Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tattoos and the Usual Questions

I'm back, internet!

I have been seriously neglecting my blogging duties for quite a while now, haven't I? But I'm not going to apologize for that. It's my blog. I blog when I want to blog. I OWN YOU.

But seriously, I do actually have a good reason for being so unbloggy lately. I have a very seasonal job. I work in communications for the national office of an education-centered charity. The summer months are slower, the winter months get a little more action, but the fall and the spring - COMMUNICATIONS INSANITY. I just returned from a work conference out in the lovely province of Prince Edward Island, and the past month or so has been nuts leading up to it. But now it's done! Behind me! And I can breathe a little more easily knowing I didn't spill red wine all over our board of directors or accidentally trip my boss into the Atlantic Ocean or anything like that. I still have a job, guys!

One of the helpful things about these national conferences is that the (provincial) branch representatives and national board and staff all come together face-to-face. When you live in Ottawa but have colleagues in Victoria, Halifax, and everywhere in between, these face-to-face meetings are really valuable for recognizing your colleagues as living, breathing human beings. So get-to-know-each-other icebreaker activities are almost always a part of these conferences, and this weekend, everyone learned something about me: I have 3 tattoos.

That is not particularly shocking or unusual. I'm 27, sitting comfortably somewhere between Generations X and Y - tattoos are so commonplace among people my age, I think I have more friends with ink than friends without. The fact that I have 3 tattoos is not super subversive or exciting or extreme, and almost no one my age has ever said to me "Whoa, you have three tattoos?" with any kind of wide-eyed interest. It's like telling another 27-year-old that I have a cat or something. Some people have them, some people don't, some people like them, some people aren't into it. Moving on.

But most of the people that were present in Charlottetown this weekend are of the later end of the baby boomer set. And when a multiple-tattoo-having 27-year-old finds herself in the company of a large number of uninked 50-somethings, and they suddenly learn all at once that she's got a few tats, she will get bombarded for the remainder of the weekend with a large number of The Usual Questions.

The Usual Questions are questions that almost every uninked person asks people with tattoos. And I really, really don't mean to be ageist here - I really don't, because this isn't a criticism, just an observation and an entirely anecdotal one at that - but the Usual Questions do tend to come from middle-aged or older people more often than not. I think twenty- and thirty-somethings who don't have a single tattoo are still members of the Tattoo Generation; it doesn't matter if you're a hardcore metalhead or a Britney fan, you probably have some friends with ink. Hell, Miley Cyrus has like five of them. So these questions do tend to come from older folks much more frequently than from uninked people my age, simply because of a generation gap in likely occurence.

I don't mind the Usual Questions for the most part. Really, I don't. I get that the whole tattoo culture (the motivations, the experience, the decision-making process) might be really interesting to certain people who have no interest in tattoos;  I wasn't born with ink, after all, and I've asked tattooed folks about this stuff too. But the thing is, while I love you all, my uninked friends, and I do not mind talking about my ink with you, and I assure you that I don't look down on you for choosing an ink-free life, I am getting a tad bit sick of answering silly questions that are for the most part pretty obvious or kind of rude, however unintentionally so. So, as a public service to all of my tattooed friends and information-sharing service to the inkless, I will answer a few of the most common Usual Questions!

Didn't that hurt?

I would like you all, my friends of the virginal skin, to imagine that you are sitting in a hard leather chair. One of your limbs may be sticking out at an awkward angle, or your neck or back could be twisted into an unnatural position. You must stay that way for several hours and contemplate whether such a position might be warping your spine into hunchback-like deformity as a large man is scraping at you with a needle, and you are just sitting there taking it like a stupid moron. While the pain level can vary depending on the type of needle, the location on the body, and the particular pain tolerance of the client, there is only one thing you need to know: Tattoos hurt.

Modern-day tattoo guns vibrate at a rate of 80-150 pulses per second. Now, tattoo needles don't go anywhere near as deep as doctor's needles; they're dying your skin, not penetrating blood vessels. So think of it more like a quick, poisonless bee sting, or a particularly vicious (and excruciatingly slow) cat scratch. Try to imagine what 2400 of those needles in half a minute might feel like, multiply that by the number of needles currently in use on your skin—because a lot of the time, different types of needles are paired up simultaneously—and then multiply that by how long you’ll be sitting in the chair. This could be twenty minutes for a simple ankle tat or a large fraction of the day for complicated back work. Most people won’t even sit longer than a few hours, and will choose to spread out their bigger designs over numerous sessions. Otherwise they’d be subjecting themselves to upwards of two million needles in a single day.

And if you still don’t get the point, you could just watch this:[/url.

(I promise most of us aren't that annoying.)

Why would you get that if it hurt so much?/Why would you do that to yourself?

Ah. This is perhaps the most frustrating question that some uninked people ask.

I told you that I totally don't mind answering these questions, and I guess for the most part, I don't; but questions like these - the ones that come with a big, steaming side of judgment - are the bitchy ones. So since there are so many of you that are condescending enough to ask it, I am going to condescend to you to answer it!

I did not go into the parlour expecting a loving and caring lotion application. I was not under the impression that tattoo ink is inserted into the skin via hot stone massage. I was well aware that it would hurt. And I have three of them, applied in four different sessions; anyone with mulitple tattoos is going into each subsequent inking with full knowledge and firsthand experience of the pain.

No, we're not masochists or believers in self-punishment or sufferers of damaged nerve endings that can't feel pain the way they're supposed to like the scary blond dude in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Clearly, I thought that the art was worth the pain. That's it. That's all there is to it. Just like how it's worth it for each of us to spend whatever time we spend in the morning getting ready: applying makeup, doing our hair, shaving our legs/faces/armpits/what-have-you; all of us have sacrificied time and energy and money in order to achieve a "look" we want, whether we do it every day or only for special occasions. Dealing with a little profound but, ultimately, temporary pain is just the next level up from this; it's a sacrifice we make toward achieving what tattoo enthusiasts consider a supreme mark of beauty. We love our ink. It's completely worth it to us. 

And if you've ever pierced your ears or anything else (and odds are, at least half of you reading this have done so) then you've done the same exact thing. A piercing might not hurt as much as an hour-long tat, but it's still pain, so you already understand the sacrifice - we're just willing to go further up the pain scale for something that happens to really appeal to us, that's all.

But what about your wedding day?

I imagine the ladies get this one more than the menz. And it comes in other forms, too; "What about your job?" "What about when you have kids?" But by and large, the wedding question comes up the most. And this one's another judgmentally loaded question, but I think the judgment is a little more well-intentioned than in the previous question, so I'll try and be nice.

I will let you all in on a little secret. No one has ever been denied a marriage license because they have body art.

Well, maybe in Utah. But it is not common practice elsewhere. No wedding planner is going to insist that a bride wear sleeves to cover her ungodly tattooed arms. Some highly conservative churches might demand full tattoo coverage (I don't know of any cases of this first-hand, but I'm sure it's happened somewhere), but the bride and groom have the right to take their services to a more tolerant officiant if they're not willing to cover up.

I realize that people who ask this question knew all this already. But, really, what else can I say? Obviously, I like tattoos. Obviously I think they're pretty rad. I didn't get them just to cover them up for life's big moments. We don't all want to look like virginal Disney princesses on our wedding day: some of us want to look like badass rock stars, or some sort of rock-princess combination of the two. And that's our choice to make.

In fact, some tattooed ladies don't even want to get married! But I won't get into all that.

And as for kids and work? Well, the kids question is pretty lame, guys. What about when I have kids? Well, then my kids will have a mom with some tattoos. Seriously, what the hell else can I say? I don't know how to answer that without sounding bitchy. (And again: some people don't even want kids! Some tattooed people already have kids and walk into the tattoo parlour as a current parent! GASP!)

And give me some credit, guys: I have thought this through. I have no plans to obtain a job where tattoos are an absolute no-no. At my current job, I can get away with having some arm-ink. My boss doesn't care. I don't get dirty looks from my coworkers. I do make a point to cover it up with sleeves when I'm at board meetings or partner conferences or other occasions where professionalism is a must; but no one has ever even asked me to do that. That's a choice I made, about how I want to present myself; it's not every day and I can deal with wearing short sleeves a few times a month for the rest of my life. And I imagine that as the Tattoo Generation ages and steps into place as the managers and leaders of the work force in general, the whole "tattoos are unprofessional" concept is going to fade slowly away, at least a little.

Sure, maybe one day I'll work at a place where visible tattoos are against the dress code. I doubt it, but who knows what the future has in store? I accept that. But I've considered the implications that a highly visible shoulder tattoo might mean for my professional life, and if I have to wear sleeves every day at the office, it's not that big a deal for me. It's not like I'd be frequently wearing tank tops to a conservative office anyway.

And as for people who have way more tattoos than me? People with full "sleeve" work (shoulder-to-wrist tattoo coverage) or ink reaching up their neck? Give them credit, too. They have their own career paths ahead of them, and they probably know what they're doing. They've obviously recognized that they might be ruling out a job at some places, and they're okay with that. Some people might be impulsive and stupid about body art, but they represent a minority of tattoo enthusiasts; don't transfer their impulsiveness over to the rest of us. We know what we're doing.

What made you get something like that?

This is not the same thing as why-sacrifice-all-that-pain. It's also not what-does-that-mean. Asking someone what their tattoo symbolizes is perfectly okay, although occasionally obnoxious; if they've got a tribal tramp stamp or barbed wire arm band, it probably doesn't mean shit and that is okay and you're going to belittle their decision by implying all tattoos should have some sort of deep meaning.*

No, this question is usually more philosophical in nature: why get a tattoo at all? Pain and meaning aside, what is the appeal to brand yourself with permanent body art that will never go away without a painful and costly procedure involving lasers? It's possible to ask this without implying any sort of judgment, so it's not necessarily offensive, but it is so hard to answer. I mean, I like tattoos; I like the idea that my body is a canvas. But that's a pretty cliché answer, so I'll try to elaborate.

I read a blog comment one time that said something like tattoos are a visual representation of your soul: if you have flower tattoos, for example, then your soul is full of pretty flowers and you're expressing that outwardly. And while I don't necessarily believe in a "soul," I appreciate the sentiment behind that statement and I thought that was such a beautiful way to put it. To answer why I get tattoos, I guess I have to go back to my first. I was seventeen and looking to make a statement - it was totally about rebellion back then. I admit that freely. And although the design is probably not what I'd choose now, I still think that it's awesome: I look in the mirror at my decade-old tattoo and smile to myself and remember the person I was when I was seventeen. She's grown up, but she still means something to me, and I'll always have a little piece of her to carry around. I think about expanding on it sometimes, and then my back would almost be like a map of my life; and I love that. Each piece of ink I have represents a different life stage, a different mark of growth; that's why I get tattoos.

So you see why this is kind of a difficult question? I didn't even know the answer until I wrote that out. It's actually an intensely personal thing to ask of someone. It's like asking someone why they are the way they are. So in this case, there's no answer I can give you that can be even slightly universally applied to everyone. You probably shouldn't ask it at all unless you know someone pretty well. You're asking for their whole life philosophy. That's deep.

*Side note: many people with ink are totally guilty of this one as well. Some people think all tattoos should have personal significance. Those people are wrong. If that's what they think, that's fine for them, but some of us just like pretty art. And that is every client's own business, not for the Tattoo Police to dictate.


So there you have it, friends! Your tattoo questions, answered. I hope I have shed some light on the subject.

I'm asked sometimes if I'll ever get any more. I honestly don't know. I might. I have no plans at present. Like I said, I think about adding to my back design to mature it a bit, and I might, but I'm in no hurry. Maybe I'll end up with a full back design or some half-sleeves one day. Maybe I'll never get another one in my life. Maybe I'll get them all lasered off when I'm sixty and trying to run from the cops. Who knows?

What I know now is that I have three, and I like them, and I show them off and cover them up and I talk about them and forget about them and consider adding to them and consider keeping them the way they are and there is only one constant: never, ever have I regret them. Ever. 

They are a part of who am, and where I've come from - and that's good enough for me.

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