Questions You Shouldn’t Ask Strangers About Their Tattoos
by K. A. Kristmanson
When a waitress asks their customer about the quote along their collarbone, or the symbol on their wrist, it may seem benign. For the tattooed customer, these questions can be uncomfortable, or invasive. It’s fair to say that these inquiries come from a place of innocent curiosity. This post offers some things to consider next time a tattoo piques your interest before you approach someone.
“What Does It Mean?”
When you point at that design and ask what it means, you’re posing a very personal question. It is common for clients to come into the shop once their loved ones have passed on, to get a beautiful design made to commemorate their departed parent, child, grandparent, etc. Yes, some tattoos might have silly stories behind them—inside jokes or dares that went too far—but many choose to get a tattoo for a deeper purpose.
What if that semicolon represents a friend who committed suicide two months ago? What if someone’s father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and those little blue flowers are forget-me-nots? Keep this in mind next time you think to ask this question.
“No, Really, What Does It Mean?”
If someone gives a simple answer, it might be because that person doesn’t want to get into the extremely personal story behind their tattoo. Or, maybe they just liked it.
People do get tattoos purely for aesthetic purposes. I have a bloody ram’s head on my ribcage because I’m a morbid person, the image resonated with me, and then my tattoo artist blew my mind with the design she came up with.
I don’t need to tell you that it’s got some deeper meaning to me, because it’s mine. If you have your own ideas about what tattoos are supposed to be, that’s great for you, but don’t impose that on others.
“Did That Hurt?”
This one feels like someone asking how the weather is outside when there’s a window right behind you. It’s not much of a conversation starter, because the answer is always yes. Tattoos hurt, but it isn’t the worst pain in the world. Nothing more to talk about there.
“How Much Did That Cost?”
Some people get uncomfortable being asked financial questions. It’s akin to asking about their annual salary or monthly expenses. It’s none of your business.
I’m often frustrated by a specific retort I get, should I choose to answer. Usually, the stranger pulls up their own shirt sleeve, shows off a tattoo, then remarks on what their artist charged. With tattoos, you really get what you pay for. So, if you’re flashing tattoos, you’re flashing money. That translates as braggadocio, like showing off the brand-name bag to belittle someone’s knock-off. If the reverse is true, you’re devaluing someone’s art with a suggestion that they should’ve paid less. Either way, it’s not a good look.
“Why Would You Get That?!”
It’s like asking what a tattoo means in a way that’s just plain rude. Remember what people used to say to you as a kid? If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Thumper said it in Bambi.
Thumper was right.
Be like Thumper.
“How Many Do You Have?”
This one isn’t offensive, it’s impossible to answer. I have no notion of how I’m supposed to count the pieces I have, especially once they conglomerate into a sleeve. It sends me spiraling into a philosophical rabbit hole.
How does one count tattoos? By sessions? Individual images? Areas of the body that are covered? Artists who’ve worked on you?
What about background vs. foreground? If you hang 10 paintings in the same frame, and they all touch, does it become one painting?
Look what you’ve done.
Seriously, is a body-suit one piece? If someone can answer that for me, I’d appreciate it.
“Can I See Your Other Ones?”
It’s like being asked to undress in public. Tattoos can be personal, meaningful, and private. They are a type of vulnerability, an image that reveals some inner part of ourselves to the world. That exposure should be on our own terms.
I often wear long-sleeve shirts in blistering heat because there are days that I don’t want to front ten questions and comments about the tattoos on my arms. People should not have to hide their bodies away to avoid prying questions from strangers.
Thanks for reading!
I hope this provided some perspective. Did I miss a question that bothers you, in particular? If so, please leave a comment below!