According to forty-thirteen studies that surprise no one, millennials are getting tattoos at an ever-quickening pace. In 2010, Pew Research reported that more than a third of millennials (age 18–29) had a tattoo. However, 70 percent of those said their tattoos were “hidden beneath clothing.”
Guess what, guys? I’m a statistic.
I’m 28 and I have four tattoos. None are visible when I’m wearing a regular T-shirt and shorts, but if you manage to get me a little more naked than that, you might see the lion on the back of my right shoulder, the ship on the back of my left, the ibis on the side of my ribcage, or the elephant on my hip.
I recently had lunch with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while, and we’d barely sat down at our table before she was pulling off her sweater to show me the flowers she’d just gotten tattooed on her back. A coworker of mine has gone from having two tattoos on his arm to having both arms completely covered in lady heads, clipper ships, and roses, all in four short years.
So, what’s the deal? Why are we inking ourselves with such abandon? Aren’t we supposed to be worried about tattoos limiting our future employment prospects, haunting us when we no longer like that one quote from that one author, and drooping into unrecognizable blobs when we get old?
Honestly, there’s a nugget of truth to these concerns.
Sometimes face tattoos can look kind of awesome, but assuming you want to be a person who can function in regular daily life without having to endure 37 stares per second or the shame and indignity of watching mothers pull their children closer when you walk by, you should probably focus on tattooing other parts of your body instead.
And most people do. People like me and my friends, and probably you and your friends, too. We tattoo our arms and our legs, or the backs of our necks. We put a panther behind our elbow or a cluster of daisies on our chest. And all of us “mainstream” tattooed folk are generally moral citizens participating calmly in society—going to work, having brunch, starting families, signing up for marathons, and visiting Machu Picchu. So I ask, what’s the big deal if I do all of those things with a wolf tattooed on my thigh?
Two years ago, Juliette Kayyem wrote for the Boston Globe that:
For many of us, shedding the notion that tattoos divided the world between the “good’’ kids and the more rebellious ones is difficult. But looking around—at television, at the tattoo parlors that open next to Whole Foods, at my babysitters with their discreet ankle designs—it is obvious that the millennials have taken the judgmental edge out of tattoos.
Perhaps we’re moving on from being judged for having a tattoo to being judged for the content of our tattoos.
There’s the “meaningful” tattoo, which has been infused with so much “meaning” that it’s virtually impossible to comprehend by any normal human. For example, the tattoo of a globe with 23 percent of it blacked out to represent the 14 months you spent in a halfway house getting your shit together, but the whole globe is surrounded by two ferrets holding hands, because your best friend was your “rock” when you were going through that time in your life, and you both had pet ferrets when you were growing up, and that’s actually how you became friends in the first place. But instead of regular heads, the ferrets have clocks for heads, because time… well, it passes, man.
Unless you put this tattoo on your butt cheek, you’re going to get a lot of confused stares when out in public. In general, the more you twist the design to accommodate your “meaning,” the more your tattoo will suffer.
Then there’s the “hipster” tattoo, which is usually recognizable because it contains something about owls, things turning into a flock of birds flying away, quotes from Kurt Vonnegut or lines of poetry, or anything related to graphic design or bicycles. These tattoos seem to be mere fashion accessories, and are supposed to be so fadtastic that their owners will start to regret them faster than a fixie would get stolen in New York City.
And of course, there are the people who are interested in the culture of tattooing and spend lots of money traveling from country to country to get work done from world-famous tattoo artists. These people often have lots of tattoos, and they are usually awesome tattoos.
The tattooed of different types may judge each other for different reasons, but all of them are judged equally “trashy” by people like my mother, who will probably never stop thinking of all tattoos as trashy.
But here’s the thing: Eventually, my mother’s generation will be gone, and people my age will have kids in college, and kids who are having their own kids, and so much of the population will be tattooed that it will be unproductive and quite silly to assign any significance to tattoos beyond the surface, “Oh, I see you really like wolves.”
So, what’s the moral of the story?
People who judge the tattooed need to chill the fuck out, and people who get tattoos need to do a better job of being awesome.
Just because I have a tattoo of a skull surrounded by roses blazing across my forearm (I don’t) doesn’t mean I have an obsession with death—maybe I just like the imagery. And just because you want to memorialize something in your life doesn’t mean it’s the best idea to get a pie chart-globe-ferret tattoo on your calf—put some thought into it, talk to a good tattoo artist, and come up with an awesome piece of art to put on your body that both satisfies your desire to commemorate and is nice to look at.
Because, after all, tattoos are art. Outside of insanely inhumane “branding” that has been practiced at different points in human history, a large part of the history of tattoos is of aesthetics and beauty. Many traditional tribal tattoos are valued for their cultural significance and their beauty, like moko tattooing by the Maori people in New Zealand.
Art is joyous, whether it is on canvas or on skin. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and powerful. If you are interested in tattoos, get good work from reputable artists, and wear it proudly.
Or, just put it on your butt cheek and shut up about it already.
Do you have tattoos? Tweet us @litdarling and tell us!