I Don't Want To Talk About My Tattoos With Strange Men

Even if you’re not touching or leering, commenting on tattoos perpetuates an entitlement to our bodies that women experience constantly.
Kristin Booker

I wasn’t surprised this morning when a dude yelled, “BABY I LOVE YOUR TATS” at me as I walked to the train from my apartment. After all, it’s summer and the height of “tatcalling” season.

This is just The Way It Is if you’re a heavily tattooed woman in public during one of the less-clothed months. A few times a day, men on the street will yell something at me about my tattoos ― my “tats,” my “ink” ― that ranges from vaguely complimentary to overtly sexual.

Tatcalling is a subset of street harassment, something that is unequivocally wrong in all its forms. But lately I’ve been noticing that nearly every interaction I have with strange men about my tattoos, even when they aren’t street-harassing or being explicitly sexual, ends up feeling creepy and predatory.

If we know one another ― even if we are in a situation where the expectation is that we are attempting to get to know one another ― I’m happy to talk about my tattoos. In those situations, it’s more likely that you are asking me something about my tattoos because you are genuinely interested in finding out more about me. And I’m sure there are plenty of men who think they are approaching me this way when they simply “compliment me” or “start a conversation” about my tattoos in a public space.

But I’m still being approached by a stranger who wants to take up my time and emotional energy to have a discussion about a piece of art that, at the end of the day, lives on my body. This makes for a pretty intimate conversation that often involves said stranger staring at my body parts, commenting on them, sometimes even trying to touch them.

When you’re experiencing it, that kind of attention doesn’t feel like earnest interest. It feels objectifying.

The other day a man complimented me on one tattoo, then did a full 360 around me, studying my work like I was a sculpture in a museum. I stood there uncomfortably while he crouched to look at the backs of my thighs. It’s not uncommon for men to physically move my limbs or my clothing in an effort to get a better look at a tattoo, or to run their hands over the skin as if expecting it to have a different texture than untattooed skin.

A friend tells me she has a love-hate relationship with summer because men always try to touch her chest tattoos. “That’s where my tits live!” she jokes.

These experiences are so common and universal among women with tattoos that a meme I recently saw titled “Yo Girl Nice Tats Bingo” recast common male behaviors toward tattooed women as bingo squares. In addition to the ubiquitous “tatcalling,” there’s “yelling ‘nice tats’ out of a moving vehicle” and “using your tattoos as a conversation starter to ask you out.”

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There is a cumulative effect of dealing with these kinds of comments and behaviors. While one comment may seem innocuous to the individual man making it, he typically fails to realize the never-ending stream of them we’re being subjected to and how exhausting that can be. And of course it’s hard to feel open and receptive to well-intentioned conversation when you’ve got men trying to touch you and yelling out car windows the other 90 percent of the time.

Even if a man isn’t touching or leering, commenting on tattoos can feel like a perpetuation of the entitlement to our bodies that women experience constantly. Never mind that we’re only riding the train home, or standing in line at the grocery store ― we are still on display, our bodies still up for discussion and commentary. It can feel mentally jarring to be minding your own business, perhaps daydreaming or reading a book, and have your attention drawn again and again to the reality of your thighs or your bare shoulders. The question or compliment itself often feels like a ruse, a thin excuse for men to gleefully exert that access to our bodies, to get away with something in public.

The general response to this seems to be that those of us with tattoos got them knowing they would be seen and that people would comment on them, and so now we have to deal with it, and honestly don’t we like the attention a little anyway?

When I first started getting tattoos (around 25), I mostly just thought that they would make me look cool. Over the years, I’ve learned about and grown to appreciate the art form and the culture, and I found that the process of getting tattooed was empowering for me. Modifying my body helped me feel a sense of ownership over and peace with it ― despite the trauma I’d experienced, and the way society tries to exert control over women’s bodies.

And yes, I’m sure on some level I wanted others to be able to see and appreciate my tattoos. It’s for me, but I am certainly happy if others enjoy the way I’ve chosen to decorate my body. That said, I can guarantee that nowhere in any of my motivations was the desire to increase my visibility to the strange men who might want to speak with me, many of whom make sleazy assumptions about the sexual availability and interests of tattooed women.

And as far as the attention? No tattooed woman I know likes it. Most of us carry jackets and wraps, even on hot days, to avoid the attention. Being a woman already comes with an oversized helping of unwanted attention. We’re good, thanks.

If a man really feels he needs to let a strange woman know that he appreciates her work, I find that a simple “I like your tattoos,” delivered in a quick and non-lascivious manner without any further attempt to engage us in conversation is usually pretty inoffensive. But honestly, when it comes to men I don’t know, I’d prefer not to have my physical appearance remarked upon at all. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for my daily commute.

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