Today In Ink: Social Perceptions and Tattooing

I recently ran into a buddy of mine who’s working on a set of full sleeves (he says eventually he wants to go all out on a bodysuit, but he’s working on things by bibs and bobs at a time, as we do). We were talking about how people interact with us when our tattoos are visible, and how that shifts when they are not. He’s a professional and has to wear long sleeves on the job to avoid attracting unwanted attention; as an independent contractor, he really can’t afford to alienate clients before he even has a chance to develop a relationship with them.

He’s a big guy, with a lot of big muscles, because he does big muscly kind of work. He’s also a total sweetheart who is very kind and loving and generous and has an open, friendly face. And when his tattoos are covered, people are always very friendly and laid back with him, they feel comfortable, he’s one of the guys. When he rolls his sleeves up, though, people step back. They feel threatened. They get edgy. They ask him weird questions. Same guy, same friendly face, made infinitely scarier when his tattoos are visible.

As someone who gets read as a fat woman who often dresses pretty femme, I get very similar responses when I reveal my tattoos. I’m suddenly viewed as physically threatening even though I literally wouldn’t hurt a fly (no really, I trap them in jars and shake them gently out the window). People tense up when they’re visible and I usually get lines of weird questions, many of which are highly invasive. There’s also a side of shift in attitude about my sexuality when my ink is visible, because, as we know, tattooed women are all slutty whores. I get the sense that I’m threatening both by nature of being tattooed and because of beliefs about tattooing and sexuality, and the idea that sexually active women are scary.

People talk a lot about a point of no return with tattooing; as my friend pointed out, most of his work is on his upper arms to make it easier to cover. With sleeves, I can see how far someone is willing to go as they creep slowly down the arm. A lot of tattooed people start with work on areas like the back, where it can be easily and readily concealed without too much fuss. That’s where I began, and when I got my chest piece the design was initially planned to be lower and less visible. Where it ended up, I basically need a turtleneck or high collar to cover it, and it changed the way I interact with the world, because it made it much, much harder to conceal my identity as a tattooed person.

Once I went above the neck, all bets were off. The tattoos above my neck are all fairly easy to conceal with hairstyling and cleverly arranged scarves, until of course the weather flips my hair up or I thoughtlessly pull it back to get it out of the way and bam, I can actually see the moment my tattoos become visible on the face of whoever’s around me, unless they’ve seen them before. Above the neck tattoos are pretty unusual, they are especially unusual on bodies people think are female, and as a result they tend to attract a lot of attention, complete with people actually grabbing my hair to pull it out of the way so they can see better (one time I had my hair braided and someone actually came up from behind me, grabbed my hair like a leash, and used it to yank me backwards so they could see).

Bodily autonomy tends to shift when you’re tattooed because people assume your body is available for public consumption and discussion. People absolutely will touch you without consent, something that seems to come as a surprise to people without tattoos when I talk about how people relate to me when my ink is readily visible. The routine violations of personal space most women are familiar with magnify tenfold when you have ink on your body, whether you’re talking about casual evaluations of your physical merits (‘that would look better on someone skinnier’) or people who think it’s perfectly fine to reach out and touch you, like you’re a jacket on display at the clothing store.

My friend doesn’t get the touchy touchy thing like I do; I guess he’s deemed physically threatening enough that touching him doesn’t seem like such a hot idea. Plus, he lacks hair to use as a handle. Or something. I’m not really sure what the deal is. I cannot help but note the ways that tattooing and tattooed people are gendered, the things that both unite and divide us. He totally got where I was going when I was talking about unwanted social attitudes with above the neck tattoos, but he found it harder to relate to the sense of constant violation I experience as a result of complete strangers grabbing parts of my body because they think that’s perfectly okay.

It is interesting to me that many people want to handle and manipulate objects of fear, from people who touch a wheelchair without consent to people who grab at tattooed people. On the one hand, touching the unknown makes it less frightening and humanises it, and I actually really like talking with people about tattooing when they’re obviously curious and want to learn more, or are fellow tattooed people shooting the shit. On the other hand, though, reminding people that they are viewed as objects, not autonomous human beings, is inherently othering.