First, it is useful to consider the concept of the gaze when analyzing regrettable tattoos. Many people get tattoos in private locations that have personal meaning and are only meant to be seen by a select few people. On the other hand, many people cover their bodies in very visible places with tattoo art specifically because they enjoy being observed. Although these tattoos can still be very personal, they are meant to be shown off and looked at by others. In this case, it is possible that the tattoo bearer enjoys the idea of being observed, whether or not the observer appreciates the art. There is a relationship that exists between the tattooed person and the person who views his/her tattoos.
Second, we must examine why people get tattoos. Tattoos are an individualistic experience and everyone has a different reason for permanently marking his or her body with these “expressive symbols”. Traditionally, tattoos were associated with deviance and the social risk of permanently marking one’s body. Many assumed that people with tattoos were either criminals or generally untrustworthy (Sanders).
Time is dissolving the stigma surrounding tattoos and they are becoming more mainstream. They are no longer a sign of social deviance but rather a symbolic object closely tied to the self-identity of the wearer (Sanders, 1985). Sanders’s article points out that, despite tattoos being far more widely accepted than they used to be, many people who wear them still cover up and hide them in certain social settings.
Because tattoos have become mainstream and no longer express social deviance, many people have opted to ink their bodies. “Tattoos are finding their way into corporate offices, classrooms (on the teachers and students) and a myriad of other places that would have considered the art deviant and anti-social not too long ago” (Sanders, 1985). The increased popularity of tattoos has also led to a large portion of tattoo-getters regretting their decision to get tattoos.
This regret can stem from a variety of factors including the person aging, poor quality of artwork, location on body, or career choices. It is important to note that many people who have tattoos do not regret them right now. As they age and their lifestyles change however, they may come to regret tattoo choices made earlier in life.
It is difficult to find people who regret their tattoos. Oftentimes people have recently had their tattoos done so they haven’t experienced life changes yet that have resulted in regret. However, some people are very willing to describe the mistake they made getting inked. Jessica Callan chronicles her impulsive decision to get tattoos in her article I Had a Tattoo on my Bum 13 Years Ago – And I’ve Regretted it Ever Since. According to Callan, about 50% of people have regrets after getting inked, and she falls into that category for both of her tattoos.
People who have had their tattoos for a long period of time are more likely to label them as regrettable. These people have often gone through changes in beliefs, hobbies, relationships, etc. Some regret their tattoos because with time the ink has faded, distorting the artwork. Others regret their tattoos because their decision to get inked was impulsive and they feel they didn’t put enough thought into selecting a tattoo. Still, others regret their tattoos because they opted to do the artwork themselves, without any professional training or equipment. Some feel their tattoos look silly and reflect poorly on their decision-making skills. Others are unsure or don’t think their tattoos say anything because of their concealed locations. One of the most common causes for regret seems to be by people who dislike the quality of artwork. Whatever the specific cause of regret, regrettable tattoos are very common for two main reasons: They are permanent, and the gazes of others are difficult to avoid.
An ethnographic study of tattooing can be seen here.
Callan, Jessica. Had a Tattoo on my Bum 13 Years Ago – And I’ve Regretted it Ever Since. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-532668/I-tattoo-bum-13-years-ago--Ive-regretted-since.html>.
Sanders, Clinton R. Tattoo consumption: Risk and regret in the purchase of a socially marginal service.(1985) Advances in Consumer Research. Volume 12 Issue 1 Pages 17-22