The Tattoo Peanut Gallery

I look at tattoos a lot for work. Females who are trafficked tend to have a sports team, symbol, quotes or even cartoon tattooed on their body. Their pimps make them, so people know they are their “property”. If a girl or boy has been arrested for something and I see their tattoo, I take a good look. Because they aren’t going to tell me if they are being victimized, but they tend to if I say I recognize the tat as being connected to so and so John. The tattoos are usually poorly done because they aren’t done by a legitimate artist, but by a John himself, a tat quack, or a gang connection. You’ve probably seen a young teenager with a bad tattoo, and you might have thought poorly of her, that she was ghetto…or wondered where her parents were, and why they’d let her get something like that on her body. The truth is, they didn’t have a choice. If they want to survive they have to do what their John demands. Their bodies don’t belong to them in the eyes of a pimp. And this leads me into the conversation of how we all judge each other based on whether or not we are tattooed instead of considering why a person might have one. Or three.

The first time I saw a tattoo was at a produce market in Pelham Parkway owned by a Holocaust survivor. He had his prisoner identification number on his forearm. It was very faded and I didn’t know what it meant. I just thought it was an old, kinda weird tattoo. My grandmother caught me staring and on our walk home, told me what it was and what it meant. She wasn’t upset with me at all, just matter of fact. I think I was maybe seven or eight, and despite how kind my grandmother was in delivering an explanation, I never forgot the shame I felt for having stared. Even at such a young age, I didn’t know exactly what the Holocaust was, but I knew it was bad and that people had been hurt. I had read Anne Frank, I knew she was hiding from scary men and it was because she was Jewish, but not much more. I didn’t know about the torture, torment, and tattoos. Nowadays, to preserve the past, survivor’s grandchildren are getting the tattoos so history is not forgotten, or worse, repeated. I learned a very valuable lesson by my meeting this Holocaust survivor. One that has remained with me into my thirties. Unless you know the meaning behind a tattoo, never pass judgment. I don’t mean symbols well known to carry messages of hate like the monstrosity on Edward Norton in American History X:

So unless you have a swastika on your body, I’m not going to pass judgement. Seeing something like that hurts people, and puts people in fear. Yes, put what you want on your body but if it’s something like “kill all Asians”, expect an outraged response…and maybe seek therapy.

Obviously, survivors of hateful systems of oppression don’t have a choice in the tattoos that have been needled into their skin. But most of us have our reasons. A veteran honoring a tour he survived. A breast cancer survivor covering up her scars with a beautiful landscape. Our Zodiac sign. A deceased family member. It goes on and on. And even with our reasons for getting inked, many of them noble, people get turned down for jobs, profiled, or underestimated. Especially if the tattoo isn’t what people would consider “art”. The following are what would be considered bad tattoos:

A personal fave.

As aesthetically unpleasing as these may be considered, I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to critique body art unless it’s blatantly hateful. Because you don’t know what the art means to them. And it’s none of your business.

I had a probationer who shaved all his hair off and tattooed an octopus on his head so it looked like it was consuming him. Which was a metaphor for his drug addiction. He was one of my best probationers. Honest. A hard worker. But judged by his appearance his whole life. And he doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for his choices, especially when they don’t hurt anyone else. He’s the one who was inked on his HEAD, not you.

I have two tattoos that pretty much no one knows about because I’m afraid of being judged. You won’t see them unless I’m naked, but both are super personal to me. That said, I have zero regrets getting them. Most tattoos carry a private meaning, and mine represent a loss that nearly destroyed me. And it was absolutely therapeutic to work with the tattoo artist on the design. I think getting tattoos has become more accepted, but there is still a lot of criticism and judgment that comes with it. Especially for women.

Then there’s people who get matching tattoos, and when the relationship is over are mocked for having gone under the needle. Maybe one day you won’t be as close to that person, and that’s ok. It’s still represents a time in your life that shaped who you are today. People come in and out of our lives, and losing touch is a part of life and often can’t be helped. It’s like water flowing through your cupped hand. It’s inevitable that some will pass through and move on. That’s why I love tattoos, even “bad” ones. What a great way of expressing yourself and/or giving tribute to someone you love, even if they are gone or you don’t see eye to eye anymore. Because it’s molded the you we all see today. And there’s so much beauty in that.