Tattoos were a pipe dream of mine all through high school, and this year I finally made that dream a reality, much to the chagrin of my parents. Upon realizing I had accumulated five tattoos over the course of ten months, my parents very vocally wondered what I was thinking.
Instead of giving them a direct answer, I decided to write an article expressing my reasons for getting tattoos, along with those of some of my university peers in varying stages of tattoo ownership. The purpose of this article is twofold: firstly, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about tattoos that draws people to them, and secondly, I want to assuage my parents’ worries regarding my delinquency by proving that I am involving myself in the enriching scholastic activity of university-level journalism.
There is, of course, no singular reason why people get tattoos. Some might get them for cultural reasons, while others get them for specific personal reasons or simply aesthetic ones. The latter two are the kinds that will be covered in this article.
Meanings and aesthetics
Why might someone get a tattoo? In an interview with The Varsity, Meghan Butcher, a third-year student in the Faculty of Music, said that a part of it may be rebellion, but went on to add, “I really liked the look of them. And I really liked the ones I’ve chosen. I think [they] just tell a really fun story.”
Butcher certainly isn’t the only one who finds the aesthetic of tattoos a compelling reason to get them. A large part of the draw for me was simply how cool it is to have art on my body.
However, my first tattoo was ultimately for sentimental reasons — a scrabble bag with the letters on the tiles being the initials of my family members — as was Butcher’s first tattoo.
“I have the wings on my back [because] I was one of those kids who really wanted to just be a fairy,” Butcher said. “And so my grandma, when I was younger, would always tell me that she could see them growing… So I turned 17 and wanted a tattoo and was like, ‘Why don’t I just finally get my fairy wings?’”
For others, the draw of all tattoos is sentimental. Julia Ramsey, a second-year engineering student, only plans to get one tattoo: a word in Malayalam paired with forget-me-nots to commemorate her grandmother. While she still hasn’t fully dedicated herself to getting a tattoo, she told The Varsity that it seems very appealing, even though she already has a necklace with the same word on it.
“I do love the necklace, but specifically because [the word] relates to memory and forgetting people — it [would feel] somewhat poignant to have that on my skin forever, you know?” Ramsey said.
Even tattoos that seem purely aesthetic can have a deeper personal meaning. For example, I’ve never really liked my body, in a general sense and in a transgender sense, but covering it in art makes me like it. Beyond that, tattoos have been something I’ve wanted for a long time, so being able to have them feels like a form of self-realization.
In an interview with The Varsity, Alex Wang, a second-year political science student, described a similar outlook. “Growing up, I was a very insecure kid about my appearances and everything,” Wang said. “I think to me, getting these tattoos [is] fulfilling, but… it’s [also] kind of like a form of self-expression.” While Wang has long wanted tattoos for that very reason, he is only just beginning the process of scheduling his first tattoo appointment.
To get a tattoo, to not get a tattoo
So what stops people from getting tattoos? What makes people like Ramsey hesitate? Why did Wang and I take so long? Well for young people, a part of it can be traced back to parental or family pressure; as I mentioned before, my parents aren’t necessarily thrilled about all of the tattoos I’ve acquired.
But often, even if your family isn’t fully on board, that isn’t a deal breaker. “My mom, I think, isn’t thrilled,” Ramsey said. “But she’s very respectful of my own bodily autonomy.”
Family can also be far more receptive than anticipated. “I told my family and then my mom was like, ‘Oh, just get a small one,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I mean, it’s just that it’s not that big of a deal,” Wang said. Butcher’s grandmother even got a tattoo of her own.
While there certainly are some for whom family is a deterrent, a far more common issue is simply the monetary aspect. Tattoos are expensive, especially if you’re a college student on a budget. It takes serious dedication of time and money to get a tattoo, not to even speak of getting multiple.
Nevertheless, tattoos are becoming increasingly popular. And while there is a certain level of nervousness they can invoke, their appeal as a form of self expression through sentimental symbolism, self realization, or simply showcasing art that you enjoy, is undeniable. And for me, at least, the idea of carrying my cool art pieces around on my body for a good long time sounds wonderful.