Bad marks Mistranslations. Tribal ink. Permanent reminders of someone no longer in your life. Jen Zoratti explores the ever growing issue of tattoo regret — and where one local artist draws the line
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/05/2019 (1250 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In January, people were talking about Ariana Grande’s tattoo.
The pop star got a pair of Japanese characters inked on her palm. They were supposed to read “7 Rings,” after her hit single, but they actually read: “small charcoal grill.”
Look, it happens.
We all know someone who knows someone who has a mistranslation, or a vague “tribal” symbol, or an unfortunate typo, or the name of someone they are no longer married to inked, forever, on their body. Tattoo regret is real.
Mary Wilson, 38, is an extremely good sport who was willing to talk to the newspaper about a decision she made on her 21st birthday.
“I decided I would get this, um, lower-back tattoo,” she says, pausing. Ah yes, the lower-back tattoo, which has a very unfortunate nickname.
“I had honestly never heard it called a ‘tramp stamp’ before,” Wilson says. “I would like to think that even my 21-year-old self, had I heard that, would have known much, much better. Anyway, I was dating a guy at the time who had nicknamed me ‘Foxy.’
“So that’s what I got tattooed,” she says, pausing for emphasis. “On my back.”
But wait, it used to be worse! “It used to be really orange and yellow Starburst colours, but they’ve faded. It’s pretty big. It’s not a tiny little word. I remember going home and showing my mom, and she looked at it and laughed and went, ‘You’re going to regret that one day.’ And of course, when you’re 21 you’re like, ‘No I won’t! This is who I am!’
“Now that I am not the wife of the guy who gave me the nickname, and a mother, and I’m 38 years old, yeah, I regret it.”
My college friend Robyn Brown also has a regret story involving a lower-back tattoo (I’m sensing a theme, here). I’ll allow her to set the scene.
“Picture this: it’s 2002. To celebrate your 18th birthday, your boyfriend buys you a gift certificate for that tattoo you’ve been talking about. Your mother doesn’t like it but you invite her along hoping she’ll come around and she begrudgingly picks a star on the wall that looks kinda nice. Knowing it’ll look supa-fly on your lower back, you book it in.”
“Most people who know they want a tattoo know they want a tattoo. It’s a matter of finding the right artist for what you’re thinking of.”
And Brown was feeling supa-fly until two years later, when she showed up to work at her server job one day and the kitchen staff had trouble meeting her gaze.
Turns out the very same tattoo, in the very same location, was on the bikini-clad backside of that day’s Sunshine girl. As she points out, it was the era of painfully low-rise jeans. “So, yep, they knew it was the same one,” she says.
The sheer permanence of a tattoo increases the probability of regret. But there are ways to mitigate ink remorse.
“Most people who know they want a tattoo know they want a tattoo,” says Tesia Rhind, a Winnipeg tattoo artist who specializes in illustrative, fine-line, realism and florals. “It’s a matter of finding the right artist for what you’re thinking of.”
Doing your research, she says, is key. Instagram is a useful tool that allows you to see an artist’s work (Rhind is @tesiacoil, by the way). If you find an artist you like but they’re booked for months, Rhind advises waiting it out or finding another artist who can execute what you want.
“Don’t just walk into a shop that has availability and ask, ‘Who can do this?’ without looking at their work,” she says. “That’s what people often regret.”
The consultation process can involve managing a client’s expectations and providing design solutions.
“A lot of people have this vision that you can fit a lot of things into one small space,” Rhind says. “But you have to tell them about how tattoos age, what it’s going to look like later, doing finer line tattoos — which is some of the stuff I do — some of it may fade faster in a few years than thick lines, but thick lines may blur out,” Rhind says.
“People need to know that. People also need to know what looks good on certain parts of the body.”
With that in mind, there are a few tattoos Rhind simply will not do.
“I won’t tattoo hands or necks of people if they are under 26 and have no other tattoos,” she says. “I have some 18 year olds come in and they want a rose on their hand and they have nothing else — I won’t do that and don’t think a lot of tattoo artists will do that. I don’t like to do fingers because they don’t age well and they’re basically a waste of money, but I will do them.”
“Obviously, I won’t tattoo any hate symbols,” she says. “And I won’t tattoo band logos on 18 year olds.”
“I won’t tattoo hands or necks of people if they are under 26 and have no other tattoos.”
This is probably a good time to bring up the skin I have in this game. I have a Pearl Jam tramp stamp. It’s the stickman logo from the cover of the Alive single. I got it when I was 19. What I’m saying is, we all have our Foxy.
While I definitely wouldn’t get that tattoo now, I don’t necessarily regret it. In fact, I usually forget I even have it, until I am reminded about it by a particularly chatty massage therapist. Regret and dislike are different.
“I have tattoos I don’t like, but I don’t regret them,” Rhind says. “Cover-ups are usually always possible unless it’s super, super dark, then your only option is to cover it up very dark, or get it removed slightly so it can be gone over. If you regret your tattoo, there’s ways around it. You just have to be more covered, basically, or pay for removal, which hurts and costs a lot of money.”
Wilson has considered removal. “And I’ve considered getting it covered up with something else that’s more reflective of who I am,” she says.
After all, it is possible to get a tattoo you love — whether the image is deeply symbolic, or only skin-deep. And even if you fall out of love, a tattoo can become something as immutable as your hands, or your knees, or your feet. It’s part of you.
“Once you get a tattoo that you like and think is really beautiful or speaks to you and it’s done well, it just becomes part of your body you don’t change your mind on because you know it’s there and it’s another way to love your body.”
“It’s hard, because you say, ‘Sit on something for a while’ — but I’ve tattooed people who are in their 40s and they’ll say, ‘I’ve wanted a tattoo for 20 years and I keep changing my mind,’” Rhind says.
“But I find once you get a tattoo that you like and think is really beautiful or speaks to you and it’s done well, it just becomes part of your body you don’t change your mind on because you know it’s there and it’s another way to love your body. It’s another extension of yourself.”
Wilson has two other tattoos she doesn’t regret. One is of her initials on the back of her neck, and wants to add those of her children.
The other is a tiny ladybug on her hip. There’s a story about that one: when she was 18, Wilson asked her mother what she’d get if she ever got a tattoo, and her mother decided that a little ladybug might be OK. So that’s what Wilson got.
“I wanted to get something she wouldn’t be too mad about,” she says, laughing. “I never regretted that one.”
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.