My Tattoos are Not an Invitation

July 10, 2013
By

By Audrey Lundahl

Lundahl_AudreyAs a Coloradoan now living in Texas, the summer temperatures are trying. One way I cope is wearing heat-appropriate clothing. Wearing my sleeveless tops and dresses brings my full sleeve tattoo on my right arm to prominence. The reactions to this tattoo have been varied, from disapproving looks, questions about what it means, yells of “Nice tattoo!” or “Badass sleeve!” or even unwarranted touching and grabbing of my arm to get a closer look. At first I thought I should accept that this tattoo is more visible than my others, which means people will react to it. Maybe it’s surprising to see so many women embrace something that was once thought of as forbidden. But lately, the more interactions with strangers I have, the more I’m troubled by their reactions. I’m troubled to consider the ways that my female embodiment affects the way my tattoos are viewed in public. So, I created a list of things I really want to say to these strangers who feel it’s appropriate to grab my arm in public, and to answer all their questions about my tattoo’s meaning.

My tattoos are not for you.

I understand that I’m working against a strong assumption and history of the tattoo as self-expression. But, despite the visibility of my tattoo, I intended to express something to myself, not to everyone else. Just because I make my arm visible to the public does not mean the public should have access to my arm. Yes, it’s art, but it’s art for me. I worked to find a tattoo artist who would illustrate what I wanted my arm to express (again, to myself). If I wanted the public to have access to this art, I would work to display it in a museum.

Of course it means something.

But you don’t have the authority to critique my meaning. My tattoos are meaningful and personal, which means the scene displayed on my arm probably doesn’t make much sense to a stranger. That’s exactly how I like it. When I have a brief interaction with a salesperson or a barista, it’s difficult to explain the meaning of my tattoos in a few seconds of small talk. Even worse than “What does it mean?” is the judgment-laden, “Does it mean anything?” Usually some skepticism, and perhaps misunderstanding, accompanies this question. I understand that not everyone has or wants a tattoo, or even understands why others get tattoos, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get tattoos for whatever reason I want. So trust me. It means a lot.

I don’t like the process of getting tattoos.

It’s not a right of passage or an adrenalin rush or a chance to prove my toughness. It hurts. A lot. I don’t feel an instant connection to everyone else who has a tattoo either, because I know the reasons for getting them are varied and multiple. Sitting in a chair for hours getting a tattoo is not enjoyable for me, but I choose to endure it because I appreciate the outcome.

I didn’t just get tattoos because I was (am) young.

I may have chosen to get my tattoos between 20 and 25 years old, but I didn’t just get them because it was a trend or I wanted to prove I could withstand the process.

My tattoo’s effects on my ability to get a job are no one else’s business but my own.

And maybe my mom’s. Believe me, she has some opinions about my tattoos. As a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. and teaching classes, I think I’ll be okay.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my young female embodiment seems to open me up to more comments, more questions, and more touching. In the midst of heavy debates about women’s access to healthcare and decisions about their own reproductive choices, I don’t think questioning my decisions about body art are unrelated to the trend of telling women they can’t make decisions about their own bodies. I feel that resonate when older generations ask me what my husband thinks of my tattoos or if he has any himself. Texas women are currently in a battle to claim their own choices about their bodies. As Texas women and men have gathered at the state capitol in Austin for the past 2 weeks, I’m reminded that women’s reproduction and health are not the only decisions censored. So to me, tattoos are an attempt to claim a choice about my body.

And in our culture of rape, I’m not surprised that some men feel that my visible display of body art is an invitation to yell about, touch, and seemingly compliment my tattoos. There is a tendency to believe that a woman’s display of tattoos, and more importantly the display of choices about how her body looks, equates to promiscuity.  Perhaps this attitude that women have looser morals if they have tattoos, as a recent study claims, is another excuse to regulate women’s actions and punish those who dissent. Perhaps that’s why some women, like myself, have chosen to transgress expectations of how a woman should look. Most importantly, I didn’t wear a sleeveless shirt so my tattoos would give the public free-reign to comment on and touch my body. It’s just hot out here.

________________________________________

295514_675514052463_4754650_nAudrey Lundahl is a Ph.D. student in Women’s Studies at Texas Woman’s University, where she teaches a course on gender and social change. Her research interests include pop culture studies, especially 1950s and 60s pop culture; speculative realisms; Womanist theories; spiritual activism; and social justice pedagogies.

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48 Responses to My Tattoos are Not an Invitation

  1. Cary Allen Wilson on July 10, 2013 at 9:24 am

    “If I wanted the public to have access to this art, I would work to display it in a museum.”

    If you allow the art to be visible to the public, they have access to it.

    • Sara Crowe on July 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      By saying that she’s allowing the art to be visible to the public is based on the notion that a woman’s body *is* public — which is the exact opposite of the claim Audrey makes. An indivdiual’s body is their own, private space. Just because it’s visible, does not mean it’s public. A person can see into another’s home, but that doesn’t make it public or acceptable to enter without permission. A body is more sacred than property and should be treated as such.

      Excellent article, Audrey.

  2. Cary Allen Wilson on July 10, 2013 at 9:24 am

    “If I wanted the public to have access to this art, I would work to display it in a museum.”

    If you allow the art to be visible to the public, they have access to it.

    • Sara Crowe on July 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      By saying that she’s allowing the art to be visible to the public is based on the notion that a woman’s body *is* public — which is the exact opposite of the claim Audrey makes. An indivdiual’s body is their own, private space. Just because it’s visible, does not mean it’s public. A person can see into another’s home, but that doesn’t make it public or acceptable to enter without permission. A body is more sacred than property and should be treated as such.

      Excellent article, Audrey.

  3. Cary Allen Wilson on July 10, 2013 at 9:24 am

    “If I wanted the public to have access to this art, I would work to display it in a museum.”

    If you allow the art to be visible to the public, they have access to it.

    • Sara Crowe on July 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      By saying that she’s allowing the art to be visible to the public is based on the notion that a woman’s body *is* public — which is the exact opposite of the claim Audrey makes. An indivdiual’s body is their own, private space. Just because it’s visible, does not mean it’s public. A person can see into another’s home, but that doesn’t make it public or acceptable to enter without permission. A body is more sacred than property and should be treated as such.

      Excellent article, Audrey.

  4. Cary Allen Wilson on July 10, 2013 at 9:24 am

    “If I wanted the public to have access to this art, I would work to display it in a museum.”

    If you allow the art to be visible to the public, they have access to it.

    • Sara Crowe on July 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      By saying that she’s allowing the art to be visible to the public is based on the notion that a woman’s body *is* public — which is the exact opposite of the claim Audrey makes. An indivdiual’s body is their own, private space. Just because it’s visible, does not mean it’s public. A person can see into another’s home, but that doesn’t make it public or acceptable to enter without permission. A body is more sacred than property and should be treated as such.

      Excellent article, Audrey.

  5. Bruna Lobato on July 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

    You mean “rite of passage” instead of “right of passage,” I think. :-)

  6. Bruna Lobato on July 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

    You mean “rite of passage” instead of “right of passage,” I think. :-)

  7. Bruna Lobato on July 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

    You mean “rite of passage” instead of “right of passage,” I think. :-)

  8. Bruna Lobato on July 10, 2013 at 11:03 am

    You mean “rite of passage” instead of “right of passage,” I think. :-)

  9. Seren on July 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Wow…people actually grab your arm for a closer look? I often say (quietly) “Nice tattoos” or “that’s some beautiful ink” when I see someone with particularly stunning art (as yours is). Is this OK?
    The only way it’s acceptable to grab someone arm for a closer look is if you are very close friends and they have something new. VERY CLOSE. Ditto for asking what tattoos mean–that’s one of those home-over-coffee type convos, not in-line-at-the-checkout things.

  10. Seren on July 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Wow…people actually grab your arm for a closer look? I often say (quietly) “Nice tattoos” or “that’s some beautiful ink” when I see someone with particularly stunning art (as yours is). Is this OK?
    The only way it’s acceptable to grab someone arm for a closer look is if you are very close friends and they have something new. VERY CLOSE. Ditto for asking what tattoos mean–that’s one of those home-over-coffee type convos, not in-line-at-the-checkout things.

  11. Seren on July 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Wow…people actually grab your arm for a closer look? I often say (quietly) “Nice tattoos” or “that’s some beautiful ink” when I see someone with particularly stunning art (as yours is). Is this OK?
    The only way it’s acceptable to grab someone arm for a closer look is if you are very close friends and they have something new. VERY CLOSE. Ditto for asking what tattoos mean–that’s one of those home-over-coffee type convos, not in-line-at-the-checkout things.

  12. Seren on July 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Wow…people actually grab your arm for a closer look? I often say (quietly) “Nice tattoos” or “that’s some beautiful ink” when I see someone with particularly stunning art (as yours is). Is this OK?
    The only way it’s acceptable to grab someone arm for a closer look is if you are very close friends and they have something new. VERY CLOSE. Ditto for asking what tattoos mean–that’s one of those home-over-coffee type convos, not in-line-at-the-checkout things.

  13. sara on July 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Seriously? I don’t condone people grabbing or touching without consent…that’s wack. But c’mon someone asking you about your tatoo is just not a big fkn deal.

    Not everyone is mean spirited or has some underlying evil political/racist/ anti-feminist/ misogynistic agenda. Some people are just curious and genuinely interested in knowing about the art on your arm.

    Let’s not become a society where we can’t even talk to one another anymore. Sheesh.

    • Erin on July 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      It is a big deal. Especially if someone just walks up and grabs your arm without your expressed consent. I was work once and talking to my co-workers. A customer came up behind me and grabbed my arm to see my tattoos.

      If people wanna ask to see them, that’s fine. I’m cool with that. It’s astounding how many people want to touch you because of your tattoos. I can only equate to a pregnant woman getting her belly rubbed by complete strangers.

  14. sara on July 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Seriously? I don’t condone people grabbing or touching without consent…that’s wack. But c’mon someone asking you about your tatoo is just not a big fkn deal.

    Not everyone is mean spirited or has some underlying evil political/racist/ anti-feminist/ misogynistic agenda. Some people are just curious and genuinely interested in knowing about the art on your arm.

    Let’s not become a society where we can’t even talk to one another anymore. Sheesh.

    • Erin on July 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      It is a big deal. Especially if someone just walks up and grabs your arm without your expressed consent. I was work once and talking to my co-workers. A customer came up behind me and grabbed my arm to see my tattoos.

      If people wanna ask to see them, that’s fine. I’m cool with that. It’s astounding how many people want to touch you because of your tattoos. I can only equate to a pregnant woman getting her belly rubbed by complete strangers.

  15. sara on July 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Seriously? I don’t condone people grabbing or touching without consent…that’s wack. But c’mon someone asking you about your tatoo is just not a big fkn deal.

    Not everyone is mean spirited or has some underlying evil political/racist/ anti-feminist/ misogynistic agenda. Some people are just curious and genuinely interested in knowing about the art on your arm.

    Let’s not become a society where we can’t even talk to one another anymore. Sheesh.

    • Erin on July 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      It is a big deal. Especially if someone just walks up and grabs your arm without your expressed consent. I was work once and talking to my co-workers. A customer came up behind me and grabbed my arm to see my tattoos.

      If people wanna ask to see them, that’s fine. I’m cool with that. It’s astounding how many people want to touch you because of your tattoos. I can only equate to a pregnant woman getting her belly rubbed by complete strangers.

  16. sara on July 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Seriously? I don’t condone people grabbing or touching without consent…that’s wack. But c’mon someone asking you about your tatoo is just not a big fkn deal.

    Not everyone is mean spirited or has some underlying evil political/racist/ anti-feminist/ misogynistic agenda. Some people are just curious and genuinely interested in knowing about the art on your arm.

    Let’s not become a society where we can’t even talk to one another anymore. Sheesh.

    • Erin on July 10, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      It is a big deal. Especially if someone just walks up and grabs your arm without your expressed consent. I was work once and talking to my co-workers. A customer came up behind me and grabbed my arm to see my tattoos.

      If people wanna ask to see them, that’s fine. I’m cool with that. It’s astounding how many people want to touch you because of your tattoos. I can only equate to a pregnant woman getting her belly rubbed by complete strangers.

  17. Holly on July 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    yes and no. i agree that tattoos can be personal and definitely agree that no one should feel justified grabbing you to look at your tattoos, but it’s super snooty to not tell someone about a tattoo if they ask.

    you can make something up if you want to, or (better) have a short version answer prepared for those situations. but responding to someone who is interested or (more likely) making small talk by telling them that they can’t ask about something you are literally wearing ON YOUR SLEEVE is ridonk.

  18. Holly on July 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    yes and no. i agree that tattoos can be personal and definitely agree that no one should feel justified grabbing you to look at your tattoos, but it’s super snooty to not tell someone about a tattoo if they ask.

    you can make something up if you want to, or (better) have a short version answer prepared for those situations. but responding to someone who is interested or (more likely) making small talk by telling them that they can’t ask about something you are literally wearing ON YOUR SLEEVE is ridonk.

  19. Holly on July 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    yes and no. i agree that tattoos can be personal and definitely agree that no one should feel justified grabbing you to look at your tattoos, but it’s super snooty to not tell someone about a tattoo if they ask.

    you can make something up if you want to, or (better) have a short version answer prepared for those situations. but responding to someone who is interested or (more likely) making small talk by telling them that they can’t ask about something you are literally wearing ON YOUR SLEEVE is ridonk.

  20. Holly on July 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    yes and no. i agree that tattoos can be personal and definitely agree that no one should feel justified grabbing you to look at your tattoos, but it’s super snooty to not tell someone about a tattoo if they ask.

    you can make something up if you want to, or (better) have a short version answer prepared for those situations. but responding to someone who is interested or (more likely) making small talk by telling them that they can’t ask about something you are literally wearing ON YOUR SLEEVE is ridonk.

  21. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    As a woman who has a large colorful sleeve and other visible tattoos, I have had a similar experience. You know the interesting thing? I’ve noticed it’s only the non-tattooed (or non-visibly tattooed) who are doing the grabbing and asking inappropriate questions.

    • judy on July 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      This article is exactly why women’s studies departments get such a bad rap (and this is coming from someone who has worked and is teaching in one). While no one should be touching you and using your tattoos as an excuse to do so, if one experiences a sense of existential crisis when someone asks you about your tattoos, all I can say is — white people’s/first world problems (even if you are non-white or from the “third” world).
      – from the unfortunate, unhip “non-tattooed”community

  22. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    As a woman who has a large colorful sleeve and other visible tattoos, I have had a similar experience. You know the interesting thing? I’ve noticed it’s only the non-tattooed (or non-visibly tattooed) who are doing the grabbing and asking inappropriate questions.

    • judy on July 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      This article is exactly why women’s studies departments get such a bad rap (and this is coming from someone who has worked and is teaching in one). While no one should be touching you and using your tattoos as an excuse to do so, if one experiences a sense of existential crisis when someone asks you about your tattoos, all I can say is — white people’s/first world problems (even if you are non-white or from the “third” world).
      – from the unfortunate, unhip “non-tattooed”community

  23. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    As a woman who has a large colorful sleeve and other visible tattoos, I have had a similar experience. You know the interesting thing? I’ve noticed it’s only the non-tattooed (or non-visibly tattooed) who are doing the grabbing and asking inappropriate questions.

    • judy on July 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      This article is exactly why women’s studies departments get such a bad rap (and this is coming from someone who has worked and is teaching in one). While no one should be touching you and using your tattoos as an excuse to do so, if one experiences a sense of existential crisis when someone asks you about your tattoos, all I can say is — white people’s/first world problems (even if you are non-white or from the “third” world).
      – from the unfortunate, unhip “non-tattooed”community

  24. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    As a woman who has a large colorful sleeve and other visible tattoos, I have had a similar experience. You know the interesting thing? I’ve noticed it’s only the non-tattooed (or non-visibly tattooed) who are doing the grabbing and asking inappropriate questions.

    • judy on July 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      This article is exactly why women’s studies departments get such a bad rap (and this is coming from someone who has worked and is teaching in one). While no one should be touching you and using your tattoos as an excuse to do so, if one experiences a sense of existential crisis when someone asks you about your tattoos, all I can say is — white people’s/first world problems (even if you are non-white or from the “third” world).
      – from the unfortunate, unhip “non-tattooed”community

  25. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I believe these people behave this way because they are not part of the culture of the tattooed. As varied as the reasons for getting tattooed and the types of tattoos, there are some basic behavioral expectations within the culture that pretty much every tattooed person understands.

  26. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I believe these people behave this way because they are not part of the culture of the tattooed. As varied as the reasons for getting tattooed and the types of tattoos, there are some basic behavioral expectations within the culture that pretty much every tattooed person understands.

  27. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I believe these people behave this way because they are not part of the culture of the tattooed. As varied as the reasons for getting tattooed and the types of tattoos, there are some basic behavioral expectations within the culture that pretty much every tattooed person understands.

  28. Joanna on July 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I believe these people behave this way because they are not part of the culture of the tattooed. As varied as the reasons for getting tattooed and the types of tattoos, there are some basic behavioral expectations within the culture that pretty much every tattooed person understands.

  29. Ami on July 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I really agree with a lot of this article. I think the author was referring to the extreme cases. There are definitely respectful ways to compliment someone’s tattoos, like complimenting someone’s haircut. But you wouldn’t ask someone why they got their hairstyle or what it means (and hairstyles can be personal too!). But as a young woman with both arms tattooed, I get so many judgmental comments. I’m a server and customers always ask me if I’m allowed to have tattoos! And someone quietly complimenting your tattoos is different than someone yelling at you (which happens to me all the time when I’m walking in public). When you’re walking home late at night and a man yells “nice tats” it can be really scary. It seems like tattoos are turned into an excuse to yell at women or question their choices.

  30. Ami on July 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I really agree with a lot of this article. I think the author was referring to the extreme cases. There are definitely respectful ways to compliment someone’s tattoos, like complimenting someone’s haircut. But you wouldn’t ask someone why they got their hairstyle or what it means (and hairstyles can be personal too!). But as a young woman with both arms tattooed, I get so many judgmental comments. I’m a server and customers always ask me if I’m allowed to have tattoos! And someone quietly complimenting your tattoos is different than someone yelling at you (which happens to me all the time when I’m walking in public). When you’re walking home late at night and a man yells “nice tats” it can be really scary. It seems like tattoos are turned into an excuse to yell at women or question their choices.

  31. Ami on July 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I really agree with a lot of this article. I think the author was referring to the extreme cases. There are definitely respectful ways to compliment someone’s tattoos, like complimenting someone’s haircut. But you wouldn’t ask someone why they got their hairstyle or what it means (and hairstyles can be personal too!). But as a young woman with both arms tattooed, I get so many judgmental comments. I’m a server and customers always ask me if I’m allowed to have tattoos! And someone quietly complimenting your tattoos is different than someone yelling at you (which happens to me all the time when I’m walking in public). When you’re walking home late at night and a man yells “nice tats” it can be really scary. It seems like tattoos are turned into an excuse to yell at women or question their choices.

  32. Ami on July 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I really agree with a lot of this article. I think the author was referring to the extreme cases. There are definitely respectful ways to compliment someone’s tattoos, like complimenting someone’s haircut. But you wouldn’t ask someone why they got their hairstyle or what it means (and hairstyles can be personal too!). But as a young woman with both arms tattooed, I get so many judgmental comments. I’m a server and customers always ask me if I’m allowed to have tattoos! And someone quietly complimenting your tattoos is different than someone yelling at you (which happens to me all the time when I’m walking in public). When you’re walking home late at night and a man yells “nice tats” it can be really scary. It seems like tattoos are turned into an excuse to yell at women or question their choices.

  33. James on July 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Well written, girl !!!

    I am a guy who likes being effeminate. I want to have a small, butterfly tattoo near an ankle but I am worried about the risk of infection (I don’t mind the pain though, I think), which, I heard, rarely happens but might leave a scar. So I guess I won’t go for it :)

    I hope, as time passes, you will get fewer and fewer annoying remarks about your tattoo.

  34. James on July 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Well written, girl !!!

    I am a guy who likes being effeminate. I want to have a small, butterfly tattoo near an ankle but I am worried about the risk of infection (I don’t mind the pain though, I think), which, I heard, rarely happens but might leave a scar. So I guess I won’t go for it :)

    I hope, as time passes, you will get fewer and fewer annoying remarks about your tattoo.

  35. James on July 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Well written, girl !!!

    I am a guy who likes being effeminate. I want to have a small, butterfly tattoo near an ankle but I am worried about the risk of infection (I don’t mind the pain though, I think), which, I heard, rarely happens but might leave a scar. So I guess I won’t go for it :)

    I hope, as time passes, you will get fewer and fewer annoying remarks about your tattoo.

  36. James on July 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Well written, girl !!!

    I am a guy who likes being effeminate. I want to have a small, butterfly tattoo near an ankle but I am worried about the risk of infection (I don’t mind the pain though, I think), which, I heard, rarely happens but might leave a scar. So I guess I won’t go for it :)

    I hope, as time passes, you will get fewer and fewer annoying remarks about your tattoo.

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