Got my first tattoo at 18, then waited 32 years to get another. Meanwhile, I'm the editor of TatRing, a body art website.
Everything About Your Tattoo Says Something
A tattoo is like a snapshot of an idea, feeling, or memory that you want to carry with you forever. It's visual proof that something—or someone—really happened. Whether you get the tattoo because you're afraid you might forget or because you know you never will, your tattoo is full of meaning. It just speaks to you.
And it might "speak" to anyone who sees it, too. Like it or not, a tattoo does "say" something about its wearer. Like any choice of clothing or hairstyle, if it's on you and it's visible, it is something people will read into. Even if it doesn't involve text, its placement, size, color, style, and the image itself will all convey various ideas and impressions to anyone who looks at your tattoo. Interpreting and reading between the lines is just human nature.
Still, there are some old-fashioned ideas and impressions about tattoos and tattooed people that are no longer valid. Although some stigmas still exist, especially against tattooed women, perceptions about tattoos have eased dramatically in the last 20 years. Recent studies and statistics show dramatic shifts in perceptions.
Below, you'll find out what a tattoo really says about a person.
What a tattoo DOES NOT say about you:
That You Are a Sailor, Criminal, Prisoner, Religious Zealot, or in the Military. Once upon a time, it was mostly sea-goers and cell-dwellers who got tattoos, but this is obviously no longer the case. Everyone and their grandma have tattoos these days, and tattoos are no longer reserved for or favored by specific occupations.
That You Are Poor, Uneducated, or "Low Class." Tattoos used to be a working-class thing but that's no longer true. In fact these days you need a sizable chunk of cash to afford a talented tattooist who earns about $150 per hour. And studies show that people with college degrees are only slightly less likely to get a tattoo than those without (27% and 33%, respectively).
That You Are Unprofessional or Unemployable. It's estimated that almost four out of ten Americans (35%) have at least one tattoo, and the unemployment rate is 6.9%. That means millions of tattooed people are gainfully employed. Although it's also true that nearly 70% of tattooed people hide their tattoos at work, seeing ink at the workplace is becoming increasingly common. . . not to mention the fact that if you don't have a job, you probably can't afford a tattoo!
That You Are Horny or Promiscuous. Picture a sexy mermaid dancing on a sailor's bicep or a "tramp stamp" marking the spot. Once upon a time, these tattoos might have signified that their wearers were open to pretty much anything, but that impression is fading. Although there is evidence that men still perceive tattooed women as being more promiscuous, the increasing prevalence of tattoos is diminishing that preconception.
That You Are Reckless or Impulsive. A tattoo is no longer something you'd only get if you were intoxicated. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a tattooist who'd talk to you if you were drunk. One survey of 458 college students confirmed that most had taken months to plan their tattoos, choose their tattooists, and save up for the procedure.
That You Are Rebellious or Threatening. The tattoos of today no longer represent rebelliousness, antagonism, or cultural alienation. They're not just for tough guys. Most tattooed people see their body art as a sign of personal distinction or style rather than a display of anger.
So what DOES a tattoo say, then?
What Your Tattoo Says About You
- You have a strong "sense of self" (find out what this means below).
- You customize your body to express or experience ownership of it.
- To you, art is not only an interest, it is a priority.
- You are not (or are trying not to be) worried about the negatives.
- You are willing to have regrets and make mistakes. Fears don't control you.
- You relate strongly, utterly, deeply, howlingly with an idea, image, or phrase.
- You dare!
- You are okay with pain. You know how to deal with it.
- You think you will feel this way forever (or want to remember this feeling forever).
- There's something (or someone) you don't want to forget.
- You identify strongly with your culture (however small or large it is).
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1. You Have a Strong Sense of Self
A 2006 study found that most people, tattooed or not, view a tattoo as an expression of uniqueness. Today, even more people view tattoos as one-of-a-kind marks of distinction, a way to express what makes a person unlike any other.
In psychology, "sense of self" is defined as how you see yourself and think about your personal traits, beliefs, and goals. It's being conscious of self, but it's not about ego. Your sense of self includes both your 'inner' and 'outer' selves—how you see yourself from the outside and from the inside—it's how others experience you combined with how you experience yourself. When these perspectives coincide, your true sense of self begins.
As you bump along in life, you start to differentiate from your surroundings, develop preferences, and follow desires. In other words, you start to figure yourself out and to understand what makes you different. This process of self-discovery leads you to conclusions that feel more definite; patterns become apparent and things that were once vague or wishy-washy grow strong. When you begin to see what makes you YOU, getting a tattoo is a way to describe that you-ness.
2. You Wanted to Customize or Express Ownership of Your Body
You are born with the body you have. You don't get to choose it, but you do get to decorate it however you want.
Many tattooed people use tattoos as a means of shaping themselves, manifesting desires, taking "ownership" of their experience, claiming or reclaiming their bodies, and exerting control over their own lives.
Sometimes a tattoo is also a way to heal an illness or an injury like PTSD or to recover from sexual trauma. In those instances, an individual might get a tattoo as a means of taking back power or reclaiming autonomy.
3. Art Is a Priority for You
Some people think art is just decoration and fluff, void of any real meaning. But others take art very seriously. Many true art lovers of art put their money where their mouth is and invest in a tattoo at some point.
Of course, what one person calls "art" might be quite different from someone else's idea, but still: if you dreamed, designed, and hired someone to create a tattoo just for you, if you endured the pain to have it done, then you probably place a high value on imagery and artistry.
4. You Are Not Worried About the Negatives
Along with being a way to exert control over oneself, a tattoo can also be a reminder that we have no control.
- We don't control how others perceive us, and a tattoo might be still be perceived as something edgy, risky, or dirty by some. If you get a tattoo, you won't have any say in how people see it or what they'll think. This is just a given.
- A tattoo never turns out exactly like you thought it would, and anyone who gets one has had to come to terms with this fact. Even if you tattooed yourself, the end product is likely different than it looked in your mind!
- All tattoos fade, distort, and bleed over time, so when you get one, you knowingly invest in something that will change as you age.
Choosing to get a tattoo is a decision not to let these possible negatives control you. In other words, you are optimistic—or at least realistic!—about the way the world works, and you have decided not to let fears control you.
5. You Are Willing to Have Regrets
Your taste will change, your body will change, it won't turn out like you planned, etc., etc., etc. But none of this matters because not only are you willing to have regrets, you have probably decided NOT to have regrets. No "regerts!"
As various tattooed people put it:
- "You only regret a tattoo if you don’t accept and forgive who you were in the past."
- "As long as you accept who you were when you got the tattoo, tattoos are just markers of different points of your life."
- "In essence, it’s not that my friend got a tattoo because he knew himself better than I knew myself. It’s that he was more forgiving of the fact that he will change. I saw tattoos as capturing some permanent truth about myself, my friend saw tattoos as snapshots of different moments in his life."
Studies show that most people do not regret their tattoos. Because even if they change, they don't regret the people they used to be and they don't feel shame about their past. As Bob Ross says: "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents."
6. You Identify Strongly With an Idea, Image, or Phrase
You cared so much about that concept, word, or symbol that you had it etched on your body forever. It is literally a part of you now.
Your feelings about what your tattoo represents were not iffy or lukewarm or tame. That tattoo was a serious commitment: dead serious, forever serious, put-a-ring-on-it serious. That tattoo was something you wanted to see, ponder, and remember every day for the rest of your life.
And there's something to be said about feeling that strongly, identifying that passionately, committing that fully, and following through with it by getting the tattoo.
7. You Dare
Faulkner said "You cannot swim to new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore." Brené Brown puts it this way: "You can choose courage, you can choose comfort, but you can't choose both." According to Coco Chanel, "The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud."
Some call it recklessness, but others call it courage. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, guts, and nerve to go under the needle.
8. You Are Okay With Pain
I'm not suggesting that you're a masochist, but I am saying that you'd probably pass the gom jabbar test in Dune. A tattoo shows that you are willing to endure a little pain in order to get what you want. You are capable of putting "mind over matter" and controlling your knee-jerk reaction to pain. You know that sometimes, to achieve something good, you have to slog through some rough stuff.
9. You Think You Will Feel This Way Forever
Either you thought you would feel that way forever or you wanted to remember that feeling or idea forever. Either way, the tattoo represents something enduring, something you thought or hoped would never change. That's why it's sometimes hard to choose a tattoo, because you want something you won't outgrow, get tired of, or feel embarrassed about one day. It represents a faithfulness to an idea and a permanent commitment to what it represents.
10. There's Something You Don't Want to Forget
Many people get tattoos to remind themselves about something. It's like a snapshot or a verbal mantra or prayer bead, an image that reminds you over and over. It might tell a story you don't want to forget, enable you to relive an important moment, or remind you of someone you love.
There is something about putting an idea into words or pictures that makes it last longer. They say that if you really want to remember a thing, you should write it down, and if you take a picture of something, the memory is more likely to stick.
11. You Identify Strongly With Your Culture
Along with being a strong symbol of individuality, a tattoo can also show an identification with a group. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible.” In other words, the groups we belong to—big and small—shape who we are.
Whether it is a micro-culture (like a friend group, family, neighborhood, hobby, job, school, team, or organization) or a macro-culture (your race, ethnicity, country, political party, or language), you are part of your culture, and your culture is part of you.
You Don't Have Control Over What Your Tattoo Says About You
You may not have control over what your tattoo says about you (some things are in the eye of the beholder, as they say), BUT you do have control over what you say about your tattoo. Ultimately, it does not matter what anyone else thinks. Your interpretation is the only thing that matters, in the end.
- More Americans Have Tattoos Today than Seven Years Ago (Ipsos)
- 38 Tattoo Statistics: 2020/2021 Industry, Trends & Demographics (Compare Camp)
- Tattoos as a window to the psyche: How talking about skin art can inform psychiatric practice (NCBI)
© 2021 A Fonté