Painted With That Brush
I’m 29 years old, married, educated at post-graduate level, and have been employed by impressive organizations and institutions in managerial roles. I now run my own business and have returned to school to gain further post-graduate qualifications. I am sociable, gentle in nature, naturally optimistic and positive. People tell me I am pretty, in a ‘girl next door’ kind of a way. I am also an observant Jew, involved with a vibrant and spiritual community who endeavour to do good for each other and the world.
By all accounts I am a middle class, successful, pleasant adult, living a pretty enviable and settled life.
Every so often however, in fact more often than I really like, I get stopped by total strangers and have my life choices, values and morals challenged. Not only that, but I have my physical appearance – my body, analyzed and commented on, with people giving me their unsolicited opinions, regularly.
The reason for this is that I have tattoos. I have big, bold, bright, colourful, meaningful works of art imprinted onto my skin.
Like so many other people of my generation, I fell in love with the aesthetic of good quality, bespoke tattoo art.
Granted, amongst the religious Jewish community one expects the odd question, as tattoos are widely known for being forbidden by the religion. However, it is common for people to become more observant later in life and many practicing Jews have tattoos these days.
But in a contemporary, Western, secular society, so many people from such diverse backgrounds are adorned with personal narratives, stories, memories and symbols. The wearers have chosen to display these images on the portable canvas of their bodies because they undoubtedly represent something important to them. Usually people with more complex, aesthetically considered and attractive tattoos are creative themselves, and value visual imagery as a way of exploring and expressing ideas. Perhaps visual art is so tied up with their identity that it felt important to them to incorporate their physical selves into that passion.
Whatever a person’s reason for choosing to get a tattoo, it was (in most cases) an informed, adult decision. Don’t get me wrong, some people get something meaningless out of a scrap book tattooed onto their necks, bosoms, butts, etc., whilst on vacation in Malaga, drunk. That was still their (intoxicated) choice. I wish to particularly explore the phenomenon of people who get what I call ‘art tattoos’. High quality, well-executed, meaningful pieces done by sought after artists.
One of the regular comments I get is ‘I don’t like tattoos, but yours are nice.’ This, generally, I don’t mind. After all, it is a compliment and suggests I have helped possibly shift an unhelpful discourse. I often get explicit compliments too: ‘wow your tattoos are aaammmaaazzziiinngg!’ or ‘I wish I had tattoos like yours/ if I was going to get a tattoo it would be like that!’
When the compliments go too far, is when people want to touch them. It surprises me that people don’t realise that tattooed skin shares the same texture as non-tattooed skin. Men often want to ‘touch’ my tattoos; some ask; many do not. This is not ok and leads me to my first point. Though I have chosen to display works of art upon my body – and I of course would like people to enjoy these pieces as much as I do – I did not choose/ anticipate people assuming that my walking gallery was free entry for all. If it somehow is, then just as in a regular art gallery onlookers are expected not to touch the paintings, I certainly expect the same rule to apply for my body. This phenomenon means that I often find compliments hard to receive, because they can feel loaded with expectation or some kind of assumption of inclusivity.
It is however, the negative responses that I oh-so-often receive, that upset and surprise me the most. It would seem that my otherwise pleasing demeanour and socially acceptable existence becomes totally undermined and in some cases dismissed by the slight glance of a sliver of colour upon my wrist.
‘Now tell me, why would a nice looking girl like you go and ruin yourself like that?’
‘Do you regret those?’
‘You can get tattoos removed really easily these days you know?’
‘Your kids will get a hard time in school one day, because of the other parents will judge you for having those…’
‘Do you find it hard to get jobs because of those?’
‘Your personality doesn’t match the fact that you have tattoos…’
I shan’t go on. I assume you get the picture. I literally get this all the time: In the street, at the gym, in stores. I get it in New York City, in London, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Some people try and reassure me, by pointing out the age or level of religiosity of some of my critics. I do not however believe these are excusable justifications. Commenting on someone else’s body, unsolicited, offering advice on how to ‘improve’ or ‘fix’ it, unsolicited, are not ok.
I want to break this down. Not only is it not ok to comment, but I am also still trying to understand why it is in the first place people are so upset and offended by and concerned with another person’s appearance. An aspect of their appearance, which is really not so different from the clothing they are wearing; it is all just an expression of aesthetic taste and cultural nuance anyway…
Once upon a time, 60 plus years ago, tattoos were the domain of sailors, prostitutes and circus freaks. However, this has not been the case for many decades. For a while they were associated with criminals and indeed, some tattoos are still symbols of gang and criminal culture, but I can assure you I do not have anything that even mildly suggests violence tattooed upon my body. Rather I have a cup of tea surrounded by flowers, a pretty-faced Russian doll once again surrounded by flowers, a nightingale bird… really, nothing that even denotes the faintest hint of something unsavoury.
Along with all of the other talented, gentle, peace-loving, educated, ambitious tattooed folk out there living in big cities and also rurally: my tattoos are in no way a symbol of aggression or of anything threatening. They were not done in order to frighten or intimidate people.
Then there is the assumption that someone who chooses to get something so permanent put upon their bodies must be flippant. People change and lives change. Bodies change! Me aged 23, fit and fabulous and free to explore the many facets of my identity, is not the same as me aged 75, probably slightly sagged and most definitely expected to behave more demurely. I will have children and grandchildren who will be looking up to me, I will have to go to important meetings with important people and ensure that I am taken seriously. I can’t possibly stand out too much or come across as too excitable, or exciting. So if I irresponsibly choose to get tattoos when I am young, I am undoubtedly not very good at considering my future.
Or perhaps I am. Perhaps I considered it a great deal and decided that whatever point of my life I am at, I want to be able to be myself and to express myself and not to feel I have to hide myself to be taken seriously. I would like my mind, my heart, the words I use and the actions I take to describe who I am to people – not the clothes that I wear, the jewellery I accessorize with, or the tattoos upon my skin, that will undoubtedly compliment the whole ensemble.
I got married wearing the most gorgeous hand made dress. It was very modest, covering not only my chest area but also my elbows and my legs. A friend innocently asked me if I was going to wear long sleeves, to cover the tattoo on my left forearm. I said ‘why would I want to do that?’ She said (again so innocently and really meaning no harm), ‘so as not to offend anyone and so you can look truly bride-like on the big day. Some girls with tattoos just choose to cover them up at their weddings, ya know?’ I did not berate my friend, but I did reject her suggestion and enjoyed seeing the flashes of pinks, purples and turquoises that my beautiful cup of tea consists of, from beneath the wafting sleeves of my dreamy gown!
Maybe some of the guests thought it looked odd, maybe they thought it ‘cheapened’ the otherwise classy affair. Maybe some of them questioned my integrity, my purity, maybe even my sanity. But if that is what they were thinking about on our wedding day, then I am sure they had other pains that dwelled within, that they were desperately trying to avoid feeling and my tattoos must have made a welcome distraction. Therefore I have compassion.
I try to take this compassion out onto the streets with me. I try and direct it towards the men at the gym, the women in the clothing stores, the people at supermarket checkouts. But I must admit, sometimes I just want to scream at them all to leave me alone and to keep their thoughts about my body and my life choices to themselves.
If you are a totally terrific tattooed person like me, functioning highly and happily in the world, I wrote this article as an act of solidarity, to express my frustrations and to get a virtual fist-bump from y’all.
If you are someone who is prone to wrinkling your nose when you see a bit of ink upon the forearm of a pretty girl (or anyone else), or if you are someone who has been known to comment on a colleague, friend, family members – or a total strangers tattoos: then this article is also for you. It is a request to not only open your mind and to get with the times, but also to consider the intrusion your comments make. Just as you (hopefully) would not stop someone in the street and question what they are wearing, or their hairstyle, please do not do so with tattoos. Just as the discourses on how unacceptable it is of ‘fat shame’ based on a person’s weight or ‘slut shame’ based on a woman’s clothing choice is growing in public support, I hope too that ‘tattoo shaming’ will gain the same momentum and that ultimately we can truly all live and let live!
Just remember, the next time you choose not to employ or let your son/ daughter date someone because they have tattoos, you could be passing up the best employee ever, or your child’s opportunity to marry their true soul mate – all because of an outdated and judgmental way of thinking that we can all really move on from now!
(Artwork provided by the talented WRITER of this very article – Jo Moss ! To inquire about her art or view it, please visit jomossart.com )