This past weekend was the 10th Annual Tattoo Convention in Florence, Italy. I saw every conceivable style represented, from old school and hand-poke to photo-realism and the increasingly popular dotwork. I saw old and young, professional and rebel, dabbler and full-on ink addict. Mutual appreciation for good art transcends pretty much every boundary you can think of.
In the middle of this fantastic mix, I took a few minutes to watch an Italian woman get her first tattoo. She was easily in her early sixties, and she got a tiny Zodiac symbol on the front of one finger. First the artist brushed the cluster of needles along her skin without any ink, just to give her a taste of what it would feel like, and without hesitation she nodded at him to continue. During the process I saw her wince a couple of times, but she never moved. Compared to the pain she’s had to bear in her life, I’m sure a tattoo is nothing. And when he finished, she was so proud; she showed her friends, who congratulated her and then lined up for tiny tattoos of their own.
Between the physical pain and the stigmas that still surround tattoos, you might be wondering why that woman wanted one. Most of the time they don’t hurt as much as you think they do, but even over the best areas, it still feels like someone scratching a bad sunburn really fast. Plus the healing process is gross and a bit uncomfortable. Why would any sane person voluntarily put themselves through all that?
Because we have stories to tell that are worth bearing the pain.
Something about that Zodiac symbol was vitally important to this woman. Maybe it was the birth sign for someone close to her, like a sister or a child. Maybe it was a declaration of independence after a long divorce. Or maybe it was just a rebellious act that was an entire lifetime in the making. Even the smallest tattoos can be rich with meaning; if you ask about any of mine, prepare for at least a five minute dissertation, with footnotes. I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday, and even though I definitely wouldn’t get the same thing today, I would never consider lasering it off because it’s a part of who I was. I don’t know what it is about people that makes some of us feel the need to wear our stories on our skin, but I think that even the early drafts are worth preserving.
The truth is, until you ask, you most likely have no idea why someone has chosen a particular design. The waiter you look down on for his half sleeve might have gotten it to honor someone close to him who passed away. Would you have the same reaction to a soldier with a memorial tattoo? In fact, would you still bad-mouth that waiter if you knew that he was a veteran? Soldiers were actually among the first to line up for tattoos after the invention of the electric tattoo machine at the end of the 19th century. “The reason why soldiers want tattoos is, on a really basic level, it’s the fighter instinct, it’s the warrior within us and warriors have always decorated themselves,” says world-renowned tattooist Dan Gold. “To get tattooed is almost like putting on armour; you feel stronger once you’ve got it.”
This distaste that Westerners have for tattoos is actually a fairly new and isolated occurrence; in the entire history and scope of tattooing, it’s barely a blip. Tattoos from countries like Samoa or Morocco have deep religious significance, and they’re often part of the rite of passage into adulthood. In the case of Moroccan women, facial tattoos were actually considered necessary (up until about sixty years ago) in the pursuit of beauty. And when tattoos reached mainstream Western societies in the 1800s, the first people to get them (after sailors) were the rich. It was only when they became more affordable for the masses that they became a sign of low breeding or low education
If you’re not a fan of tattoos, that’s fine. Hopefully, no one is holding you down and forcing you to get one. But instead of looking down on them as glorified mutilation, try to see them as a form of creative expression, like a painting or a song. Ugly or beautiful, superficial or layered with meaning, they make us all into pieces of living art. And there’s nothing more subjective, controversial, or transcendent than that.