I got my first tattoo when I was 18, just after I finished my Year 12 English exam. I took the train to the city, walked up Swanston St to the tattoo parlour inside one of those stores full of piercings and band shirts and “smoking memorabilia”, and asked them to tattoo my ribs with the phrase: ‘think happy thoughts’, a smattering of stars around it.
Afterwards, I took the train back to school to study for my next exam, lifting my shirt up to show the Year 11s the plastic-covered, sticky words now permanently etched into my skin.
I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I hadn’t researched artists or studios, or art styles or references. All I knew was that I wanted a tattoo, and I got it. And I’m still happy I did, even though I probably would’ve done things differently if I’d known better.
My most recent tattoo (my fourth) was impulsive. The artist I wanted to do my watercolour Eevee wasn’t available, but I was going to be in Melbourne anyway, and they had an opening. So I walked in, showed the artist what I wanted, and a few hours later, I had a tattoo of an orange fox on my upper arm – underneath, ‘FOXY’ in block letters. It doesn’t mean anything, except that I think it looks nice.
Growing up, tattoos weren’t particularly well regarded by my parents. The two of them weren’t necessarily conservative, but I grew up knowing that tattoos weren’t meant for someone like me – middle class, smart (sort of), and definitely not a sailor or jailbird. My first tattoo was on my ribs so I could hide it for as long as possible. But I fell into the emo scene on entering high school, and so my standard of beauty ended up being shaped by female bass players in skinny jeans and tattooed, pierced Suicide Girls as much as Disney princesses and actresses in romantic comedies. I’m not saying that I’m particularly radical – but my beauty standards ended up being shaped by women who deviated from the norm. (Of course, they were still white, thin and beautiful.)
For me, the question is: where does the dislike of tattoos come from? Traditionally, it’s from the association with criminals and sailors, but really, that’s no more than a distant memory now. We still have anchors and ships, and mermaids and fish, but now they don’t signify crossing the Atlantic Ocean, or nautical miles travelled, or the North Star. While many tattoos still represent something – a person or a feeling or a moment – to the people who get them, often, they are regarded as trashy and ugly. That goes especially for women.
When men get tattoos, they’re often seen as more masculine. When women get tattoos that aren’t small, cute and hidden – think butterfly on the ankle or elegant cursive on the wrist – they violate unspoken gender norms and beauty standards. This despite anecdotal and hard evidence that women are now equally or more likely to get tattoos than men. Of course, the tattoos women get still tend to be, yes, small, cute and hidden. It’s much harder for those with big pieces to get away with it, at least in the mainstream. And the damage is compounded if you’re not thin and white.
Tattoos on women have a (deserved or undeserved) association with increased “deviancy”, promiscuity and risk-taking behaviours. Interestingly, women who do get tattoos report a rise in self-esteem, but they’re also more likely to get them removed at a later point. Whether that’s social pressure, fear of the tattoo aging into something they do not want, or genuine regret is up for debate. What isn’t is that women’s tattoos are easily targeted for being classless, tacky or bogan. As Jenn Ashworth notes, “They are the mark of the slut, the slapper, the loose woman.” Men’s tattoos are rarely a signal regarding their sexual availability. That’s not to say tattoos on men still don’t have connotations of criminality or a lower class, but there’s an extra dimension to the scrutiny women face for daring to have tattoos.
While I’m hardly covered in tattoos, and thus don’t face nearly the same sort of stigma as more heavily tattooed women, having visible ink means that people look at me differently, even if they don’t tell me to my face (my parents being an exception). That can make me uncomfortable, knowing that people may think I’m more likely to take risks or put out or be, in general, a deviant, when they see my ink.
The thing is, no matter how mainstream we declare tattoos are, the truth is that they’re not. As someone who does like tattoos, it’s hard to understand why people who don’t like them, hate them so much. There are practical reasons, like my parents’ reasons – they envision a tidy life for me, an office job where bosses don’t look kindly on body art. But why don’t these imaginary bosses, and other people, like it? Is it really because they think that a little fox on my arm is ugly? Or that I think I’ll regret it?
Sure, tattoos might fade, or get laser removed, or get covered up with another tattoo, but for the most part, they’re a reminder of what you used to be at a point in your life, which can be beautiful or sometimes a little sad. There are a lot of things that I was born with – brown, short-sighted eyes that need heavy prescription lenses, black hair that resists attempts to bleach and colour it, and skin that tans too easily. I can’t change any of these things, yet I need to live with them. So why not make a mark on my body that I can choose to live with? And when I’m old and my tattoos are faded and wrinkly, like the rest of me, I get to know that at least I made my own decision.
Image: Drew Hays
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.