“All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”
- H.L. Mencken
The media has been full of stories recently warning parents and teens about the dangers of home-made tattoos, but they fail to realize what’s going through the minds of teens when they see these stories. Instead of discouraging do-it-yourself tattoos, these articles make them even more desirable.
The man: Do-it-yourself tattoos are dangerous and look bad.
Teen: Tattoos? Cool!
The man: Maybe you didn’t hear me. They’re dangerous.
Teen: My middle name is danger. Bring it on!
The man: They look bad though. Look at this tattoo!
Teen: If by “bad”, you mean “BAD ASS!” See you later dad, I’m going to my room... to get a tattoo.
So basically these articles tell kids that tattoos, especially DIY tattoos, have an underground or outlaw status, and then top it off by showing the kids a super-cute skull and crossbones tatty as a “warning”. If I was still a teen, articles like these would make me head out to the garage and take file to coat hanger to make myself an impromptu tattoo torture device and then scrawl out some hip little icon on myself.
But lets look at the truth of it instead.
When I was a teen I was enamored with tattoos. While he was in college, my father won a panther tattoo in a wrestling match and I remember how proud I was to show it off to all my friends at school. As a teen I thought tattoos were tough — signs of manhood — and they appealed to my sense of rebellion and individualism. After little to no planning I went to a pharmacy and bought a small box of insulin syringes, after which I went to an art store and bought some India Ink. Sitting on my bed, I drew a one inch by five inch “tribal” design on my bicep with a blue ballpoint pen. I filled up one of the syringes, pushed the plunger a little to form a bead of ink on the tip of the needle, and began poking the tattoo into my arm. Every time the ink was used up I wiped my arm clean, pushed some fresh ink from the syringe, and kept going. Within half an hour the small tattoo was complete. Within a week I also had a small Eye of Horus on my shoulder and a cat skull on my calf.
Good, bad, and terrible tattoos. Which do you want?
After a brief period of showing off though, the coolness was gone and I was left with three crappy tattoos. The first still takes up valuable real estate on my bicep (you can see it above-right), and is complicating getting a proper sleeve done. After taking a high school art course as rehabilitation made him consider a career as a tattoo artist, the second was covered up with a dragon by a friend who had recently been released from prison. That cover up was later covered up again, and I now have a huge blob of scarred up color on my shoulder that I don’t know what to do with. The third was covered up with a thick black band around my calf and shin.
The problem with teens’ thinking isn’t that they’re ignorant or short-sighted. The problem is that teens are excited and full of life and tend to be impulsive, especially when adults dangle carrots of cool in front of their noses like these articles do (and like buddies with needles and ink, as well as unscrupulous scratchers, are more than willing to facilitate). Now, personally I have an agenda to see as many tattooed people in this world as possible, but really, I’d rather if they had good tattoos that they’re happy with in the long run!
So here’s my advice to young people who want tattoos:
1. Your tattoo is a reflection on you.
Not only is the subject matter of your tattoo going to communicate with the rest of the world what you stand for and who you are, but so is the quality. A bad tattoo is like dirty unwashed clothes that don’t quite fit right, but are stuck on you for life — or like an essay that hasn’t been properly proofed for spelling and grammar… It just doesn’t communicate its message well. The effort you put into getting a high quality tattoo is a direct reflection of what you think about yourself and how much you care about yourself.
A bad tattoo might make you look tough to people who are suffering under the stereotype that criminals and tattoos go together — in fact, the worse the tattoo is, the more likely they are to assume you’ve “done time”. But is this really something you want? Some sort of mock balls? All that’s going to do is make you look like a fool to people who actually have been in prison, and make the rest of the world look down on you (especially when they realize that you’re faking it).
2. If you’re too young, suck it up and deal with it.
The unfortunate truth is that if you’re under 18, the vast majority of reputable tattoo artists on this planet will not tattoo you. That’s not because they don’t think you’re ready for it, or because they have some sort of uppity over-30 attitude toward teens — it’s because they own a business and can’t risk losing it over a violation of some stupid law.
Yes, you will find artists willing to bend the rules. They are out there. But the truth is that they’re not the best artists, and they’re not the artist you should be going to if you want the best tattoo. If you’re underage, take the time to search out the best artists, and when you’ve found one, you can make an appointment for your 18th birthday and work with them on the perfect design beforehand.
3. Save your money and do it right. Go big!
One of the most common regrets people have with tattoos, as with many things, is “I wish it was bigger.” Too many people make the mistake of getting a small tattoo on a large piece of skin. Common mistakes are a small logo on the shoulder, or a band around the arm which later interferes with getting a full-sleeve piece.
A large tattoo is bolder in a graphic design sense, and moves with your body — it becomes a part of you far more than any “patch” could. Additionally, it forces you to think about what you’re doing on a more profound level, and the result is almost always far more satisfactory to both the person wearing the tattoo, and the general public viewing the tattoo.
4. Think about it; what do you want to say? Who are you?
If you had to wear one outfit of clothing for the rest of your life, and it had to suit you in all situations that life throws at you, what would you choose? That’s basically what you have to decide when you’re selecting a tattoo.
Try to articulate why you want a given image tattooed on you for the rest of your life. If “because it looks cool” is a good enough answer for you (and it surely is for some tattoos), please consider that “cool” has a radically different definition now than it did in 1975, and you can bet it’ll be different again in 2025… Just remember that your tattoo should be cool in relation to who you are, rather than in relation to what society is at that moment.
5. Educate yourself.
Knowledge really is power. A lot of people make the mistake of getting tattooed at the first tattoo shop they step into, without ever seeing another. This is inexcusable in my opinion. Absolutely inexcusable. Of all the things you buy in your life, a tattoo is one you should definitely do your research on, for one simple reason:
There are a lot of bad tattoo artists out there!
Even ruling out the artists that don’t meet health board approval (want to find someone who will tattoo minors? look for the shop without an autoclave!), there are a multitude of dudes with tattoo machines that are anything but artists. So go to every studio you can and look through the portfolios. Buy tattoo magazines and browse online portfolios and see just how good a tattoo can look.
Looking at the tattoos in this article, can you tell which ones are good and which ones are not? If you can’t, then you’re not ready to be tattooed yet.
6. Resist the impulse buy.
There are exceptions to all of these rules, but if you want to have a good tattoo that you’re going to be happy with for the rest of your life, here’s how you can be fairly sure you’re making the right decision: don’t get it the day you think of it.
If you can get the artist (or a friend, or yourself) to stencil the tattoo onto you or paint it on, take a picture of yourself with it. You can also do this by drawing it on yourself in a paint program or sketching it onto a photo of yourself. Put this picture by your mirror or by your computer or somewhere that you’ll see it every day — how do you feel about yourself with this tattoo? If it still looks as good to you at the end of six months (or whatever you feel is a good time), then you can be a lot more sure that you’ve come up with something with meaning that you’ll appreciate for life.
The suggestions above are far from teen-specific. If people of all ages listened to them, we’d have a world with a lot better looking tattoos. Perhaps I’m betraying my art school background here, but I really believe the value of a society can be gauged by the diversity and perfection of its aesthetic landscape — so in my world anyway, when you put effort into tattoos, you are being patriotic.
In a twisted sort of way, teens are at a huge advantage when it comes to tattoos — they have a forced waiting period. Certainly many don’t take advantage of this and end up with bad hand poked tattoos followed up by poorly done tattoos by sub-par scratchers like I did… but more and more teens are using this time period to save up the money for a good tattoo (they are expensive after all — $500-$1000 is a good starter budget for a mid-sized tattoo), plan the perfect one for themselves, and go to the best artists. The 21st century is going to be a colorful one, so I hope everyone does their part in making sure the future is as beautiful as possible.
Next column: COINTELPRO tactics in eliminating the tattoo menace.