With more and more of the population bearing tattoos, and more and more of those tattoos being visible, the social conversation around tattoos seems to be shifting. They’re growing more acceptable across a range of professions, for example, with all but the most conservative of employment cultures viewing them as reasonable — attorneys and bankers, however, have to keep their ink well-hidden, for the most part. They’re also growing more diverse, with a huge array of approaches to style, including stunning watercolor tattoos, very traditional Western-style work, detailed black and grey work, and more. Whether or not you personally view tattoos as beautiful, they are an art form.
And their canvas is the human body, which complexifies the art form, because criticising tattoos isn’t just about saying that a given art form is not to your taste — it’s also about making a comment about the humans who wear them. I’m not a big fan of minimalist painting, for example, but I do respect it as an art form and cultural movement with a lively critical culture. However, my personal lack of interest in this style doesn’t invalidate the human beings who create it, or those who own it.
But with tattoos, saying that you dislike tattoos is about a far more complicated thing. You’re not just saying that you don’t like an entire field of art (saying you don’t like tattoos is like saying you don’t like painting, or dance, collapsing the huge diversity of these artistic media into a single label). You’re also saying that the people who wear that art are distasteful. It’s a lot like when you say that you don’t like fat people — but oh, ‘I didn’t mean YOU, of course.’ Except that you do. You did mean me. If you don’t like fat people, you have a problem with my body, because I am fat. If you don’t like tattoos, you have a problem with my body, because I am tattooed.
Aside from the complex of offensive cultural myths about tattooed people that makes comments about our bodies so loaded, there’s also the fundamental issue that judging tattoos is also about body shaming, and suggesting that someone’s body is a) yours to comment on b) public property, and therefore required to adhere to your personal appearance standard and c) disgusting.
a) Bodies are not, in fact, yours to comment on, unless you are specifically invited to do so by the people who inhabit them. Everyone has a body. Everyone wants to go about their daily business, doing their thing — caring for family members, picking up groceries, doing manual labour, whatever. Everyone is entitled to do this in privacy, without being judged by other people or being made to feel uncomfortable for existing. Yes, getting tattooed is a choice (except for Holocaust survivors, and if you judge Holocaust survivors for having number tattoos, seriously, GTFO). That doesn’t invalidate the fact that it’s still not your right to comment on tattooed people’s bodies — because other things are a choice too. People can choose to wear short skirts, and that’s not your business. People can choose to do their hair and makeup any way they like. People can choose to use their bodies in any way that suits them, and it is not your business. Period. End of story.
b) Bodies are not public property. They belong to their individual owners. While they may be out in the public commons, that doesn’t mean that they belong to the public — just as a bag left on a park bench doesn’t belong to you because it happens to be there. Wait. That’s a terrible metaphor. Bodies aren’t public property because they are human beings. Humans are not property. And no, humans aren’t required to look the way you want them to, because the world doesn’t revolve around you and your personal desire to be surrounded by pretty people. Tattooed people are allowed to be out in public, showing any degree of ink they please, and you’re just going to have to deal. If our presence offends you, that’s really too bad.
c) Yes, when you say that you are repulsed by tattoos or think they are gross, you are in fact saying that my body is disgusting. My tattoos are a part of me. They are a part of my identity. They are not just inked beneath the layers of my skin, but a part of my history, my narrative, my personal framework. When you attack that by claiming that my tattoos offend or upset you, you are saying that I am disgusting. And that’s a personal judgment call, but I think that maybe you should question why you think that’s an appropriate judgment call to make. I don’t feel the need to call your body disgusting. Why are you doing it to me?
The culture of judging people for having visible ink has shifted in the US — it used to be about class stigma (and still is, to some extent), but now, it’s becoming something deeper and more complex as more and more people get tattoos. Now it’s taking on new elements of body ownership as more and more women get tattoos. It’s also taking on new elements of social control, and power. When you judge someone for having tattoos, and when you specifically say that you don’t like displays of visible tattoos, you’re trying to exert authority and control over someone’s body, and how that person lives.
Progressive culture agrees that this is not acceptable when, for example, women are judged for wearing short skirts. So why is it okay to judge tattooed people?