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Dear Crabby: Tattoo-remark etiquette can be ... touchy

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Dear Crabby,

I work in a retail store, and my customers are mostly young folks. Thus I see lots of tattoos on a daily basis. Some of them are quite beautiful and some are ... confusing.

What’s considered “proper” tattoo-remark etiquette? Is it OK to compliment someone on their body art? Is it somehow rude to ask what a picture is supposed to be if I can’t figure it out? Up to now, I’ve been looking but not commenting. Would it be best to just keep doing that?

Thanks for the help, Inkless

 

Dear Inkless,

You can definitely compliment people on their tattoos, but there’s a right way and a wrong way.

For instance: “Hey, very cool tattoo,” is a lovely nicety that tattooed people enjoy hearing, while, “Hey, jerk, very cool tattoo, you dumb jerk idiot,” is not. But you probably knew that already. So here are some more nuanced guidelines:

• Don’t touch. This seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how many well-meaning, no-boundaries-having rubes will actually reach out and touch strangers’ tattoos. Hey, rubes: Tattoos are not a license to touch strangers. I mean, come on.

• Don’t press the matter. If the person doesn’t seem into talking — if your, “Cool ink,” is met with a clipped, “Thanks” — it’s best not to insist they talk. Like the no-touching rule, this is true of all people, not just the tattooed.

• It’s OK to ask what a tattoo is or what it means, but don’t lead with that. Start with a compliment and gauge the response to see if you have a green light to get inquisitive. And be careful; some tattoos have deeply personal backstories.

The retail environment, generally speaking, is not the place. No one walks into The Gap just dying to share an emotionally wrenching story with a clerk. (“Oh these flames on my arm? They represent the fire that killed my whole family and the pain that will never stop burning. So, uh, are these jeans 20 percent off the full price or is that an additional 20 percent off from the sale price?”)

• It’s fine to ask where someone got their tattoo or who the artist was. Tattooed people LOVE to talk about that stuff. (“This? Yeah, Steve at Steve’s Tattoo in Philadelphia did this. He’s supposed to be the best in the country.”)

• Don’t ask how much it cost. People are touchy about personal finance.

• If the tattoo is clearly supposed to be a portrait of Elvis but it looks more like Bill Clinton, do not laugh. A college friend of mine got a very Clinton-y looking Elvis tattoo, and we laughed about it A LOT. But I could do that because I was already her friend, not a retailer trying to sell her anything.

And that’s about it. As you’ve probably noticed, this stuff is all common sense. But as you’ve also probably noticed, a lot of people don’t have common sense.

To sum it all up: It’s best to think of people with tattoos as regular people and treat them as such. Because they are.

Hope that helps.

Sincerely, Crabby

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