According to surveys, upwards of 75 percent of adults with tattoos experience at least some remorse about their body art. One of the most common regrets is that they were too young when they got their tattoos. Of course, most of us engage in questionable and embarrassing behavior in our youth, but not all of us are branded with a lifelong pictorial reminder of it. The other most common reason cited for tattoo regret, tied with the first, is that there has been a personality change and the art no longer represents the person’s existence or worldview. Listen, once upon a time you thought Kurt Vonnegut wrote poignant novels and you pretended to enjoy and understand David Lynch movies. No one is pointing fingers here. If I hadn’t been a chicken when I was young, I’d probably have a portrait of Johnny Rotten tattooed on my chest right now. I’d also be desperately searching for a professional tattoo fixer — which is a real thing — to alter that image into Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. To be young is to be ridiculous, but to be walking around in your old age with the vestiges of youthful indiscretion must be torture.
Another leading cause of tattoo regret is that the art was poorly rendered and unprofessional. At some point over the past decade, it seems to me, many Americans began simply showing up at the closest tattoo “parlor” — tattooists work in “parlors” in much the same way that men frequent “gentlemen’s” clubs — and instructing the nice man with the extended earlobe to “do what you will.” The randomness of tattoo placement is becoming more noticeable. People just look messy. Their art looks increasingly amateurish. All I can think is, My God, you’re all going to regret this.
This again? Look, speaking from the ink-stained perspective of middle-age, there are plenty of things I regret more than my tattoos — moments of cowardice, terrible relationships, choices unexplored, things either said or left unsaid, and even those are all dissolved in the healing waters of amor fati. They all played a necessary role in bringing me to where I am, so they have to be accepted as part of the package. Regret? Torture? Ironically, this sounds more like the perspective of adolescence than adulthood, to be incapable of imagining anything worse than looking silly or feeling awkward. If the worst thing you have to worry about as a senior citizen is how your pectoral tattoo looks like a paintball splotch, well, you’ve probably lived a remarkably comfortable life.
Granted, there are plenty of particular tattoos that most would agree should never have left the realm of imagination; you can google “regrettable tattoos” to amuse yourself with other people’s terrible choices. Personally, I think all neck tattoos look horrible, to say nothing of ones on the face. If I were thirty years younger, I’d most likely see them as no big deal. My own preferences are similarly conditioned by the time when I came of age. But just for the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that one day, tattoos can be effortlessly applied, altered or removed, no different than clothing. You can have an elaborate back piece with full arm sleeves, or take it all off for a bare minimalist look. While I can imagine now how it would look if I had chosen a different color, design, or placement for any of my tattoos, I don’t think I would actually choose to alter any of them, even if some magical new technology did exist to make it possible. The reason being, the commitment is what made them meaningful to begin with. They represent my first attempts as an adult to reckon with what I, and life, were all about, independently of what my family or society in general told me. They represent those first conscious, tentative steps through doors that will close and never reopen. Of course those choices we make in late adolescence won’t entirely represent how we feel thirty years later. Of course they’re often heavily influenced by the maudlin romanticism of youth. But how long are we supposed to hover in suspended animation while trying to keep all options open? How, outside of the messy act of living and learning things the hard way, are we supposed to acquire the perspectives to even judge our embarrassing missteps? If anything, my advice to my younger self would be to lighten up and not take everything too seriously.