to the library.

There are a few who have decided that God laid it on their hearts to set me straight. 

“Honey,” one well-meaning big-haired lady said to me one day while I was waiting on her table at a local diner. “Don’t you know the Bible says we shouldn’t make cuts or marks on our bodies?” She patted my hand with concern. 

“I do,” I replied sweetly. “I also know that verse is in reference to occult-based rituals that took place as a sign of mourning. I’m fairly sure my koi fish and bumblebee aren’t offending God’s sensibilities.”

On the flip side, I have been approached by several members of the local “biker church,” asking if I’d like to sit in on one of their casual services. 

“You’d fit in great with us!” they all say. 

The fact that I don’t have a motorcycle doesn’t seem to matter, which leads me to believe they just need more people my age with some visible street cred. Thanks, but no thanks. I actually like dressing up for church anyway.

Other people aren’t so much concerned about my tattoos from a religious standpoint. They’re just flat-out shocked that I’d do such a thing. 

“Why would you do that to yourself?” is a question I hear on a monthly basis. 

Most of the time I try to make up for their rudeness with a polite, succinct answer: “I just see them as a form of expressing myself, like other people getting their nails done or wearing a certain style of clothing.” 

The men usually huff and puff in response, and the women widen their eyes and scoff “Well, I’d never do that.”
Once in a while I play dumb. “Do what to myself?” I’ll ask. Oh, the awkwardness that follows.

Other common questions:

“Is that real?” (No, I just have a lot of Sharpies and free time.)

“Did that hurt?” (I generally answer, “Compared to childbirth, it was like a massage.”)

“What happens when you get old?” (I assume I’ll get wrinkles, arthritis, and a pug named Clarence.)

“Do they mean something?” (Yes, but I don’t feel like sharing them with a stranger in line at the BMV.)

These particular questions aren’t usually intended to be rude or intrusive, and if they catch me in a good mood I might engage them. The worst question, however, is never asked with anything but contempt: “How much did those cost?”

I’m generally an honest person, so I either go with something vague – “It took me a while to save up for them” – or flat-out truthful – “They all cost about $100 an hour and I have about 24 hours of work done.” Either way, I get looks of total shock.

“There are a lot better things I could spend my money on!” say the people who think nothing of blowing $500 in one afternoon at an amusement park. And, you know, that’s cool. I think people typically spend their cash on the things that matter to them. I puke on roller coasters and hate long lines, so for me, their idea of fun is a total waste of money.

I’m encouraging people to check out the menu offerings. The bourbon chocolate pecan pie was delicious, by the way. Photo by Mallory Talty of Stereoscope Photography

I’m encouraging people to check out the menu offerings. The bourbon chocolate pecan pie was delicious, by the way. Photo by Mallory Talty of Stereoscope Photography

My favorite response is “Oh, man, you got ripped off. I got this cousin who got all his equipment at the flea market and charges $20 an hour out of his garage.” 

This is usually followed by asking me if I want to see their latest “tat,” whereupon they flash some hot mess perforated into their skin that is usually unrecognizable and possibly infected.

Oh, speaking of infections, I recently had an upper endoscopy done for a suspected ulcer. Literally right before the grandfatherly-looking doctor gave me the sedative, he said “You know, you probably have hepatitis from all those tattoos.” 

I was all set to get pissed and rail on him about how I only go to licensed shops and inquire about their sterilization methods before going under the needle, but I was soooo… very… sleeeeepy. For real, though: rude. Just stay in your lane and look at my duodenum, man.

I guess being known as “the tattooed lady” in a small town is better than a lot of titles that people could throw around. I certainly don’t feel oppressed or angry; just sort of weirded out sometimes. 

And if I, as an educated, Christian wife and mother, can help to change one small-minded yokel’s opinion of the tattooed public, I suppose I’m fine with being the local poster child.

But seriously, I’m not going to your cousin’s garage for my next one.