Stop Touching My Tattoos Without Asking

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 16 2013 10:07 AM

Stop Touching My Tattoos Without Asking

tattoo
If you want to see the rest, you have to ask first.

Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr

I’m a fairly tattooed guy, but a simple t-shirt hides most of my tattoos. Both of my upper arms, though, are covered with colorful, intricate pieces, and these are only partly obscured by short sleeves. And this is a problem—not because I don’t want people to see this body art; of course I do. But curiosity gets the better of many otherwise sane people’s social sensibilities.

If you have a tattoo that peeks out into the world, I’m sure you instantly know what I’m talking about. For those who are still in the dark, let me give you a few examples.

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One recent morning I went to my local convenience store to get a cold beverage. The cashier rang me up and, as I was pulling my wallet out to pay, I could see her eyes flicking back and forth between my arms. She was staring—intently, with a glint of wonder—at the tattooed parts of my arms exposed between sleeve and elbow.

I didn’t mind this. But then I saw a telling grin on her face. And before I could finish thinking, “Oh no, don’t do it,” she wordlessly reached over the counter and lifted up my shirtsleeve. You know, so she could get a better look at my inked flesh. As if she knew me. As if she wasn’t a cashier brazenly manipulating the clothing of a customer without so much as a warning.

This anecdote is not anomalous, I assure you. It happens entirely too often. And I’m lucky enough to be a 20-something male, which means the violation I feel doesn’t begin to compare to what others I’ve heard from have experienced.

Consider a 20-something female friend of mine. She has a lovely tattoo on her shoulder blade and back; you can see part of it when she’s wearing a tank top. And some strangers who get that glimpse just go head and pull back the clothing’s edge in order to get a better gander at the artwork on her skin.

Or take this even more extreme example: Another friend with an extensive leg tattoo was standing on the sidewalk when she felt something on her leg. She looks back and there’s a middle-age woman—oddly enough all the perpetrators in the stories I’ve heard have been middle-aged women—reaching to pull up my friend’s skirt so she could get a better view of the leg tattoo. My friend, who was rightfully taken aback, slapped the woman and walked away upset.

Would the strangers in these stories be considered anything less than uncouth, handsy violators if there weren’t a tattoo there that they simply had to see? Why does a tattoo suddenly change the rules of what people think is and isn’t acceptable to do to other bodies?

Yes, tattoos are outwardly facing—some more so than others—and some are quite eye-grabbing. So it’s no surprise they draw attention. But they’re also inextricable from a person’s body. When you stare at a tattoo, perhaps you think this is like starting at a work of art in a gallery. It’s not.

Tattoo etiquette is nothing new, there are a number of attempts to address it through guidelines, rants, and raves, which all amount to the same general principle: “Tattoo etiquette dictates that you simply ask the tattooed person if you can take a look at their tattoo and if you can touch it.”

But these broad statements do not seem to have made anything better. In fact, based on my experience and that of the people I’ve talked to, things are actually getting worse. People are becoming bold, more willing to touch and grab at others’ ink.

I’m glad that tattoos are no longer as taboo as they used to be, and that, for the most part, having tattoos does not push you to the fringes of polite society. But too much of that society still sees body art as an excuse to be impolite. It’s a tattoo. It’s not a sign that says, “Touch here!” 

Jathan Sadowski is a graduate student studying applied ethics and the human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University.