8 Things To Remember When Interacting With Heavily Tattooed People

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Self-portrait under UV light.

Despite the fact that more and more people are heavily tattooed today, there still seems to be general confusion about how non-tattooed people can approach tattooed people in a way that will not result in an eyeroll, a sigh, irritation, or even a fight.

Being heavily tattooed ourselves, my husband and I can’t leave the house without steeling ourselves for the inevitable onslaught of questions and inappropriate behavior we’ll receive out in public on account of our pieces.

And in spite of living in the soaring humidity and oven heat of Southeast Florida, I often find myself covering up — especially when I go out alone — so as to avoid the attention my own large tattoos inevitably draw.

As a public service for those not in the know, here are a few tips on how to talk to and behave around heavily tattooed people.

1) Heavily tattooed individuals are human beings, not objects. Do not touch our tattoos. Ever. Unless you’ve been invited to do so.

I’ve had strangers run their hands along my back who then have the gall to act affronted when I don’t want to talk to them at all, let alone about my tattoos.

This is a good rule for people in general: Don’t touch a stranger’s body, no matter how tempting it may seem. Seriously. Just don’t do it.

Do feel free to say “nice tattoos” or “beautiful art,” with a friendly smile.

2) People with large tattoos have a deep significance with the designs they’ve imprinted into their skin. A tattoo could represent someone they loved who died, or the passing of a difficult life phase, or an area that has caused a great deal of pain.

Tattoos are highly personal.

Do not ask a tattooed stranger what their tattoos mean.

Would you ask a stranger about their sex life waiting in line at the post office?

Would you ask a scarred or burned person about what happened to their skin when you’re passing them in the supermarket or in a park?

I don’t think so.

Yes, the difference is we tattooed people have elected to re-design our bodies, but that doesn’t make it any less personal or intimate. And just because you can see someone’s tattoos is not an invitation into that person’s life. Just like in any other human interaction, the person will tell you their story if and when it’s the right time.

That also means that most of you will never know about all the tattooed people of whom you’re curious. You will never know why they have that bird, or fish, or monster in that particular place, or why they have a huge tattooed eye on their neck. You have to let that go.

Do feel free to say “nice tattoos” or “beautiful art” with a smile. Being pleasant might make the person comfortable enough to share even without being asked.

3) Do not use the words “tats”, “tatz”, “ink”, “inked” or “body art” to try and sound like you’re in the know about tattoos.

(Oh Ink Master, Miami Ink, LA Ink, how you’ve made lives so much harder by encouraging this irritating terminology.)

To heavily tattooed people, using these trendy buzzwords words signals a lack of education about tattoo culture and you’re likely to get the eyeroll, sigh, or irritated look mentioned above.

Do feel free to say “nice tattoos” or “beautiful art”.

4) For the love of all that is good and right, do not ask a heavily tattooed person if getting tattooed hurt.

Come on now, use your common sense.

A needle goes in and out of several dermis layers, inserting varying amounts of ink, for hours on end. Of course it hurts. Some places hurt more than others — anywhere near internal organs or bone, for example — but every single tattoo hurts.

And oftentimes people get tattoos to mark difficult periods of their lives or the deaths of loved ones. Those memories are painful, too, and talking about the tattoos is an extension of the potential sadness that lead to the tattoos in the first place.

If you’re trying to use the pain factor as an in to get more information about our tattoos you will inevitably fail.

Instead, try saying “nice tattoos” or “beautiful art” and take a moment to quietly appreciate that this person went through a great deal of pain on a number of levels to transform their body into what you see now.

5) Do not ask a tattooed person to turn around or give you their arm or show you a body part, or try move their clothing so you can better see their tattoo without their permission.

I am often troubled by the entitlement non-tattooed people feel over my body. This is a particular form of objectification that is irksome to tattooed people and can lead to ugly confrontations when the tattooed person says no.

Remember, even though you might be able to see our tattoos it does not mean our tattoos exist for you. And we are not here to assuage your curiosity about us.

Try a lighthearted “nice tattoo” or “beautiful art” instead. The person just might better show their tattoo to you without being asked, simply because you were polite.

6) As the Doorknocker says in The Labyrinth, “It’s very rude to stare.”

Just because someone is heavily tattooed does not make them an exception to this general rule of society.

Staring is rude. Don’t do it.

Try saying, “Nice tattoo.” “Beautiful art” also works.

7) All tattoos are not created equal. Please do not compare the tiny butterfly on your ankle or your non-specific Asian character to our sleeves, half-sleeves, and full-body pieces.

Your one small tattoo and our massive tattoos are not the same. The hours, the extended pain, the weeks of healing, the money, and the dedication to our big pieces is nothing like the few minutes it took for you to pick a design from a wall of flash art on a whim.

Instead say “nice tattoo” or “beautiful art” and next time consider getting a custom piece instead of a generic one.

8) Possibly the most important thing to remember about heavily tattooed people is that we do not owe non-tattooed people anything.

As a stranger — or even sometimes as an acquaintance — you are not entitled to our explanations, time, a better view, or the right to touch us.

A tattooed person’s body is their own, that’s one of the reasons we have tattooed it in the individual way we have.

We are not here to be fetishized.

So, Non-Tattooed Person, when in doubt all you need remember are these two phrases: “That’s a nice tattoo.” Or, “You have beautiful artwork.”

Keep your hands and questions to yourself.

One Response to 8 Things To Remember When Interacting With Heavily Tattooed People

  1. Enjoyed your post! I am a tattooed woman, but not yet heavily tattooed (but that is my eventual plan), and all of mine are covered in normal clothes. But I love tattoos and am intensely curious about the tattoos I see on others, and I love to talk about tattoos, especially with other women. I used to struggle as to how to approach ladies about their tattoos. I know I shouldn’t stare, but I confess that sometimes I do when I see an especially beautiful tattoo! I try not to be too obvious, but I do sometimes feel ashamed about it! But as you say, I have found that just politely saying “I really like your tattoo,” with a friendly smile, without leaning in close or pointing, opens a lot of doors.

    The absolute worse reaction I get is a quick smile and a “Thanks.” But I’d say that probably 3/4 of the ladies who I say that to will engage in at least a little tattoo talk. If it is a large piece, say on an arm, a surprising number will just take the ball and run with it, and even voluntarily roll up their sleeve a little further without me asking so I can see more of the piece, and give me a little background. If the person seems open and pleased with the compliment and volunteers some information, I might ask her about the artist, or comment on details. If she seems open, I’ll mention that I am tattooed, and sometimes that changes the tone of the conversation nicely to one of “Ah, so you understand!” I feel a connection with other tattooed women and I enjoy having tattoo discussions where there is a sense of shared experience.

    On the rare occasion when some of my tattoos show, and somebody asks about them, I know that even when they are polite and respectful, my mode of conversation is different if the assumption is that the other person is not tattooed. When I know that they are tattooed, It’s nice to know that the discussion can be based on “Ok, we are both tattooed, and we both like having tattoos, so lets just talk tattoos.”

Thoughts?