Hannah ActonPublished in October 2019 / Updated in January 2021
Hold onto your seats, pals. We’re diving into some cultural discourse today.
Get ready for a stranger on the internet to peer pressure you into getting that tattoo you’ve been meaning to get around to (it’s me, I’m the stranger).
Without further ado, here are five arguments I’m tired of having with people on the street that think that can comment on my tattoos.
You can use them for yourself to save time and avoid punching the nosy nellies in your hometown! Am I bitter? Maybe!
1 – ‘Permanent’ isn’t as scary a word as you think it is
A list of things probably maybe more permanent than a tattoo:
failing an exam
falling in love
breaking a limb that you would otherwise rather wasn’t broken
a child, which generally accompanies childbirth
socially ingrained self loathing
falling out of love (and then in again, we’ve all been there)
not recycling your water bottles
ignoring appropriate sunscreen protocol
falling over in front of your sister who will, statistically speaking, never let it go
Yes, ‘permanent’ is the buzzword that tends to get thrown around in tandem with ‘tattoo’. It is paired generally with the well-meaning but patronizing: ‘are you sure?’, and the disapproving: ‘you’ll be stuck with it, you know’. But also, permanence is something that we are instructed to crave; all social endeavors are pursued with the anticipation of achieving long-term goals.
Promotions at work, relationships, fitness regimes and self improvement. These are all movements that correspond with commitment and intentionality, and getting a tattoo is no different. Certainly, it requires thought and consideration, and doesn’t necessarily benefit from rushing into it. However, society has a difficulty in reconciling the positive tenants of permanence in this context.
Also, I’m not going to lie, I love my tattoo and it has a personal meaning for me, but I forget it’s there half the time. I probably look at my ankle around three times a month, tops. By getting my tattoo, I’m not signing my soul away. But yes, permanent is a big word, one that you would think is synonymous with ‘eternal’, but is in reality just another word for ‘constant’ – after all, for all this talk of the hypothetical future, we only ever live in the present. Put that on a poster. In twenty years I may hate it. But, in twenty years I’m just as liable to hating any arbitrary part of my body, thanks society.
In terms of how it affects other people, this is like cutting my hair or wearing a skirt. Which is to say, none of anyone’s business.
So, spend yourself. There is no longer any value in suspending aging for the simple point of doing it. Like, sure, start your anti wrinkle cream regime at 19 and go gung ho for the cosmetics industry. I applaud that, but make sure that when you’re 90 with baby-smooth skin you’ve actually lived a life that’s made a mark somewhere, if not on your body.
2 – What if I hate it later?
If ‘permanent’ isn’t so terrifying, then ‘regret’ is probably the word you’re really afraid of.
My answer for you? Live your life like you’re racing down the highway without any car doors: with conviction of your own ridiculousness and a mouthful of terrified laughter.
What if it looks wrinkly and stretched or shrunken? Erm, so what if it does?
The tattoo wont change, the skin around it will. The ink will pull and tug and fill in the gaps just like the rest of your body. I promise you that you will wrinkle with or without a tattoo. You will dislike your body at select moments of crisis with or without a tattoo or piercings. You know that, I know that, the neighbor’s Chihuahua knows it.
The body changes. We actually already knew that, too, didn’t we? The universal fear of aging that we are indoctrinated to feel betrays a larger horror at our own mortality, rather than living in the moment. We live life in anticipation of what will or might come to pass. Dude. We will all wrinkle, scar and stretch. Why is aesthetic perception the worst deterrent we can think of? Stretch marks simply show our capacity to change and evolve; scars are things we’ve healed from or are actively engaging with; and aching joints represent the distance you’ve travelled and all that you’ve risked, and yes, possibly lost.
So chill out, basically.
Okay, we treat our body poorly sometimes. What of it? Just because we know an increasing number of ways in which we can ‘look after ourselves’ or be ‘healthy’. To fit a certain image of what being ‘healthy’ or ‘traditional’ might mean, doesn’t mean that we are duty bound to always research and follow through all the time. Purity culture is toxic if we’re asking people to politicize every aspect of their lives and render every act symbolic. Sometimes trousers are just trousers, and a tattoo is just a tattoo.
If we let things constantly be statements or symbolic then we let them define us.
Isn’t it more important that I’m looking at my body and not holding it to some arbitrary, confused and cluttered notion of what is the ‘ideal’, and simply just chilling and trying not to let it get to me and affect all the decisions I make? Seeing my flaws and looking them in the eye rather than always, always rushing to cover them up or fill them in. It doesn’t make me a better person, nor does it make me lazy. We just simply shouldn’t have to live to a regime of self-care or hold ourselves to what another person’s standard of ‘healthy’ is. My tattoo doesn’t make or break me. But I know it’s there. Sometimes you need that.
I’ve not got Queen Lizzie’s corgis tattooed across my forehead. But it’d be cool if I did.
We spend lifetimes removing aspects of ourselves. Always told to occupy less space, fit in, fill the space, lose weight, subdue your hair, burn away the upper layer of skin, slouch if you’re too tall, and wear flats so that the boys at the dance aren’t shorter than you. Heaven forbid I add something to my body that I want.
To reject tattoos is to reject someone’s autonomy over themselves and to reject that we know ourselves well enough to commit to knowing what we want. But we knew that too, didn’t we?
3 – If the body is a temple then use it!
If we take our mother’s logic of our body as a temple, then the tattoo is the culmination of all the destructive ways we can desecrate our body. Sigh. But is it? To manipulate the metaphor to my own advantage, the purpose of a temple is to enter it, fully and with all of your being and to have faith. Not to preserve it, avert your eyes, or touch nothing. You enter, make yourself comfortable, make your presence felt and become part of it and what it may represent, symbiotically.
So, absolutely, appreciate and respect your body, dress it up and protect it, but don’t misconstrue that as a reason to preserve your body for the sake of doing so. That said, I constantly struggle with trying to separate the decisions I make with what I actually want to do, versus what I’ve unconsciously internalized by society (ie, do I want to get a promotion because of the implicit increasing valuation of my worth, or because of the economic benefits tied up with it?
Tattoos are often a record of a single moment in time, or a memory of how you were feeling one year, or may be nothing at all.
Laughter lines tell a story but so do wrinkles and frown lines. Like it or not, your body will reveal itself one way or another. It’s natural and normal and nothing to fear; so, why shouldn’t you add to the comic strip on your skin? Shift up the narrative!
4 – What if it goes wrong? What if it hurts? What if my partner hates it?
‘What ifs’ are like stop signs. They’re great to get to you take a moment to consider your surroundings and look left and right, but if you don’t move off eventually you will hold yourself up. Everyone has ‘what ifs’ as safety parachutes to prevent us from free falling into failure because we’re all conditioned to pretend that other people are implicated in our decision-making. There’s a fine line between living the life you think you are expected to, and finding your own.
For every ‘what if’ you need a couple of ‘so whats’ to make sure that you actually get off the ground.
Instead of this, we need to be able to live our lives unfettered by fears of not always being desirable. We have to accept the fact that we will not always look the same as we do now, and that nothing, especially beauty, is permanent. Haven’t all the good Romantics told us that great beauty comes in unexpected pockets? We’ve been conditioned to be attractive at all moments, ages and angles and yet all the poets (see; old white male, poets) are obsessed by the unusual or unconventional. I’m calling bull. Long before I started drafting this essay it has been established that you just cannot win the aesthetic paradox.
You might as well say ‘screw it’ and get that tattoo you’ve been meaning to get and live your life.
In sheer pain threshold, my ankle tattoo literally felt like an epilator. You know, that torture device used to remove leg hair? Interestingly, and entirely expected, pain for ‘beauty’ is accepted, yet, the pain associated with tattoos is always flagged up as some irresolvable, unworthy barrier for art. As if no one has ever suffered for art. Ha.
Maybe I expected more discomfort, masochist that I am, like it had to earn my tattoo, my permanent decision more, to enter into the transaction of pain for emotional or physical satisfaction. Realistically, though, one’s pain threshold for tattoos will generally be equal to or greater than one’s conviction to get the tattoo. Ask any person who gets a tattoo.
You’ll be hard pressed to find someone that says that pain wasn’t worth it.
Ask the same thing of your friend that just got a bikini wax, and when she says ‘yes’, wonder if she means it. Obviously, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hair removal or the methods through which it is achieved; all that it is symptomatic of is a society that thinks that other peoples’ bodies’ are free real estate for their own internalized anxieties and commentaries.
While tattoos are often deeply personal and intimate to a person, there’s also no pressure to find the perfect design or placement. Sometimes a tattoo is just ink on your skin – it doesn’t have to define you. Don’t let permanence insist upon perfection – be spontaneous, take a risk.
In more literary terms, there’s also a great Katherine Mansfield quote along the lines of ‘you have to spend your life and use it order to have lived it’. The goal of life is not necessarily to keep your body ‘whole’ or ‘pure’, but to keep it yours. Your body, with all its socially infused symbolic meanings, would deceive you that it was public, governmental property, as though it were not yours to use.
5 – It’s art!
Upon mentioning the word ‘tattoo’, your mother will likely imagine a 20-something with a Mohawk, motorbike and septum piercing with a snarl to boot. What she closes her eyes to is that tattoo parlours are one of the cleanest, most wholesome, safe spaces.
Society can’t seem to decide where it stands on with bodily decoration – it encourages make-up as a signal of professionalism in the same breath as dismissing is as childish frippery. I know that a tattoo isn’t just a sticker, but also, it’s just not that deep. As with make-up, there is a struggle to reconcile the artistry and skill set involved, particularly when the canvas is live, diverse and delicate. As with particularly skilled make-up artists, tattooists, far from being the careless ne’er-do-wells that they are made out to be, are of the most well informed, attentive, hygienic and creative individuals you will meet.
What you pick for the design is something that you are choosing to adorn yourself with, something entirely in your control, at your discretion, and for you to enjoy in private or publicly. As with other art forms, sometimes it’s about the value of committing to something, anything – or even the literal process of having done it.
The threat of permanence looms to keep our desires rooted in desirability and fears of change. It always will.
But if pain were a reason to not do something, we’d never do anything.
If having lasting consequences were a deterrent, what would be the point in doing anything? And that’s the tea.