Tattoo Etiquette 101 -- How To Appreciate My Body Art Without Making Me Hate You

Some of what follows may seem nasty, aggressive, even dick-headed or preachy. Just so we’re clear -- it’s meant to be. I’m fed up.
Publish date:
December 12, 2011
rudeness, social graces, tattoos

With the holiday season in full swing, I find that I’m traveling more, generally around strangers more often, and thus, more likely to have awkward encounters around my body art. At a recent discussion group that I participate in, the issue of women’s bodies -- and the view of our bodies as being on display and open for consumption and commentary -- came up.

We’ve covered this on xoJane before, in articles about street harassment, workplace attire, TSA pat-downs,trips to the doctor -- this idea that permeates our culture, whereby strangers feel it’s within their right to comment on, discuss, or even touch our bodies -- usually without invitation or consent from us.

During the aforementioned group discussion we touched on the way strangers often feel they’re invited to approach me, because of my tattoos (a phenomenon many of my heavily tattooed male friends don’t experience). I’m in awe of the way people feel my ink allows them to touch, chide, judge, or flat out harass me. When a colleague of mine recently called out a pervy dude’s behavior toward a fellow tattooed lady, I pulled out an old notebook of mine and brought out a discarded draft labeled “tattoo etiquette.”

Some of what follows may seem nasty, aggressive, even dick-headed or preachy. Just so we’re clear -- it’s meant to be. I’m fed up. I’m sick and tired of strangers or people I’m barely acquainted with, using my (usually concealed) body art as a way to barge into my personal, physical and emotional, space.

I’ve had strangers pull up my shirt sleeve, touch my hair, even grab me by the collar to get a “peek” at the hint of a drawing they think they see. The last example mentioned happened in a crowded train station where an older man actually followed me through the terminal, grabbed the back of my shirt, and then pulled it away to try to look down my bare back.

I understand that usually these people don't mean any harm. They’re just clueless. To my own chagrin, I'm usually polite in dealing with them.

But here’s the thing -- I shouldn’t have to deal with it at all, nor should my tattooed ladyfriends. I don’t enjoy that if I’m abrupt with a stranger who’s trying to get a look at my arms or neck, I’m the bad guy.

When they’re visible (and they’re usually not), my tattoos are not an invitation. They are not on my body for anyone’s enjoyment other than my own. I don’t have to explain them (one woman insisted I tell her the meaning behind EVERY SINGLE tattoo on my left sleeve) and I sure as hell am not the bad guy when a stranger takes it upon themselves to start judging me, verbally, based on them.

What follows is a short, handy-dandy, list of rules, or rather, “don’ts” for the curious stranger who sees pretty illustrations on a woman’s bare skin and thinks it’s an invitation to chat, to touch, to invade.

1. Don’t touch anyone without their consent.

I seriously can’t believe I even have to say this. But just don’t. Don’t grab my arm in a store, sweep my hair behind my ear while we’re standing in line, touch my leg, etc... I don’t care that you’re just trying to “get a better look.” I don’t know you and you’re touching my body.

2. Do not lift up someone’s clothing!

Ahhh! I still can’t believe this happens. And I’m not alone -- every single one of my tattooed girlfriends has horror stories about people grabbing them, touching them, lifting up sleeves, shirts, or even pulling on their waistbands. WTF?!

3. They don’t all have a story.

Actually, most of them do -- but a lot of them are personal or private. If I’ve just met you and you’re grilling me, I’m not going to want to share them with you.

4. Piggybacking on the above -- don’t make a snide comment or insist that I defend them to you.

I’m not going to walk around telling everyone that they should have tattoos or pink hair or mullets or glasses or whatever. It doesn’t bother me that you don’t have tattoos, I don’t see why it should severely offend you that I do. (The “you” here being random stranger, new acquaintance or drunk relative I rarely see).

5. If you’re a medical professional, it is not appropriate to comment on my tattoos unless their presence directly affects your ability to treat me.

Appropriate example: My new allergist says, “Alli, since your arm is heavily covered is it alright with you if I do the prick test on your back? We’ll be able to see it better there since it’s less covered.”

Inappropriate example: A doctor (who I no longer see), right as she’s doing an internal pelvic exam, says, “You’re so covered, you’ve even got ink on your stomach.” Lady, your hand is up my vag -- if we’re not getting sexy, I don’t want to talk about my tattoos.

6. Don’t feel bad for my parents.

Dear friends, and commenters, I know we’ve all heard this before -- for any “questionable” decision we’ve made. “Oh what do your parents say?” or “Oh your poor parents!” Listen, random stranger, my parents may not love that I’m as decorated as I am but they do love that I’m happy, self assured, successful, and independent.

7. Please don’t show me yours.

Drunk dudes seem to sincerely believe that girls with tattoos are going to jump their bones the second we see the faded, scratched, tequila worm or Tasmanian devil they got when they were drunk in college. I have fun talking about my tattoos with fellow collectors, or nice, interesting, earnest people -- I don’t so much enjoy seeing a dude I barely know start to disrobe in the middle of a bar because he wants to show me something. (This seriously happens All. The. Time).

8. Don’t point at me.

I’m sure your mother/third grade teacher/auntie told you that it’s rude. The end.

9. Do feel free to introduce yourself and tell me that you were curious about my tattoos.

If you’re a nice, non-invasive person willing to talk to me like I’m human, sure, I’ll chat with you. Will I lift up my shirt in the middle of the bar like the aforementioned dude-guy? No. But I’ll happily take five minutes to have a polite conversation with you -- all you have to do is treat me like a person.

10. Do feel free to ask me where I got them done.

The people who tattoo me are amazing -- talented, friendly, kind. I’m happy to send you their way.

Any other tattoo dos or don’ts? Etiquette questions? Think I’m a jerk? Reply in the comments.