American Culture

Three arguments against tattoos

Tattoos not only wear out their welcome, but brand their wearers as philistines.

It's okay to be realistic with religious iconography. (Photo: Sharona Gott / Flickr Commons)

It’s okay to be realistic with religious iconography. (Photo: Sharona Gott / Flickr Commons)

I appreciate tattoos as much as the next person. I’ve even considered getting one — a target painted on my head to guide incoming interballistic missiles in the event of a nuclear war that I have no interest in surviving. But I have some serious reservations, aside from face or neck tattoos, which, unless you’re a genius, pretty much kill your job prospects. Or the sag factor as you age. Or paranoia that the ink will somehow become absorbed into your bloodstream and organs and slowly poison you (okay, that’s just me).

I’ve pared my objections to tattoos down to three:

1. Unlike a picture hanging on your wall, when you tire of it, you can’t rotate it out and replace it with a new one (without going to extreme measures, that is).

2. The fatigue factor also extends to a tattoo that, however much it initially amazes, reeks of cleverness, a quality hobbled by its built-in obsolescence.

3. Of paramount importance to most who are tattooed is what the tattoo says about her or him. But, from the vantage point of this observer, tattoos that are more than just insignias or religious iconography tend to mark the tattooed individual as one whose interest in art begins and ends with the illustrative. It suggests that he or she lacks the imagination and/or education to appreciate modern art, from impressionistic to abstract and beyond. (Google modern art tattoos to see how rare they are.) Also, returning to the fatigue factor, though many would vehemently disagree, I submit that realistic art has a shorter shelf life than modern art.

In fact, tattoos may become even more realistic. S&R Editor Sam Smith adds:

I wonder about the day when there will be technology that can tattoo photorealistic art on the skin. I sort of assume that it’s only a matter of time, although I can’t say I have heard of anything like this. I do know that there is increasing interest in tattoos that are a LOT more realistic — as in, portraits that are damned near as good as a photo. This is still illustration, but it is illustration of a very different character.

5 replies »

  1. I live just outside San Francisco, where it seems every other person and, literally, their mother has tattoos. Living here for the last 25 years my reaction to tattoos has changed from “Wow, that’s interesting (or stupid, or garish, etc.) to “Wow, that’s interesting now but it’s going to look like absolute shit with liver spots and a sixty-year-old sag.”

    To me, tattoos on people outside American military service used to be symbols of rebelliousness, anti-establismentarianism, and a certain level of mental toughness, because as I understand it (from my friends who are inked) getting a tattoo is a painful and somewhat prolonged process.

    But now so many people these days have tattoos that whatever pride or cause or rebellion or politically- or socially-contrary mindset is at the core of an individual’s decision to get skin art is rendered nearly meaningless in terms of distinctiveness by the fact that so many people these days have tattoos. It’s like dumping a cup of ice into a lake and trying to spot the cubes after four or five minutes.

    So to me, Mr. Wellen’s first two objections ring quite true, as does his statement about the location of tattoos and job prospects. I would argue, though, that the fatigue factor isn’t limited to a particular tattoo, but to all tattoos, if like me you live where lots and lots of people have them. Tattoos have become tiresome, trite, and boring in their ubiquity. And in a lot of cases I often see, unpleasant and ugly. (I won’t even go into the facial piercings and earlobe mutilations that often accompany tattoos where I live. There’s enough material there for a separate Scholars and Rogues essay.)

  2. My take, which I haven’t really baked out yet, is that you’re conflating two things that are fundamentally not the same. Tattoos are art, yes. But their function isn’t remotely like buying a piece of art for the home. Both express identity in a way, but a tattoo is an expression of the archetypal self. I have all kinds of art and love all kinds of art that I’d NEVER put on my body, and none of the three tattoos I have are things I’d even contemplate hanging on a wall.

  3. I have to agree with you and Dan Ryan on all counts.

    I’m glad you mentioned job prospects. You can tell who has tattoos in the white collar jobs because they are wearing long sleeves when it is 100 degrees out. My 36 year old movie star handsome nephew, who lives in San Francisco, has no tattoos (he was raised by his grandparents and knew that old ink is yucky) but he told me that every single woman he dates has ink. A lot of ink. He is isn’t thrilled by it but accepts it. His 39 year old brother is also inkless. They take pride in being different.

    A few years ago while traveling in London my friend and I noticed the lack of ink on arms and legs. It was almost weird compared to living in Northern California where, like Dan Ryan said, everyone seems to be covered in tattoos.

    That said, as a professional illustrator I would LOVE to design some tattoos. I never have but I have thought about it for years.That said, I’d NEVER get one. Like the Jimmy Buffet song says “it is a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”

    Good post.

  4. I don’t know if you’re just not very widely educated on tattoos or what but all of these objections only really apply to some tattoos, not tattoos in themselves… It would seem that your objections are mainly with the people who get tattooed and what they choose.

  5. as a seventeen year old female i have waited years to get my own tattoo and cover myself with ink and colour, however i know that jobs may become harder to secure and although the fact everyone has tattoos does slightly make me feel put out as it feels as though the majority of tattoo wearers do it as it looks cool not what you should do it for which is because you love art which is the reason i want one. another obstacle is a tattoo is permenant and the idea of what i want my tattoos to look like is not. i know i will not get a tattoo exactly when i turn eighteen i’m aware that it is smarter to wait a while until i have finalised what i want however now what i want is a tattoo on my wrist of two interlocking flowers i don’t know what they are called, look like or what colour they are however i love that flowers symbolise certain emotions and i want the flowers of strenght and tranquility inspired by the quote ” give me the strenght to overcome what i can change, the tranquility to accept what i cannot and the gratitude for what i do not need to”.

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