Tattoo Etiquette: To Tattoo or Not To Tattoo

The great dilemma of to tattoo, or not to, um, tattoo has gotten much more complicated in the last decade. If this blog were being written one generation ago, this post would be rather short (and not on the internet). If you weren’t planning on becoming a sailor or motorcycle gang member, the standard advice would be to stay away from all forms of tattoos. For decades our cultural customs held that an educated gentleman simply didn’t get tattoos, they were in poor taste. While the remnants of that belief still linger, the barrier has largely fallen. People of all backgrounds and socio-economic statuses can be found at a tattoo shop getting all varieties of ink, from portraits of children to old-fashioned Japanese art. Popular television shows depict celebrities and athletes getting images on their bodies, and no one really thinks twice. Another barrier that has fallen is the age limit. A man who was past his twenties would rarely consider a tattoo unless it was a part of a general hair transplanting, convertible purchasing mid-life crisis. Now it is hardly uncommon to see a tattoo commemorating a grandchild, and parent-child trips to the shop can be considered wholesome bonding.

So now that we’ve established that tattoos are no longer as culturally taboo as they once were, what is the SEEG advice on the matter? Well, my mother would be sure to point out that everybody doing it doesn’t necessarily make it good. And as usual, mom is right. With their increasing ubiquity, there has most certainly been a rise in truly regrettable tattoos. If you need to be convinced that this is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, please type “tattoo fail” into your search engine of choice. After the initial outburst of laughter passes, please take time to realize that all of these people really wanted these tattoos when they got them. Each misspelled word, clichéd phrase, and passé design seemed like the perfect thing to get permanently engraved in skin to that person at some point in time. So how can you avoid such folly? Well the only surefire, 100% guaranteed way to avoid tattoo regret is to never get one. You will never be embarrassed or ashamed of a tattoo you didn’t get; your natural skin is never going to go out of style.

If you decide that the risk is worth it to you, here are three very important tips: 

  1. Avoid trends. What do tribal designs, Chinese letters, and lower-back butterflies all have in common? They were really, really trendy once. A gentleman should rise above fads in all facets of his life, but a tattoo is permanent and therefore all the more important. Think of a good tattoo the same way you would a good painting; a stroll through the Philadelphia Museum of Art will reveal that great art never goes out of style.
  2. No names. I think we all know why a girlfriend or boyfriend’s name is a terrible idea, but this rule applies to all names. Even if you wish to commemorate a child or family member, be more creative. Lots of classic tattoo designs are steeped in symbolism, so do some research.
  3. Trust your artist. You (hopefully) didn’t pick your tattoo from Google, and you shouldn’t pick your artist from there either. Ask people you know who have good tattoos; they should be more than happy to pass along a reference. Each artist keeps a portfolio, but there is no substitute for first-hand experience.

To reiterate, the best way to avoid tattoo-related problems is to avoid them altogether. There are still social stigmas about tattoos, and it only takes one boss or interviewer who has an old prejudice against skin art to really ruin your day (or career). However, as a gentleman, there are large areas of your body that will never be visible during an interview or workday. If you think a visible tattoo would be a problem in your workplace, be sure to consider whether you ever wear short sleeves or shorts around your colleagues (even on the golf course). If you already have tattoos that sometimes peek out of your shirtsleeves, talk to a tailor. I once had a very dapper professor who had gotten tattoos on his wrists as a younger man. They didn’t seem to bother him, but he very easily could have hidden them by wearing his cuffs slightly longer or narrower than normal. Your tailor is your friend, and as long as your tattoos aren’t on your hands or above your collar, they really shouldn’t cause you much trouble in the workplace.