Can't you pick a different tattoo?
July 9, 2011 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Younger brother asked my opinion on his prospective tattoo. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut, but I'm not sure.

He's my half-brother, 20 years younger than me. He's almost old enough to get a tattoo, and when he does, he plans to have the "Coat of Arms" of our Irish surname on his bicep.

Sigh. See, my problem with it is that, as far as I know, my family isn't royalty, and we don't have a Coat of Arms or family crest. Of the little geneaology I'm aware of, my ancestors are from County Sligo in northwest Ireland.

And, I thought I read somewhere that it was a fad in the 60s and 70s to send away for your family's crest to hang in your rec room. My father did that and he never had any reason to believe the shield with the black-and-white checkerboard design was anything but our ancient family crest. I don't buy that it is.

So here's my half-brother now. We're close, but our great age difference means we aren't "buddies" in the same way we might be if we were only, say, 10 years apart or less. He's a smart, independent kid. He's a kind person, and I think he takes my opinions on things quite seriously.

I don't want to crush him by shitting all over his tattoo idea. But I think it's a bad idea. I think it's corny. I'm afraid one day he'll think it's corny. Maybe he doesn't care? I learned a long time ago that most people in my family don't think much of my egghead "But actually..." opinions anyway. So I'm leaning toward keeping my mouth shut. But maybe I shouldn't?

tl;dr -- my half brother, 20 years my junior, wants to know what I think about his tattoo design. I don't think much of it. Do I nod and smile, or speak up?
posted by Buffaload to Human Relations (45 answers total)
How about not saying anything about that particular tattoo and instead sticking to gentle reminders about tattoos in general like 'they're permanent' and 'body art is to be carefully considered'.
posted by carsonb at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The fact that you're more of a mentor than a buddy may help your case. As long as you speak your mind respectfully, I think you could very gently dissuade him on the idea. And my god, if my family had let me get the tattoos that I wanted to get when I was 17 . . . shudder
posted by Think_Long at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2011

Could you coax him into doing more research on his own to double check the veracity of the crest under the guise of "a tattoo is forever?" Give him examples (easily found on the intertubes I reckon) of the people that get Chinese or Japanese text that doesn't really represent what it purports to.
posted by Jacob G at 8:25 AM on July 9, 2011 [19 favorites]

Is the problem that you think the coat of arms is fake, that you think this kind of tattoo is lame, or that you don't like tattoos at all?
posted by J. Wilson at 8:29 AM on July 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Seconding Jacob G. Don't even comment on the tattoo part of it, just express doubt about the legitimacy of the design itself. Perhaps he'll learn something really interesting about your family history, or perhaps he'll just learn that some company scammed your father out of a few bucks for a faddish wall-hanging. Either way, it works out well and you get to avoid the real issue.

And as long as he plans to put it somewhere he can cover with a normal dress-shirt, the whole "permanent" thing really doesn't make much difference. We all do stupid things as kids, and anything that doesn't impact his future employment prospects, consider a good choice. :)
posted by pla at 8:29 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sigh. See, my problem with it is that, as far as I know, my family isn't royalty, and we don't have a Coat of Arms or family crest. Of the little geneaology I'm aware of, my ancestors are from County Sligo in northwest Ireland.

That's okay. This is something he grew up with it in his rec room, or seeing an image of it hanging on the wall, or whatever, and he'd look at it and think about his family and how much his family means to him. On the scale of corny tattoos, this is really, really not very corny at all. Tattoos are meant to symbolize something for the person wearing them more than the world at large. It sounds like this does.

If you want to steer him toward anything, take this tattooed lady's advice and help him find a good, high quality custom artist who can make the design really beautiful. I have a cheesy tattoo I got at 19, and my big regret is that it's small black-line work, rather than something big and beautiful, like my other tattoos. Oh, and lecturing an 18 year old about how tattoos are "forever" and "permanent" is really, really unlikely to work. Promise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2011 [42 favorites]

J. Wilson -- I think tattoos are fine. Don't have any ink myself, but I am generally positive about cool body art. I think the "family crest" idea is lame because I think it's fake.
posted by Buffaload at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2011

Beautiful insight, PhoBWan...
posted by Buffaload at 8:33 AM on July 9, 2011

I agree that this shouldn't be about tattoos (that would come off as parental and judgmental and would de-legitimize your concerns). I think you should say to him what you've said to us "it was sort of a fad in the 60s to send away for your family crest, so dad did, but we don't actually know if its really even ours - it could be total bullshit. Maybe research it first? Or is there anything else that might be more personal? After all, those crests get pretty cliched - everyone was getting them in the 70s and they got lame pretty fast."
posted by Kololo at 8:37 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me, the question would be: "Do I think he's ever going to figure out on his own that this family crest is a fake? Will that bother him?"

If not, no harm, no foul, I guess. If yes, best to tell him now.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:38 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please remind him that good tattoos aren't cheap and cheap tattoos aren't good.
posted by gnutron at 8:39 AM on July 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Years ago, my eighteen year old full-on brother, who is so close to my age that I don't remember life without him, went through a Born Again phase and got a huge flaming cross tattooed on his back. I bit my tongue. He now regrets it. C'est la vie.

At the time I basically felt like it was none of my business. And it turns out I was right - whether my brother has an ill-considered tattoo doesn't reflect on me in any way.

If you're more concerned in, like, an elder authority/mentor sort of way, the most I would do is to say something like, "Keep in mind that you can always sleep on it and wait till you're really ready to get this tattooed on yourself. There's no rush."
posted by Sara C. at 8:40 AM on July 9, 2011

I just had a similar conversation with my little brother about a month ago. He's only a few years younger than me, though, so advice I give him is more peer-to-peer rather than adult-to-child, which helps.

He's thinking of getting (horror of horrors) his dog tattooed on him, one of those awful "realistic" face pictures that always end up looking like zombies. My advice to him was to spend some time googling for that kind of tattoo, and not to make any final decision until he was able to find a tattoo artist who could produce beautiful results every time. He thought that sounded very rational, and started to look at some pictures, responding: "wow, a lot of these look like crap. Maybe I should think about this."

Yes. Maybe you should. Maybe you should think about it for a very long time.

If I were you, I'd suggest that your brother do some real research into his family crest just to make sure that it's exactly right before getting it inked on his body. It's not so dissimilar to Chinese characters that end up saying "kung pow chicken" instead of "strength". If you're going to do it, do it right.
posted by phunniemee at 8:41 AM on July 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm pretty sure I've read somewhere that Coats of Arms were traditionally tied to an individual rather than a family name but apparently selling people made up tradition is so popular that it clogs up search results (or my google-fu is weak today). That said, it's an extremely common dumb tattoo to get and he could do a lot worse. Perhaps you could convince him to at least get it someplace less visible, like the breast or shoulder blade.
posted by ghharr at 8:49 AM on July 9, 2011

Remember that both you and the tattoo will be in your brother's life for a long, long time.

You should definitely tell him that you think the crest might not be legitimate. Ideally, you'd do this in a respectful way that acknowledges that, legitimate or not, the design is meaningful and significant.

You should consider encouraging him to find a great artist, and telling him that many people aren't crazy about their first tattoos, and wish they were bigger or better-executed or similar. (This is also what PhoB says, so you can tell him that your two heavily-tattooed internet pals agree.)

You should not tell him that you think it's corny or a bad idea. Do not use those words, period.

(The go-to 'Kung Pow Chicken' tattoo site is Hanzis Matter.)
posted by box at 8:51 AM on July 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

The thing is, since this has been hanging in your rec room or whatever for this long, it effectively IS your family crest. Whether or not it was 300 years ago, it is now.

If this guy's under 20, he's not going to listen to someone who's counseling against something cool, and getting your family coat of arms tattooed is certainly cool enough.

I worked with a guy who had his family motto (which I don't recall right now) tattooed on his arm. Was it cool? Damn right. This is a much better potential tattoo than something like a random Japanese character or a Maori tribal thing or whatever. Just shepherd him to a quality tattoo place so he can get it done well.
posted by Slinga at 8:57 AM on July 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Goodnes, yes, tell him that not everyone has a real coat of arms and that it's just for fun. He is young and maybe doesn't know much about history. Can you imagine how dumb he would feel if he got the tattoo, figured out the problem with it, and came to all the rest of you asking if you knew before? Maybe you can suggest some other "family/country pride" ideas instead? Sit down with him and look online? There should be tons of cool options for Ireland.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:59 AM on July 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

There is a very common misconception in the US that a coat of arms is transferred with a family name. This is not true.

A coat of arms is a personal, not a family, thing. The coat of arms your little brother is thinking of inking on himself belongs to some dead dude who is not him. THERE IS NO WAY FOR YOUR 18 YEAR OLD AMERICAN BROTHER TO APPLY THIS CREST TO HIMSELF IN A WAY THAT IS RIGHT. Unless you can find someone with a genuine coat of arms who you are the direct male descendant from (ie: first born son with sons all the way up the line) neither of you posses a coat of arms, and even if you do find someone, by your description its your crest not his.

Coats of Arms, unlike family names, were and still are things meant to be earned and bestowed by your state, your appropriately ennobled lord, or your church for great deeds or excellent service or whatever. Unless your brother wants to become a Catholic Bishop, do something cool enough to get one of the several extant fraternal orders of knights to let him join, or be ennobled somehow by some extant feudal lord he does and will not have a Feudal blazzon of his own

A good compromise, if your brother continues to be set on this, might be to convince him to design a personalized blazzon inspired by the ancestors crest when he has stuff that he has done that is worth incorporating into it.

tl;dr: Your brother is about to permanently declare himself to be a dude who died hundreds of years ago with a distinction that was probably earned killing a lot of people for someone else or enough people than no one was willing to disagree.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:00 AM on July 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Also for what its worth, especially if your brother ever intends to set foot in Ireland, every Irish person I've known (as in actually born and raised on the nearer foggy island east of here) as been really sensitive to cultural appropriation by Irish descended Americans. Your brother is appropriating a cultural symbol he plainly hasn't even taken the time to understand, do not expect this to go over well if he ever travels.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:05 AM on July 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

What are you afraid of, someone coming up to him and saying "dude, that's totally not your family crest." Unlike the Chinese and Japanese symbols, no one is going to know that it's NOT your family crest without some significant research. You're not even 100% sure ("as far as I know.."). So if your objection is that it's fake, either help him find the "real" one or just let it go.
posted by desjardins at 9:33 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

No, I'm afraid of him being ignorant, and doing something ignorantly.
posted by Buffaload at 9:34 AM on July 9, 2011

I don't see why you wouldn't just give him your honest opinion - do it nicely, but tell him honestly. He wouldn't ask for your opinion if he wasn't hoping for an honest answer.
posted by one little who at 9:36 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, on the scale of corniness this is really low, like a 1 (whereas a Sanskrit tattoo or tribal band tattoo would be a 10 in my opinion).
posted by jayder at 9:40 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

He wouldn't ask for your opinion if he wasn't hoping for an honest answer.

That's not necessarily true. I find that usually when people ask for your opinion on something, they either want you to 1) support them wholeheartedly and congratulate their awesome decision, or 2) give them a face-saving excuse not to do something.

So, in my brother's case above, I'm pretty sure it was #2. It's hard to tell what kind of answer your brother's looking for, so just do your best not to be patronizing when you tell him what you think.
posted by phunniemee at 9:43 AM on July 9, 2011

Also for what its worth, especially if your brother ever intends to set foot in Ireland, every Irish person I've known (as in actually born and raised on the nearer foggy island east of here) as been really sensitive to cultural appropriation by Irish descended Americans.

There are whole shops in Dublin and touristy parts of Ireland and websites too, dedicated to selling keyrings, coffee mugs, t-shirts, horrid frameable scrolls and the like with surname coats of arms on to "Irish Americans" at least since I was born. We roll our eyes but are very used to it! I've been seeing surname crests in any number of display situations for years (here's mine!) and don't really see much wrong with tattooing one somewhere. It's miles better than just having your surname inked on which I've seen a couple of times recently and is appalling. Having said that, if you feel so strongly about the subject I agree with one little who, he's your brother not your employer, why on earth wouldn't you be pleasant but direct and honest.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:44 AM on July 9, 2011

Just tossing out an idea: maybe Little Brother sees the coat of arms as a link to a glorious heroic past, not so much that he's proud of his actual real-life family. Of course that heroic past is undoubtedly fictitious and/or pretty unsavory when you really look at the history (cf. Blasdelb), but it's gotta be cooler than his lame boring parents and their dumbass suburban rec room with the knotty pine paneling, right?

If LB is looking for a connection to glory I think you should encourage him to research this crest, with an emphasis on how lame it would be if it turns out to be fake. Which it will, even if at some point in history somebody with the family name actually had this particular coat of arms (again, cf. Balsdelb). A lame tattoo is lame for life, and god help him if his smartass friends figure out the crest is fake.

Maybe he could look into Irish art history as inspiration for a more general "Irish Pride" image.
posted by Quietgal at 9:45 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your brother is about to permanently declare himself to be a dude who died hundreds of years ago with a distinction that was probably earned killing a lot of people for someone else or enough people than no one was willing to disagree.

I think this is way overthinking it. I hate tattoos, think it's idiotic to get them, etc., but to be pedantic about the meaning of coats of arms/family crests/whatever is really kind of silly, because after all this is a person getting a tattoo, not defending a dissertation.
posted by jayder at 9:47 AM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I cannot even begin to imagine how upset I would be if I got a tattoo of my "family coat of arms", having asked my 20-years-older brother for advice about it before getting it, and later found out that 1) it was totally, absurdly fake on multiple fronts and 2) my brother, whom I had asked for advice, knew that it was fake before I got it.
posted by endless_forms at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

If you really want to go after this, do it as a hypothetical. "If you found out it was fake (or the wrong crest, or whatever), would you be upset?"

If the answer's "no," drop it. Dude doesn't care about historical accuracy, and it's his body. If the answer's "yes," then you can offer to help him do some research, or present your evidence that it is fake, or whatever. Do what you can to keep him from getting a tattoo that he'll come to regret.

But if he can honestly say that authenticity matters less than the fun story and his personal feelings for the crest, then just let him go for it. People get shit from Lord of the Rings tattooed on them all the time — and I guarantee you that's even less authentic than the coat of arms y'all had hanging in your rec room, which at least was made by real people on a planet that actually exists. As long as he's not setting himself up for regret or disappointment later, it's harmless.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2011 [8 favorites]

(bias disclaimer- I am comparatively heavily tattooed) My Brother who is also heavily tattooed, got some pretty inaccurate tattoos along the way. When anyone asks about them he's always kinda shrugged his shoulders and said "I don't give a hoot- it's about my skin, my body, my interpretation."

Remember a shitty tattoo is only shitty to the person who got it and doesn't like it later. There is no way to predict accurately how he's going to feel about it in 30 years. If you want him to think about the design, focus on that.

When you approach him about it, just remember that it's not going to kill him. It's not going to stop him from getting married or getting a decent job. It's probably not even going to be something he thinks about a lot on a regular basis after a few years. If you come at it like "dude, i love that you want to express your love for our family. I'm really proud of our people, too. I was looking into the coat -of-arms thing and it's not directly tied to our family historically. Is that going to bug you later?"

Present facts and ask his opinion on those inarguable facts. If he still does it- say it looks awesome and never say "i told you so" if he hates it later.
posted by Blisterlips at 10:29 AM on July 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

He asked for your opinion, so give it to him. You can lay out the facts as you know them non-judgmentally. You can offer advice. You can give him some outside perspective (which you've gotten a lot of here).

You can do all this without denigrating him. You can say "if it were me, I'd look for a different source of inspiration for my body art." You can say "if you still want to go ahead with this, I won't think any less of you. I'm glad you asked me and I'm glad you can make your decision with a little more perspective."
posted by adamrice at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2011

Exactly what Knowyournuts said. Your brother might become an adult who cares about history. You owe that future guy to help him not feel like an idiot about his tattoo. And there must be tons of interesting - and accurate - Irish things.

(True story: I wanted a tattoo since I was 17, but didn't actually get it till my mid-20s. I had a few designs I was considering. What made up my mind was overhearing a girl with a Celtic tattoo telling someone that she picked hers because, "I figured I'll always be Irish." So I went with the ethnic-heritage-based one, and have not regretted it. Your brother will always be Irish, but if he ever does any research, he won't always have a link with that coat of arms.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:37 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you can avoid hurting his feelings by phrasing your advice in "If it were me..." terms. As in, "If it were me, I'd research the coat of arms, because I'm pretty sure the coat of arms Dad bought is probably a mass-produced consumer item, and not something historically accurate."

A lot of really smart people have a lot of really silly tattoos, and it's not such a big deal, so if he chooses not to take your advice, but if he asked, you owe him the respect of giving an honest opinion.
posted by xingcat at 10:43 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also- side note, the only tattoo I can think of that a friend hated later- was of a vagina that she got tattooed by accident.

.... it was supposed be an owl. It was CLEARLY a vagina. she got it covered up- no harm, no fowl. (see what i did there?). And now we all giggle at the "Madi got a vagina tattoo" story.

this won't be dire. it'll all be ok.
posted by Blisterlips at 10:44 AM on July 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't see why your options are limited to keeping your mouth shut versus telling him why his design is corny. I mean, why don't you ask him more about why he's thinking about the coat of arms and what it means to him?

Presumably he wants to signify his family in some way, but for all you know, he's well aware that the "Coat of Arms" is kinda bunk. If so, you can ask him if he cares that people might think he's ignorant of that fact when they see his tattoo.

If he did accept the coat of arms thing at face value, you can share that you've done a little research and found out some surprising stuff, and somewhere in between explaining what Sligo is like, you can include that the coat of arms is not really relevant. And in that case, you don't really have to circle back around to the tattoo issue at all.
posted by desuetude at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2011

My son really, really wanted a tattoo, but couldn't settle on a design. I just kept saying, Get a tattoo when there's something that is so right, you have to have it. He now has a gorgeous South Pacific tattoo; the artist spent a lot of time with him to get the symbolism right.

The best gift you can give your brother is your time and interest. Suggest spending some time researching the family name and history, including the coat of arms. Along the way, you may find a more appropriate symbol, or he may simply choose the coat of arms. If so, encourage him to follow PhoBWan's excellent advice.
posted by theora55 at 11:30 AM on July 9, 2011

I'd let him. It's pretty much harmless. He's probably going to get a tattoo anyway, and try to imagine how much worse it could be.

Excuse Me, But There's No Such Thing As A Family Crest is the sort of genealogy-based objection you can send him if you want to push this, but other than mildly making him aware of it, I'd leave him be.


That's a bit over the top. Here in the US we have no titles of nobility or much else that has any legal standing. So it's all pretty much fun and games here.

My old family history (German immigrants ca. 1810, collated in Pennsylvania in ca. 1910) earnestly reproduces an old crest of someone named Hartung and regales us with the myth of the Hartungen, Teutonic heroes of yore, but the real ancestors of our family were Hessian farmers and carpenters, not anyone of rank, and there's no known connection. It made a big impression on me as a teenager, but seems a bit silly now. Still, that's life.
posted by dhartung at 11:50 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

As long as he gets it in a place that won't compromise his ability to get a job, a silly tattoo doesn't really matter that much in the whole grand scheme of things.

dude gets full face glasses tattoo
posted by JimmyJames at 11:54 AM on July 9, 2011

I think PhoBWanKenobi nailed it regarding the image being significant to him regardless of whether he can "really" claim it's his family crest.

In addition to that, you might suggest he try something that many inked folk do and institute a 12-month design clock: starting from when you (general "you") feel you have the design pretty much finalized in terms of subject matter, placement, and general design, wait 12 months. Any major changes — "I know, a bison instead of a bull!" — reset the clock. If, 12 months later, you still feel happy with the design, go ahead and get it done.
posted by Lexica at 4:00 PM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Good suggestions--find out if the crest's authenticity or lack thereof matter to him. If not, all is good. If he cares, maybe suggest some alternatives. Like a completely made up crest that incorporates accomplishments he's proud of and/or elements of "Irish Americanness" rather than "possibly fakey-fake but pretending to be 'real' Irishness."

I like Lexica's design clock, too.

And heck, if he goes for it and later regrets the design's origin in '70s kitsch he can always shrug and explain that it was displayed in his childhood home and that's where its personal meaning comes from. Or he can tell people to go to hell and it's his body anyway.

You're a good brother for being thoughtful about this.
posted by Neofelis at 4:08 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is your filial responsibility to tell him your honest opinion. He will thank you for it. Under no circumstance should you let him get such a corny, cliche token of middle-class aspiration. Those heraldic shields are about as honest and meaningful as a Kanji tattoo for sword or some other such bullshit. If he wants to get a tattoo, that's fine, but at least try and make it something genuine.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:06 PM on July 9, 2011

You know, this might be appropriate for him. Clearly it wouldn't be appropriate for you, but maybe it is for him. Why don't state your feeling to him that way: "Well, I wouldn't want to get that tattoo on me because ..... [reasons you stated]. "
posted by benito.strauss at 6:23 PM on July 9, 2011

Blasdelb raises good points about cultural misappropriation. I would gently point out those concerns to him. My rule of thumb is also the "wait one year" rule. It has served me very, very well.
posted by sugarbomb at 11:28 PM on July 10, 2011

Tell him if he'll wait 30 months to get it, you will pay for it.

Explain about the crest, possibly research more symbols together that would have more meaning? Realize that essentially this kid is looking for an identity through his heritage, real or not. He is trying to find a way to frame himself through the lens of a (possibly commercially fabricated) history. Maybe you can help him learn more about the real genealogical history to share. Hell, maybe you get matching tattoos when you find something you both like that is more reflective of your heritage.

Ultimately it's his choice, his body, his problem.
posted by SassHat at 2:10 PM on July 11, 2011

Also I would argue that "real" and "genuine" are also false terms, because heritage is just a myth you make for yourself, right? Maybe he could just make his own crest using imagery and colors that he likes or which have personal resonance to him.
posted by SassHat at 2:17 PM on July 11, 2011

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