What's the Right Age for a Tattoo?
"I definitely remember it being like, whoa, my body is different now. ... This was my skin that I was born with, and now it's changed by a decision that I made."
That's tattooer Max Brown, of Brown Brothers Tattoo in Chicago, recalling his first ink. He got it almost 20 years ago, when he was 18. "When you're young, you're not really thinking so much about how it affects you psychically, a physiological change," he says. "I think it's pretty heavy." Not necessarily in a bad way, though. Since that first bicep tattoo—"a black-and-gray biomechanical alien"—Brown has expanded his collection. At 28, he started getting tattooed heavily; at 35, he even got his hands done.
Over the years, Brown has learned a lot about what it means to be "ready" for body art, both from his clients and his own experiences getting inked. Below, he shares his thoughts on the subject, along with other members of our esteemed panel, which include Jasmine F. (who has multiple tattoos, including a half sleeve), Nancy H. (Jasmine's mom), Collin B. (who has easily hidden tattoos), and Lily B. (a high-school senior).
What's the Right Age for Ink?
Despite getting his first tattoo at 18, Max now believes that "18's probably too young." So what is the right age, according to the artist? "I'd say 25 is a good age [to start heavily collecting] because you've made it through the crazy earlier part of your 20s." Your late 20s, he says, are "when people start figuring [themselves] out better."
Twenty-something Collin disagrees. He thinks that if you want a tattoo, and you're 16–18 years old, and it's legal in your state, go for it. "But make sure you do so in an area that's easy to cover up in front of family members or potential employers."
Nancy, a mother who has come around to the idea of tattoos, agrees with Collin. "I think anyone old enough to serve in the military is old enough to govern what they do with their body, hopefully for the good." Eighteen is the official age for enlistment without parental consent.
And Lily adds a couple more years, saying: "20, I think. Once you've gotten into college and decided that you're ... mature enough to make that decision."
Are You Ready to Go Under the Needle?
Does your teenager want a tattoo? Do you? Here are seven considerations for people looking for body art:
1. Is this a planned-out or impetuous tattoo design?
It may seem like impulsively picking out a design you'll have to live with forever is a bad idea, but not necessarily. "Tattooing thrives in impetuous attitude," Max says. "You could have the idea for five years," but he thinks it's just as valid to go to a shop and pick something out spur of the moment. "There's beauty in that too."
Twenty-something Jasmine agrees that impetuous tattoos can work out. She says of her first tattoo, "I decided on the spot to get a replica of one Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy had, a bat with a heart and skull inside of it. Though I no longer revere my favorite band of a decade ago, the tattoo has aged well, with most people assuming it is some weird riff on Batman. ... It still reminds me of myself in that phase of my life, and I'm glad I got it."
2. Is the design flattering?
Jasmine's mom, Nancy, didn't want her kids to get tattoos. "I must say I cried when my oldest daughter got one, I felt that strongly against it." But Jasmine's tattoo is "the most beautiful tattoo I've laid eyes on," she says, and it makes her feel better about the whole thing.
In other words, it's important to consider aesthetics before heading to a tattoo shop. "Does a Hello Kitty tattoo really state who you are?"
3. Will you regret it?
There's really no way to guarantee you won't. "You can't possibly imagine what kind of person you'll be that far down the line," Collin says. "Just have some healthy perspective about it. Go in with the knowledge that your tastes will inevitably change. If you're comfortable with that, then you're ready." (There's also, of course, the option of tattoo removal, a process that continues to be more effective with new technology.)
Collin says that his first tattoo "reflects my interests at 18, which is to say it's kind of stupid and pretentious. But I'd never consider removing it." His advice? "Look at it as a marker of where and who you were at one point, kind of like a more colorful, hopefully more attractive version of scar tissue."
4. Have you considered how painful it might be?
Max said clients cite the ribs, sternum, and feet as the most painful areas for tattooing. "I thought my butt was the worst," he says. "But that's full extensive butt work. Full back piece with butt cheeks and backs of the thighs." Areas on your arms and legs hurt less, he explains. It's all relative, though. Pain varies person to person, as well as "inch to inch, quarter-inch to quarter-inch."
5. Are you ready to talk about the tattoo for the rest of your life?
"Believe me," Jasmine laughs, "you will always get asked about it."
6. Do you know how difficult it can be to keep it secret?
People routinely keep their tattoos hidden at work, but it's harder to keep them hidden from family and friends. High-school senior Lily says her friend got a tattoo, "and she tried to hide it from her parents. ... She was like, 'Oh yeah, I'll just cover it up.' It was on her shoulder, and her parents were so strict, and the summer came ... ."
Talk about painting yourself into a corner. Bottom line: If you're a teen, your parents see you a lot more than a boss. Collin confirms this fact; he planned to hide his early tattoos from his parents for "the rest of eternity ... [which] turned out to be roughly two weeks."
7. Who's paying?
"I think the only qualifier for when someone is ready for a tattoo is if they're done with major growth spurts and they can pay for it themselves," Jasmine says. "I think my mom's exact words were, 'I kept you scar-free for 18 years, and this is how you repay me?!,' but at least she didn't actually have to bankroll my tattoos."
Instead, Jasmine paid for her own half-sleeve when she started college in Iowa. Even at small-town prices, it was more than $1,000. "Most kids are way too poor for anything substantial until they['re an] adult ... so it should stop them from doing something drastic and probably regrettable, like a full-face tattoo, until they're out of the house."
This article has been updated by our Editors. It was previously published and originally written by staff writer Mae Rice.
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