Tag Archives: Tattoo

Tattoo Etiquette

Tattoo_EthicsLet’s talk about tattoos in terms of Descriptive Ethics vs Prescriptive ethics. As of October 31, 2015 I explore what people do (descriptive ethics) and my poll here shows more than 50% of my readers do not hesitate to ask about another person’s interesting tattoos. Mind you, the sample size was only 13, but it is a beginning.

So that was descriptive ethics: the “WHAT DO” people do?” question — the observational question.  But what about the prescriptive or normative ethical question: “WHAT SHOULD people do?”.  Is there a proper tattoo etiquette?

Should a person who is pleasantly curious about another person’s visible tattoo avoid inquiring about the tattoo?

Indeed about 30% of my readers would probably not ask about another person’s tattoos.  But why is that?  Here are their most common replies:

  1. It would be rude to intrude on the other person’s privacy.
  2. I may offend someone by asking — I am being thoughtful.
  3. I am shy.

Answers #1 and #2 are moral/ethical replies.  Those people are telling us what the right thing to do is.  They know the correct tattoo etiquette. But in fact, #3 is probably the accurate answer for most of these people while answers #1 and #2 are just rationalizations (valorizations) around the person’s temperament.

If you are one of those people, and you doubt me, let me add this piece of data.
Playing an unabashed amateur scientist, I recently interviewed 8 people with visible tattoos asking the following three questions:

  1. If someone is polite, do you mind them asking you about your visible tattoos?
  2. What situations do you dislike being asked about your tattoos?
  3. How often do you ask other people about their visible tattoos?

The answers were enlightening:

Question 1: Everyone emphatically said they essentially NEVER mind anyone asking them about their tattoos if done politely.

Question 2: Everyone said they only disliked condemning inquiries. (“Why do you have that stupid tattoo” …)

Question 3: 1/3 of the folks I interviewed agreed with my readers that they probably would not ask while the other 2/3 said they usually ask.  When the first group was asked “Why won’t you ask other folks about their tattoos if you don’t mind folks asking about yours?”  And each and everyone of them said, “Because of my personality – I’m a bit shy.”

So you see, people with visible tattoos know why they don’t ask. They don’t turn their temperament into a ethical/moral declaration.


  • The stories we tell ourselves and others to explain our behavior are often post-hoc glorious rationalizations for our temperaments.  And usually, we don’t know we are doing that.
  • Ethical and moral claims are often disguised projections of the temperaments of others.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Tattoos & Real Meaning


I enjoy suturing, not only for the joy of practicing the skill (minor, though it may be), but also for the chance to talk to the patient. One of my recent patients, about 30 years-old, sported the above tattoo. And as I wrote here, since I am one of those people who does not hesitate to ask a stranger about their tattoos and I knew what his tattoo meant, I said to my patient, “So, you are into the I Ching, I see.”

“Huh”, he replied.

“Your tattoo!” I said, “Why do you have that tattoo?”

“Oh, that is from GI Joe.” he said as I tilted my head in puzzlement.

You see, I was not in the USA in the 1980s, so I missed both the GI Joe comics and the GI Joe TV shows and thus never saw the GI Joe Ninja warrior who had this tattoo as the mark of his Ninja clan.

To my patient, this tattoo meant power, stealth, bravery and more. To me, it was ChiChi, the 63rd hexagram of the I Ching; water over fire; “The superior man ponders danger and takes precautions against it.” It brought back memories of my acupuncture teacher in Japan, of learning the divination method in China and much more. (see this post)

Well, I will let you read on your own about the I Ching or Snake Eyes (the GI Joe guy), but the point of this post is to illustrate the obvious:  “meaning” changes and “real meaning” is fictional.


My patient was excited to learn about the ancient meaning of his tattoo, and I was excited to learn about his meaning — one apparently embraced by many young men who grew up on GI Joe.

Question to reader:  So, what do you think about the “real” meaning of something?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion