sometimes being tattooed is a real pain in the ass

to start: i generally love being tattooed.  i really enjoy the 30+ permanent modifications i’ve added to my body.  if i had the chance, i would not remove them & start over with fresh skin.    i have a sleeve on one arm, large pieces on my other arm and chest, large pieces on both legs and back,  one large piece on each hip, and small pieces behind my ear and on a finger.   add that to my 1/2″ stretched earlobes and septum piercing, and i definitely don’t look like most people out there.

you can see most of my tattoos in this photo

so i don’t look like a total reject from society (yet) and i live in vancouver, which is a super liberal city where large tattoos are really common, and the vast amount of feedback i get on my modifications is positive.  the past few days i’ve been thinking about how much a political action it is, perhaps unintentionally, to heavily tattoo oneself.  i found a great paper on the subject (which you should save to read when you have a few minutes).

Thus when a person enacts a decision to become tattooed, he or she conducts an act of political agency–whether or not this was the intention. Such an act flies in the face of the Eurocentric discourse of beauty and the ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ construction of the body. The tattooed subject makes a bold statement. This is particularly so when women choose to become tattooed. Patriarchal conventions of women’s beauty and behaviour dictate that women must be silent and unassertive, conforming to an unnatural standard of beauty in order to be acceptable. Tattooed women thus make a conscious statement that they will not subject themselves to male-defined standards of how women can act or exercise agency over their bodies.

travelling in europe, i expected to have some negative experiences, and  i understand that my tattoos make me a somewhat of rarity (especially in the former soviet states, where looking unusual was strongly discouraged) and to a certain extent i expect the stares and i generally tolerate mild rudeness (like when a man moves my shirt so he can see my arm tattoos!!).   but my experience is that most people look for a moment or two, then look away, which is not intrusive in the same way (even though sometimes their looks are disapproving).  that sort of thing is not as stressful.  people are naturally curious/drawn to look at bodies that are different than the norm.

i stayed in ljubljana for three nights and had two very uncomfortable experiences.  the first was at a shitty restaurant (the food was terrible) where the customers  at the next table stared at us, talking and  laughing, for the entire duration of our meal.  granted, neither my travel partner or i can understand slovene, but it was very clear they were talking about us.  every time one of us would make eye contact with one of them, they would look away quickly.   this was not the kind thing that’s incidental, and you cross eyes with someone because you happen to be glancing over–these people were staring pointedly at us for the entire duration of our meal.   i was trying to ignore it, but my travel buddy was really stressed out by it and reacting badly, and that just made it worse.

the next day, i had another terrible restaurant experience! this time, the two waiters just stood at their station, which was maybe ten feet away from my table) and stared at me openly!  when i made eye contact, they’d look away quickly.  sometimes they would turn away to talk in very low voices, and then turn back and stare at me.  at one point they brought a third waiter into it, and then were all staring at me.  later, they went into the restaurant (i was sitting on the patio) and stared at me from inside!  i caught them staring at me several times through the window.   although they were not being pointedly rude and laughing, i still felt grossly on display.

although being a femme-presenting woman can be frustrating in general (having men leer at/comment/attempt conversations with me) these two situations are things i have encountered very rarely.  the last time i’ve felt so terrible and helpless was  three or four years  & 15 tattoos ago, on a city bus in san diego when bunch of young dudes were in the back yelling about how tattooed girls were sluts, among various other slurs against women.  they made me feel so trapped, violated & angry, but it felt like there was no safe & appropriate reaction.

my tattoos empower me, but sometimes they also make me feel helpless.  how the fuck does that work?  it’s kind of like having a femme body in general.  i can dress up in a way that makes me feel incredible, sexy & powerful, but then encounter oppressive comments from men around me that make my power feel drained away.  such a double-bind.


8 thoughts on “sometimes being tattooed is a real pain in the ass

  1. it’s a constant battle, just living in your body and owning it. the only option that could alleviate some of it is to hide, but that’s silly and as a woman you’d STILL be harrassed, just perhaps less. and then there are people who deal with even more of it than you (or i) – trans people, for example, or people with a visible physical difference related to mobility, or people out of the body size norm. i guess it’s something we have to live with. AND IT SUCKS.

    1. yes! it’s so true, so many people get hassled because of how they look. vanessa has had lots of rudeness in that scope–people coming up to her and telling her to lay off drugs, or saying that she has an eating disorder, etc. i think these things are worse for woman-bodied folks, because our culture dictates that we are more approachable/should be told what to do.

      there are definitely times when we can fight back against these actions–talking back to catcalling men (when we feel safe), or telling someone it’s not okay to remove our clothing to look at our tattoos. but in so many other instances it’s not really acceptable, or worth, talking back. those are the most frustrating!!

  2. Hi Arinn,

    this was an interesting post, I really enjoyed reading it.
    I’m from (Western) Europe and I think people here are as open-minded towards tattoos as in Canada. Of course it’s different when you visit small places, but in the cities it’s totally common. Sorry you had bad experiences in Slovenia, that was really rude of those people. I have been in Ljubljana too and didn’t notice such behaviour, but I guess it is not as common in Eastern Europe (yet) as it is in Western Europe.

    “Tattooed women thus make a conscious statement that they will not subject themselves to male-defined standards of how women can act or exercise agency over their bodies.”
    ==> This strongly depends on the (sub-)culture you are a part of. In many alternative (sub-)cultures it IS a male-defined standard that tattooed women are seen as more beautiful, and preferred over non-tattoed women. I know some people who only got a tattoo or piercing to become a part of a sub-culture and be fully accepted by them, and be perceived as attractive to the men. Which is basically the same thing, as described in the paragraph above, only the other way around. They subject themselves to just another (random) standard.
    This just came to my mind when I read this.


    1. love this comment! thank you for taking the time to write back to me.

      i def. agree that most major cities in the west (be it europe or north america) will be fairly open minded toward tattoos. one will always find those who stare, but i expect reactions to be much different in smaller or more conservative places.

      really interested in the way you looked at subcultures. i had never thought of women getting modifications to attract subculture men! though, i’ve been thinking about it, and maybe the subcultures (let’s say tattooing) are not as strongly male-defined? like, maybe the men just happen to be a part of it because of the same rejection of normative sexuality as women?

      BUT it’s definitely worth noting that in many subcultures (here i’m meaning ones like suicidegirls, which i have been a part of for nearly 8 years) the most “beautiful”/popular girls are ones who generally meet conventional standards of beauty, but with modifications added.

  3. Let me begin by saying I love this post. It’s awesome! I’ve been looking for something like this for a little while now.

    I’m definitely not a tattooed woman, so I can’t relate on that end of the spectrum, but I do understand what getting laughed at or ridiculed is about.

    I’m a young professional: I run a motivational speaking business and I’m a writer. I’ve played in bands since I was 16 and skateboard as a hobby. I’ve been booked into high schools and have done public seminars. Here’s the catch: I’ve got 7 tattoos, some on my neck, and hands. I have a brand and a scarification, and I wear my hair in a Mohawk. My business has been more of a struggle to break a stereotype than to spread positive messages. It’s tough.

    The beautifully ironic part, is that The principals of high schools book me in without a second glance. The students relate to me very well. I’ve gotten nothing but praise from the school system for what I do and how I do it. Where I tend to feel backed into a corner is out in public.

    More than once I’ve had waiters switch with co-workers so that they wouldn’t have to serve me. I’ve been yelled at out of cars, and laughed at right in the street. Interesting part about it: It’s mostly adults in their 30’s and 40’s doing it, and it’s right here in Canada, is a small town in New Brunswick.

    A lot of people will say that I bring it upon myself to be treated this way, and I suppose in a small way, I definitely agreed to these terms and conditions. It just proves to me every day how closed minded people can be and how small some people can be. This blog post just hit me in a spot that needed to be hit.Thanks so much for posting it, and thanks for reading this comment!

    1. sooo great to get your heartfelt response! Hopefully it inspires other voices to join the conversation too.

      one line in particular stood out to me:
      ‘A lot of people will say that I bring it upon myself to be treated this way, and I suppose in a small way, I definitely agreed to these terms and conditions’

      this reminds me of the arguments used to victim-blame in our patriarchal society. you should check out this incredible comment for a better explanation of this. everyone deserves respect, no matter what their body looks, their gender, their clothing, etc.

      it’s so disgusting that people have yelled at you & acted in other rude ways. i’m really sorry to hear it! but it sounds like you have a really healthy attitude in dealing with such things and that is hugely beneficial. this stuff can be super stressful if we don’t deal with it in the right way.

      1. Easiest way to deal with it is to be the nicest guy I can possibly be and let people think what they want.

        The Mohawk is what throws people off the most to be honest. Which is the saddest part of all because it’s only a haircut. I only have it because it’s for my mother. She got me an eagle feather for my hair and asked me to grow a Mohawk and braid the back. So I’m doing just that lol. No idea how it’s going to turn out, but it’s an adventure to say the least

        A lot of people assume when they see me that I’m some pissed off street punk. It makes me laugh because a lot of the kids I’ve spoken to rush up to me to talk to me, and their parents get mad at them for associating with me.

        One gesture at a time, one person at a time I’m breaking that stereotype. 3 weeks ago I donated a brand new digital camera to a 12 year old who wants to be a photographer. Life’s too short and too precious to get caught up in the criticism of others and let it stress you out.

        Be you, and love every minute of it!

  4. RINBOT…basically just found this url by proxy of roundabout internet lurking. serendipity! and o how i’ve enjoyed catching up with it all! so happy for your travels.
    & yes, being looked upon as a pariah is something i understand well. but freak on and carry on. it’s difficult, but i try not to let the (*!^@#&$)squares bring me down, or at least to take their judgment personally.
    been missing you and am sad that i have no contact info for you! did you ever get my package?
    my e-mail is
    i know your busy gallivanting, but maybe when you get home and have a moment, you could drop me a line or two. take care and enjoy every hi & lo !
    maggles 😉

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