As a psychoanalyst in private practice in West Los Angeles, I keep up with current trends while actively listening to the stories of my patients. Of late, I am hearing narratives involving teenagers and their longing to be “tatted” as well as dealing with negative responses, more often than not, from their parents.
Researching this phenomenon, I have been delving into some of the literature. Until the late 20th century, tattooing was mostly found in the military, certain tribes, and prisons. During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattooed numbers at one location – Auschwitz. In 1986 the Smithsonian added pieces of tattoo work to its permanent collection.
Currently, tattooing is changing from an antisocial behavior to a fashion statement. It is a frequent phenomenon on rock stars. In the sports world it has become a flaunted form of expression as well as by some models and movie stars. In 2009, even Barbie got into the act. Mattel released Totally Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie. This doll came with small tattoo stickers that children placed on the dolls.
Finally, the world of reality TV has furthered the growing trend of tattoos and publicized this form of art. A series of reality shows has even made some tattoo artists famous. Tattoo parlors are the sixth fastest growing retail business in the United States. Again, celebrities have normalized tattooing due to their high public profile.
However, all is not rosy in the tattoo world, because some of the side effects: infection, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. In 1997, the California Legislature passed two laws, AB99 and AB186, establishing standards prohibiting anyone from performing a procedure on the body of a minor without the express consent of the minor’s parent or guardian. The laws also establish rules of sanitation. A 15-year-old patient reported to me she had a tattoo done and no one at the tattoo parlor asked for any identification. So much for law.
I recently treated a patient who has multiple visible tattoos. He stated that once he started, he had a compulsion to add more and more. We worked on how he was afraid to visit his family on the East Coast because he knew they would disapprove. In most addictions, tolerance for the substance or behavior develops, so as time goes on increasingly greater and more frequent doses are needed for the desired effect. Can this possibly be the case for multiple tattoos?
What is a parent to do?
1. Most essential: Open up a discussion with the intent to communicate your values on the subject and then LISTEN and be interested in what your son or daughter is telling you about their values on this issue. If your family does not tolerate tattoos of any kind, then try to be clear about how you feel. Think about the consequences if you have established that this is not acceptable and your child does otherwise.
2. Help your child realize the permanent nature of tattooing, your worry that they may come to regret their decision and what it could mean in a work environment. Employers may see visible tattoos in a negative light. Will long sleeves or other clothing be required to hide their ink?
3. Point out the serious medical consequences such as staph infections, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and certain viruses.
4. As a parent, have you been inked? Are you willing to go with your child for this activity?
5. Explore if the desire for a tattoo is around a romantic interest. Remind your children that the boyfriend or girlfriend they now have may be a thing of the past in a few months.
6. Educate your child about how painful and expensive it is to have tattoos removed.
Parents, I advise you to choose your battles wisely. Help your children understand that they should not act impulsively and why they should wait until they are older to what could be life-changing decisions. Use clear two way communication skills so all involved feel heard. And, prepare for the possibility that they might not listen and what your response might be. Good luck!