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Are tattoos a welcome form of self-expression or a cause of regret?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Mark Kolbe
*Updated 2022
From sacred rituals of ancient civilizations to the impulsive whims of Gen-Z teenagers, tattoos have played an important and controversial role in the development of self-expression. While an estimated 44% of the American population, regardless of age, sports at least one tattoo, they are still regarded by many as low-class or even representative of gang affiliation. So, are tattoos a welcome form of self-expression or is there something to be said for keeping skin ink-free?
Here are three reasons why tattoos may enhance your life, and three reasons why you should steer clear of them.


Save Your Skin


The power of regret

study found that nearly one in three people with a tattoo regret getting one. Many get tattoos impulsively, and that spur-of-the-moment decision is often one of the biggest predictors of tattoo regret. While many people get tattoos to remind them of an event in their life that seemed significant at the time, that reminder may not serve them in their later years.

Plus, symbols, which many people choose as a tattoo, change over time, or are appropriated for different agendas of various ideologies. For example, the swastika, which was once a positive symbol in almost every culture, became the threatening insignia of the Nazi party. Even the “OK” hand sign, intended to convey that everything is going well, was adopted by the alt-right as a divisive political statement. Whatever your tattoo is originally intended to mean, it may later turn into a regret or connote a questionable or more negative meaning – one with which you won’t want to be associated.


The unhealthy choice

Aside from the fact that getting tattoos is painful, there are many indications that wearing permanent ink on your skin isn’t good for your health. A 2017 study found that tattooed skin sweats 50% less than non-tattooed skin, which hinders your body’s ability to cool itself down and absorb necessary nutrients. Additionally, while rare, certain case studies have linked tattoo ink with skin cancer and blood-borne diseases. And let’s not forget that while there are statutory laws in all 50 US states preventing customers younger than 18 from getting a tattoo, there is no federal law regulating the practice of tattooing.


A potential obstacle in the workplace

True, tattoos are pretty common – and commonly accepted – these days. And while attitudes toward them are more lenient in the workplace than they were in the past, there are still prejudices that can affect one’s job prospects in certain places of employment. One survey found that 75% of the 2,675 respondents felt that tattoos hurt an applicant’s chances of being hired while 39% felt that employees with tattoos reflected poorly on the employer. And some tattooed employees may face company dress-code policies that make them cover up visible body art. For them, claiming their First Amendment Right to free speech won’t help them win any cases against employers. This is because the First Amendment only prevents governments from abridging someone’s freedom of speech and expression; it does not extend to private employers and certainly not to their prejudices.

Mark Your Territory


Your body is your own

Today, personal freedom is a treasured and widely held Western value. This extends to freedom of expression, which is a right that many people around the world still don’t have – and are fighting for. As we are blessed to live in a society which allows us to do with our bodies as we please, why shouldn’t this be celebrated? Like wearing makeup, styling hair or piercing various parts of your body, tattoos enhance self-esteem. In fact, a Texas Tech University study found that college-age women with four or more tattoos reported higher levels of self-esteem than anyone else in the study. Whether a sign of self-empowerment or a coping mechanism, tattoos have the power to make you feel good. This is especially the case for people who use medical tattoos to cover scars. Tattoos help people feel comfortable in their own skin.


What’s the big deal?

As some sources estimate that between 44% of Americans have a tattoo, it’s difficult to stand by the reasoning that they aren’t socially acceptable anymore. While some still argue that tattoos are unprofessional, most tattoos – barring a full sleeve – are small and unobtrusive. The stigma against tattoos is fading fast, and if it no longer threatens your job security or social standing, why shouldn’t you get one if it interests you?


Thinking through inking

Body art not only encourages a level of deep thinking about personal values and ideals, but also unites groups of people under intentional, positive messages. For example, as a way to deal with the coronavirus lockdowns – and celebrate emerging from them – coronavirus-related imagery, such as masks, doctors, and the virus particle, have become popular tattoos in recent years. Additionally, long before the pandemic, tattoos of the semicolon were adopted by the mental health community as a symbol of surviving depression and suicidal ideation. In another message of hope, hundreds of people across Manchester got a tattoo of a worker bee to show solidarity with survivors of the May 2017 terrorist attack. Or, like the nobility of ancient Egypt and the skilled women of Borneo, tattoos can be used as emblems that communicate deep ideas and positive information.


The Bottom Line: Tattoos are a way to take ownership of your body and express personal ideals, but they may not be emotionally or physically healthy in the long term. Would you get a tattoo?

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