Tattooing: Making the Private Public

Visibly tattooed people tend to encounter a string of questions about their body art from people who are curious and want to know more. Sometimes they’re interested in the artist or the style or they want to see the whole piece, if part of it is covered by a scarf or a sleeve. Sometimes they want to know what it means, and it is here that the territory can get more complicated, because tattooing straddles an interesting public and private divide; for some of us, our tattoos are our way of wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but also a private nod to something of importance to us.

Not everyone feels this way. Some people are happy to talk about the meanings behind their tattoos, and the origins, and how they feel about them. Others of us are not; we may be willing to discuss who did them and how they were designed, but we don’t want to talk about what they mean. With several of my pieces, I feel that anyone who needs to ask what they mean doesn’t need to know what they mean. Either someone knows me well enough to be aware, or doesn’t. While they may be worn in public, they are also, in a sense, private.

The exertion of ownership over tattoos and tattooed bodies is something I have discussed here before. It’s a topic I keep coming back to because it fascinates me, the way in which the general public interacts with tattoos. They are very much viewed as an item for public consumption, and the idea that they might be personal or even private is alien and utterly baffling. I’ve had people tell me that if I didn’t want them to ask, I shouldn’t have positioned my artwork where I did[1. Once, memorably, this occurred in a sauna, and I quite reasonably pointed out that the position of said body art made it very difficult to see unless I was nude, which is not something that happens in public very often. Or ever.].

There is a long history of exhibiting tattooed bodies in the West; we were once circus freaks and sideshow attractions. Some people started getting tattooed specifically with the goal of become tattooed people, exhibitions, attractions. This created a culture where the public observation, discussion, and to some extent consumption of tattooed people was normalised. We all carry this history with us, are aware of it and the role it plays in our lives and interactions with other people. Even among tattooed people ourselves, this culture endures, and there are some people who are very much part of this exhibitionist legacy, who love showing their tattoos and talking about them.

For others of us, it may be a more private and personal ritual, and we are trapped in the public and private divide. I carry ink in my skin to remember things, to touch things, to keep things close to me. It is visible ink, it is ink that people can see, and I have no problem with people seeing it, because it’s also pretty ink, but it’s also mine and not theirs. In a sense, I am making the private public, but I still want to retain control over how public it is, just as people writing memoirs pick and choose what they discuss, not laying their entire lives bare.

It’s impossible to know, in an interaction with a tattooed person, how that person feels, and how that person will respond to questions. There is no one right way or true guide to such interactions, no course of action that’s always appropriate and will always work out. Leading in gently, with general questions, and gauging response, can be a good way to start. If the person is clearly enthusiastic and friendly and wants to talk to you, it’s probably safe to continue. If the person seems less than delighted to be talking to you, or is clearly in a hurry, it might behoove you to offer a ‘thank you for your time’ and move on.

It’s certainly not necessary, ever, to get angry at a tattooed person for choosing not to discuss tattoos. Yes, they are public. Bodies, too, are public. That doesn’t mean they’re your property and you’re entitled to information about them simply because they happen to be visible to you, or occupying spaces where you are present. Like other aspects of body, identity, tattoos may be an intensely personal thing that someone isn’t interested in discussing with a stranger, or even a friend.

Making the private public can be a balancing act; even as we want to carry these things with us, we may worry about the exposure they create, and the problems they may create. Not the problems people think of when they think of tattoos—worries about employment or being taken seriously—but problems like people aggressively entering our personal space and refusing to respect boundaries, insisting on a right to information that is not theirs, to which they are not entitled, believing that they own us because our bodies are visibly marked, because we have chosen to mark them, because we have changed the skin we were born in.

Just having a visible tattoo at all is a private act made public, and some tattoos are layered onions of privacy and meaning, a complex thing that may mean much, much more to the wearer than you can imagine. Unwanted intrusive questions can turn a private act into an unwanted public display as the wearer is forced to assert boundaries and identity in an environment where it is made very clear that many people believe the wearer does not have these rights, has lost them by choosing to bear a tattoo.