On Tattoos

pic by danny.hammontree


One interesting nugget of information to come out of the audio commentary of the Breaking Bad pilot concerned tattoos. One of the actors in the first episode has his upper arms covered in ink. The tatts are real, not just painted on with henna. For that, the producers needed consent from the actor’s original tattoo artist before they were allowed to broadcast his artwork.

What the hey? Did you all know that, those of you with tatts? Did you know that (in America, at least), the original artist owns the copyright to the artwork on your skin? You’re just his canvas.


I used to feel an aversion to tattoos. I can now see the beauty in some of them. This must mean that times have changed – or that I’ve grown less conservative with age. One or t’other. It may also simply mean that I moved out of New Zealand, where I associate tattoos mostly with gang members. I moved to Australia, where every second person at the pool has a tattoo, simply for fashion purposes, or because the image means something significant.


In New Zealand, too, I’m sure tattoo culture has changed. Many top athletes have huge tattoos over their bodies, which has of course paralleled the increase in non-athletes sporting tatts.

I can understand why athletes might want tattoos. Their groin strain injuries are reported on the news nightly; their bodies are contracted out as advertising space. It doesn’t surprise me that a sportsman in the limelight might want to claim his body for himself. (The largest tattoos are more popular with men, though women’s tattoos seem to be increasing in skin-space and in popularity.)

I wonder if this is the same feeling many people share, upon getting a tattoo: claiming one’s body for oneself.


1. Trust.

For something so permanent, that’s a lot of trust to put in some dodgy backstreet tattoo artist.

I know a guy with a map of Australia on his right biceps. It’s huge. It looks like a piece of spinach. He’s known as ‘Spinach Mattie’, mainly to tell him apart from ‘Hippie Mattie’ but also mainly because it looks like spinach. Spinach Mattie doesn’t seem to mind, and speaks lovingly of his permanent vegetable, but darned if I want a piece of spinach stuck to my arm. That’s what you get when your tattoo artist tells you he’s never actually done a real human before, and you say that’s okay mate just gimme a discount.


Depending on where you live, the tattoo industry might be controlled by the underworld. Another friend has half a tattoo on her shoulder. The guy got halfway through it before he was hounded out of town for doing the dodge. Not uncommon, apparently. (I actually have two friends with the exact same story.)

3. Sagginess.

So you get a tattoo on your backside at twenty. By eighty, where’s it at?


“Those who would shame women with tattoos often utter things like: How are those things going to look when you’re old and wrinkled? On the basis of the photographs of older women with tattoos in this book, I’d say they hold up pretty well.”


I don’t know many people who outright regret their tattoos. But I know quite a few who ‘wouldn’t do it again’ if they had the choice. I wonder how much of that is regret recast as resignation. I’m glad I didn’t get a tattoo at 16. If I’d had a baby at 16 I might’ve called it Talullah Ballulah, and if I’d got a tatt it probably would’ve been of something cheesey, or an image that no longer has any significance, like my birth sign, which is a load of old crap.

What if you change your mind?


Reasons for getting a tattoo are many and varied, and there’s not much you can generalise about ‘people who get tattoos’. Even so, the most conservative people will make judgments. I wouldn’t want the hassle of covering up a wrist/ankle tattoo for a job interview. Even more discreetly placed tatts can be problematic. In Japan, for instance, many public pools ban people with tattoos. No doubt this is to do with keeping gang members out. (Many Yakuza cover their torsos with ‘irezumi’, and this rule is probably designed to keep them out.) So when you get a tattoo, you might be limiting your options.

Even if you never intend to go swimming in Japan, we give other people enough material to judge us simply by our hair, clothing, age and ethnicity. No need to write anything else across our foreheads. (Or biceps, or lower backs.)


Living in Australia, you don’t need dark ink injected into your skin. This not only makes skin cancer more likely, but harder to detect.

All that said, I wouldn’t mind a tattoo. Just to test out my theories, and because no one else’s opinion but your own really matters. If only I could wear one like jewelry.

ps. Don’t get an Asian tattoo unless you know a native speaking Asian friend. Please. Just don’t. And don’t make sole use of any of those Chinese/Japanese Name Generators on the interwebbys. Asian parents go to great lengths before assigning characters to the names of their own children, and decisions are a complex mix of not only meaning but connotation and stroke count. None of these things can be gleaned from a dictionary. The Japanese consult priests.

The internet is a great tool, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

For Asian natives, looking at Asian tatts on Westerners is like us laughing at an Engrish tee.

Mark of Cain: Tattoos in the Russian Prison System documentary

Related Links

1. Electronic Skin Tattoos

2. The Best Time A Waiter Persuaded Me Not To Get A Tattoo from The Hairpin.

3. Generational Change In The Social Acceptability Of Tattoos from The Society Pages

4. Margaret Cho talks about her tatts, and I think this is why a lot of people get them.

5. I Hate My Tramp Stamp from Jezebel

6. The Tattoo Snob Blog

7. Tattooed People: More Or Less Fun? from The Hairpin

8. And about Tattoos… from Feministe

9. Why Do People Get Tattoos? a feature article by Miliann Kang and Katherine Jones

10. Hey Guys, My visible tattoos are not an invitation for you to touch me, stroke me or judge me, from The Peach

11. I would consider this Post-Mastectomy Tattoo.

12. Thinking Of Inking? [AN INFOGRAPHIC]