Tattoos are having a moment. According to a recent Pew Center study, 38% of our generation has a tattoo and the general public is less likely than ever to see tattoos as a problem. Parents have tattoos. Grandparents have tattoos. Hell, even my dentist is rocking a sweet calf piece.
I have no problem with meaningful or artistic tattoos (or even especially hilarious ones). I do object to ink for ink's sake. Here's how the average tattoo adventure unfolds: a person walks into a tattoo shop. They've heard from a friend about an artist who is "good" and they've thought a couple months about which religion's symbology they'd like to pilfer. They walk out with a dolphin on their ankle and have to Photoshop it out of their wedding photos.
Tattooing is an art with a real cultural history. There are conventions people attend. There are recurring symbols: gypsy heads, swallows, sugar skulls, all with a long lineage of evolving significance. There are entrenched schools of thought on color versus black and white, traditional versus modern, and abstract versus photo-realistic. Some artists specialize in calligraphy and filigree. Nikki Hurtado has made a career on realistic color portraits. Most knowledgeable tattoo enthusiasts can recognize Tim Hendrick's black and white roses. Guy Aitchison's abstract, biomorphic light forms defy description and continue to ruffle the feathers of the traditional tattoo community.
Imagine you are commissioning an artist to create a picture that will magically hover before your eyes for the rest of your life. Everyone you meet will also see this picture. They will ask why you picked it and silently pass judgment (Sorry. It's true). The checkout gal at the grocery store will ask and judge. Every potential mate will ask and judge. One day you will sit next to an art history professor on a plane. He or she will ask and provide scholarly commentary. You will wonder if they approve of your choice.
Back to your painting. You would consider color, composition, size, style, and, of course, subject matter. You would demand to see each artist's portfolio, spreading their samples across your kitchen floor. In short, each painter would undergo serious scrutiny. For some reason, the general public does not recognize that a tattoo artist is an artist doing a painting.
I'm not calling for the end of tattoos. I'm not even advocating that every tattoo be wrought with unfathomable significance. One girl in front of me at airport security had a gorgeous Alphonse Mucha half-sleeve simply because she found it aesthetically pleasing. And it was.
If you still want to get inked up, congratulations. You are a tattoo person. Start researching. And before you put ink to skin, imagine explaining to every bartender that you got a dolphin tattoo because you "felt like it," for the rest of your life.