Did you know that 40% of adult Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo? There are plenty more stats about the amount of tattoos in our country, and throughout the world, but there’s one that stands out to me more than all the rest, and it’s not about how many people have tattoos, but about how those people feel about their tattoos: in 2015, it was reported that at least 31% of people with tattoos said that their tattoos made them feel “sexier.”
Think about the phrasing of that statistic for a second – not 31% felt that other people found their tattoos sexy, but that they, themselves, felt that their tattoos made them sexier. Now, any qualms with surveys and statistics and generalizations aside, there’s an important difference there.
There are a lot of people out there, who know me now or knew me as a kid or teen, who might be surprised – shocked even – to learn that I have not one, but two tattoos. Why? For many, it’s probably because they know I was raised by conservative Jewish parents, traditional in their approach to tattoos, at least while we were young. The funny thing is, though, my parents are actually some of the most accepting people you’ll ever meet, especially when it comes to decisions made by their now 27-year-old daughter, no longer living under their roof.
When I showed them my first tattoo, I admit, I was a little nervous. “Would they be mad?” the kid in me asked (despite the fact that I could do whatever I damn well pleased with my own money, body, and time). Turns out, they were nothing but supportive. They’ve made it clear they don’t quite understand why I (or anyone, really) would want tattoos, but hey, if it makes me happy, it makes them happy. After all, there are a lot worse things in the world I could be doing (it also helped, in their minds, that I had waited until I had graduated college and had found an awesome career before getting any, but I digress).
Let me tell you a little about my tattoos. The first one is small, a spur-of-the-moment spontaneous result of a “walk-in” appointment. The decision of “when” was a bit of an arbitrary one, I admit – one day I just knew it was the right time to get my first tattoo. The decision of “what,” however, had been determined years and years prior. You see, my first tattoo was a tribute to my love of Lord of the Rings, which anyone who knows me even remotely well would know is my favorite thing on Earth. I knew that my first tattoo – whenever it was going to be – would be Gandalf’s mark:
My second, and most recent tattoo, happened in the opposite way: I had booked the appointment months in advance, knowing exactly which artist and art style I wanted, but I was less sure of the actual design itself until I met and spoke with the artist the week of my appointment. Together, we came up with ideas, and settled on a final drawing. The design I chose incorporated symbols from Greek mythology – the Temple of Delphi and the Oracle of Apollo: bay leaves, a black wolf, the color gold for the sun, and symbols of divination (planchettes and an all-seeing eye). The Temple of Delphi has become an important symbol for me in recent years, with its famous inscription of “Know Thyself.” Only in my later twenties have I come to really love and accept who I am, as well as find a place for myself in the larger world. And how wonderfully coincidental (or perhaps not!) that my workplace is also named “Delphic” and my home city “PhilaDELPHIa” – both of which fit that larger Delphi-inspired life metaphor. Not to mention, I fancy myself a bit of an Oracle-in-training with my Tarot, Astrology, and other divination studies.
After two tattoos, of very different sizes and styles, here is what I have learned (your mileage may vary!):
- Start small and simple. Get to know your body, its limits, and what the tattoo experience is all about.
- Be mindful of your career path, and what having a tattoo will mean for you from a workplace standpoint. Never let a job (or anyone’s opinion) totally dictate the choices you make with your body, but at the same time, if you love what you do, be mindful of what having a tattoo (especially a larger, more easily visible one) might mean in terms of your work life. Honestly? It’s all about balance.
- Do your research! Knowing what you love, aesthetically, will help you to find the best artist to fit your needs. Don’t sacrifice artistry! If the artist you love is pricey, save up. It’s worth it to go to that person.
- The tattoo community is full of really awesome, supportive people with great vibes. I haven’t met someone yet who wasn’t totally nice, friendly, and encouraging (I should mention, though, that I’ve made sure to do my research concerning reputable shops and artists). There’s this amazing camaraderie that seems to exist between tattoo artists and their clients, as well as between all people with tattoos, and it’s been really neat to become integrated into that community both on- and off-line.
- Always tip, always show gratitude, always value the incredible talent it takes to create tattoos – as you would any fine artist.
- Never forget that tattoos start out as wounds. Aftercare is absolutely vital. Something else I’ve learned, that many online tattoo aftercare articles often fail to mention in detail: you will be weak for about 24 hours after a long tattoo session (3-4 hours+). Don’t just care for the tattoo area, care for your entire self. Adrenaline is a big part of getting a tattoo, and after the fact, when it’s gone, you may be prone to fainting if you don’t rest often, eat a ton, and drink lots of water.
- Tegaderm is the shit. Seriously, even if you just have a nasty cut – check it out!
- Patience is a virtue! Waiting for your appointment, waiting for your tattoo to heal, making smart decisions and staying safe, it all matters, it’s all important.
- I do believe a tattoo should have meaning, but sometimes, it’s totally okay for it to be about the beautiful artwork too. I can’t stress enough – make sure your tattoo is something that visually appeals to you. You’ll have it forever! Abstract meaning can always be adapted, but the imagery will be set for life.
- Tattoos are addicting – I’m already thinking about a third! But I don’t think I’ll end up totally covered…placement is a big part of it for me, and I’m only keen on tattooing a few places.
- Beauty is pain, and pain is beauty. Tattoos are beautiful because of the artwork, but also because of the pain.
Here’s the thing: the larger, the more colorful, the more detailed the tattoo, the more it’s going to hurt. That is just a fact. My latest tattoo artist, Gia, said something really poignant while she was tattooing my wolf-of-Delphi: “Tattoo artists, we’re all babies.” What she meant was – even the artists, who are often covered in tattoos – know how much they are going to hurt, and often don’t look forward to that pain.
So why do we do it? Many people ask this, and it’s a totally valid question. “Is it really worth the pain?”
I have a theory. That camaraderie in the tattoo community I spoke of above – I think part of the reason it exists is because those of us who have tattoos, we get it. We get what they were talking about when they said, “beauty is pain.” We put permanent artwork on ourselves because part of what makes the tattoo beautiful is the suffering that went along with it, and more importantly, the knowledge that we survived it. I don’t mean this in a masochistic way (though maybe to some, it would be), I personally mean it in a profound, metaphorical, meaning of life sort of way. People go through tough shit all the time, and more often than not, it makes them stronger. We grow into beautiful people because of our experiences – and not all of those experiences are “happy” or “good” ones. Those of us with anxiety, we end up so much stronger when we get help, when we work through our issues, rather than suppress or ignore them – and that process can often be very painful! I firmly believe that in order to become the best versions of ourselves, we need to go through some tough, “shadow work” experiences to get all the way there: we need to confront our fears, our doubts, and our worries. As Frank Herbert famously wrote:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” -Dune
Receiving a tattoo is just another one of those experiences. It’s not the right experience for everyone, but for me, it’s made a difference.
Back to that stat about the 31% of people who feel their tattoos make them sexier. You can go ahead and count me in as one of those people.
I love my tattoos, and I think they make me more beautiful and confident. Looking at them makes me happy, and reminds me of their meaning, but also their artistry. Legs that were once, in my opinion, “stumpy and boring,” are now adorned with vibrant uniqueness. And, the girl who walks on those two legs, a girl many might be surprised to know could sit for four hours straight while someone took needles to her skin like a human coloring book…well, she’s one tough cookie.