Too Many Too Young

In the last seven years I have acquired a fair few tattoos. The only thing that has really prevented me from getting any more than I have currently, is the lack of disposable income. If the financial gods had blessed me with greater wealth I know that by now I would be approaching full capacity in terms of ink on skin. Given the opportunity I would have had more tattoos, and though this view is shared by many, there are those that feel differently.

Laser treatment aside, the placement of permanent ink on skin means that each time you have a tattoo, you are left with less and less space upon your body. The car park that is your body, is slowly being occupied with vehicles, and once you reach maximum capacity, you cannot add another level. This relationship of permanence and scarcity leads to thinking the question: “Are too many cars being let in too quickly?”, or in tattoo-talk: “Am I getting too many tattoos, too young?”

This question was one I found one commentator asking themselves a few months ago. Rosalie Woodward, the editorial assistant over at the wonderful Things&Ink, blogged her thoughts on the topic and very kindly answered the questions I sent her way. Rosalie is worried that she may be covering herself too quickly. She holds concerns over “people getting chest pieces at 18”, getting hand tattoos before anything else, and seems uneasy with the fact that an old school mate of hers “recently had two complete arm sleeves done in a matter of months.”

Rosalie told me that she is worried about her taste in tattoos changing over time. She admitted that what people say influences her, and that at 22 she is yet to find “the confidence in [her] choices that older people may have”. It is clear that Rosalie is assessing the potential of future regret. Striving to find her own self-identity she is worried that at a young, impressionable age, other people are likewise making decisions that cannot be undone, and that will stay with them forever.

The fact that Rosalie is even asking herself these questions shows great foresight, as well as demonstrating the essential skills that come with making any permanent decision. Though tattoos are growing in popularity and acceptance, they are still not something to be taken lightly. Rosalie is fully aware of this, despite her love for them.

As well as the possibility of regretting any tattoo she may have, Rosalie also sees the tattoo process as a form of opportunity cost. My words, not hers. Opportunity cost is business speak for the cost of choosing one course of action instead of another. In terms of tattoos this is present at every inking session a person has. Your choice to get a stencil style sleeve of portraits by Reverent Rudles, means that you have then lost the ability to get a unique black ink masterpiece by Duncan X.

Rosalie’s concerns about getting too many tattoos too young essentially fall into two categories. The first being that of future regret, and the second being opportunity cost. She says that “there are so many amazing artists” that she wants “to save some skin for”, and being covered at a relatively young age would prevent this. I wondered if other people held such concerns, and if they did, do they fall into the same categories, ie. regret and opportunity cost. With that in mind I hit the streets and did some crowdsourcing online to get in touch with some heavily tattooed youngsters.

Matthew Turner, a 23 year old tattoo apprentice in south Wales, has spent around £2500 on tattoos, and has been getting them ever since he turned 18. He has his neck, arms, hands, fingers, chest, hips and feet done, as well as a few on his legs where he has used his own skin to practice. Matthew has both his legs already planned and is looking to do some travelling to get more work on his front and back. He tells me that getting tattoos quickly became an “addiction”, and he plans to cover his entire body, except his face.

Matthew said it wouldn’t bother him if someone said he was getting too many tattoos too young. His approach to life appeared to be very live and let live, telling me that he disagrees with people thinking “it’s their right to tell you what you should do with your own body”. He understands that people may judge and stare, but essentially it his choice what he decides to do with his own skin.

There does not appear to be any regret with Matthew and his tattoos, and even when his plan to cover his entire body is completed he says he won’t be too disheartened. Though, like Rosalie, he understands he wont have any more space for tattoos, he would see it as an accomplishment, rather than a missed opportunity. He tells me: “I’d have completed my goal” and “I’d be what I want to see in the mirror”.

Liam Davies was another south Wales based tattoo enthusiast that I was able to speak to. At the tender age of 22 he says that he has had “over 200 hours” of work,  spending “approximately £9000 on tattoos” in the process. He justifies this by referring to the famous Sailor Jerry quote: “Good work ain’t cheap. Cheap work ain’t good”. Unlike Matthew, Liam does not work in the tattoo industry, and is not looking for a career within it. His is an important perspective to gain as being young and heavily tattooed in society is even more a stigma than being young and heavily tattooed in the tattoo community.

Liam’s plan is to get full body coverage, leaving only the areas termed “jobstoppers” untouched – hands, face and neck – despite his desire to get them done. It is sensible logic from a young man that seems to be a collector of artwork, rather than someone who wishes to get tattooed simply for the sake of it. He comes across as very focused, stating: “I know my aims and ambitions in life and am making progress to reach them”. Liam does not currently regret any of his tattoos, and believes that regret stems from poor decision making. He appears to be very self-assured and very confident that he will never regret any of his chosen artwork, and this is due to his thorough research into every piece that he gets.

Rosalie’s opinions are echoed in the thoughts of both Matthew and Liam. The two main concerns highlighted in her work are also present in the interviews with these men. Though neither think it is likely they will later regret their artwork, the thought had crossed their minds. As well as this, the issue of running out of space features, with Matthew seeing it as unfortunate but necessary to accomplish his goal, and Liam deliberately saving space on his body for some of his favourite artists.

Amy Wyllie was my third victim for interrogation. Not yet 21 and with almost two and a half thousand pounds spent on ink already, Amy is well on her way to achieving her plan of “covering [her] body”. Like Liam, Amy is also choosing not to tattoo “jobstopper” areas as this may affect her career. The idea that you can have too many tattoos too young seems stupid to her, she told me that if anything she does “not have enough at the moment”. Amy does not once mention regret as we talk, and like Matthew, she sees running out of space as somewhat of an achievement, stating: “I think when I’m covered I’d be satisfied. I’d feel complete.”

What was noticeably absent from these discussions was the mention of age. The very topic we were choosing to focus on was not addressed at all. Despite the original blog post on Things&Ink looking at the issue of getting too many tattoos too young, age did not appear to be the issue. The issues seemed to be running our of space, regretting the tattoos you have, and future career opportunities, not once did anyone say “I am too young to have this much ink”.

Even though age was a crucial element of the question we were attempting to answer, we had ignored it somewhat. That being the case, I decided to get in touch with Professor Vanessa Burholt, a Gerontologist (someone that studies ageing) at Swansea University.

Luckily for me Professor Burholt had both a professional, and a personal interest on the issue of tattoos, and was more than happy to speak with me on the topic. I explained that my previous interviews had led me to the conclusion that age was nothing but a concept, and is not even that relevant when discussing the issue of tattoos. She agreed and immediately began to discuss one of the common themes that was present throughout my research; the topic of regret.

Professor Burholt said that age has “little relevance” when looking at issues relating to tattoos. They key issue when looking at the question of too many, too young, is in fact regret, and Professor Burholt stated: “If you have a  tattoo you regret, I believe it is the same at any age”. Seeing then a heavily tattooed 20 year old, is no different to seeing a heavily tattooed 40 year old. Why should we assume that the 20 year old has got too many, and the 40 year old does not? Why should we assume that the 20 year old will regret theirs and the 40 year old will not?

Professor Burholt believes it may be “more about how society views ageing, and the prejudice that people have”. Though her work focuses on the older generations, what she says is true also for the younger. There is an ageism within society that shines a negative light on both the older members, and the younger members. With tattoos, in particular, having always been a somewhat easy target. The older generation face the myth that tattoos are going to look awful on ageing skin, and the younger generation get told that they are too young, and they will regret their artwork.

For once, I feel like we may have come to a conclusion. Is it possible to have too many tattoos too young? No, I don’t believe that it is. Is it possible that you will regret being covered by the time you are 25? Yes, absolutely. But that regret is just as likely to happen at the age of 25 as it is at 35, or 45, or 55. There is no quota, with an agreed figure, dictating how many tattoos you can have and at what age. It is your life, your body, and your choice.

I was able to ask one final question to Rosalie, the person whose blog post inspired this entire article. I asked how she would feel if there was a change of law and the legal age for getting a tattoo increased to 21. She replied, quite simply: “age restraints are just that, too restraining.”

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