On the street
I think 16. I think it’s their choice, and if they’re old enough to drive, they should be able to get a tattoo.
Dear Dr. Wes and Julia:
What's your opinion on kids getting tattoos or body piercing under the age of 18? My mom is totally against it, even though she knows its much more common now and not a sign that you are low class or something. This is just a way I want to express myself and I see this as her being controlling.
Wes: For the most part, including tattoos and body piercing in the same letter is kind of like comparing apples and monkeys.
Tattoos are permanent and most piercings are not (except for a small scar). No matter how sophisticated you are as a teenager, there's a zero-percent chance that you're going to be the same person now as you are in 10 years or 20 or 30. As we've discussed before, brains only finish developing in the mid-20s, not to mention a whole host of other new influences including your evolving personality, romantic life, career path, decision whether to have children and so on. NONE of these can be predicted now, and all of them may influence what sort of body art you choose and how it reflects who you are over a lifetime.
What I might have fancied at 18 has exactly nothing to do with what was meaningful to me at age 38 - when I got my first and only tattoo. So I'm not telling you to wait 20 years on the tattoos. I'm just suggesting you wait until you're in your adult personality - preferably in your 20s - to find out what really fits you and will continue to fit you over the long haul. Yes, you can get tattoos burned off at great expense, but is that really the right attitude to have going into this process? So on tattoos, I've got to side with your mom - though perhaps for different reasons.
Body piercing, on the other hand, has the distinct advantage of lasting just as long as you want it to. If you quit putting in the stud, you're going to lose all but a small scar. So this is a fairly harmless area of experimentation as a teen. Just be sure to work with a professional. They're required to maintain a high quality of cleanliness that your best friend is not. So DO NOT grab a needle and start stabbing. We have a different name for that. It's called self-mutilation.
The one exception I'll mention is ear gauging. Before you hit your word processors and e-mail me about how provincial I am for saying this, hear me out. Ear gauging falls into the same category as tattoos. It will leave a permanent impression (at least without plastic surgery). It's also more obvious than most tattoos, which can be hidden or displayed depending on clothing, and if a perspective employer doesn't like your style, you can't simply take out your art and put in a spacer. In fact, if I were forced to choose between a tattoo and ear gauging, I'd go with the tat somewhere that will only show when you want it to.
Julia: What comes to mind when you say "tattoos and body piercing?" My first image is of the highly inked and pierced people you see strutting their stuff on "Ripley's Believe it or Not." I have nothing against tattoos or body piercings. Many people I know have them. I just think that nowadays both get grouped with the flashy extremes seen on TV. From some people, tattoos and piercings get a bad rap as being associated with bad or strange crowds of people, which is certainly not the case. If well thought out, tattoos can be meaningful and beautiful, just as piercings can be a good venue for self-expression, as long as the piercing is appropriate.
Personally, I think "under 18" tattoos and body piercings are OK in moderation and with proper safety measures taken. The best body art I've seen is not too flashy, tasteful and serves its intended purpose as art. When considering body art, consider who you wouldn't want to see your tattoo or piercing - your boss, principal, grandparents - and then how often you will have to see them. Also remember that body art shouldn't be meant to offend. Consider who will have to see it, how to keep it covered if necessary, and when it is appropriate to show it off. Also remember that piercings and tattoos require a lot of initial care.
Chances that these concerns and responsibilities ran through your moms head when "tattoo and body piercing" was mentioned. Also, adding that many people your age have body art may only hurt your case. Teens can be irresponsible or irrational and when making a decision about a permanent hole or picture on their skin, so safety and maturity are a must. As Wes notes, if your aim is to bargain a piercing or tattoo with you mom, your best bet is a piercing. I've seen more belly button and ear cartilage piercings among my peers lately that are both well cared for and tasteful. If you're going for something more extreme like a tattoo or tongue or eyebrow piercing ask for it as an eighteenth birthday present. Waiting shows respect for your mom's concern and gives you time to research safety measures - both of which may put your mom at ease.
Next week: A chat participant asks about prescription drug use.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.