Hands Off: Tattoo Etiquette

Photo by Hartmut Bösener
Photo by Hartmut Bösener

By Melissa A. Fabello

I’m tattooed.

And by “I’m tattooed,” I don’t mean one or two or five or seven. I don’t mean that I’m tattooed in the #TeamTatted, finally-I-turned-eighteen-so-I-got-my-first-tattoo sense. I mean tattooed.

And I say that to say: I’ve noticed a shift since my body was a blank canvas.

The fact of the matter is, whether you have a handful or you’re running out of skin space, it doesn’t matter how many tattoos you have. The point is: The prevalence of tattoos is growing, and attitudes (most attitudes, anyway, if not my mom’s) are changing swiftly from mostly negative to mostly neutral-if-not-positive.

And chances are, if you’re not tattooed, you at least know someone who is – and they probably aren’t a sailor or a convict. And you probably don’t think that tattoos somehow lower a person’s social status or are indicative of waning self-worth.

You would think that with the growing fondness and appreciation for tattoos, especially in younger generations, they would stop shocking people, that people would be less in awe. But when people stop you on the street (or in the grocery store or while filing onto an airplane) to graze your tattoos with their fingertips, and start asking you all sorts of personal questions – What is the story behind it? How much did it cost? – you start to second guess the commonplaceness of tattoos. And you start to wonder: Since when does ink in my skin turn my body into public property?

So, general public, here are four things to keep in mind when you’re interacting with tattooed people – and especially tattooed women – to strike a balance: to show appreciation, but not offend; to ask appropriate questions, but not overwhelm; to start a conversation that’s genuine, not selfish.

Rule #1: Don’t Touch Me.

Those of us who have any sense of social awareness and bodily autonomy understand that when a stranger on the subway, without even asking, puts a hand on a pregnant woman’s growing belly, that’s rude. We understand that it isn’t appropriate to ask to touch a Black woman’s hair – not only is it uncomfortable to touch someone’s body in general, but it’s also “othering” that person, which is rooted in racism. We know this. I hope.

But those people – the ones who have yet to be educated about personal boundaries or who grew up in a such a touchy-feely culture that they can’t shake it – are the same ones that have a tendency to touch tattoos.

Look: My body being different is not an invitation to stroke it.

And also, newsflash: Unless they’re fresh (at which point, please don’t touch it – it’s quite literally an open wound), tattoos have no texture.  They’re to be taken in visually, not tactilely.

An easy solution? Admire tattoos from a safe distance (which is determined by the tattooed, not the admirer). And keep your hands to yourself.

Rule #2: Don’t Ask About My Personal Finances. 

How much did that cost? How much would it cost me to get blah-blah-blah? How do you afford the habit?

Wait—hold on.

Since when is it socially acceptable to ask people about their bank accounts? About their salaries? About their car payments, their student loan debt, their rent, or their inheritance? Don’t get me wrong. I, personally, don’t think that people’s financial situations need to be hush-hush. But at the same time, I understand that culturally, we consider it rude to ask people straight-up about their money.

And so any time that someone asks me about my finances without prefacing it with a “you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to” or a “if you don’t mind my asking,” I’m perturbed, even if I really don’t mind sharing. It’s just that – geez – I’d like it if you’d check with me first that I don’t mind instead of presenting me with a financial interrogation.

The same thing goes for tattoos. Offer the same courtesy. Or, you know, do your own research on how much tattoos average.

Rule #3: Don’t Hit On Me.

By all means, compliment me.

That’s not to say that I need compliments, but rather that I certainly don’t mind people letting me know that they like my hair or my dress or my glasses. I’m just saying that there’s a difference between a compliment – which is cool – and a come-on, which isn’t.

That is: “Nice ink!” should come off as “nice shoes,” not “nice ass.”

Got ink? Want to strike up a conversation about it? Cool. Let’s. I would love to know about your artist and their specialties and why you chose not to use an outline on that piece or how you got that perfect sparkle effect, considering there (sadly) isn’t such a thing as glitter ink.

But don’t use my tattoos to start a boring conversation about how you want a tattoo, but just don’t know what to get because you just can’t think of something meaningful enough to have on your for the rest of your life. Seriously. It’s a weak attempt at stimulating conversation.

And more importantly: It’s still my body that you’re commenting on, and that can be uncomfortable. Every person has a right to express (directly or indirectly) that your body-specific comments are intrusive.

So before you approach someone with tattoos to talk about tattoos, consider your motive: Are you genuinely invested in this conversation, or is it a feeble attempt at finding common ground?

Rule #4: I’m Not a Tattoo Artist.

This is more of a fact than a rule, but let’s go with it.

If I go to a non-artist’s home, and I see a painting hanging up in their foyer, do I ask them how it was painted? How to create the strokes? How much it would cost to get something entirely dissimilar? No.

Comparably, I’m the consumer of art – not the artist. I can’t answer technical questions about tattooing. I can’t tell you the steps that you need to take to become a tattoo artist. I can’t tell you how much money tattoo artists make. I know what I hear while I’m in the shop. I know what I’ve read on the Internet. But just like you, as (perhaps) strictly a reader, can’t answer questions about what my life as a writer and educator is like, I don’t know what tattooing entails.

Instead, focus on what’s in front of you: ask about my pieces. Ask about my experience. Ask about how long it took, who the artist is, where I got it done, and which part hurt the most. Because that’s my experience with tattoos. And I can talk about that.

In the end, this isn’t really a conversation about tattoos. It’s about respecting people’s bodies and boundaries and being self- and socially-aware enough to recognize the line between appropriate and uncomfortable. No two people are the same. Some welcome questions and comments, some just want to be left alone. That goes for tattooed and non-tattooed people. The important take-home message here is to remember that a person’s body belongs to them and that an invitation into that personal space shouldn’t be expected.

 Image by Hartmut Bösener via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

9 thoughts on “Hands Off: Tattoo Etiquette

  1. Very interesting article here, although I have to disagree with the second point of yours. I don’t think that it’s only to find out how much you earn and I can explain myself. I have 2 dogs and they both cost me a lot, both dogs are of perfect breed and got excellent marks on dog shows. People ask me how much they cost all the time but not to find out how much I make but to find out if they can afford such a toy. I put the word toy not because this is how I treat by pets but to show that if they would cost cheap, people would buy such a cute thing for them just to have it. If it costs a lot, they don’t need it. What concerns the rest, I absolutely agree, especially with the first point. I have both tatts and piercing and one a random person on the street asked me to touch the ring in my belly button, that was weird. Although in all the guidelines on taking care of tattoo they say that you shouldn’t touch it like this one http://www.askwiki.net/How-to-Take-Care-of-a-Tattoo but people just don’t care
    What about your conclusion, I agree with it 100% and this is my favorite photo about it http://static.someecards.com/someecards/usercards/1344044260453_8468303.png

  2. People ask all sorts of questions. Getting huffy because people ask about tattoo artists seems rather mean-spirited. But I guess USians are happy to take offense at anything.

  3. I laughed reading your distinction between nice shoes and nice ass because there’s a phrase from a movie that starts with nice shoes and ends with a proposition so whenever I see nice shoes that’s what springs to mind – the opposite of what you had intended.

    Thanks for the article. It’s amazing how small things suddenly make people forget common courtesies.

  4. I work in a building that is temperature-controlled – held at 55F for most of the year and the comment that I get most often about my sleeve is ‘why don’t you show it off more?’ . I’ve worked with these people for five years and have never worn a short-sleeve top at work because it is bloody well cold all the time, so getting that comment kind of makes me want to smack someone. I’ve also tried to explain that it is my art and my body is like a private gallery – not open for public viewing but that hasn’t penetrated either.
    Even when I am not at work I don’t show my sleeve off – I want to preserve the colours and I am also very pale with a family history of skin cancer, so thankfully I don’t get many strangers staring, touching or asking questions. Thank you though for posting this – it clarifies my own thoughts on what is appropriate and it is nice to see that others feel the same way.

  5. Well said,as a tattooed woman and a woman of colour I can relate. As a child it was considered by some to be good luck to touch the head of a coloured child. (in London, it replaced the chimney sweep for good luck!)
    Look: My body being different is not an invitation to stroke it.” so true!!
    Pamela-Marie London,UK

  6. Great article! How do you handle it when people break rule #1? I have a tattoo on my upper arm, and it makes me uncomfortable when acquaintances stroke my arm (including nurses, and once actually someone who was teaching a church-based training about protecting kids from sexual abuse) but I’m never sure what I should say exactly. It just seems so obviously rude to me, I don’t understand why people would even do it in the first place.

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