When I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday, I never anticipated the type of reactions it would receive. Sure, I expected to hear polite compliments — and honestly looked forward to feeling endlessly cooler in my skin with beautiful ink all over it. But I never understood the responsibility that would come with having tats: The obligation of explaining them to many folks with preconceived judgments. Not to mention being touched by strangers simply because the designs on my flesh fascinate them.
Dealing with folks constantly crossing the boundaries of my self-security and comfort is exhausting, and I'm often at a loss for words when these uncomfortable interactions occur. I want to yell at anyone who expects me to disclose something as personal as the significance of my ink. I want to lash out at those who touch and grab me without consent, simply to get a better look at my arm or back. As someone who's been sexually traumatized, this unwanted contact can become especially triggering.
While this isn't the case for everyone (and if you're happy disclosing the private and personal details of your ink, please go for it), it's often difficult to take the power back in these situations. So since it can feel difficult to think on your feet come these interactions, here are some things to consider saying to folks who think it's appropriate to badger you about your body art.
1. "Nope, you can see it fine from there"
People wanting to touch your body art seems to be one of the main issues those with tattoos face from both strangers and loved ones alike. Usually, humans who are fascinated by my tattoos touch me without consent. But for the few who do ask, I'd like to say, "Nope, you can see it just fine from there."
On my way home from the city once, a random teen girl interrupted my conversation with my partner to ask if she could touch my Skeleton Lady tat. I was so bewildered by her question that I answered with, "Uh, sure," after some hesitation (she has been approaching me anyway as I struggled to find my words).
As she proceeded to stroke my arm, completely fascinated, I felt terribly uneasy. Next time, when given the opportunity to say "yes" or "no" before being touched, I'd really like to strive for answering with this one.
2. "Can you please give me some space?"
If a random person comes up to you and begins prodding your skin as they compliment your ink, you have every right in the world to request space. Your body is not public property simply because it has interesting designs on it.
Asking something as simple as, "Can you give me some space?" conveys the message that the person is being inappropriate without being too abrupt.
3. "It's healed, you're not going to feel anything"
If you're feeling particularly snarky, you can go with this one. Because, honestly, what do people think they're going to achieve by touching a tattoo? It's ink embedded in the skin, not something you can feel with your hand or better observe by making physical contact. Please appreciate my ink from afar, guys.
4. "You're making me uncomfortable"
Then, there are certain situations that call for a more assertive remark.
At a family party that was mostly inhabited by my dad's drunk friends, three different men tried getting a better look at my back tattoo by holding my arms tightly and moving the straps on the romper I was wearing. This situation was particularly stressful and triggering to me, so I physically pushed them away.
Saying, "Stop. You're making me uncomfortable," is another great course of action in any situation like this. Don't be afraid to speak up if tattoo admirers are crossing a line.
5. "That's actually super personal"
The second main issue I've encountered with people's reactions to my tattoos has to do with strangers and friends alike asking the meaning behind my ink. When put on the spot, I often struggle to construct both an honest and meaningful answer.
This usually makes me feel negatively afterwards, between the silly guilt I sometimes experience over having ink that doesn't necessarily hold enough significance, and the anticlimactic reaction from folks who I just poured my heart out to.
You're not required to tell anyone the real story behind your ink, unless you want to do so. Responding with, "That's actually super personal," is totally sufficient, and conveys to the person how inappropriate it can be to ask such questions.
6. "There isn't any. I just like it"
Or, if your tattoo doesn't really have a "deep meaning," try to say it like it is. People always seem pretty hilariously offended at this response, which makes it all the more satisfying.
7. "What's the significance of that top/hair color/dress?"
If you're feeling particularly sassy, consider turning the question back onto them. I've never tried this one out, but I think it could be useful in showing the commenter your perspective: These questions can be invasive.
8. Make Up A Silly Backstory
My partner, who has witnessed multiple strangers ask me the significance behind my tattoos, always encourages me to make up a goofy story in response. The closest I've come to that is straight-up lying about the meaning. But if you go out of your way to give an overly sarcastic or absurd answer, it might just be another fun way to drive the message home that folks with tattoos don't always want to be asked these questions.
9. "Good thing it's on my body, then"
One of my main issues when dealing with tattoo comments has to do with the naysayers and folks who judge body mods in general. Usually, older people in my life say things like, "I would never want a tattoo like that," or "That's very strange-looking," when referring to my ink.
My favorite answer to comments such as these is, "Good thing it's on my body, then." Each and every time, this response embarrasses the person in question, and sometimes even leads to apologies from those who realize the fault in their words.
When it comes to older family members, I expect this statement to comfort me rather than trigger any real awareness within them.
10. "Luckily, I think it's gorgeous"
This is another slightly less sassy variation of the above. Trust me, statements like this one can certainly lessen the blow of tattoo-related insults if you're as sensitive as I am.
11. "I actually got this for myself, so I don't care much about how others feel about it"
I enjoy using this one when I hear things such as, "How did your mother let you do this to yourself?" and the like. Reminding even the most conservative of people in my family that I don't care what anyone else thinks has proven successful when trying to diffuse a situation.
12. "It doesn't have to hold a specific meaning. I love it because it's beautiful"
Many times, judgment springs from the disappointment of family and friends over the fact that some of my tattoos aren't meaningful enough in their eyes. I've gotten many a wide-eyed expression from relatives when I admit that half of my tattoos were executed on a whim.
But don't be afraid to stand your ground, defending your ink gently and lovingly.
13. "My body, my business"
At the end of the day, your body and the choices you make surrounding it are no one else's business but your own. Try to remember that above all.
Though it's sometimes hard to assert yourself in these situations, it's helpful to have an arsenal of pre-memorized comebacks at hand when the situation arises. At the end of the day, you deserve to feel beautiful and comfortable in your own ink-covered skin, no matter what anyone else says.
Images: Meg Zulch