The number of Americans lining up for tattoos is growing. According to estimates last year, more than one in 10 Americans now have at least one piece of ink. And yet Americans' perceptions of tattoos continue to differ drastically from those around the world.
In fact, the history of tattoos dates back thousands of years. In 1991, scientists uncovered the 5,200-year-old "Iceman" mummy with an early prototype of tattoos clearly visible on his wrinkled skin. According to Cate Lineberry at the Smithsonian, these tattoos seemed to have been "applied to alleviate joint pain and were therefore essentially therapeutic." A tattoo mustache was also found on a South American mummy from 6000 B.C., apparently meant to make the man more appealing to his spouse. "It was a cosmetic tattoo, to make his wife more attracted to him, to make him more appealing," Dr. Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, said in an interview with Fox Magazine. Who said vanity was a new concept?
Around the world, tattoos serve as important symbols of a person's religious beliefs, commemorate achievements and mark rites of passage. In all these spaces, tattoos are typically respected as something deeply intimate. Yet in the United States tattoos are still too often seen as irresponsible and a sign of rebellion.
In a photo series, photographer Spencer Kovats examined this phenomenon, showing tattooed individuals alternately fully clothed and then without clothes, exposing the ink underneath. The show asked viewers to pay attention to their own perceptions. Did their opinion of the subject change depending on whether his or her tattoos were visible?
There are still many myths and misconceptions that surround this particular form of art. Below are some of the most common stereotypes people with body ink are really sick of hearing:
1. "Tattoos are not professional."
For decades, this has been the strategy of many a wary mother. Unfortunately for mommy dearest, however, it's a fairly outdated notion. In today's world, tattoos don't make you unemployable.
Everyone from scientists to doctors to U.S. presidents and world leaders (we see you, Winston Churchill) have had tattoos. The CIA devotes a special part of its website to dispelling the myth that you can’t work for them if you have a tattoo.
Indeed, some businesses have even begun to see the characteristic as a bonus of sorts. "We have no formal policy about tattoos because we value our differences and recognize that diversity and inclusion are good for our business and make our company stronger," Bank of America spokeswoman Ferris Morrison told Forbes.
2. "You will regret that when you're older."
Sure, it's unlikely that our skin will ever be as firm and tight as it is, say, in our early 20s, but that doesn't mean tattoos can't age gracefully. As these photos of older individuals with tattoos prove, seniors can own the look too.
3. "Tattoos are so permanent."
Thanks to science, tattoos certainly aren't as permanent as they once were. In fact, more and more places are offering a variety of tattoo removal procedures, ranging from less effective creams to surgical procedures. The process can be expensive — and painful. And it should be done with an approved medical center. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that laser tattoo removals have increased 43% from 2011 to 2012, noting that black ink artwork is easier to remove than color designs.
4. "Why did you get that?"
This is a tricky question. Some people get tattoos for very personal reasons, ranging from cultural to religious to familials.
The "P.Ink!" campaign documents breast cancer survivors who cover up scarring with beautiful artwork. Others get them because they just thought the image looked cool. While some people don't mind being asked why they got their tattoo, it's considered something of a faux pas among many. And it's especially taboo to ask to see other, more private artwork.
"When you ask what my tattoos mean (as in, all my tattoos), you are basically asking me to take you on a guided tour of my entire body," notes Jamie Peck over at the Gloss. "Do I have tattoos where you can't see them? You bet I do. Am I going to show them to you or even intimate that they exist? Not unless I want to sleep with you, which I most certainly will not wish to do after you've asked me a question like that."
5. "Did it hurt?"
Well, duh. Tattooing, which involves having a needle-like object insert ink under the first layer of your skin, hurts most people, at least a little bit. Some body parts hurt more during the process than others, either because they are near nerves or tend to be overly sensitive. According to Ami James, star of reality show NY Ink, some of the most painful places he's ever tattood a client include the back of the knees, the ribcage and the inner elbow.
6. "But what will your parents think?"
When people ask this, what they really mean is, "Are your parents going to be disappointed in you?" Let's be straight about one thing, nobody needs their parents' — or society's, for that matter — approval for a decision that affects their own body. Some parents are relatively cool (Mine found a reputable tattoo artist for me to get my first tattoo.), while others are not so much. Either way, it's not up to them, end of story. And the implication that a tattoo would somehow make you lesser than in the eyes of a family member is pretty insulting.
7. "I would never get a tattoo."
You would never get a tattoo? Great! No one asked you. What a passive aggressive statement, and one that implies quite strongly that having tattoos are a bad thing.
Another similar comment is, "I prefer to have my body natural." Almost nothing we do to our bodies in this day and age is truly natural anyway. You do your thing, and I'll do mine.
8. "Having a tattoo on your lower back means you're a slut."
We've all heard this stereotype before. Indeed the "tramp stamp," a phrase used to refer generally to all tattoos on the lower back, is a classic part of pop culture lore.
Unfortunately, it's also classic slut-shaming. Tattoo placement should not be an indicator of one's personal tendencies, just as certain types of clothes should not be used to justify judgements about women's sex lives. As Melissa Fabello over at Everyday Feminism says: "Since when does ink in my skin turn my body into public property?"
The association is even more problematic because of the way it singles out women for judgement, not men. "Men are men and they're forgiven all sins," notes Feministe. "Their tattoos aren't indications of slutitude, or evidence of their desire to be penetrated by other men. They're just tattoos. But for women, the willingness to put a needle in your body is an indication of a willingness to put a million penises in all of your orifices. Diabetics must be the sluttiest chicks ever!"
9. "You'll look like a felon!"
What does a felon look like exactly?
Just as the "tramp stamp" trope relies on outdated and sexist stereotypes about women's bodies, this comment makes a lot of frankly classist assumptions about men.
While the history of tattoos does include plenty of jailhouse and gang artwork — the intrictate patterns developed by Soviet criminals in the mid-20th century have been the subject of anthropological work — tattoos have long since transcended prison culture. The lingering stereotype remains, however, and is often used to profile men, especially racial minorities.
10. "Tattoos prevent you from donating blood."
The American Red Cross website states that tattoos obtained in states that don't regulate their tattoo parlors, prevent blood donation for a period of one year following the artwork. This is a precaution, not a prohibition.
Tattoos don't affect potential blood donation "if the tattoo was applied by a state-regulated entity using sterile needles and ink that is not reused. Cosmetic tattoos applied in a licensed establishment in a regulated state using sterile needles and ink that is not reused is acceptable. There are 40 states that currently regulate tattoo facilities. You should discuss your particular situation with the health historian at the time of donation."
11. "Jews can't get tattoos."
While tattoos are technically prohibited by the Old Testament and therefore looked down upon by Talmudic law, the prohibiton is not strictly enforced by all rabbis or temples. The rumor that a tattoo would prohibit someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery is also popular — Star magazine once reported, without evidence, that Drew Barrymore wanted to laser off her tattoos because she was considering converting to Judaism. In fact, while a tabboo may persist, it is unlikely tattoos would prohibit a Jewish burial in all but the most conservative communities. The heavily-inked singer Amy Winehouse had a traditional Jewish burial in 2011, effectively debunking this myth for general purposes.