Consider the messages that tattoos are sending

Consider the messages that tattoos are sending

Ink is everywhere these days, and I don’t mean on newspapers or in magazines. Tattoos are far more pervasive than I can ever recall in my fifty years. There was a time, when I was young, that boys were awestruck by the old Navy veterans, whose arms bore anchors, and the Marines with Semper Fi across their battle scarred chests. Occasionally, when we saw them out in the sun, working in their yards, we would get a glimpse of hula girls or things even more thrilling, as we imagined their adventures in combat (and otherwise).

I also remember that when I was young, tattoos were scandalous things. The ladies at the mission tea were shocked and the good people of the neighborhood said “tsk, tsk,” and kept an eye on those folks whose libertine morals permitted them to have their skin marked. Tattoos were, almost universally (and often falsely), associated with low morals. Even the tattooed would, later in life, attempt to have them removed, or wear clothes that covered their youthful decisions.

But things have changed. Tattoos can be found on the usual suspects, of course; soldiers, sailors, airmen, bikers, gangsters and such. But they’re also widely seen on college students and high school teachers, doctors and accountants, athletes and musicians, grandmas and grandpas, beauty pageant participants, atheists and Christians and everyone in between.

Thanks to my medical career, I have more than a passing familiarity with a wide variety of tattoos. Although I don’t have any myself, I can appreciate the art form. I have commented to patients about the beauty of some of their tattoos.

I have, in other cases, wondered just what combination of drug, alcohol and moonlight would lead them to have that particular image placed indelibly on their epidermis for life. I could tell you stories, but most of them would be cut by the wise and prudent editorial staff of this fine paper. Suffice it to say, it’s likely that many of their mothers were saddened by the images or words my patients carried through the world, on every part of their bodies including eyelids, the inside of lips (no kidding) and even on their more delicate nether regions.

However, the more I see of tattoos, the more I begin to think about the stories, the beliefs, that result in their placement. I have seen the faces of infants, with the dates of their births and deaths beneath their blue-tinged, angel faces. I have seen the names of brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, comrades and colleagues, placed lovingly on the bodies of their survivors, who act as walking memorials for life.

Increasingly, I see entire paragraphs written on the torsos or arms of patients; I try to read them as I use my stethoscope. Rarely can I get the entire story, though I’m always curious as a lover of stories. I have seen Bible verses, crosses large and small, Buddhist emblems, pentagrams and all variety of symbology, religious and otherwise. There are dainty butterflies and flowers, dolphins on ankles, lizards on feet, stars on wrists, super heroes, wolves and any other imaginable mark. I’m fascinated by large angel or fairy wings on the backs of young women, and I’m puzzled by intricate tattoos on breasts.

I also see rage, of course. I see angry, profane words. Death’s head is a common theme, along with serpents and devils and creatures fearsome to behold, that speak terror to the viewer. I also see lewd comments and images, not fit for public consumption.

Why are there so many tattoos now? Some of it is clearly a statement of individuality, or a love of art, symbol and story. But those of us who wonder should remember that while a few are tattooed for shock value, many are just using their bodies to tell us stories, to share emotions. They’re wearing their pain, their loss, their hopes, their values, their dreams and fantasies.

And this: No small number are using the ink to remake themselves; to paint over the memories, struggles or perceived inadequacies that plague them, and to thereby redesign their image in a way more to their own liking.

It’s easy to condemn what we don’t understand or would never do ourselves. But maybe we should pause to consider the messages that tattoos are sending. In the process, we might love and understand our neighbors just a little better than before.

And all that ink might just make sense at last.

Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at and is the author of The Practice Test.  This article originally appeared in the Greenville News.

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  • Chip Lohmiller

    My favorite (while getting somebody ready for a trauma surgery) was the word “surprise!” inked inside a poorly drawn snake – on a penis.

    I’m not sure this particular guy had much with which to live up to the advertisement. Or maybe that was the point…

    • Patient Kit

      LOL! Was it inspired by a jack-in-a-box? Crank, crank, crank to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel” followed by a sometime startling surprise? No clown head though? ;-)

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I have a tattoo on my neck that says, “If you ask me one more question about gluten I am going to beat you severely about the head and shoulders with a large plank.”

    The writing is very small. Not sure if my patients can read it.

  • cathy silver

    I loved using the “tooth to tattoo ratio”: if the patient has more tats than teeth, you double the amount of alcohol reported.

  • Patient Kit

    I recently met an EMT who had spiderweb tattoos covering his very muscular arms. I don’t know whether the tattoos also covered his shoulders, chest and back (or more) because he had a short sleeve shirt (and pants) on. But his hands and all of his exposed arms were covered in webs. I thought it was appropriate for a man who routinely rescues people to identify with Spiderman. He and his tattoos were attractive and sexy. He was a very nice guy with a great personality.

  • Emily Gibson

    My advice to the rare patient who asks about the risk of tattoos before getting one is: just remember that whoever shares your bed and your body in the future will be living with it too. Some works of art you can admire forever, some you wish you had never seen even once.

  • Lisa

    i got a tattoo on my hip years ago, when I was in my twenties. I forget it is there, for the most part. When I had my first hip replacement, my surgeon came into the surgical holding area and checked my hip to make sure I written ‘yes’ on the hip to be replaced. He was horrified to see the tattoo, I think in part because there was a possibility he would have to cut though it. Every time he had examined me I was wearing ‘exam shorts.’ So while he knew how my hip moved, the range of motion, and how it looked on an xray, he had never looked at it unclothed. And I never thought to mention it.

    • Patient Kit

      LOL! Lisa, stop horrifying your surgeons. ;-). So, did he have to cut through your hip tattoo? If so, did he break the news to you himself or did he make a nurse or resident tell you? ;-)

      • Lisa


        The tattoo survived intact; the scar runs right beside it.

        • Patient Kit

          My longest scar is an orthopedic scar along the outside of my right thigh from my fractured femur surgery 15 years ago. It’s very faded now but I’ve always loved that scar and embraced it like some kind of victory symbol — almost like a tattoo. For one thing, the bone tumor that fractured my femur turned out to be benign and that scar is a reminder of how lucky I am to still have my leg. My more recent abdominal scars from last year’s OVCA surgery are teensy weensy dime-sized scars from robotic surgery and I appreciate how wee they are and also that they still have my live body to appear on. Since I like my survival scars so much, I really should think about that mermaid tattoo. I’m old enough to know who I am now. I’m never going to stop being a mermaid. Glad I don’t have my first boyfriend’s name tattooed anywhere though. ;-)

          • Lisa

            A mermaid tattoo sounds like fun to me.

            You do get used to scars. I can’t say I love mine, but I don’t mind their appearance. When someone looks at my scars in the gym dressing room, I tell them I got bit by a shark.

            Many women get tattoos to cover their mastectomy scars. I’ve seen some that I love and would like to design/get one. But my lymphedema therapist tells me I shouldn’t due to the infection risk.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Your body is not a NASCAR. Tattoos are self-inflicted glass ceilings.

    • A Banterings

      James O’Brien is just upset because the neighborhood kids are walking on his grass. I guess there are no people of color or women either that hold respectable positions either in his world.

      See, medical school has taught him how to stereotype simply by looking at someone.

      This is paternalism at its finest.

      Its not like human beings are individuals, creative, emotional, or self expressive. God forbid if they were self-determining and even questioned his infinite and infallible wisdom.

      I guess if someone comes to him injured and has tattoos, the diagnosis is “self inflicted due to alcohol and poor education.”

      Way to go Doc!

      • James O’Brien, M.D.

        Did I say I want to ban tats? No. Did I say anything about women or race? No. Did I say people with tattoos are alcoholics and uneducated? No. Did I say that getting them can get in the way of success? Yes. Putting aside the opinions of some of the posters (who ironically admitted in another thread she wouldn’t have an older physician), most people are not going to want a doctor or a lawyer with next tattoos. That’s just the way it is.

        This is why we can’t have dialogue in America. Tolerating but not liking things is now the same as intolerance. So now it’s like it or else be called a hater or bigot.

        But have fun beating up your straw man. If you’re post is supposed to be an example of tattooed people being reasonable and intelligent, I’d call it an epic fail.

    • BryonvonRinger(BryonMorrigan)

      I’m a heavily-tattooed lawyer. But thanks for playing!

      • James O’Brien, M.D.

        When you go to MCLE events or any group of attorneys, how many visible tats do you see?

        I’ve recently attended two large meetings of doctors and attorneys and did not spot on visible tattoo. No, it is not true that plenty of professionals have visible tats. Unless you think <2 percent is plenty.

        But if you want to think you rebutted my point with your n=1, knock yourself out.

        • BryonvonRinger(BryonMorrigan)

          I don’t see a lot of lawyers walking around at such events not wearing suits, but I happen to know a bunch of lawyers who have tattoos. Of course, you can continue to have your authoritarian opinion that everyone should behave as you do. Considering what a rude and hateful person you appear to be, I am glad that I am nothing like you.

        • Skyeman

          It also depends on the area. A place known for tattoos like say Phoenix or Miami would be far more accepting of a tattooed professional than a random place in say rural Montana. I’m going into medicine myself and plan on getting a tattoo of the aesculapius tattooed on myself. I also want to say this: when it’s your life on the line, do you really care if the hands that save you are tattooed or not?

          • Patient Kit

            I absolutely do not care at all whether the hands that save me are tattooed or not.

          • Gospace

            Yeah, sure. I mean, one or more bad personal decisions to get tattooed don’t show any propensity towards making other bad decisions in your professional life.

          • James O’Brien, M.D.

            Hmm, should I listen to the “every choice is cool” anonymous posters on a message board or the ancient wisdom of Maimonides?….tough choice there…..

            An external solution to an internal problem…like much (not all) plastic surgery btw

          • James O’Brien, M.D.

            No it doesn’t. I recently went to a conference of attorneys in LA and not one out of a hundred had a visible tattoo. Same with a recent conference of doctors.

            Why would you mark yourself with something that has the effect of alienating half your patients? It’s about them, it’s not about you. Get a necklace or a pin if you want to express yourself.

  • Patient Kit

    As an avid swimmer, I spend a lot of time in a pool with guys in Speedos and in locker rooms, showers and saunas with naked women and on the beach and in the ocean with many scantily dressed peeps from all walks of life. So, I have seen a lot of tattoos. Not as many as your average ER doc I’m sure, but still a lot of tattoos. And I can confirm that you can’t draw any generalized socioeconomic conclusions about the tattooed as a class of people. You can get a clue about an individual by noticing their individual tattoos. You certainly can’t tell how much or whether they drink by the presence of tattoos. That heavily tattooed guy swimming in the lane next to me is more likely a doc or a Wall Streeter than an alcoholic homeless man. I’m untattoed myself, but I wonder….maybe a small tasteful mermaid somewhere…..

  • RenegadeRN

    Good article! My daughter is in the Bay Area tech world and she says having only 2 tattoos is tantamount to having none out there. Her friends actually tease her for her minimalist ink. Plenty of mega millionaires with a lot of tattoos! Hardly consider them illiterate or bums.

    • James O’Brien, M.D.

      so it looks like the anti tattoo faction is not the only group who is judgmental….

  • understandnatives

    Tribal and clan culture mandates that I have a tattoo. Don’t judge me for struggling to keep my culture that the white man nearly erased.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Professor of what? Just curious.

    BTW, college is not reality. There are many things you can get away with on a college campus but nowhere else.

    • trueroxfan

      So true, the academic world isn’t concerned with first impressions or how their looks may be perceived. They are inherently defiant.

  • casu marzu

    No tats for me: I’d like to make it harder for people to identify me should I decide to turn to a life of crime.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Ronaldo, who is hipper and hotter than anyone on the planet except his girlfriend, does not have tats because he donates blood, which really is cool:–why-you-wont-find-a-tattoo-on-cristiano-ronaldo-210854302.html

    • Mickey Knox

      I donate blood, and currently have 8 tattoos including a full back piece.

      What’s your point?

      • Patient Kit

        Here’s what the Red Cross says about donating blood if you have tattoos:

        “Wait 12 months after a tattoo if the tattoo was applied in a state that does not regulate tattoo facilities. This requirement is related to concerns about hepatitis. Learn more about hepatitis and blood donation.

        Acceptable if the tattoo was applied by a state-regulated entity using sterile needles and ink that is not reused. Cosmetic tattoos applied in a licensed establishment in a regulated state using sterile needles and ink that is not reused is acceptable. There are 40 states that currently regulate tattoo facilities. You should discuss your particular situation with the health historian at the time of donation.”

  • Petfauna Czaplicki

    When my father was a very young man in the Navy, he got a tattoo. For as long as I can remember, he regretted that choice and hid it under his sleeves. He was embarrassed to have someone talk about it. I have often consdiered getting a small tattoo of a dolphin on the inside of my wrist. But, out of respect for my father, I have not and will not get one.

  • Patient Kit

    OMG, AJ! Thank you for sharing this very touching and personal revelation. No swimsuits or sleeveless since 1982!?! I hope you live in a cool climate. And I sincerely hope this post of yours is a first step for you toward letting go of this long-term unnecessary self-punishment and embracing some newfound liberation. While I understand the deep pain from which your dad spoke, he was so wrong to equate your harmless innocent tattoo with those that the Nazis inflicted on people in concentration camps. The two are in no way related. You did nothing at all wrong. I hope you unhide your tat soon and get yourself a nice celebratory swimsuit or sleeveless top. Tattoos really are like jewelry that you can’t lose, exactly what you intended.

    • Lisa

      Judaism forbids tattoos, so if AJ’s dad was an observant jew, he would have been upset on that basis alone. I know my mother, a non observant jew, was upset when she learned I had a tattoo. I think the idea that tattoos were prohibited was something she couldn’t shed.

  • Lisa

    Some temples are highly decorated . . .

  • Emily Gibson

    Of course, it is all in my “What to know about body art” pamphlet which I hand them that covers risks of piercings, tattoos etc. I find their eyes glaze over if I start reciting the litany of precautions. Instead I want them to at least consider the responsibility and effect of becoming a life-long canvas.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Erotic asphyxiation is also a personal choice. That doesn’t mean one should do it.

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