Sixteen year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make life-changing decisions, especially not permanent ones. At sixteen, I was sitting in a tattoo shop with my mom next to me getting my first small piece. Rewind a couple months prior, and I was sitting with my mom trying to convince her to let me get a tattoo. I thought it was cool at the time and I wanted to be the first badass in my friend group to get one. I was actually drawing a peace sign with sharpie on my left hand, just above my wrist on a daily basis. That’s what I said I wanted when my mom asked—not exactly badass. Let me just say, THANK GOODNESS I DIDN’T GET THE PEACE SIGN TATTOO. I decided to get a tattoo with my mom instead and I told her she could pick what it would be. My first tattoo was a lotus, the meaning for compassion. My mom wanted it to remind us everyday that we need to be compassionate towards one another. I tried to explain that to people when I got it and that it just wasn’t a pretty flower. Now, six years later, I look down at it and think of my mom and don’t feel the need to explain anything at all.
We all know someone that’s done it. We all know someone that’s gotten one… or two… or three. We all have seen them. Maybe you have one. I know I do. The cross on my right shoulder and the lotus on my wrist, they both have meaning behind them but I bet when you saw those two, you weren’t impressed, you weren’t excited, but you were probably thinking, “I wonder what that means to her.” I’ve accepted that that’s the case and I’ve moved on.
So, what makes a tattoo unique? Better yet, what makes them common? Simple designs tend to be more everyday like flowers, infinity symbols for women and men, well, I see a lot of tribal, maybe some detailed cross on their bicep or praying hands. Those are just three examples of the many tattoos that so many people have, yet so many people are scared to get because they’re worried about others constantly asking, “So, why did you get that tattoo?” “Are you actually religious?” “Is it really forever though?”
The history behind tattoos is pretty interesting. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the first tattoo shop and tattooing machine came to America. Before then it was all stick and poke. Tattoos were very popular with sailors and the U.S. military because it conveyed loyalty and devotion. According to PBS, the 1940s, or the World War II era, was the Golden Age of tattooing because of the patriotism and the way men in uniform were viewed. Tattoos were still not accepted in society, especially among upper class Americans. Today, tattooing is viewed as an art form. The skin is looked at as a canvas.
I’ve come up with a short list of some tattoos that I commonly see to give you a better idea.
- ALL types of flowers (I’m guilty of this)
- Any quotes from a song
- Or… a movie (Yes, this means The Lion King, too.)
- Or… a TV show
- Or… a lame lifestyle choice aka “Live, Laugh, Love” or “Carpe Diem”
- Infinity symbol
- Dream catcher
- That dandelion blowing in the wind
- Last names across shoulder blades (in case you forget?)
- Bible quotes (because are you actually religious?)
- Logos (ARE YOU A WALKING ADVERTISEMENT?)
- “Only God can judge me” (he’s judging your tattoo, actually.)
- Your zip code (incase you get lost)
- Barbed wire wraps
AND that’s just a tiny list, but hey, art is subjective.
Some of my Facebook friends seemed to be a little offended when a conversation sparked up of why certain tattoos are frowned upon or looked at as over done. With every comment, I kept having to ask myself, why could this be a stereotypical tattoo on one person and not another? Kyle said she knows someone with a cat silhouette tattoo and some arrows, which to her is “basic,” but she too has a cat silhouette tattoo because she “effing loves cats.” So, because she loves her tattoo, it doesn’t exactly make it “basic”… makes sense, right? Because the other girl with the cat silhouette tattoo didn’t say she was getting it for any specific reason automatically meant to Kyle that it was more “basic” than hers. No, I hate to break it to you, Kyle. Same tattoo—No personal significant meaning—still “basic.”
From this, I decided that the tattoo-stereotypic-level has a lot to do with your mindset going into that tattoo shop. That mindset is what will make your tattoo unique or insignificant—something you see on Pinterest. That will be the story you tell the artist, and that will be the story you tell your friends. I would prefer to be able to tell the story behind my tattoos rather than just telling someone that I liked it. Your tattoo doesn’t need to be an intricately detailed piece, but the meaning behind it is what will make it sentimental.
Tattoo artists, like Sarah Cortese, are viewed in two different ways: a person who can create their vision exactly the way they want it as a tattoo, or as an artist who can develop their vision into something more creative. “As much as I prefer working with the people who sees me as an artist, at the end of the day both types of clients are important to me. I do hope that [as] time goes by, I only take on projects that are more artistically driven, however I still have to remember that I am not wearing the tattoo for life. I am only a part of the process for a short while and then I leave the person with their tattoo. At the end of the day, its what’s important to the client and what makes them happy,” explains Cortese. Cortese has been tattooing for roughly five years at Highlight Tattoo.
A lot of people get tattoos because they are honoring a loved one, like Rachael Reigottie. Her tattoo incorporates dog tags and is in honor of her father who passed away. It is just one of her thirteen tattoos. She also has “SHH” tattooed on the inside of her pointer finger. BINGO. I actually have seen this before and it takes everything in me to not ask those people why they feel the need to make the universal symbol for shut up and turn it into a permanent marking.
It’s very important for someone getting a tattoo to trust his or her artist so they don’t end up getting an unnecessary universal symbol. This creates an easier atmosphere to communicate what they want as a tattoo and the tattoos just turn out better overall. When someone comes to Cortese with a basic idea of something they saw off the first page of Google Images, she is able to change it to produce something unlike any other. “Half the time they don’t even realize you can interpret an idea much differently and provide them with a unique tattoo. It is my job to give them that option because I can think beyond the usual. Half the time they are okay with it, other times not,” says Cortese.
Dan Czar has been a tattoo artist for about two years now, including his one-year apprenticeship. As a new tattoo artist, Czar has always been passionate about creating. “With original designs my clients can walk out of the shop knowing that the tattoo is their own and no one else will have it,” says Czar. “My job is to make my clients happy with their tattoo and experiences so doing the ‘Pinterest’ designs and prior existing tattoos is necessary sometimes.”
Don’t judge a book by its cover; in this case, don’t judge a tattoo before you’ve gotten the chance to hear the story behind it. Jessica Mahoney comments on Facebook that she has a tattoo of a butterfly. “Of course the cliché girl tattoo is to get a butterfly. So every time I show it to someone I feel the need to explain that it’s not a butterfly ‘cause I’m a cliché, stupid girl, but because it has real reason behind it,” she explains. The tattoo is another in memory/honor tattoo. It’s for her grandmother who passed away a few years ago.
My mom and my dad both have tattoos in honor of their parents who passed away. That seems like a normal reason to get a tattoo in the first place, but have you ever had a friend tell you they got a tattoo out of spite? Colleen Curry did just that. Breakups are hard and people cope with them in many different ways. Curry’s ex-boyfriend absolutely hated tattoos. “I had $80 to spend and heart full of hate,” so naturally, Curry decided a tattoo. Colleen later realized that it didn’t give her the satisfaction she was looking for and four years later two horseshoes covered it up. I had to ask again why she decided to go with the horseshoes. Curry has been riding horses for 17 years. Her horse means everything to her and riding has always been a huge part of her life. This story was definitely nicer to hear.
Getting a tattoo for a significant other is always risky and not at all recommended. I’ve seen wedding band tattoos, name tattoos, portrait tattoos, etc. Now that’s real commitment. You’re making a commitment to that person that even if your mother-in-law hates your guts and runs you out of her house, that you will stand by your lover’s side through it all. As long as that tattoo is there, you will be reminded of that relationship but unfortunately, things can change in the blink of an eye. I have actually seen a high school student tattoo his girlfriend’s name on his neck. I wonder how that ended.
Czar says he’s seen a lot more artists taking the artistic approach and really developing their styles. Tattooing has grown over the years, but it’s necessary to keep those stereotypical tattoos because despite what you think, the artist thinks, or your grandmom thinks, it can make someone happy. “Artists are taking it to a new level,” he says. “I will gladly turn down money if I think the design won’t look good. I am always willing to work with clients and find a middle ground.” And going back to what I said earlier—“I think it’s really important to trust a professional’s opinion.”
Tattoo artists may even turn down a tattoo if they don’t want their name attached to it. If it’s not something they would put into their portfolio, why even do it? Maybe money purposes, but that’s not what many tattoo artists are about. “I have turned down tattoos for being ‘job stoppers’. A lot of these popular tattoos are in areas that either don’t heal well or they are in such a visible area that most employers do not deem them as professional. I will always turn down a sixteen year old who wants a neck or hand tattoo. I will always turn down racially motivated and offensive tattoos,” – I couldn’t agree more, Cortese.
So before you get that tattoo to pay tribute to your favorite movie, favorite celeb with the same tattoo, or show or band or whatever the hell else you want to pay tribute to, remember that it may not be as significant to you in ten years as it is now. Remind yourself that you don’t even speak that language that the lame quote is in, or that the Chinese symbol may mean cheeseburger instead of wisdom. Remember that those wings you want on your shoulder blades will not actually help you fly. Remember that with every single person that asks you, “What does that mean to you” or reminds you that tattoos are forever, it will get ridiculously annoying and you will probably end up second guessing it in the first place. If you end up remembering all of these things and still want one of these irrelevant tattoos, accept that it’s cliché and don’t try and make it seem like it’s a deep emotion thing for you. Own your basic.
“I am just the hands that are providing them with the tattoo.” – Sarah Cortese