CliffsNotes: Tattoo Etiquette 101

A few days ago, I read Alli Thresher’s article in xoJane on “Tattoo Etiquette 101 – How to Appreciate My Body Art Without Making Me Hate You.” After sharing it into the Twitterverse, a few people asked me, “Wait, really?”

I’ve had strangers pull up my shirt sleeve, touch my hair, even grab me by the collar to get a “peek” at the hint of a drawing they think they see. […] When they’re visible (and they’re usually not), my tattoos are not an invitation. They are not on my body for anyone’s enjoyment other than my own.


To be completely honest, I usually enjoy the fact that my tattoos can be a conversation starter. I like to meet new people and tend to be relatively quiet by nature. If my body art pulls someone in for an interesting discussion, I’m glad.

But what doesn’t work out well is, like Tresher says, when people touch me, harass me, or pressure me to show them and/or explain my tattoos. Some tattoos have no meaning. Some tattoos used to have meaning, but don’t anymore. And other tattoos have a very personal meaning. That’s okay, because it’s not on your body. For some people, when they see my tattoos, I automatically become a receptacle for their philosophies and criticisms of body art. I’ve had people tell me about how they don’t like tattoos, consult with me on why the youth of today insist on getting tattoos, and laugh at me for choosing such a cryptic (?) literary tattoo.

If you must know, I get tattoos because they help make my self/body image feel complete. I know it’s time to get my next one when I feel that I will feel more like me once I have that ink in place. That’s why I don’t regret any of them, even if I wouldn’t get (some of) them again, should I have the chance to do it over.

For me, the process of tattooing is a meditation on feeling and coping with pain. The end result is a beautiful piece of art, quite similar to the cliched phrase “No pain, no gain,” which applies just as easily to life lessons learned. Despite cultural assumptions, tattooing isn’t an attention seeking behavior. So while I’m generally more than happy to talk to you about my tattoos, please be polite and remember: people with body art are people, too, so follow that blasted golden rule.


  • Daryl L. L. Houston

    I have to take my shirt all the way off (or at least pull it up around my neck) to show mine off, so I can sympathize with this. Since mine doesn’t peek out generally, I can mostly keep it to myself, which is how I like it anyway (I got it for me, not for anybody else). Asked nicely by someone with genuine interest, I’ll hike my shirt up gladly enough, though. My high school English teachers definitely did not expose me to “Howl.”

    • Erica V.

      Now that I think about it, I don’t believe I read “Howl” in high school either – I guess we can leave the English teachers alone 🙂

      I definitely think it’s all about how you ask. You can catch more flies with polite honey, or something like that.

  • Cassie

    I just read your “about me” section and there was no place to comment there so I just want to tell you that you’re a rad human being in the most non-awkward way possible. Also, I like my tattoos as a conversation starter, but I don’t really like it when people touch me…or them….or make a squished up face because they don’t believe in tattooing as art. The squished up face is probably my least favorite and happens a lot living in the South. Thanks for finding me!

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