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

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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 was sitting in an outdoor theater, waiting for a shakespeare play to start, and a middle aged woman who was sitting behind me pulled aside the strap of my racerback tank top. When I turned around with a surprised look on my face, she said, “Oh, I just wanted to see it better.” What does she think gives her the right to touch a random stranger, to move their clothing, without asking first? I couldn’t even come up with a snappy comeback.

    I live in the bay area, so most people are very respectful, and most just glance and go on with their day. It appalls me how people not from the area, or when I’m traveling, feel as if it’s ok to touch my tattoos without even introducing themselves first. Maybe it’s because I am female, and obviously in my early 20’s, but there’s no excuse for it.

  2. I have never had strangers touch my tattoos but I have a tattoo on my wrist that says “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” (which I got when I was 18 as something of an f-you response to being bullied as a kid) and people are constantly trying to argue with me about it. Co-Workers and my Husband’s friends argue that striving for perfection is where its at. Strangers ask what it says and when I tell them I have had responses ranging from “I believe in the oppressor too, what church do you go to?” (I don’t even know what that was about)and eye rolling to straight up laughter from conservative country folk. It really bothers me when people press me to explain what it means and why I got it, like I need to be explaining to everyone that I got a tattoo reminder that my self esteem shouldn’t rest in the approval of others. I can’t imagine if someone actually tried to touch me though. When did people stop having boundaries?

  3. I LOVE people noticing and complimenting my tattoo – I even found a dress pattern with a v-neck at the back that perfectly frames it and have made three of those dresses just to show it off. I like people asking about it, and I don’t even mind the inevitable “It looks like the rose from Beauty and the Beast!” comment, even though it isn’t.

    But touching it without asking would be absolutely not on. It hasn’t happened to me, but that may be because it’s covered up most of the day by my work shirt, and the rest of the day I’m usually at home with my flatmates who don’t even notice it anymore.

    I don’t know what makes people think it’s OK to touch a stranger without asking. Why is this a thing that they would think is OK? I don’t get it.

  4. Hi there! I’m your tattoo artist! I’ve probably seen you naked! You know what though? No matter how big or amazing or silly or unique your tattoo is, that tattoo lives in your skin which means NO ONE gets to touch it without permission. Not even me, your artist. NO ONE gets to undress you in the middle of a supermarket while you’re just checking out the cereal. Ever. I don’t care how drunk they are. If someone starts to undress you just to see your ink, it’s because they’re big babies who lack self control.

    ALSO…having tattoos is not an open invitation to a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

  5. I have tattoos, my husband has tattoos, and a lot of his family member and our friends have tattoos.
    That being said, most people ask us if they can see our tattoos. To which I say “Sure!”.

    Tattoo etiquette:
    1) ALWAYS ask if you can see their ink.
    2) DO NOT touch a stranger. EVER.

    Most people are very happy to show off their tattoos if asked in a polite, respectful manner.

  6. Gawd – unless I wear long sleeves all summer, you’re going to see my ink. It’s beautiful and bright and bold. So it gets noticed. A lot. And I’m completely cool with that. I love it, I’m so proud of it. I don’t mind the questions at all – our city doesn’t have a huge inked up community so people with tattoos stand out a bit. And that’s cool – I totally get the curiosity. And kids – well I think they HAVE to touch it and I’m completely comfortable with that (unless it’s new and then those snot-sticky fingers are most definitely kept to themselves). But random adult strangers touching me or grabbing my arm to twist it (forearm tatt) can back the hell off. If someone asks about it or asks to see it better or ASK S to touch it, fine. But when did ink (or a pregnant belly) give people free reign to touch me?! By the way LOVED the pregnant belly video posted earlier!

  7. I have a very visible chest piece/upper back piece. It flowers and scroll work and my artist is amazing! I love showing it off (I wear a lot of v-neck shirts now) and I will gladly tell you all about the artist and give you my go to joke (they are the only flowers I can keep alive, haha!).
    I know some inked people might get prissy about looking and more prissy about explaining… and these are the best explanations I have:
    1: touching – no touching! Some people are germaphobes, others really respect personal space (I like my bubble and please don’t invade it) and there is no way to tell how a person feels about others randomly touching them. If you want to see more just ask- a lot of people are proud of their tats and will happily show them off.
    2: please stop asking if it hurts – all tattoos hurt but degrees of pain vary with location and with personal pain tolerances. If you are interested in having a tattoo in a similar location a better question might be “how is the pain in that area compared to the pain level this area?” I know personally, it seems like people are less interested in the beauty and quality of my tattoo and more interested in how bad it hurt, which makes me feel like they are judging me instead of appreciating my artwork.
    3: When looking please notice the person’s reaction – some tattoos are very personal. While they may be noticeable, the person with them may be an introvert, and doesn’t want to show them off or discuss them. Some people regret their tattoos and people looking at them reminds them of the unpleasantness they experience after it was all said and done. I personally love my big tattoo but I am easily offended when somebody asks “to see the rest of it” implying that my breasts are also tattooed (also implying that they could care less about my tattoo and they just want to see my ‘hooters’)
    4: asking about the meanings- this is another tread lightly’

  8. There are 2 rules: don’t touch, and make sure you respect the tattooed persons right to privacy…
    Most people love showing off their tattoos, but be respectful of those who don’t.
    Personally I CAN’T stand the ‘did it hurt?’ I always want to be a smart butt and say ‘ NO… it was licked on me by unicorns!’ . For those of you who remain with virgin skin let me put it this way…I don’t want to answer this question because the pain is different from anything else and it is hard to explain to someone who has never gone through it themselves (much like childbirth which thank goodness no one asks me about that pain daily!) The worst example I have of this is while shopping with my family at the grocery store I had a lady follow me around and do that sound where you suck air in between your gritted teeth, very annoyed I finally turned around and before I could say anything she just started in with ‘oh my gosh did that hurt, it totally had to hurt, oh I could never do that to MY body!’
    Then she turns to her daughter and started in about how she should never deface her body like I did! This all happened IN FRONT OF MY CHILDREN!! Luckily my awesome man was there to say to her ‘Oh my gosh do you know how rude you are, cause your are totally rude, oh my gosh I could never be that rude to a complete stranger!’ It was all I could do to not laugh! Ever since then I have been a bit jaded about the did it hurt question…

  9. I enjoy ink. It’s a wonderful form of self expression that is somewhat relaxing to me. Out of my current tattoos, I only have one regret(bad break-up) and it’s, thankfully, something that I can use for a family member, as I was not dumb enough to tattoo someone’s name on my skin.

    That being said, I hate it when people ask “What does that mean?” It’s a huge pet peeve of mine for someone to see the zodiac signs on my inner wrists and just let their complete ignorance show. When I see a tattoo that I admire, but don’t understand, I at least have the decency to lead into it with a “Nice ink!” or something to that extent.

    I also hate it when people try to contemplate the reasons why I got a tattoo in the first place. The reason is my own, deeply personal, and I don’t know you. If I knew you and you knew diddly-squat about me, then you’d know the meaning behind most of my tattoos.

    I’ve, thankfully, never had anyone try and touch me to look at my tattoos that wasn’t already invited to touch them(i.e. pulling my pants leg up to show off the ink on my calf and the angle is awkward. I WANT you to look then, so by all means, touch away.). I hate, however, when people look at the (currently) unfinished, yet deeply personal tattoo on my chest. Song lyrics that say “Save me from my self destruction.” I can understand if you can’t see the whole thing. But my reply is often very short and to the point when I tell someone what it says. It’s one of those tones that says “Don’t you dare ask me why I got that. Admire and go away.”

    Bottom line: I don’t mind if people admire my art, but they need to have respect while doing so. Never touch unless invited, and know what “personal boundary” means BEFORE you start asking questions and making judgments.

  10. Most of the time, if someone asks me about my tattoos, or wants me to pull up my sleeve, or turn around so they can see my back, I’m flattered because I’ve put a lot of thought and money into them and I’m really proud of all the art on my body. Even wanting to touch them is fine if you aren’t being a Creepy Mc Creeperson. (I had to use that!) But the key is to talk to me FIRST! Being a petite 20 something year old woman, any uninvited touching by ANYBODY freaks me out. So if your interested please please please, just talk to me first!!

  11. Urgh, I have a pet hate for people who touch my tattoos without permission.

    Although, last week I was getting my nails done (so I couldn’t push her away) and a woman came up behind me and ran her hand across my back. Now, if she’d asked, I would have told her that it had only been done a few days before and was now in the peeling/flaking stage of healing… but she didn’t ask, so she came away with a hand covered in my skin. Karma.

    • That’s so creepy of her, I’ve had my arm almost twisted out of its socket by Someone. Why do people think they need to touch tattoos? they obviously have no texture. You aren’t allowed to touch the paintings in an art gallery so WTf?

  12. I am a huge fan of bold, bright and colourful tattoos on women. I have on several occasions offered an unsolicited compliment to a stranger- but only when the artwork merited it. I mean it as an objective compliment, and *NEVER* with a touch or other untoward follow-on comment. For example, a few weeks ago I noicted that a barista at a local coffee shop had an amazing, vibrant full sleeve piece, but it was only on departure that I commented, and with a simple “I love your ink – it’s gorgeous!” After all, a tattoo of that magnitude represents a significant financial and time commitment to the art; I thought the artist did an amazing job, and the choice aptly suited her. That deserved acknowledgement, but at my age it would border on creepy to prolongue the exchange beyond that simple courtesy.

  13. Tattoos are universally ugly. People claim they “mean something” to them. I just wanted to inform you, the brain has the ability to hold onto precious memories for years after they happen. The process is called memory, and it allows you to commemorate special events without having to permanently engrave them on your flesh.

    Whatever you are commemorating, you’re commemorating it not for yourself but for everybody whether they care about the moment you are commemorating or not. You may not realize you are doing this, but you are. You are taking something important to you and shoving it down everybody’s throats. And then to turn around and get mad because someone is staring at it? Make up your mind, either you want your personal business written on your flesh for everyone in the world to see, or you want it private. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    • Did you even read the post? It’s about people TOUCHING without permission, not just staring.

    • Ok, so, to say that tattoos are universally ugly is pretty offensive. And I’m not easily offended.
      Also, I have a whole bunch of beautiful and thoroughly unsentimental tattoos, and one even more beautiful one that is beyond meaningful. If people ask about it, I have no qualms telling them it’s in remembrance of my sister.
      What gets me is when people assume that all of my ink has significant back stories, because when I explain that I just liked the pictures, I get stared at. Like I’m defacing my body for no reason.

    • See, here’s the thing you don’t get. “Universally ugly” is an oxymoron. Ugly and beautiful are subjective concepts that are informed not only by your personal tastes but also by your upbringing and thousands of years of your cultural history. Do I think neck stretching or foot binding look beautiful? No, because neither tradition has been part of my culture. However, I can appreciate the effort behind altering one’s body to become closer to a standard of beauty understood by family and friends.

      Tattoos have been around for thousands of years in various cultures around the world as statements of beauty and significance. You don’t get to invalidate this history with your opinion.

      You don’t get to declare things as universally ugly or beautiful. All you get to declare is your personal, subjective opinion based in your own cultural heritage. Purporting to be the beauty police only allows your ignorance to shine through. Learn some tolerance and cultural appreciation. You’ll feel much more at home here (and likely everywhere, tbh).

  14. Maybe this is just me but I feel if you’re going to get a tattoo in a visible place you don’t get complaining rights when people look at them or ask you about them. That’s part of why you get them in visible places, to be seen and shown off.

    However, I hate it when people touch you or maneuver your clothing to see them. That’s just rude. Ask, ask, ask! It’s a great way to start a conversation and for most people their tattoos have stories behind them.

  15. I had this happen to me again today. I have a really beautiful tattoo below my neck on the upper part of my shoulders. I was waiting on line for food at the cafe and the person behind me felt compelled to touch it as they commented on it. I have no problem answering questions about my body art but I do think it crosses a serious line when someone feels it gives them the right to touch your body.

  16. I have a tattoo on my leg and I have had people actually grab the bottom of my shorts to see the rest of it, which is super creepy all things considering. I have no problem doing it myself if you want to see my ink, I love it and I love to show it off, but please don’t touch my clothes.

  17. I don’t have a problem with people looking at my tattoos or asking questions. People are curious creatures. I don’t even have an issue with them being touched but I’m a hugger who makes connections with people by touching them. I’m not sure it’s the tattoos that are the subject here, but more the nature of the person wearing them. Some people do not like to be touched, tattooed or not. Rather than grit your teeth and seethe just say ” please don’t touch me” . At work or at play that is not the wrong thing to say. We are the bosses of our bodies

  18. Personally, I like it when people look at my tattoos and comment on them. Mine are on my legs (the easily visible ones at least), so it would be VERY weird for someone to touch them. But I really do enjoy when someone recognizes my velociraptor skeleton for what it is, or when people start a Star Wars conversation about my Rebel alliance tattoo. I’m an introvert, so I use those as a display to fellow nerds that I like those things. They make great conversation starters without my having to walk up to people and randomly saying “I like dinosaurs, do you?” like a five year old, lol. I’ve met some awesome people this way. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I hate winter – no more shorts and the tattoos get covered up. I got my tattoos for me, but I love for others to admire them. I’ll also give them the name of my artist so they can go to the same person for equally cool ink.

  19. oh this gets to me so much, not just with my tattoos but with my corset, my flat chest (double mastectomy), my naturally ringleted hair, any “different” fashions I choose to wear, people constantly staring or touching or asking me about them. I disagree with the sentiment that part of wanting tattoos is wanting the attention/compliments. My tattoo’s aren’t personal in meaning, but I got them for me and me alone. I have major anxiety and sensitivity issues with sound and touch, if some stranger comes up to me unexpectedly and starts asking me questions (or heaven forbid grabbing at my hair, clothes and skin) then I will probably start crying right on the spot. You might think that if it’s so bad for me that I shouldn’t choose to wear those clothes or be tattooed, but I really like myself this way! (and liking myself is hard enough as it is) If I can get myself to like how I look in the mirror, how I interact with the world, then it’s so good and whatever anyone thinks I’m not doing it for attention or to stand out, I just like myself like this.
    This is not to say that I can’t have good conversations about my appearance and tattoos. If someone comes up to me respectfully and says they love the linework, what parlour did I get them done, does it mean anything (spoiler alert: not really), may they have a closer look? I will probably be happy to show you, and if someone has a particularly stunning piece I will compliment it politely before seeing if they want to talk. But when someone jump scares me from behind by brushing my hair out the way and pulling my top down, all while loudly asking “Oh Wow Did It Hurt They Look So Cool/Weird Why Did You Do That?” or by creepily stroking my thigh *shudders* then I’m really not going to react well. I don’t think I’m asking for it (though I’m constantly aware that other people might see it that way), I don’t think it’s anyone’s right to violate my privacy all for the sake of their curiosity, I don’t think that all this attention should just “come with the territory” of looking the way I do. Ah, in an ideal world…

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