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No Touching! And Other Useful Rules for Tattoo Etiquette

[Original publication date: July 21, 2011]

Anyone who has been around me (either online or in real life) for the past week or so knows how very, very irritated I was by the “tattoo etiquette” piece from the New York Times‘ City Critic. The writer, Neil Genzlinger, interviewed NY Ink star Ami James – that part actually isn’t so bad – and then came up with a list of rules for etiquette on the part of both the tattooed and the admirer.

Some of the rules – like the one that says you can look at someone’s tattoo but not obtrusively or not to swat at someone’s ink – are all right, but the rest are downright stupid, especially when the un-tattooed Genzlinger starts spouting about the things people with tattoos should do for their admirers as “common courtesy.” (Note: there is nothing wrong with being un-tattooed, but in general you should not tell a group you aren’t part of what they “should” do.) This includes dressing to show off your ink in certain ways (he seems to think you should display all or nothing), having an interesting story for each one that may or may not be true, and covering them up if you think people won’t like them.

You know, I really don’t think the word “poppycock” gets used enough. And to counteract this nonsense, I’ve decided to come up with my own set of guidelines.

For the admirers:

Closeup of a tattoo of a ball of blue yarn with two knitting needles on the author's shoulder.
Ask nicely and I’ll tell you I got this one at Citizen Ink in Brooklyn, NY.
  • No touching! I really can’t emphasize this enough. Walking up to a stranger and grabbing some part of their body is rude, creepy, inappropriate and could even be considered assault. It’s also a great way to accidentally get punched in the face if the person you grab has that sort of visceral reaction.
  • Instead of grabbing, ask polite questions when you see a tattoo you admire. Open with a compliment. If part of the tattoo is covered by clothing and you would like to see more, yes, you can ask, just don’t get huffy if they can’t or won’t move their clothes to show you.
  • Looking is fine. Ogling, glaring and mocking are not. If someone catches you staring at them, a quick smile can reassure them that you are looking out of appreciation instead of judgment.
  • Some of us love to talk about our ink with anyone who asks. Others do not. Some of us feel like talking in certain situations and not in others. The tattooed have varied personalities and levels of intro- and extroversion just like everyone else. While asking a few polite questions is generally OK, know how to take a hint if someone obviously isn’t interested in talking.
  • Similarly, have no expectations about the stories behind ink. Some people will have pieces with deep and personal meanings, others will get something because they think it’s pretty. Some might not want to share the story because it’s so private. There is no right or wrong reason to get a tattoo, sometimes the meanings change with time, and again, no one owes anyone else an explanation. If you ask and they say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” drop it. And if they say, “My friends and I got hammered and thought it would be awesome to get matching tattoos,” don’t act disappointed or judgmental.
  • Check your pre-conceived notions. People from all walks of life have tattoos. Businesspeople, sailors, artists, stay-at-home parents. You can’t assume having a tattoo means anything about the person, and you can’t assume someone will or will not have ink based on their personality or their life.
  • If you don’t like it, look away. This actually applies beyond tattoos and can extend to clothing, make-up, height/weight, hairstyle, basically anything appearance-related. Instead of insisting the rest of the world adapt to you, merely focus your gaze elsewhere if you see something that bothers you.
  • Don’t ask what it cost. That’s rude and none of your business. Plus, it varies between designs, placement on the body, shops, artists, etc. Even if you are in the market, what someone else paid may or may not reflect what you will end up spending.
  • Don’t assume people love attention because they got a tattoo. Having ink might make someone more interesting to look at, but it doesn’t make them public property or an exhibitionist. The inked are still as deserving of personal space and respect as those with virgin skin.

For the tattooed:

Closeup of a tattoo of a Chinese symbol, with a dog visible in the background.
Asking me what this means and asking me what this says will yield two very different answers. Also, meet Zelda, who thinks cameras are fascinating.
  • Try to be patient. People are going to ask questions if you have visual ink. No, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and yes it can be tedious to get asked the same thing (“Did it hurt?”) every day. But if someone is asking polite questions in a way that conveys respect, try to answer them or at least be nice when you blow them off.
  • Wear whatever you want. Seriously, I don’t know why that article suggested you have to dress to show off the whole thing. Some days you want to show off all your ink, some days you don’t. Some days you just pick out clothes without thinking of your tattoos and whatever percentage of them that’s visible is incidental.
  • Try to give people the benefit of the doubt. You’ll be able to tell when someone is being outwardly judgmental and those people aren’t worth your time and energy. But most of the people who talk to you will be curious and interested, even if they don’t exactly know how to say it.
  • Demand respect. The simple act of getting visible tattoos does not make you public property (I know I said that already, but it bears repeating). Don’t let anyone convince you that you deserve to be manhandled, stared at, or harassed because of your tattoos. Don’t be afraid to leave a hostile situation or let someone know they’ve behaved inappropriately if you can do so safely. You deserve the same respect for privacy and personal boundaries as anyone, how much ink you have doesn’t change that.
Closeup of a rose tattoo on the author's ankle.
Weather dictates how often people see my ankle tattoo more than anything else.
  • Tell people whatever story you want. Or don’t. Like I said above, everyone has different reasons for getting ink. If you want to share yours, by all means do. But if you think it’s silly, or it’s just too painful and personal to talk about with a complete stranger, that’s OK too. Try to be polite when you decline to tell, but if they push too hard you can stop playing nice. Be as considerate as they are.
  • Talk up your artist. If people compliment you, tell them who hath graced your body with her or his amazing work. If they are in the market, they will love the information. And your artist will love both the recognition and the potential for new clients.

A rantier, more disorganized and less thought-out version of this piece initially appeared over at my (now-defunct) blog, A Little Bit of What.

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[E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

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