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Nerve Endings: Navigating Life as a Woman with Tattoos

Don't be a creep when talking about art done on someone's body

a photo of Annie Keough's arm with patchwork style tattoos
Staff writer Annie Keough’s tattoos (Photo by Justin LaFrancios)

I got my first tattoo when I was 18 — a silly little crescent moon on my side that I’ve found to be a rite of passage for every white woman apparently before she gets hooked and springs for more. (The good news is I have an unintentional matching tattoo with at least three other women I know.)

Fast forward, and today I have 18 — most of which on my left arm in a patchwork-style half sleeve — and counting. 

In hindsight, I think the patchwork style works against me; it invites people to scan what is nearly the whole of my tattoo collection, asking the story behind each one that interests — or sometimes every single visible one.

Some of them do have a story behind them, some I picked off a flash sheet because I thought they looked cool. Whether or not I go into detail about the ones that do carry meaning depends on a couple of things: (1) How and in what context you approached me to ask about them and (2) the nature of any follow-up questions you might have.

A lot of the time, people are genuinely interested in my tattoos, compliment them quickly during a conversation or ask where I got a certain one because they like the style. 

The more tattoos I get, however, the more questions I receive, and not from the people I’d expect or necessarily want to speak to.

Sometimes people, mostly men, will approach me out of nowhere to start an unwanted discussion about the art on my arm.

I don’t know what it is about men and their need for validation from tattooed women; maybe it’s that they want women to know that they’re not afraid of getting a tattoo, they just haven’t had the time. 

Sometimes there’s a more cringe-inducing reason. My coworker, for example, has had a man come up to her at the gym to ask about her tattoos and when she politely answered his question, he countered with, “Don’t you want to know about mine?” When she humored him, he said “You have to give me your number to find out.”

Which brings me to my main complaint: Men who like to use tattoos as a way to start a conversation they’re not interested in for the sole purpose of getting a woman’s number. 

I’ve gotten out of this many times by pointing to the big rainbow on the center of my bicep and hoping they take the hint. 

Even still, I’ve had men with absolutely no tattoos comment on mine, ask which is my favorite, where I got them done, how much they cost, etc. More often than not, they will start a whole, unprompted monologue on how they’ve always wanted to get one but haven’t because of x,y or z.

Read More: Haylo Offers Closure, New Beginnings with Nipple and Areola Tattoos

If you’ve never experienced it yourself, you probably think I’m overreacting to innocent questions from men honestly interested in my tattoo experience.

What you don’t understand, however, is the implication behind the questions. After they ask about the tattoos on my arms, their eyes like to travel down the rest of my body, asking the silent question of “Where else do you have tattoos?” 

If I’m comfortable around you and don’t get that creepy vibe, I’ll happily explain the story behind the rat wearing a cowboy hat on my thigh or the stick-and-poke flower on my hip. But there’s a big emphasis on the ‘comfortable around you’ part.’ 

I might be in the minority here, so don’t take my word as gospel when you’re thinking of complimenting someone’s tattoos. Hell, I like when people notice and comment on my tattoos. I paid a lot of money for them and I love shouting out the artists that worked hard on them (especially Capital Crow and Intuitive Tattoo, you guys are the best).

But, I think a good general rule of thumb if you like someone’s tattoos is just to say that; a simple, “Hey, I like your tattoos,” will usually suffice. If they want to go into further detail, they will. If not, take the hint and leave it as a nice compliment.

If you practice the latter rule, this article isn’t directed at you. If you’ve caught yourself feeling defensive at any point while reading this, I have bad news for you, buddy.

And under no circumstances, unless you’re doing it ironically, should you ever call them ‘tats.’ That applies to any gender at any time. And God help you if you call them ‘ink.’

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