Of all the things guys say to me in bars, “what do your tattoos mean?” is but a few steps up from “what’s your sign?”, neck and neck with “my friend over there wants to know if you think I’m cute” and miles below even the middling “do you like The Smiths?”
This is not because I hate talking about myself (um, duh) or conversing with strange men (actually I mostly do, but let’s pretend), but because it’s a super annoying question.
(Related: What Does a Snake Tattoo Mean?)
When you ask what my tattoos mean (as in, all my tattoos), you are basically asking me to take you on a guided tour of my entire body, which is kind of an imposition on anyone, but especially someone you don’t know very well who, by virtue of being female and unchaperoned, is already feeling slightly wary of anyone who might come off as even having the potential to be creepy.
Do I have tattoos where you can’t see them? You bet I do. Am I going to show them to you or even intimate that they exist? Not unless I want to sleep with you, which I most certainly will not wish to do after you’ve asked me a question like that. (I’m currently in a monogamous relationship, but it’s fun to speak hypothetically.)
Actually, let’s back up a little. I realize not everyone who asks this question is trying to be creepy; some have just taken the wrong messages from the media.
While they’ve been helpful in normalizing tattoos to people who don’t have them, TV shows like Miami Ink have also given people skewed perceptions of how much tattoos mean to people and how openly they’re willing to talk about them. The truth is that not every tattoo has an explicit meaning.
In fact, most of the tattoos I have, I got for one very simple reason: I liked the way they looked, tried them on for size, liked how they looked on my body and wanted to make them permanent. Those flowery things on my left arm? They signify “flowers.” And those colorful, bird-like things on my right arm? They signify “birds.” Fascinating, I know.
Why is a person aesthetically attracted to one image over another? Why did I choose birds and not a pirate ship, a giraffe, or a naked she-demon with six flaming skulls for heads?
Well, why do you like the art that you like? You can probably give a decent explanation, but at a certain point, you have to admit you just dig it, man, for deep, Freudian, subconscious reasons that probably go back to childhood.
Would you like to analyze my childhood? Let me get the photo album. Just kidding, it’s at my mom’s house. And why did I choose to put the art on my body instead of on a wall? Do I belong to a subculture that’s brainwashed me into thinking tattoos are beautiful?
Basically, the answers to all these questions are simultaneously too short and too long and will make me feel like an asshole either way.
Conversely, some tattoos do mean things to people. Let’s do a thought experiment and say that my birds do not just represent birds, but four family members who’ve died of cancer. It’s kind of painful for me to talk about, but I will try to summon the courage, right here in this bar, on my night off, just for you, stranger. Maybe I’ll cry a little bit. You will feel so much closer to me afterwards. Do you see where I’m going with this?
I actually do have one tattoo that means something beyond “here is a work of art that I like enough to want permanently etched on my skin.” It’s a tray of toast and tea, and it’s a bro tattoo I have with my friend Jess because we like to eat breakfast foods and drink tea together. It’s kind of our special time to catch up on everything that’s been happening in each other’s lives.
I actually don’t mind talking about this tattoo, but you have no way of knowing that before you ask, do you? Or maybe I’ve overstated my case a bit and it’s okay to ask about one specific tattoo (choose wisely!), but if the person says something like “it’s personal” or “it’s a long story,” you shouldn’t push.
This is not to say that it’s never okay to comment on someone’s tattoos. After all, they are out there on that person’s flesh for all the world to see. I think a good rule of thumb is to treat them as you would any other aspect of a person’s style: hair, clothes, accessories, etc. Would you assume there’s a deeply personal meaning behind someone’s blonde bob? Here are some okay things to say:
“I like your tattoos, they’re so pretty.” Thanks!
“Who did those birds on you?” Jess Versus at 1228, she’s the best!
“What does that little tea tray mean?” Friend love forever!
Here are some dumb things to say/do:
“Did those hurt?” No, having twenty needles in my arm felt like a massage.
“What is your tattoo of?” If you’re unable to decipher this figurative drawing I’ve commissioned, I want my money back.
“How much did they cost?” How much money do you make?
“What are you going to do when you get married?” Wear a white dress? Drink champagne? Get lifted up in a chair by my relatives? How is this question relevant at all?
“What are you going to do when you’re old?” Be an awesome old lady with great stories to tell, hopefully. And saggy, colorful body art to distract from my leaking colostomy bag.
[stranger touches my person without asking (yes, people actually do this)] [I start digging around in my purse for pepper spray]
Are you starting to pick up what I’m throwing down? Basically, use common sense and don’t be a jerk. Far be it from me, a rock and roll degenerate, to tout the importance of proper etiquette, but some social codes exist for a reason, and a little bit of thoughtfulness goes a long way.
Is it rude to ask people what their tattoos mean?
You got the tattoo to get comments. So, shhh.
- Ella Jane
- I have a kite on my back. Anytime I go out with it showing, at least one person walks up to me and asks “is that a kite?”
- I don’t understand. Why. YES, IT IS A KITE. what else would it be? it is a trapezoid. it has four panels and a string coming off it with bows. it is clearly blowing in the goddamn nonexistent wind on my back.
- Really? It’s got the little kite string and everything!
- Next time someone asks you “Is it a kite?” Keep a seriously straight face and say “No, its a…” and then add something that it clearly isn’t, like an elephant or something. Usually gets rid of them and any further inane questions.
- Don’t worry, I cross tattooed women off my list immediately. You have already told me everything I need to know about you….
- I kind of agree with you. As for the author of this piece I think you’re over thinking it. In a bar with a bunch of single people asking about the tattoos is a way of making conversation and I doubt they’re trying to be creepy. How is it a tour of your entire body? How can someone ask about tattoos they can’t see and if they CAN see them then perhaps you should wear a bit more clothing. If you bother to mark your body with a ton of ink then it’s clearly a cry for some sort of attention so don’t b*tch when you actually get it.
- Jamie Peck:
- 1.) Because “tattoos” implies SHOW ME ALL YR TATTOOS
- 2.) It is entirely possible to be creepy without meaning to
- 3.) Someone can ask about tattoos they can’t see very easily, in fact
- 4.) What an ignorant thing to say. It’s not a cry for attention any more than any visible style decision is.
- Well if you know they aren’t trying to be creepy then you’re just paranoid or simply looking for something to be pissed about.
- Annnnnnd most visible style decisions are decided on for certain purposes, same as a tattoo.You can try to justify your article all you want but it just sounds like whining.
- Jamie Peck:
- I would argue that a decent portion of creepy people are not aware of their own creepiness. It’s not my responsibility to figure out the intent behind something that creeps me out. Just because you don’t realize you’re being creepy is no excuse, just like not realizing you’re hurting someone’s feelings does not take away their right to feel hurt and receive an apology beyond a condescending “sorry you got mad.” I wrote this post partly so folks could educate themselves on how to avoid making someone else feel icky, which I think most decent people would like to do.
- Tattooed women are not all alike. There are plenty of reasons for getting tattoos, and plenty of different types of people get them.
- If you don’t date tattooed women because you think they’re all alike, then you’re wrong. The only way that they’re all alike is that they don’t care about what men like you think of tattooed women enough to change their style for you.
- @NotThumper:“ If you bother to mark your body with a ton of ink then it’s clearly a cry for some sort of attention so don’t b*tch when you actually get it.
- ”Clearly to whom? To people without tattoos? Because of course they’d be the authority on “reasons why people with tattoos get tattoos.” Oh, wait…
- Ashley Cardiff:
- I don’t think you’re whining.
- A friend of mine has a tattoo (of a face) on his leg and the things people have said about it–to him and within earshot–have been kind of jaw-dropping, eg: parents herding their kids away, people loudly speculating about the face itself and then drawing insane (and mean) conclusions, direct harassment from strangers. Add to that, you’re a girl and people will use them as grist for hitting on you. So… maybe tattoos are just kind of a hassle?
- Love it. I don’t mind when people ask about my tattoo, because I love showing it off (on the back of my neck, btw), but just a random person in a bar? Yeah, that would be weird. And I totally agree with you that people need to be re-educated a little about personal boundaries.
- As for the earlier commenters, I think their view of tattoos is a little outdated. Tattoos may have been a cry for attention in the past, but nowadays it really IS just an extension of personal style. They can be meaningful and personal, or they can just be a fun picture of a food you like to eat. Hell, they can even be ironic hipster tattoos. Point is, they aren’t really seen as rebellious anymore. Myself and many of my (20-something) friends and family members have tattoos and we’re pretty square, goody-two-shoe-types.
- Agreed! I see my tattoos as an extension of my personality; they’re pieces of artwork that are there for me to enjoy. I find that people are a lot quicker to judge young women with tattoos, for a plethora of reasons, so it’s harder to accept that someone gets tattooed for decoration and not some deeper meaning.
- All of my tattoos are hidden inside a shirt, so nobody knows unless I want them to. This, however, leads to being asked what my tattoos mean at the WORST POSSIBLE TIME:
- A lady friend and I make it back to my place, her place, whichever, and we’re in the bedroom about to make the sex. Then my shirt comes off, and one out of every two or three times, this happens:
- “OH MAH GAHHH, you have TATTOOS??? WAIT! WAIT, let me SEEEEE! Whoaa, what do they all MEAN???”
- Unfortunately, your pepper spray advice would serve me rather badly in that situation. So, Jamie, what’s plan B?
- I find it so annoying when strangers would ask me this, too. I mostly just find it annoying because it happens constantly, I’m getting really sick of it. But I don’t know what to say other than just to tell them, and it’d really take a while to explain the whole thing and what it means to me, so I never do it justice and then the strangers just look at me like I’m crazy and say “Oooohh….” What can I say that is short and not rude?
- Lady Badger:
- I have a few tats also, and they’re all in places where they can be easily covered. But sometimes they peek out of shirts, the bottom of skirts/shorts, etc. This does not make it okay for someone to move my clothing to look at my tat. Same lines of touching it “to see if it’s raised”.
- I’m a guy and I get this all the time too. I agree that it can get annoying, but to be expected to some degree. It’s all in how one goes about asking. I think the people who presume tattoos must have some profound meaning are those who suffer from a certain cognitive dissonance, whereby they just can’t fathom why anyone would get something tattooed into their body permanently without it having some really important meaning. Yes, this is reinforced by the TV shows. It’s also reinforced by the fact that most of these folks probably just do not know anyone personally who has a lot of tattoos, so they don’t know what to think.
- Those of us who are heavily tattooed just have a totally different attitude about it. There will always be those who just don’t understand where we’re coming from. They are the ones who should not get tattooed. It’s not for everyone and that’s fine. Just try not to prejudge those who are tattooed.