Look but don’t touch: Let’s talk about tattoo etiquette

Posted by

Slate.com recently published a post called Stop Touching My Tattoos Without Asking by Jathan Sadowski. Yeah, even dudes get creeped out when they’re touched by strangers — even strangers of the lady persuasion.

Here’s an example:

One recent morning I went to my local convenience store to get a cold beverage. The cashier rang me up and, as I was pulling my wallet out to pay, I could see her eyes flicking back and forth between my arms. She was staring — intently, with a glint of wonder — at the tattooed parts of my arms exposed between sleeve and elbow.

I didn’t mind this. But then I saw a telling grin on her face. And before I could finish thinking, “Oh no, don’t do it,” she wordlessly reached over the counter and lifted up my shirtsleeve. You know, so she could get a better look at my inked flesh. As if she knew me. As if she wasn’t a cashier brazenly manipulating the clothing of a customer without so much as a warning.

This anecdote is not anomalous, I assure you. It happens entirely too often. And I’m lucky enough to be a 20-something male, which means the violation I feel doesn’t begin to compare to what others I’ve heard from have experienced.

Head over to Slate to read the rest of the article. For the non-tattooed amongst us, myself included, we might learn something new.

So let’s talk about tattoo etiquette! Obviously touching anyone without permission isn’t cool, but is it really just as shitty for strangers to even look at your tatts without asking? What are your rules for admiring ink and having your ink be admired?

Comments on Look but don’t touch: Let’s talk about tattoo etiquette

  1. I have many tattoos. I have a sleeve, most of a chest piece, and tattoos on my other arm, back, wrists and hands. I am SOOO glad that this “touching other people’s tattoos” phenomenon is something that we are talking about and acknowledging. It happens. All. The. Time. And while it has happened with store clerks and drunk people in bars, I would say that 8 times out of 10 it happens with much much older men. I don’t know if this is some kind of cognitive dissonance issue for them, having grown up in a world where women didn’t get tattooed at all, to now be surrounded by women with tattoos, and they just don’t know how to react, or what. I’ve joked to a friend who has the same problem that they see us (heavily tattooed women) and assume that when we’re not at Piggly Wiggly buying groceries we spend our time in a carnival tent dancing a kootch dance with a giant python for quarters, and therefore must be OK with stranger touching.

    Other things are annoying but I can deal. (Yes, they hurt. They mean A) something deeply personal that I don’t feel like discussing with a stranger at Target or B) that I had some disposable income and wanted a cool tattoo.) I’ve had some great discussions, mostly with young teens, about tattooing and whether or not they should get one as soon as they turn 18.

    I don’t regret my tattoos, and I realize that they might be “othering” to some people…though less so now than when I got them as tattooing is becoming more widespread by the year. I don’t mind if someone admires them, though I could do without scoldings from little old ladies about mutilating my body. I don’t mind talking about them, sometimes, though I really dislike some of the assumptions that people make about me based on them, and my tattoos are really not 100% of who I am as a person so I’m perfectly happy to also make awkward small talk about other things when I’m in line for a beer tent.

    But touching…it makes me homicidal. I have some pretty severe social anxiety and I am not comfortable with any form of unsolicited touching, period. I will yell. If I’m drunk, it is possible that I might punch you. Sorry.

    And really, I have read other posts on other sites where people hit the comments and JUSTIFY their tattoo touching. Like, “Well, if you didn’t want attention, why did you get them?” I wonder if these people also touch the firm thighs of girls who wear mini-skirts and use the same bullshit justification?

    • Scoldings from little old ladies…..once, when I was a server, I had a table of little old ladies. One of them decided it was perfectly fine to actually grab my arm and slap me, then scold me for my piercings and tattoos. I was so furious I had to give that table to another sever before I decked an old lady.

      • Gross. Just…gross. I don’t care how old you are, there is no justification for that kind of douchebaggery. I think I would have spilled something hot on her.

      • Omg, someone getting art on themselves means it’s okay to ASSAULT them?? Jeez, I would have called the POLICE on the old woman. Far out!

      • If she slapped you, you had every right to press charges and should have. If you didn’t you gave up your rights willingly.

      • Ariel’s link sums it up pretty well. But also, offputting, I guess? That some people perceive that I am heavily tattooed in order to distance myself from “normal” people. And sometimes, people assume bad things about me based just on my appearance, like when I go into a store and some little old lady follows me around the whole time because she assumes that tattoos=going to steal.

        • Ah, okay. I’ve been on both sides of this at different times in my life, as I’m sure most people have.

          Right now, I certainly don’t look as weird as I am. I don’t put a lot of effort into style, hair, and I will never be decisive enough to get a tattoo. It does surprise some people who wear their weirdness on their sleeve how I relate to them, just like it surprises the normals that I’ve been able to blend in with until I open my mouth and the weirdness tumbles out. 🙂

          • Yeah, honestly, other than the tattoos my appearance is pretty unremarkable; I’m a jeans and t-shirt person, and in general very casual. I’ve had people meet me in the winter when I’m relatively covered up and be shocked to see me later with short sleeves. Obviously if it really bothered me I would never have been tattooed in the first place; it amuses and annoys me though when people express surprise that I’m educated, or that I own my own business. People are so funny about appearances, which I get somewhat, but sometimes I think overly relying on appearances to tell us about personalities makes us miss out on meeting really great people.

  2. I hate this. I was at my junior recital in college and a male family member of my recital partner moved my dress strap out of the way to see my shoulder tattoo. It made me super uncomfortable. Why do people feel like they can do that? I would never touch a stranger.

    I’ve noticed that children don’t have boundary issues with touching. The ones that do have had it drilled into their heads by parents. I am a teacher, and they always are touching. They tend to grab at my hair (I have curly hair that tends to ringlet, and they have told me that they have only seen someone with my hair on TV) . I’ve had to cover my wrist tattoo because they try to grab my wrist or my bracelet to look at it. The older kids are used to it but the younger ones can’t seem to deal.

    • I’ve found that for me, there are different kinds of being touched even by children.

      I used to work with pre-schoolers, 3-5 year-olds, and as someone who is ok with being touched I liked it when they’d wander up and just shove themselves onto my lap because the trust they showed by doing so was really sweet. However, they were younger than the few kids I’ve encountered who’ve been gropey, who were 5-6. While they usually do it because they’re curious and want to explore my person, that can feel every bit as creepy as it sounds even when it’s a child. I look upon it as a good learning opportunity and most respond to that, it’s when you get ones who respond to being told off by laughing or whatever that I think “uh oh, there’s going be problems with you later in life”. Which is probably why they should be dealt with by people who are actually trained rather than by a minimum wage classroom-monkey like myself!

  3. I don’t really get this for my tattoos (rarely, but not often at all) but I do get the same sort of unwanted attention for my hair which is almost always a bright pink or red. Once a lady in the store grabbed my pony tail behind me with no warning and practically shouted “OMG I LOVE YER HAAAAAAAAIRRRRRRR” at me. I went off on her about not touching people with permission, about violating personal space and being respectful. Then I got a lecture from my mother about being rude to her. I pointed out that if she had done the same to my breasts it would be considered sexual assault. I still got reprimanded (and this was only a few years ago, way into my adulthood). People assume that if you do something visable you do it ‘for attention’. I hate that. I do it for me. Just like I do EVERYTHING ELSE IN MY LIFE. I’m happy to answer respectful questions or engage in conversation when I’m not ambushed and people keep their distance, but once my personal space is crossed, I lose it.

    • “People assume that if you do something visable you do it ‘for attention’.”

      I know exactly what you mean. I wonder if they read too many trashy newspapers/magazines or something, because they’re always writing shit like that. “[Insert name of pop star here] Shows Off Shapely Legs In On-trend Midi As She Grabs A Coffee” etc. What, she must be after attention because she left the house while in possession of legs? What was she supposed to do, leave them at home? “[Insert name of actress here] Displays Svelte Post-Baby Figure On Day At The Park”; she doesn’t just *have* the figure, she *displays* it, so we all have the right to make bitchy comments, because she started it by deliberately existing at us.

      Makes my skin crawl.

      • Ha ha – so true! One day I was surfing youtube and ran across a fantastic bit on Ellen where she’s talking about accidentally wearing basically the same outfit as Portia out and then in the papers it was like, “fashion contest, bla bla.” Can’t find the clip now, but it was pretty funny.

    • Ah, yes! Throughout my life I have had many different bright hair colors and I have been told to my face by professors, friends, etc. that I do it for “attention.” It’s so silly. I do it because I like the color and I like the way it looks on me. You can like it or hate it or ask me about it or totally ignore me and it makes no difference to the fact that I think cherry red hair looks cool on me.

  4. Wait, this is a thing that happens? I’ve never had any strangers randomly come up and touch my tattoo. I’ve had a *ton* of random people compliment it, and I often adjust the neckline of my shirt/dress/whatever so they can see it better (usually without them asking, I just like to show it off), but never any random, unsolicited touching. How weird!

  5. I just had to say that I once had someone KISS MY TATTOO. Put their lips onto my arm and kiss it. I was at work. On the clock. They were a customer. Granted, I can completely understand–she was an elderly Indian woman and I’ve got a half sleeve of Ganesha (“The Elephant God” – protector of women, remover of obstacles, bringer of wealth & good luck)…but kissing a stranger’s arm? For real?

    I also have had people grab onto my arm to twist it to see my whole sleeve (I’ve got a full sleeve of foodie-things…fruits and pastries and meats…I’m a chef) without even asking. Literally twisting my arm. Once it was directly after a sitting and they gripped right onto my fresh, raw skin…ouch.

    No touching! It’s not textured! It’s mah skin!

    EDIT: I can say though that I don’t mind getting comments on my tattoos (it happens…constantly…every where I go. I carry business cards for my artist, haha) and I like to think I’ve even changed some people’s opinions about tattooed people. I once even had a conversation with a bank teller as I was on the way to a sitting and she even said “Wow! I’ll never look at a tattooed person the same again!” 🙂

  6. This really resonates with me because I wear lolita fashion and that apparently means that people have the right to lift my skirt, touch me, ask any questions, harass me on the streets, take pictures without my consent and get angry if I ask them not to. To me those are my normal clothes that I wear because they make me happy. It doesn’t give anybody the right to invade my personal space (but I always explain what it is to people who ask politely and let them take pictures if they ask).

    • I hadn’t thought about what it must be like to be someone who dresses in an unusual or interesting way in a society where everyone has a camera all the time. It must be really invasive to be photographed like that…I don’t think I would be able to be nice about it at all.

  7. I have a full sleeve (Pirates!) and a full chest piece (Rose, Guns, Inspirational lame pun) and I -always- get people grabbing at me. I don’t mind talking about my tattoos, and I love showing them off, but not when I’m not expecting it….!
    I was at a family-in-law wedding, and as I was being introduced, one of the elderly uncles put the crook of his walking stick down the front of my dress and pulled it down so he could get a better look!

  8. I have a text tattoo on my inner arm under my elbow and people routinely grab my arm and twist it towards them to read it better. Then they realize it isn’t in English and ask me about it. I always want to tell them “how’s about you ask me about it first and wait for me to extend my arm out to you before grabbing at me,” but I don’t.

    I used to work in a hospital as a liaison between the morgue and the funeral homes, and one funeral home director grabbed my arm as I was handing him the paperwork to sign off on. I mean, he practically pawed at me before asking me anything about it. Effing creepy, dude.

    • You should totally tell unsolicited-touchers off! Even if politely. They must be made aware that touching without permission is just NOT OKAY! How will they ever learn otherwise? (Other than getting punched, lol.)

    • Yes! Dear gawd…mine, on my forearm, is in Gaelic and that apparently is an invitation to grab and twist! I mean, seriously, doesn’t matter which way you wrench my arm, unless you know gaelic (which most people don’t), chances are you aren’t going to be able to read it and it would probably be a better idea to ask me about it, no?

  9. What the hell, people? Memories of unsolicited touching are some of the few times I have serious regrets about how I responded, mostly wishing I had more firmly enforced my boundaries. The freshest memory is from Burning Man, when this much older guy I was talking to kept awkwardly and deliberately patting my knee, and I didn’t say anything when I really wished I had given a blunt “please don’t touch me.” Glad my tattoo is not in a normally-visible place, agh.

    I also have a bizarre anecdote about the flip side, when people shouldn’t assume that other people want to touch them or their tattoos. My boyfriend and I were at a music festival, and this drunk (?) girl dancing in front of us came over and motioned for him to hold out his hands, and she squirted some body lotion into them. He assumed she wanted him to rub it in where she couldn’t reach on her back, so he started to do so, but then she said no and to rub it into her freshly-scabbed tattoo on her shoulder (where she could definitely reach). He did but was pretty squicked out by it. I was weirded out but also confused–what on earth was the motivation there?

      • Ah, of course! That was probably it. Even with ecstasy it still seems out there to me to ask a stranger to rub lotion into your scab, but then, there are sober people who think it’s okay to pull on people’s clothes, touch their skin, and rub pregnant bellies without asking.

  10. I’ve never minded polite comments about my tattoos. I can usually tell when someone’s going to say something because they stare for a bit beforehand, and probably 9 times out of 10 it’s something positive and they don’t touch me. Sometimes they grab my arms or move my clothing and I feel SO AWKWARD because I suck at saying “fuck off bro.”

  11. The funniest question I’ve ever gotten (quite regularly actually) is “are they permanent/real”. I always answer “I hope so!”
    I don’t mind people asking me if they hurt, I work in a upper middle class suburb, and there are a lot of conservative people who know very little about tattoos. I am the only person at my work with any visible tattoos, and I’m very nice to the customers so they feel comfortable asking me. Majority of the time, they ask me if they can ask me about them first, which I really appreciate!
    I’m thankful that most people can’t reach me across the counter, and they have to ask to see the whole tattoo, which I don’t mind showing them! But I have had people reach out to my sleeve to try and lift it up while I’ve been out in the shop. I gently pull away and lift up my own sleeve to show them.

  12. Thank god I live in Seattle and tattoos are common. I got a Zelda tattoo on my upper arm this summer (my first!), and I’ve already gotten my spiel down pretty well. Before I got it I definitely didn’t think about the volume of comments I would get, but it’s actually pretty awesome. I can’t imagine someone touching though, or moving my clothes to see, that’s mind boggling!

  13. Agree on the permission front. It’s gross. I also have a thigh piece which peeks out in summer. People often ask me to lift my skirt to show them, it public- it goes all the way to my upper leg! Maybe next time I’ll say no, haven’t had a bikini wax, to be graphic. Or even better- lets grab those touchy people’s hands and start stroking parts of them, grinning creepily!

  14. I really don’t like being touched by people I don’t know very well, and do NOT appreciate it when people touch my tattoos. It happens a lot, and not just touching — people will PUSH clothing aside so they can see the rest of a tattoo! Not cool! The worst was when someone pushed up my shorts to read my thigh tattoo. Soooo awkward.

    I also don’t really like people asking what my tattoos mean. I mean, obviously I can’t expect people to not comment on them ever, but when random people in line at the bank are like “Oh my god, what does your tattoo say? Can you read it to me? What does it MEAN?” and I’m like, “Well, after my divorce…” which dude, is just way too personal. As consequence, I rarely ask other tattooed people what their tattoos are or what they mean. I think it’s kind of personal.

  15. I have a small tattoo inside of my wrist and it is not always noticeable because it’s on the inside, but shortly after I first got it, my colleague noticed it when we were sitting at a work show. My colleague actually reached over and tried to wash it off, thinking it was not real and that I drew it on. He actually stuck his finger in his mouth to wet it (kind of like your mom did when you were a little kid) and tried to rub it off…talk about awkward.

  16. Rarely have I had my tattoos touched without my permission.

    But I have brands (professionally done, not some sort of college initiation right thing) covering my legs. Apparently, that’s more of a magnet for the handsy. Yeah, nothing like ordering a drink at a crowded bar and suddenly feeling your leg being caressed. When you make eye contact with the stranger doing it, they don’t stop. They simply say “I just had to know what it FELT like.” Four. Four people have done this to me and four people know what a cold beer in the lap FEELS like.

    That being said, I’m more than happy to let people feel the scars, if they ask and aren’t creepy about it. I love my brands. I love that they’re more subtle than tattoos and really speak to me (I had a couple surgeries upon birth that left me scarred and I’m “taking it back”). But when I go to a bar, you bet your butt I’m wearing long pants.

  17. I live in a pretty weird and accepting area, so it’s easy to forget that tattoos and piercings are not completely mainstream.
    I prefer for strangers to comment on my tattoos, because at least then I know for sure that they are admiring my chest piece and aren’t just staring at my cleavage. The most common question I get is “Did it hurt?” My reply- “Yes.” Usually people asking this are looking for a description of the sensation, I describe getting a tattoo like having a really bad sunburn.
    Before I got my very visible and large chest piece, I did have strangers try to move my clothing to better see the one on my back. That was always unpleasant. Since I was usually at work when it happened, I found that asking a pointed “Can I help you with something?” usually did the trick. There seems to be something about a fresh tattoo that makes people want to touch more too. Maybe because the skin is still shiny and scar tissue-y. I always keep fresh tattoos well covered. Being touched on a fresh wound by strangers is too squicky for me.

  18. My husband and I have half-seriously considered making “trading cards” of his ink and piercings (okay, so I have actually designed but not printed them). A handy way to stop rude stares “here, a picture lasts longer,” but a nice way to show people who are interested without them invading his personal space.

  19. There’s a theme running through some of these comments, and I want to call it out. People keep saying that people who get tattoos that are visible should expect to be stared at– let’s take body autonomy a step further? I don’t have a ‘right’ to stare at someone’s body art any more than I have the right to stare at the body part that the piece is on.

    Take a minute and realize that any person you see, tattoos or not, could have survived assault or abuse. Treat them like a person first. If I see a tattoo that I want to attend to more carefully, I say, “I just noticed your tattoo. It’s so [adjective]!” Asking someone who did the work or what parlor they were at is a polite way to continue the conversation. “Do you mind if I ask…” is a great way to preface a question that might be more sensitive; many people won’t mind, but the ones that do will know you understand if they don’t want to answer.

  20. OK, just to throw another angle into the mix. I wear glasses all day everyday and just like the cane or walker mentioned in an earlier comment, they are an extension of me. I need them to see! I have, on many occasions, had strangers (and friends) take my glasses off my face to try them on. Sometimes with a cursory “can I try your glasses on?” (when they’ve already got their greasy mitts on them), sometimes not. I wear rather large frames (I have a rather wide face and that’s what suits me) and so I guess some people see them as a fashion accessory, perhaps (not sure that makes it ok anyway), but I can’t believe how often this happens! (More often in a pub/bar, of course). One of my close friends (a guy) wears big specs too and this happens to him all the time. (I also have a tattoo on my back and have had randomers ‘stroke’ it when it’s visible *shudder*). It’s a very odd lack of respect for a person’s personal space and body.

  21. I’ve seen a number of people say you should be polite if someone asks you about your tattoos- Honestly, I don’t think I owe it to rando strangers to be polite, in general, let alone about something to do with my body. It’s like dudes telling random women to smile- Sorry pal, I don’t owe you a smile. I don’t owe you shit.

    If someone touches me without my express permission you better believe I say “Don’t fucking touch me!” And I mean it- don’t touch me to move me, use your words. Don’t touch me to get my attention, use your words. Don’t fucking touch me. I don’t care who you are- my mom, my fiance, my friend, anyone, don’t touch me unless I tell you it’s ok. If you are touching me and I no longer want you to be touching me, you better stop touching me- right away. Social anxiety and the fear of being touched = serious business for me, and I never let anyone skate by for doing it. I don’t care if you like my tattoo, I don’t care what you find interesting, I don’t care if you like my blue hair. If you are a stranger, nothing about me is your business. Sorry not sorry.

  22. There’s another thing that I think should be addressed on this thread: getting plain old unwanted attention/harassment because of your tattoos, with or without physical contact. I have a friend who has two half sleeves and she constantly has creepy men (no women that I know of) coming up to her, assuming things about her personality because she has so much ink, and then getting pissed off or inappropriate if she’s dismissive or indicates she doesn’t want the attention right now. One man came up to me after she politely dismissed him, touched ME on the shoulder, and told me not to be like her and that she’s “a real dog.” (For the record my ink is more concealable.) We screamed at him and cussed him out for his harassment and chauvinism, eventually chasing him away from the area.

    Honestly it makes me wonder about getting more ink of my own because I AM a survivor of past trauma, as some others have brought up before me, and I have enough issues with street harassment already. And that sucks. I want to be artfully decorated without getting unwanted attention myself. And I hardly think punching people is a great solution (could wind up with me injured, dead, or facing assault charges, right?) but if it works, it works. I guess I’ll just get the ink anyway and start educating people about bodily autonomy… sigh.

  23. My mom was RVing through a pretty famous area during a motorcycle convention. Mom looks like your average Midwest suburban woman with grown kids. Well, apparently she had been staring a little too long and intently at one particular also-middle-aged woman on a motorcycle, and this woman got up in Mom’s face about it. It started with, “What are you staring at?” and got pretty caustic from there. When my mother could finally get a word in edgewise, she apologized (somehow not sarcastically, go Mom) for staring and said that she was still a little glassy-eyes from driving all morning. She said she was admiring the woman’s outfit, hair and tattoo, and trying to make a mental note about it because, as my mom said, “my daughter would absolutely love it.” Apparently it involved purple fishnets (my fave!!), a pretty rocking mohawk, and some pretty intricate “celtic knotwork meets first nations” tattoo work.

    It was also hot as balls out and my mom the trauma nurse who patches up motorcycle accident victims for a living was noting how this woman had been wearing some full, thick leathers despite the heat and was stripping down to the mini skirt and fishnets before going to socialize. So what started with my mother being arguably a little rude but totally misjudged as disapproving ended up with this woman and her partner standing around with my mom, her sister, and their parents, just chatting and laughing and having a good time for nigh on 20 minutes. I really think both families walked away with a better feeling about it all, and my mother got a good lesson in not staring too intently even if she’s still a little road-hypnotized ;).

  24. Agh! I have a half sleeve tattoo and I cannot even tell you how many times strangers come up to me and pull my sleeve up! It drives me crazy. Once I was eating breakfast at a restaurant with a friend and an old man came up from behind me and without even saying a word grabbed my sleeve and moved it all the way up to my shoulder. Then he walked away, again, without saying anything. I was so stunned I didn’t say anything, either, but my friend told me my face looked like I was about to stab him with my fork.

  25. I had a guy come up to me this summer, and LIFT MY SKIRT so he could “see my thigh piece”. Yeah no, not ok. I have no issues pulling my own clothing around so you can see it, but lifting a skirt? Not ok.

    I will show my work to anyone that asks. I don’t go out of my way to talk about my ink, I have a very visible on my ankle that I get asked about a lot (Note- if you don’t want to talk tattoos with people, don’t get a paragraph tattooed on you. I spend half my life telling people what it says), and I love talking about it. But grabbing my legs, putting your face near my legs, or any other way of touching me (I’ve had people run their finger all the way down the part of my thigh piece that’s visible, like it was the vault door in Gringotts and they were a Goblin), isn’t cool.

Read more comments

Comments are closed.