The first time I announced I was getting a nose ring, my parents didn’t even look up from their newspapers.
“Really?” said my father. “A nose ring? Isn’t that a little—I don’t know—obvious?”
I had expected a far more dramatic response. Just like that, my dad had defeated my nose ring fantasy with the most powerful parental rebuke of all: disinterest.
Years later, I stood in front of the kitchen sink post-shower, a towel wrapped around my head. My mother walked into the room and immediately put her hand on the exposed skin beneath my branded neck.
“I knew it would be you!” she sobbed accusingly. “Two other children, tattoo-free! I knew you would be the one!”
“What does it even say?” she screeched.
“Everything in the world began with a yes. It’s a Clarice Lispector quote! It’s from a book!”
“What about your wedding? How are you going to wear your hair to hide this?”
“Mom, at least it’s relevant to marriage.”
She looked momentarily placated.
“But it’s crooked…! It isn’t even straight…”
I had gotten my first tattoo—the opening line to my favorite book—on a tag-along trip with my friend Kelly. In exchange for a ride, she promised me tater-tots from a Sonic that had just opened nearby. Inside the shop, I talked the guy down from $200 to $65 and got mine done right after Kelly got a bible verse tattooed above her ass.
In 2008, my tentative tattoo list went something like: a potato on my ankle in homage to Todd from Sideways Stories from Wayside School! An owl perched on my shoulder! A stack of books spanning my left leg! I was an idiot fresh out of art school and utterly convinced this was the coolest collection of tattoos one could have.
Fortifying this desire was my hippest friend Kirstin, who had just got a koi fish carved into the delicate skin surrounding her ribcage by Brian Decker. The trip to Brooklyn started with bad omens: first, our windshield was cracked by a stray rock while crossing the Verrazano. Later, after Decker made the first incision on her skin, the pain I perceived on Kirstin’s face made me uncomfortable.
“Has anyone ever backed out before…?” she warbled.
I sat to the side eating Chinese dumplings, silently admiring my friend’s bravery.
It wasn’t until I’d settled into the day-to-day drudgery of a job at Whole Foods that I began to resent tattoos and body modification culture. There, I would listen to coworkers' plans and look over their sketches for new ink. Why all this enthusiasm for something as cost-prohibitive and painful as tattoos? Still, it didn’t yet seem like something I had to do to get by in Philly.
Meanwhile, I was elbowing more and more half-sleeves out of the way to the bar; virtually drowning in a sea of sugar skulls and sriracha farts. The final straw was a waitressing gig I lost to some chick inked to the nines, complete with mini-skirt and thigh highs on her first day. Is this what conveys skill and professional clout in the service industry—a shortsighted obsession with adorning your own body? After 6 years of living in Philly, I have come to the unpopular conclusion that tattoos and tattoo culture suck.
The majority of people I know with tattoos are good eggs, and I restrain myself from telling them their “body art” is terrible and tacky and degrading. I stick to the belief that tattoos (similar to other forms of alternative expression) are not nearly as bad as the cultural swamp that surrounds them. Yes, the individual freedom inferred from such an act is obvious; what isn’t obvious to me is why people want shit permanently drawn on them that they might not like or appreciate in a few years. Do they literally have no concept of time? Do they not realize that life is long? Yes, you spend nights in 2014 sipping PBR on South Street, trying to pick up the suicide boy/girl of your dreamz. But in 2028? Maybe not.
I enjoy living in the Now, but if someone had given me a tattoo gun when I was five, every inch of my being would be swagged out in Lisa Frank. We are talking about our SKIN, people. You can’t just scrape embarrassing nautical stars off your skin like wallpaper. And how do you match tattoos with your outfits? It seems like a nightmare. As a person who takes great pains to coordinate outfits with her hair color and makeup, what do you do with a colorful sleeve that only matches that same color palette? Do you just wear black all the time?
Obviously, I take little issue with personalized tattoos, or things done to memorialize the dead. I take issue with the types of body-art done because they fit some aesthetic people find sexually pleasing and/or edgy. I’ve had enough female friends agonize over what to get tattooed on them after a boyfriend made suggestions for something a little bit more hip, cool, or sexy. Whether it fits this description or not is a little less horrifying as the realization my good friends are going to get permanent reminders of shitty relationships emblazoned on their bodies.
Daily, I feel the secondhand embarrassment of boys I know furiously liking Suicide Girl posts on Instragram while their girlfriends’ feeds are all apple pie and baby showers. Could you more publicly broadcast a Madonna/Whore complex? I’m not sure. The devil’s advocate in me is careful to avoid the slut shaming inherent in calling out pin-up girls and its associated style(s), but when have tattoos not been associated with historically subjugated or oppressed people?There are dozens more negative associations that come to mind, far outweighing faint traces of the opposite argument shining through.
It seems like everyone has a tattoo by now. I don’t think it’s cute. When people of my generation have given up on looking employable, it’s because there are no jobs available to employ them. Service industry jobs will take you for looking tough, and wise to the ways of this wicked world. But you will be barred from any sort of career that would allow you the security to plan for more extravagant pleasures than a trip to the local tattoo shop.
I want time-off; I want health insurance; I want to own a house. One of my long-time dreams has been being able to afford a vacation to Texas for my 60-year-old father. He was raised in small town called Tyler. He hasn’t been there in years. He’s still working to support my family, and I want to be able to provide some token of appreciation for all he has done. I don’t want some minimum wage bullshit that only allows me a shallow, costly preoccupation with covering my body in some other person’s artwork.
And no, boys and girls, you will not make a cozy living opening a quaint little tattoo shop. It’s a pipe dream. With more people opting for sexual servitude (i.e. Seeking Arrangement) just to make payments on their college loans, how long will it be until I’m sitting in some brothel with my inked-up brethren?
I say, if you want to feel beautiful, treat yourself to some nails and a blowout. If you want to feel tougher, and stronger, go to the gym and learn to take someone double your size down. If you want to rebel with integrity, climb the corporate ladder and change the policies that dictate dress code/appearance in the workplace. Just don’t get some overpriced half-sleeve from a hipster named Mitch.
All of this aside, I have lost the motivation to go out and get tattoos my former self was full of, so I can’t claim to have any insight into the minds of those that do. I have plenty of ideas for tattoos, but I’m fickle and I probably won’t like them in a few years.
I’ll make or buy my own artwork, and hang it on my fridge instead.