By: Liv Harlow
Illustration by August Greene

I got my first tattoo at 18-years-old. It was close to midnight during the summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when I giddily hopped in the car with my friend Mollie and drove to a late night parlor. I’d been premeditating this day for a long time. And it was with an impulsive, fearless ‘Tonight is the night!’ mentality that I finally decided to do it. I was getting a tattoo.

A small, simple line of text, only about a centimeter in height and a few inches in length, easily hide-able by a bra or bathing suit: “Proverbs 3:5-6.” The machine came on, buzzing in my ears, and then a prickling sting. Because it was placed on my ribs, I felt nerves cringing and tingling as feelings fluctuated between a sharp pain and a tickle; like a jolt of lightning, simultaneously warm and cold, sent through me. After just five minutes, I had a tattoo. A permanent mark on my body. A stamp of forever.

Today my skin showcases seven tattoos, one of which is (as of recently) a full sleeve. I’ve been berated, given curious looks, and talked to in a condescending tone for having them. And even still, I have no “regrets”. While I understand that tattoos aren’t for everyone, they’ve instilled in me a deeper sense of artistic meaning. As a writer and photographer, art has always held significance, yet something about tattoos is different…It’s the ability to literally wear your stories on your sleeve; to keep your memories close; to be reminiscent of the times in your life that you felt most alive or that challenged growth; to be reminded of messages that speak to your soul and shake you up inside.

Over the years, I’ve heard it all: “But your skin will get wrinkly and gross” (which by the way, everyone’s skin will get wrinkly and gross), “Those are going to fade and look like lumpy blobs,” to “What will your parents think?”, “You can’t show those at church”, “But he fell in love with you when you didn’t have any”… This list goes on and on. I’d be lying if these statements and inquiries didn’t upset me. Yet, despite bigoted commentary, I’ve continued to ink my skin. Why is that?

“Those are going to look like shit when you’re older.”

Maybe so. Then again, maybe not. I have no ability to predict the future state of my physical appearance. That said, if truth be told, it’s fairly inevitable that we will all look like shit at some point in our lives. We will all grow salt and pepper locks (or go bald and lose our luscious locks altogether), as well as deal with drooping eyelids, saggy genitals and cheese-like cellulite. We will grow whiskers from our chins and develop age spots and spider veins and dried scales and cankles and wrinkles. (Hence why it’s never wise to build your life around the way you look on the outside…but that’s a whole other story.)

For one thing, physical appearance should never be priority; and secondly, it’s called aging. The natural process of growing old is inescapable, and it requires acceptance. In addition to my unfavorable external disintegration, I’ll most likely smell bad, have terrible hearing, undergo poor eyesight, and gain weight from an inability to exercise like I did in my younger years. I sincerely doubt that whether or not my tattoos look “good” will be at the top of my list of priorities. If it is, we’ve got ourselves a bigger problem. I hope that I’m living my final years in a carefree, adventurous state, attending to my bucket list, playing with doggies, lovin’ on my shuga and being an all-around badass grannie. (Which, by the way, grannies are ten times more badass if they’ve got tattoos. Just sayin’!)

If my tats look absolutely awful—like to the point in which I simply cannot bear to look at myself—there is the last resort of tattoo removal. (See next point)

“Won’t you regret it?”

I just recently had my full sleeve finished, and after the initial excitement passed, I looked down at my arm and thought, ‘Oh my God. I’ve done it. My entire arm is covered’. And after that realization passed, and the fleeting moment of doubt vanquished, excitement ensued once again.

To your probable surprise, I’ve actually thought about one day removing a tattoo. In another life, I wouldn’t have followed through with the permanent and cumbersome mark of an African elephant’s profile on my inner arm several years ago. At the time, I was so antsy to have my half sleeve complete that I trusted an artist I should not have.

You see, my regret doesn’t come from the act of tattooing my arm or from the content of said tattoo. The regret comes from foolishly giving someone the power to mark my body permanently who I should not have trusted; it comes from allowing someone who had no respect for my intended idea to have free reign. The artist printed a photo of an elephant from online, traced it onto my arm, and made incredibly dark and heavy marks that I explicitly said disliked—including a very thick black line directly above my armpit that I absolutely despise. I’ve toyed with the idea of removal, hoping to one day replace it with an elephant more my style. Even then, the word “regret” still doesn’t seem appropriate.

Tattoos become a part of you, and when you dislike a particular piece of art to the point that its existence controls your perception of self, you are allowing a toxic flow of self-hatred enter your life. Regretting a tattoo is essentially disowning a part of yourself. So while there may be a hint of remorse, self-rejection ain’t OK.

On a greater scale, tattoos tell stories. And while some folks get random bits of artwork carelessly needled into their skin, I personally have only marked myself with things that hold significant meaning to me and that speak loudly to the person I’ve metamorphosed into. There’s a saying, “You can’t regret something that once made you smile.” I know that’s cheesy and cliché, but to be embarrassed by or ashamed of tattooed artwork would be to essentially defame my past.

So, long story short, tattoos are not regrets. But who you give your trust to can be. If an artist takes advantage of your vulnerability and does whatever they please to your skin, regret is inevitable. The art is then not yours to carry; it’s theirs. And that’s completely against the point.

Tattoos are personal. If you want to get one, get one. If you want to remove one, remove one. If you love it, don’t let anyone else change your mind. If you hate it, again, don’t let anyone else try changing your mind. You are the one who has authority over your body. The power to regret or confidently claim ownership is in your hands.

“You will never get a real job.”

Ok, so I truly hope that’s not the case! But if someone chooses to not hire me for the way I’ve chosen to decorate my body, then I don’t’ want to work for them anyways.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, tattoos can lessen one’s approval of a potential employee upon first impression. Though I don’t agree with it, I can respect that conservative subconscious. For this reason, I almost always wear a cardigan and meet with potential clients for the first time while wearing a cardigan, covering any small speck of ink. However, if after our initial meeting they alter their opinion of me as a result of witnessing the once hidden tattoos, then I feel empowered walking away. I’m not ashamed of wearing art, and I have no desire to work for someone who degrades my value because of it or discriminates against my skill set for the way I choose to look.

“You’re addicted. One day you’ll be covered head to toe.”

I’d be lying if I denied it…Tattoos are addicting. I remember thinking the tiny Bible verse would be my one and only artistic scar, yet here I am six years later with seven tattoos. By some people’s standards I’m already “covered”.

For many people, the process of getting a tattoo is a surprisingly likeable pain. And the desire for expression is worth any bit of grueling discomfort. For most, after losing tattoo virginity, it’s easy to want more. That said, it’s always wise to thoroughly think things through and know your limits. It is on you for the rest of your life, after all.

“People will look at you differently.”

It actually blows my mind that people have explicitly told me that my friends, family, and fiancé will no longer love me the same if I choose to add tattoos to my exterior layer. Really? I mean, I know our culture is shallow AF, but to imply that my aesthetic would alter the roots of my closest relationships? That’s ludicrous.

However… it’s somewhat true.

People do look at you differently. I’ve had my parents call me a “freak” before, refusing to talk to me for weeks and demanding that I cover myself during visits to my hometown. I’ve had friends gawk at me, asking, “How could you do such a thing?” I’ve had extended family members say, “but you were such a pretty girl”—emphasis on past tense, as if to say I’m all of the sudden no longer beautiful or valuable. I cannot emphasize enough that beauty comes from within. If I’m any less “pretty” to someone because of a tattoo, that person never thought I was truly beautiful to begin with.

Here’s the thing: If a friend doesn’t want to be in my life because of a tattoo, they probably weren’t that good of a friend to start with. If my parents want to throw a hissy fit because I’m not the perfectly pampered country club classic they might have wanted me to be, that’s on them, not me. Relationships based on unconditional love and respect for individualism are those I want in my life.

At the end of the day, there are far worse choices I could make in my life that would reflect poorly on who I am on the inside. As far as ink goes, it’s got nothing to do with the heart.