It’s the time of year when people shed their clothes and expose their most intimate of body parts—the ones with tattoos on them! Richmond is a panoply of tattooed individuals, and this begs the question: how do we go about complimenting and asking about those tattoos without being rude?
Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.
— JACK LONDON, 1883
As she is in the middle of a very laborious (and very exhausting) home renovation, I thought it would be appropriate, no, gentleman-like (proper, if you will) to present Tess Shebaylo with a week off from her regular column that guides us through the ins-and-outs of a polite society. So, dear reader, you and I will be with each other for the next few minutes, and I have something that I would like to discuss with you.
June is one of the most lovely months, don’t you think? Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and people are strolling through the many neighborhoods and districts of Richmond proper, enjoying the warm weather and minimal need for clothing. But we Richmonders are likely to come across more than just bare skin.
Richmond is the third most tattooed city in the country. More than New York City. More than San Francisco. As a result, this summer you will probably encounter people, like myself, who have tattoos. Lots of tattoos. And although you may not think that there is a need to discuss proper manners when looking at tattoos, I can attest from personal experience that many Richmonders miss the mark when it comes to tattoo etiquette.
I’ve had people come up to me, prefacing their impromptu presence in my life without even so much as a “Hello,” and immediately lift a sleeve of my t-shirt up to my shoulder to look at my tattoos. I’ve had people, mostly middle-aged women (but not exclusively) stroke my arms and legs with their curious hands, taking in the art that adorns my flesh. All without asking if they may do so. I must say, I am flattered when these well-intentioned, if not misguided, individuals compliment the aesthetic quality of my tattoos. I really do. And I understand that, even in tattoo-burdened Richmond, someone with a tattoo collection as rich and extensive as mine is by far par for the course.
But we with tattoos are not sideshow spectacles in a touring circus act. And we do not want to be treated as such. My surfeit of tattoos does not, ipso facto, make me someone that you can molest and manhandle to your heart’s content. Am I not a man? Did I not bleed for each tattoo? It is, I’m sad to say, a too uncommon courtesy to ask someone if they would allow you to look at their tattoos. Do you approach a severely burned individual and begin stroking their damaged flesh like it were Braille? Of course you wouldn’t.
In my experience, most people with an extensive tattoo collection love to hear compliments of their work. Please do give them. But preface such an interest in their tattoos by saying something along the lines of, “Excuse me, I think your tattoos look really cool. May I look at them more closely?” This simple extension of politeness will go a long way to ingratiate yourself with your sentient (and very sensitive) subject.
As you gaze upon the array of pigment that stretches across their skin, you may feel the compulsion to ask, “What do your tattoos mean?” There is probably no other question that makes a tattooed individual shudder in annoyance more than this one. It’s a fair question, to be sure. I don’t disagree with that. But most tattoos are a very personal engagement that one has with their design(s). For some it may commemorate, celebrate, even pontificate on one of many of their life’s experiences. It’s very much like if you were to look at a collection of framed photographs in someone’s home. Coming across a picture taken at their wedding, you would then ask without contextual provocation, “Why did you marry this person?” What a silly (and rude) question! Unless you are a police officer questioning a suspect, please control yourself and your interrogative predilections.
Tattoos, like spouses, mean different things to different people; things that one may not be comfortable in divulging while they’re strolling through Carytown, or waiting in line at Starbucks for their Mocha Frappuccino. Unless they are forthcoming with the story that inspired their tattoo themselves, respect their privacy and refrain from asking. What may appear as a frivolous piece of art is, more often than not, something quite meaningful.
Again, I do not want to dissuade you from complimenting the art that you will be seeing as the summer progresses. I hope that you do so. But remind yourself that people are not spectacles created for your whims of enjoyment. As always, be thoughtful; not thoughtless.