A student recently asked why I discourage tattoos.

Every semester, it slips out: I emphatically discourage everyone from getting tattoos.

“If you don’t have one, don’t get one. If you already have one or more, don’t get another.”

It’s An Unpopular Recommendation.
“Unpopular” because tattoos are popular. I know. I’ve been to a water park.

I guess that half of my college students already have a tattoo. It’s a don’t ask / don’t look situation.

It’s Your Skin.
What you do with your skin is none of my business. I might inadvertently glimpse it. But you have to live in it.

So do what you want.

We Might Disagree.
If you are friend who is painted, I still like you. I still can see you through the ink.   

You chose to be painted. If the ink is visible to others, you also chose to be an advocate for tattooing. You might not want to be an advocate for tattooing, but — because you are wonderful and your tattoos are visible — you are automatically a Role Model For Tattooing.

I disagree with you on tattooing. I’m an advocate for not getting a tattoo. But the absence of a tattoo doesn’t make me a visible role model.

So I have to write about it.

I hope that doesn’t make you angry at me. We’re both self-righteous, which is not a bad quality, in moderation.

Before You Paint Yourself
Before you get a tattoo, here are the reasons I’m not getting tattooed.

Try on these thoughts for yourself. Do they fit?

Each takes just a minute to consider — an intelligent step before making an indelible decision:

  1. I don’t have the time. It’s must take more than 20 minutes. I always have something better to do. When I have nothing better to do than get a tattoo, either my imagination or my ambition has failed. 
  2. I don’t have the money. A good, clean tattoo must cost more than $200. If I had $200 to spend right now, I’d go to the bookstore or the bakery. And there’s a million charities that could use my $200. I always have something better to do with $200.
  3. I am a role model, however unlikely and unworthy. I don’t want to make tattoos popular by joining the tattoo squad. It’s like fur. Wearing one encourages others to buy them (which fires up the supply chain). Plus I’m already shilling for other conspiracies: marriage, higher education, blood donation, arts. I’d rather influence you to do something else. 
  4. I am not someone else’s canvas. I am my own canvas. 
  5. I want to be philosophically nimble. Things change. I want to be able to change my mind about as many things as possible. I’m still growing. I can’t even think of any jokes that have remained consistently funny. I don’t want a tattoo that can’t evolve with my sense of humor. (And I don’t want to have to remove a tattoo to change my mind.)
  6. I don’t need a tattoo to make me look different. I already have a big nose, bushy eyebrows and glasses. (No, the nose doesn’t come off with the glasses.) When I need more weird, I wear a bow tie.   
  7. I already have a mouth. I don’t need a tattoo to speak for me. I speak for myself. I don’t want my first statement in every conversation to be printed and immutable.
  8. My skin is already interesting. It’s not as clear as it could be. But it’s interesting as it is. It’s oddly green.
  9. Self-mutilation usually fails. I know when I chew my fingers, I think, “Hey, if I chew that off, everything will look better.” Then it bleeds. I’m better off leaving things as they are.  
  10. Shirts work. I already have tee shirts with hip (and dumb) words and images on them. If I want to amplify my hip (or dumb), I can put on the right (or wrong) tee shirt.
  11. Indelible actions require long-term perspective. “Long term” isn’t 30 years; it’s three. How much have I learned during the past three years? A lot. I have no idea how differently I’ll see the world three years from now. For now, I’d like to keep my ignorance temporary.
  12. There is a big difference between I can do it and I should do it.
  13. Too many people have told me they regret getting a tattoo. Then they sheepishly explain why it was a good idea at the time. It’s an easily avoidable potential regret.
  14. I believe in learning. I’m going to know something tomorrow that I didn’t know today. If not, who needs tomorrow? Learning something tomorrow usually means recognizing that, hey, I don’t know everything today. Because I don’t know all that I don’t know, I’m not confident to ink anything I think I know on my skin. 
  15. Blood diseases. This is a big one. The Red Cross sometimes prohibits folks from donating blood if they have recently gotten a tattoo. Or the blood donation is permitted, but the donated blood is discarded after failing a laboratory test. Tattoos become an ethical issue when they prevent the saving of lives.
  16. I can always do it later. It’s hard to undo. And if it’s really a great idea, I can do it tomorrow. In this case, procrastination works.

I sound old-fashioned and stuck in the mud. But I prefer that to how it sounds when someone explains why he got a tattoo. That often sounds short-sighted and drunken. 

[NOTE from 2022: A reader told me that my argument is racist.]

My Father Would Have Argued Thusly
Getting a tattoo is a question of balancing risks, which is clouded by our relative youth. (If you are ten years older than I am and want a tattoo, go for it. What the hell; smoke a joint.)

When I was 16 and a new driver, my father explained why my automobile driver’s insurance cost more than his. To bolster his argument he introduced me to the early 19th century essayist, William Hazlitt. This is one of the joys of being raised by an English major.

Hazlitt’s On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth begins: “No young man believes he shall ever die.” 

Hazlitt’s essay should be required reading at every tattoo parlor.