Is it rude to stare at someone's tattoo?
March 21, 2008 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Is it rude to stare at a stranger's tattoo?

I often find myself staring at people's tattoos out of admiration and/or curiosity, and I worry that I instead look judgmental or just plain rude (I live in the US where staring is generally considered impolite). Am I being paranoid? Is there an ink etiquette?
posted by easy_being_green to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If they're wearing it in a show-offy way (like it's in a highly visible place and completely exposed), you have nothing to worry about. It's decoration, after all, like earrings or a sweater. If you stare at those and you're 'caught' staring, what do you do? I bet you say 'I love your earrings!'... and that's the right way to handle this, too.

I have a friend with many very obvious tattoos and they're usually great icebreakers and lead to many great conversations. Tongue-clucking disapproval is usually easy to tell apart from interest. The people who walk up and compliment and/or ask are always friendly. Nobody goes out of their way, in my experience, to announce their disapproval. They just roll their eyes and walk on.

People with very obvious tattoos that they don't hide are obviously used to people looking at them, and many will gladly talk about it, especially if you show "admiration and/or curiosity". Just say something complimentary and see what happens.

If you're talking, though, about something where the person's pride level may be harder to determine, like ink that looks jailyard, or a tattoo that is mainly covered by clothing, it's probably better to follow that hint and not stare or call it to attention.
posted by rokusan at 4:34 PM on March 21, 2008

Totally not a big deal. I both have visible tattoos and admire those of others. If you're worried about it just walk up to the person, say, "Hey, nice ink, can I check it out?", examine it briefly, and offer them a compliment on it. Never once had a problem with that and I've done it plenty of times.
posted by baphomet at 4:35 PM on March 21, 2008

I think rokusan has got it. If you're reading their general body language, and you don't ask what it means (unless they volunteer it) or try to touch it (insane, but common), you should be fine and well-received.
posted by carbide at 4:44 PM on March 21, 2008

As long as you're not staring at me with that just-smelled-a-turd look that some people use to express disapproval, you're fine. I agree it's even nicer to make personal contact with the person, though, by saying you like it, rather than just staring and then walking away.
posted by loiseau at 4:45 PM on March 21, 2008

staring is okay to a degree, coupled with small comment such as "i really like your tattoos" or "can i have a look at that?" i am heavily tattooed, and there are some days when every second person comments on them and it does get annoying at times, ill still be polite if you say something but dudes yelling "nice ink" at you from across the street when they cant even see that your tattoos are nice gets really old really fast. sometimes ill just show you my arm to shut you up while carrying on a conversation with someone else, because ive dealt with it too many times that day. it get tiring. stupid summer.

never ask what the meaning is behind a tattoo unless its a portrait of a dog or something. i hate this more than anything. i have a tattoo on my chest and on my arms that is in script, its mainly covered by clothes but when wearing a v neck tshirt they are somewhat visible and i absolutely hate it when people ask me what they say, and i tell them no, i dont share that one, and people wont let it go. or when they do manage to read it and want to ask all these questions about it... i have a banner on one that say you cant see the top words and the last party you can see says sorrow... its actually a very positive tattoo, so dont ask me whats wrong with me and what happened in my life to have that tattooed on me blah blah blah. you dont know me.

and dont touch!! its like touching a strangers pregnant belly. dont grab my arm while im working trying to serve a table and fondle it. its creppy.

any sincere interest is always okay, and if i cant tell youre a bit naive about tattoos it can be kinda endearing.

if youre a drunk business dude in my bar, no i dont want to see your dime sized tattoo of a four leaf clover. i really dont.... to your friend who wants to show of his tattoo cause its bigger, keep your shirt on.
posted by butterball at 5:04 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am fascinated by tattoos (in a positive way), and I think about this way...if you get a tattoo in a visible place, you must know people are gonna look. So whether it's rude or not, it comes with the territory. I don't see it as much different that having a dayglow mohawk or wearing outlandish clothing.
posted by clh at 5:08 PM on March 21, 2008

It's never bothered me. What rokusan said.
posted by rtha at 5:09 PM on March 21, 2008

Seriously, people asking about the meaning of a tattoo gets really old... I mean, how do you explain something like that to someone else in a way they'll understand? So, if the artwork is good a compliment will be appreciated, but (using myself as my basis) most people don't want to carry on conversations about the meaning with strangers. Staring, as long as you're not giving me a dirty look, is ok. I'm used to it.
posted by hulahulagirl at 5:21 PM on March 21, 2008

I have 3 tattoos, all in spots where they are easily hidden (and, for that matter, easily revealed). One under my collarbone, one between my spine and shoulderblade, and one on the back of my leg but just above my ankle.

In my case, at least, if I'm wearing something that reveals them, then I don't mind if someone stares.

I think the way you stare adds the context. I can tell the difference between a disgusted stare and a fascinated stare.

Also, I agree with the others that said most of us really enjoy it when someone makes contact just because they saw and liked our tattoos.

Last time I went to get my haircut, my stylist asked if I got any new tattoos and I showed her my Zelda triforce thingy, and my Autobot insignia, and she loved them and proceeded to parade me around the salon, telling everyone how "awesome" I was. It made my whole week/month/year. :D
posted by Zarya at 5:36 PM on March 21, 2008

My husband tends to check out people's ink and learnt something useful last week at the checkout. The woman in front of him had a tatt clearly visible on her upper arm and was in profile to him. It became clear to him (eventually) that she thought he was staring at her breasts and that he was making her uncomfortable, which was not his intention. So be aware how your looking can be misinterpreted.
posted by b33j at 5:47 PM on March 21, 2008

The only time I have ever minded people saying anything about my tattoos or staring at them was someone in the shower at the gym mentioning one that I have that you could pretty much only see if I were... in the shower. It was just a little odd standing there naked having someone talking about my backside and a tattoo that is not usually "public", but that's a pretty edge case situation. People also occasionally make fun of them in the locker room -- I swim at a time when the pool is mostly full of older women who don't think this is appallingly rude so I just laugh and move on -- so I guess I'm used to weird behavior.

People saying "nice tattoo" is a lot like "nice haircut" it's pretty difficult to misinterpret [where like "nice shirt" can also mean "nice tits" said in the wrong way, of course this depends where the tattoo is] unless you're in a situation like b33j describes. I've always been okay with people saying something nice about my tattoos or just looking at them.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 PM on March 21, 2008

If you do talk to someone about their tattoos, don't ask them if it hurt. When people see my septum piercing, that's usually the first question they ask. Maybe they just haven't turned their brains on yet, but the answer is, YES it fucking hurt.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:15 PM on March 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't mind if people stare at my tattoos. Most people make positive comments if they like them, and that's fine. Some people ask if they hurt, which is kind of a stupid question, but some people just don't know how to make small talk. (Though I understand when people ask if my finger or wrist tattoos hurt a lot - those areas are tender and even non-tattooed people can imagine that they would be painful areas.)

What I don't like is touching. I don't get it much, but one of my tattoo artist friends is more heavily tattooed than I am and is fully sleeved (tattoos covering both arms), and I have seen people walk up to her, say, "ooh, can I see your tattoos?" and grab her arm. It's incredibly rude. Sure, tattooed people expect to be looked at, but being touched by someone that we do not know is not part of the bargain.

So: staring, okay; complimenting or asking something like "nice, where did you get your work done?" or "is that a tattoo of a cherry blossom/a cat/Mel Brooks?", okay; manhandling, not okay.
posted by bedhead at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was JUST thinking about this.

I was just at the grocery store, and there was this dude: typical Seattle guy, rain jacket, jeans, short hair, backpack, about 40 or so, brought his own shopping bags...

.....with this symbol of some sort (reminiscent of Prince's old namesymbol) - in dark, bold ink - right between his EYES! WTF?

I couldn't stop staring, then felt bad, then was like "Uh, I think he wants people to notice, eh?".

So I stared. And didn't feel weird.
posted by tristeza at 8:27 PM on March 21, 2008

I've never found people staring at my tattoos to be rude. Having people ask me to read them out loud can get a little old, but it isn't that big of a deal. I will probably have to slap the next person who grabs my forearm and twists so they can read the text better.

Definitely do not ask the person what their tattoos mean. If they want to tell you, they will.

Stare all you want, unless it's a chest piece or something and you start creeping someone out. If your target catches your eye, do a little head nod, open your eyes a little wider than usual, and say "awesome." That has always relieved any potential tension, for me at least.
posted by hototogisu at 10:54 PM on March 21, 2008

I often disrobe patients as part of my clinical exam. I find myself fascinated by peoples' tattooes and I always wonder how their choice of tattoes relates to what I have learned of their personality and their psychology.

This feels intrusive to me and I feel a little guilty about it. What I have found is that there is no hard-and-fast rule about it. Most tattoo bearers are interested in talking a little bit about their tattooes; a few will wax eloquent, and a few will find being asked distasteful.

What I have settled on: Try not to stare. If you are interested in someone's tattoo, mention it to them and invite them to show it to you and tell you about it. Most tattoo bearers I have met are not excessively bound by convention; if they do not wish to share their tattoo with you they will usually tell you so straight out.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:55 PM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am tattooed and pierced; specifically, I have several microdermals (small single entry piercings) on my chest, across my sternum. People stare at them all the time, although there is a good chance they are staring at my cleavage, too. I wouldn't have gotten them there if I minded people staring at my chest. It's like walking around with a sign that says "Stare at me!"

It only gets annoying to me when someone does one of two things:
1. Touches me. That's just rude.
2. Talks about my modifications within earshot (or whispers and points, etc). I'm modified, not deaf.
posted by nursegracer at 11:55 AM on March 22, 2008

I have large, weird tattoos. I don't mind if people stare or ask. With other people, I will usually say, "Wow, that's a beautiful tattoo. Did you get it done locally?" because I enjoy talking to people about it. If people ask me what my tattoos mean, I usually explain what they are (it's nonobvious), and that seems to redirect the question well enough.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:59 PM on March 23, 2008

I am completely with nursegracer. I have ink in very visible places. I don't like being touched and I'm completely unnerved by people talking about me within earshot but I do get a big smile when someone politely says, "Nice ink."
posted by Sophie1 at 2:18 PM on March 25, 2008

I'm tattooed (half sleeve) and here's some of my thoughts:

1. It's rude to stare. Period. (Doesn't matter if you're staring at someone's shoes, haircut or a tattoo. It can make someone very uncomfortable).

2. Asking people about their tattoos should be approached like anything else. If you're in a public place like a grocery store or subway, then you might want to decide whether or not that person might want to be approached by a stranger. Are they in a rush? Do they seem stand-offish? It's ok to compliment a stranger's tattoos. But I wouldn't ask the meaning behind it unless they seem really friendly. If you're in a more private place (a party at a friend's place, etc) then you can probably be a little more bold in approaching someone you don't know and asking about their ink.

3. I agree with most people on the board...Do NOT touch someone's tattoo. Please! It always makes me really uncomfortable when it happens to me.

4. It's also annoying when someone mentions my tattoos and then shows me their tribal arm band or something and wants me to compliment them back. Like we're doing a 'show and tell'.

p.s. I live in New York please take that into consideration when reading my comments. Other parts of the country (and world) might have different thoughts on personal space (and striking up conversations with strangers, etc.) I recently visited San Francisco (an incredible city) but I was surprised and a little weirded out by how many people just LOVE to strike up conversations in restaurants, public transportation, etc. etc. Just a little too friendly for this jaded New Yorker....
posted by dm_nyc at 2:40 PM on March 25, 2008

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