Getting my first tattoo was actually a pretty bland experience. It was my 18th birthday, and my celebratory plans were to step inside my first tattoo parlor. Despite my name being Star, I’d generally been averse to the shape because it had been printed on almost everything I had growing up from bedspreads to clothing and even in place of spelling out my full name at times. Regardless, I decided that my first tattoo would be a star on the inside of my lip. I think I had just learned that lip tattoos were a thing (thanks, Cobra Starship).
This tattoo was significant at the time. I think it somehow meant I was owning the name that had always warranted so much attention in my life whether I liked it or not. And the next four or so of my tattoos also had some “meaning”, but as I got older, I was less concerned about getting tattoos to commemorate something significant and more about getting tattoos simply because I liked them.
And I’m certainly not the only one. Tattoos are everywhere on everyone, and it seems like there not only are they carrying less “meaning”, but they’re also being placed in more prominent places. According to Senior Psychotherapist Preet Chowdhary, “The present-day society wants, seeks, and desires individuality, self-expression, and self-distinction. Tattoos today may not necessarily have a profound meaning or an intense internal process associated with it, [however] they are still special [and] unique to each individual.” In other words, we’ve graduated from tattoos being considered a lifestyle choice (read: “You’ll never get a job if you have a tattoo”) to being a prominent form of self-expression.
YPulse data shows the spike in tattoo popularity is fairly recent, “In 2019, 21% of young people said they had tattoos, and that overall number has jumped to 40%.” So in just a few years, the way we think about tattoos has drastically changed. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly became tethered to my TikTok FYP during those years. Which brings up an interesting point, according to YPulse, “Online influencers don’t adhere to the traditional standards mainstream media has created for celebrities. [As a result] it fosters acceptance for ‘alternative’ looks.” Essentially, “Social media is normalizing getting tattoos, and even driving which styles are most popular.” And I personally find this to be accurate.
Scrolling through my FYP, it's hard not to be entranced by Mei Pang or @meicrosoft, as she’s known to her 2.8M followers on TikTok. She is adorned with identical mirrored tattoos across her body that are visible on her head, face, neck, and shoulders while she creates makeup looks that are reminiscent of paintings. But even she was hesitant about getting these tattoos at first. Mei Pang says, “My family always told me never to get any [tattoos]. I am a first-generation Canadian, and my family is from Malaysia. Back in Malaysia, there are reservations about tattoos and there is a stigma, but my opinion of this changed when I got on the internet. The internet has opened my eyes to tattoos and art in general.”
It’s interesting to think that the boom of TikTok, which allowed us to see so many walks of life up close and within seconds, has opened our eyes to the possibilities of what self-expression can look like, which has compelled many of us to take action. Along with more tattoo visibility, there are psychological components as well. Chowdhary says, “Tattoos not only [allow] people to connect to themselves but also allow them to share their narrative and their unique identity with the world. The reasons and underlying themes, among others, could include autonomy and empowerment, sense of control over [their] body, coping mechanism, relatedness to others, fashion statement, representation of strength, to honor a memory, rebellion, beauty enhancement, impulsiveness and thrill-seeking, and spiritual meaning.”
And while tattoos are getting more popular IRL and on our favorite creators, the placement of tattoos is also becoming more lenient as well. Even with my very first tattoo, I made sure it was out of sight. In fact, I think many people will be interested to hear that I have this tattoo at all—surprise. And I likely did it because I knew it fit within the guidelines of how I was taught to perceive tattoos—the single force to end my career before it even started. This ideology seems to be a part of the conversation despite the uptick in visible tattoo trends.
Mei Pang says, “There is so much discourse around getting ‘job stoppers’, and I was nervous that if I got a tattoo on my neck and hands, it would stop me from furthering my career. However, I did know that I was supposed to be in the creative arts, and that was my passion. Therefore, going ahead with it felt almost validating in a way. The ideology behind tattoos is changing ever so slowly. I know that there are a lot more people out in the corporate world now with tattoos, and it doesn't hinder their performance at all. In my opinion, getting tattoos in places that are incredibly painful shows their persistence, their patience, and their drive to complete a project.” I’m pretty moved by this way of thinking. What if we saw tattoos as a way to commit to something wholeheartedly and show our tenacity right where everyone can see?
Some of the most painful places to get tattoos are the neck, hands, fingers, head, face, and ears. But that doesn’t stop anyone from choosing those same places to get ink. Rosa Bluestone Perr, known to her followers as @bluestonebabe says, “Hand tattoos have always been very popular with my clients. I give a lot of what I call ‘permanent jewelry’ tattoos (ornamental rings and bracelets). I would say about half my clients come to me for this specifically.” Even Rosa herself says, “My hands were actually the first place I gave myself tattoos. Just delicate little hidden pieces. I already wore a lot of rings and thought of them as jewelry. For some reason, hands felt lower commitment to me.”
Of course, getting a tattoo is a total commitment. With the advice that many of us Millennials grew up with, tattoos were a commitment that you would be stupid to make for the rest of your life. But according to YPulse, Gen Z feels that “getting a tattoo can be something to do for fun, or to feel more excited about their appearance,” so tattoos fall within the frame of self-care and feeling good in your body while enhancing it. And ultimately, getting a specific tattoo doesn’t mean commemorating something major.
Sydney Smith, known as @sydsmithtattoo on TikTok, is decorating the bodies of many Millennials and Gen Zers. She says, “My clients are primarily young adults, typically anywhere from 20 to 35 years old. This is a really interesting group because they’re at an age where they’re still figuring out who they are and what they like. That’s why tattoos can be such a great form of self-expression for them. It’s worth noting that this demographic tends to be pretty in the know about what’s cool and trendy. So they’re more likely to be aware of the latest styles and techniques in the world of tattoos. They’re also more likely to be open to trying out new and innovative tattoo designs. That’s really exciting because it means there’s a lot of room for creativity and experimentation.”
It’s also worth mentioning that the kinds of tattoos we could get even 10 years ago are totally different than the styles and placements we think of now. Smith says, “Tattoo trends have changed a lot over the years. Previously, tattoos usually had really thick lines and lots of shading. But nowadays, a lot of people prefer more delicate designs with thinner lines. One interesting thing to note is that technological advancements in tattoo machines have contributed to this trend. With better precision and control, artists are able to create really intricate and detailed designs that weren’t possible before.” Along with technological innovations, Chowdhary says, “Tattoo practices [are] more accessible and safe. The technology for tattoo techniques and removal has also advanced. Together these factors inspire a more lighthearted approach to tattoos than [ever before].”
With the freedom of choice and so much more visibility, it's hard not to gravitate toward getting new ink. But even if you’re not here for a permanent tattoo, it’s undeniable that there is an appetite for adorning your body with artwork. Semipermanent tattoos have come a long way since sponging them onto your arm during recess. Products like Inkbox have really changed the semipermanent tattoo game with highly upgraded formulas that mimic real tattoos but disappear within weeks.
When I compare walking into a (admittedly scary) tattoo parlor on my 18th birthday to the amazing and unplanned tattoo experiences I’ve had in my 20s, the shift in mindset does make sense. In my experience, the culture around tattooing is so much more inclusive, female-driven, and creative than ever before. We’ve transformed from essentially hiding parts of ourselves for the sake of a stigma and fear of “what if” to letting people see who we are right from the start.
So maybe all tattoos do carry a bigger meaning, even if they’re totally meaningless. Or you just got one because you like it or because you had an impulse. We should be praising the silly little tattoo and leaning into this moment of raw authenticity. Even if it only commemorates a mere moment in your life when you saw a design and loved it. My view of my tattoos now is that they mark where I was (mentally and physically) when I decided to get them. It’s not necessarily the designs themselves that are meaningful but the memories they ignite of moments in my life that were otherwise mundane. Even though I certainly do not LOVE every design I’ve ever gotten, I love my fearless spirit and that I was willing to get them in the first place. With time and age, I’ve gotten better at picking art that aligns with me, but I praise myself for even the silly little ones.
And if you’re still on the fence, in the words of Rosa Bluestone Perr, “It is never too late to get a tattoo. It’s super fucking cool.”