Choosing a Tattoo

PERMANENCE: The permanent marking of one’s body with a symbol can be a rite of passage into a new stage of adulthood, but it can also be a whim with lasting ramifications. Imagine for a moment that you dyed your hair purple when the punk scene was at its height, but you are now stuck with purple hair through the 90s and into the new millennium?

FOREVER SYMBOL: I know people who have gotten tattoos when they were heavily into a phase, whether it was vampires or fairies, only to later realize that they had burned out on that phase and were now totally into...skulls. If you have a track record of loving something until you hate it, you need to be super careful when picking a tatt. This thing is going to be your symbol. In fact, a good tattoo will make people think of you immediately and know that it’s totally “you” in every way. It should embody your essence in color, design, and symbolism. A bad tatt will have people staring at the picture, then at you, then at the picture, trying to figure out what in the world made you get it. Imagine a docile quiet person with a skull tattoo or a guy with his girl’s name in flowery scrolling…

MEMORIAL: Probably one of the biggest reasons people get tattoos are in memory of a loss. I’m hesitant to advise this. Not that you weren’t marked by the loss of someone and wish to carry them with you, but I often tell people that their loved ones can’t be found in objects that they possessed while they lived here and marking one’s body with them doesn’t keep them safely with you. They are in your heart and mind and that is the only place they can be truly represented. Some loved ones would not be happy you marked yourself up with their name or image. If you find yourself thinking about it incessantly, don’t act until you’re in the phase of grief where you can talk about the person and smile and laugh and feel good instead of crying. At that point, you can do it for all the right reasons.

NARROWING SEARCH: When I went through the personal process of choosing a tattoo, I knew that I had a tendency to go through phases until I burnt out. This tattoo above on my right shoulder was actually going to be a Green Man image. What stopped me? A dozen ramifications. For one, it was a dense face with all green floating on my flesh without an anchor. People would constantly ask me what it was and what it meant and I’d have to explain my pagan tendencies. As well, people would stare at it and not me. It wouldn’t integrate with my flesh, my style, my hair, my body, my clothing…I decided a simpler symbol would be ideal and one that incorporated my love of yellow, orange and green…

DEVELOPING IDEA: I have very few obsessions that remain with me through life, some are ghosts, Halloween, abandoned places, and another being all things autumn. It was never a phase for me. I started as a young kid constantly taking wax paper and ironing and protecting leaves for safe keeping until I filled a whole drawer with them. I went into the woods every day to study the changing colors and tried to catch the leaves as they fell. My whole body and spirit came to life with hope and happiness every fall and autumn is when Halloween comes, as well. It was a no-brainer for me to represent autumn for myself, but how? I wanted something that within the context of my body, it would seem natural. A leaf changing colors suited me, as well. I have never been like my family of origin, sort of drifting from the oak tree and changing as I fell. I had my best friend draw it up since she is an artist and understood what I wanted, a tumbling twisting leaf that looked like it fell on me as I walked through an autumn forest.

PLACEMENT: Placement was the next issue. I originally wanted a lower back tattoo. Yeah, I’m one of those kind of girls. But, upon further consideration, I’d never be able to appreciate it. I wanted something that when I looked at it, it made me smile, as if it were my partner in crime. I considered my ankle, but to me ankle tatt’s are saying “I’m just kind of trying to be naughty, but don’t want to get caught.” I wanted to be naughty. I considered the top of the breast, but I didn’t want to mar the girls, I kind of like them. So, I moved on and considered the upper back or shoulder. Upper back was once again a place I’d never seen and with long hair, no one else would see it either. So, I considered the shoulder. It’s a place a leaf could fall and land. So, I had the design, I had the colors I wanted, and I had the placement. I opted to make the leaf life-sized so it looked real. I also realized that with this, I had the option of some day putting the exact same leaf on my low back if I wished so that the leaves had fallen onto my body. That’s a little gift I might give myself in the future, but it’s not entirely necessary.

PAIN: What’s the process of getting a tatt like? I looked to people who’s tatt’s I liked and asked where they had it done. Since I had a picture for the artist to trace and put on, there wasn’t a lot of leeway for creativity, although he did add some minty green behind the leaf to make it pop. That kind of pissed me off at first, but over time I realized that the tatt matches my skin tones so well, it was the only way to give it some dimension. It took about 2 hours to do this baby and, yeah, it was painful, but I admit as a female I’ve been through a lot more pain and this was purposeful pain, not “oh god, something’s wrong” pain or “oh shit, I gotta get a C-section.” The noise is what’ll freak you out. It sounds like a drill so you kind of wince when they start, then after a while endorphins kick in and you don’t care at all, it becomes the norm. The endorphins do drop off at about the hour mark, so you will start over with new pain again, but at that point, you’re kind of mindless and if the tatt artist is good, he’s distracting you enough not to care. It really is just a temporary discomfort. I compare it to a nasty carpet burn x10.

TRENDS: Some tatts are totally “in” so avoid them at all costs. When tatt’s started getting popular in the 90s you saw a lot of those cuff ones on the upper biceps, especially the ever classic barbed wire. It dates the person. You see it and go “he got that in the 90s” then with the new millennium you had tramp stamps and tribal tattoos (you know those saw-tooth looked zig-zag angry looking symbols). So, consider too that getting a tattoo that’s “in” might be super “out” in 10 years.

ADDICTION: There’s a tendency once you get a tattoo and have had that amazing transformation of feeling bad-ass for sitting through it and seeing it as a badge of honor, to want to get more. I admit that with every tattoo, the first one loses more and more meaning until you’re nothing more than a schizophrenic picture book. It’s really a lot like hoarders who keep possessions as if memories and people can be found in these objects and to a heavily tattooed person, these symbols can more and more define all the details of who they are. I say, buy a photo album and save your body for flesh. There’s a real addictive process to it that you have to watch. Once you start inking, having a few loose ones here and there makes you want to tie them together somehow and they were all made at different times, sometimes by different artists and for different reasons. Try very hard to find that one symbol that epitomizes all there is about you and be happy with that. You have made your mark, you have posted your personal avatar on your body, and you can move on. If you keep getting them as time goes on, it’s kind of like wearing your junior high picture on your body when you’re a senior—it’s outdated and shows you at a more immature time.

HEALTH: As someone in the medical field, I’ll emphasize strongly that you check into the hygiene history of the place you’re going to and any potential reports about the person doing the tatt. You need to go there and be sure that they are unwrapping new needles, have them show you their autoclaves, be certain it’s on the up and up. Hepatitis and HIV can be transmitted this way. In fact, you have to wait a year before you’re allowed to donate blood just to be sure these diseases are able to be detected.

MEN AND TATTS: Now, as a female, I admit that I do love tatts on men, but I also do not like sleeves in the least as it takes away from a man’s muscles and his skin. Super ick rating for tattoos on the neck or face. A good old-fashioned tatt on the biceps or shoulder is totally sexy. I also am crazy about people using color. Black ink is just such a snoozer. Colored ones come alive and look so organic on flesh. I’ve been known to stare ridiculously at a man’s tatt if it’s placed right and colorful and interesting. One of a ghost Viking ship had me chasing him through a crowd to keep looking at it! Suddenly, he seemed incredibly attractive and interesting.

WOMEN AND TATTS: “Tramp stamps” on the lower back often give off a desperate feel in older women. In younger women, it’s like an open invitation. What about a woman with a tattoo on her ankle? Very old school but trying to do something crazy. Upper back? A super safe place to put it. Upper arm? Can sometimes seem butch depending on the tattoo. Breasts/Buttocks/Belly Button? Says this is for lovers only. So far as what men think of women with tatt’s, you have everything from Jesse James who likes them head-to-toe to men who would knock a woman off his list of potentials for having one. I think most men would like to be pleasantly surprised to find a little tatt in a hidden place and feel as if he’s the only one who gets to see it.

HELP: As always, I’m available for advisement. I think I know a lot of you quite well and might help you think out all the ramifications of your decision with a steady head and no personal investment like a family member might have.


  1. I like what you have to say about tattoos. There's a lot of sound advice here for people pondering such a decision.

    I've toyed with the idea, but at 46 I don't know if there's really a point anymore.

    Where to put it is easy: On my left bicep and definitely in full color.

    But I could never decide on WHAT to get - although recently I came up with the idea of a combination dragon with a scorpion tail.

    (I'm a Scorpio and my Chinese zodiac sign is the Dragon)

  2. Eric;
    I was 45 when I got mine. I say, "why the hell not?" But, since I got mine, the symbol somehow got me more focused. I feel somehow represented by it and looking down and seeing it makes me feel like everywhere I go and everyone who sees it, has me pegged immediately. The symbol needs to be something that you don't need to explain and that represents your attitude and tone. I like your idea. As a female, I admit, it sounds sexy.

  3. i always wanted one, but i am not a needle guy... but if i ever got one it would be the logo of bizzaro from the superman tales. the difference would i would want it more of a shadow in color and look... i have thought someday... ah the yes the pain...

    great job covering all the points.

  4. Jeremy the pain shouldn't discourage you because after about 1 minute of it, you get endorphins and then you're able to focus on other things. A good tatt artist knows how to distract too.

  5. I know exactly what I want and where. Won't tell it here, because I have never seen the idea on any skinvas and still want to be the first. Nor had I ever seen the word skinvas until I typed it. Think it will stick?

  6. MM
    You better share that tatt with the rest of us, bud!

  7. Your tat is cool, but I'm not sure getting one is for me. Not sure I could make that kind of commitment to a single image. Not only that, but I hear they hurt as like the devil!

  8. HN;
    Only hurts while it's happening. I get laser hair removal and I tell you that hurts a LOT more. I agree about not knowing what to choose. For me, the leaf had been a running theme throughout my whole life, not to mention my auburn hair and eyes and golden skin and propensity to wear autumn colors. I was obsessed with the season from the first days of school and the clean slate you get each year to the cold noses and sweats, burning leaves and hot cider all the way to Thanksgiving. I just love it all. I have a lot of phases I go in and out of but that will always be me. If you found a symbol that was you throughout life, it'd be an easy commitment. But, it may take a bit more life experience to figure out what sticks from childhood into adult years consistently. Although, hell, I'd say a Jack O' Lantern or scarecrow might always suit you, buddy.

  9. Hey Sis,

    At some point this weekend I'm going to send you pics of my tatts. I am interested in seeing what you can come up with to cover up a certain one we have discussed. I love winter and snow. I was born in December, go figure! LOL


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