Of all the things guys say to me in bars, “what do your tattoos mean?” is but a few steps up from “what’s your sign?”, neck and neck with “my friend over there wants to know if you think I’m cute” and miles below even the middling “do you like The Smiths?” This is not because I hate talking about myself (um, duh) or conversing with strange men (actually I mostly do, but let’s pretend), but because it’s a super annoying question. When you ask what my tattoos mean (as in, all my tattoos), you are basically asking me to take you on a guided tour of my entire body, which is kind of an imposition on anyone, but especially someone you don’t know very well who, by virtue of being female and unchaperoned, is already feeling slightly wary of anyone who might come off as even having the potential to be creepy. Do I have tattoos where you can’t see them? You bet I do. Am I going to show them to you or even intimate that they exist? Not unless I want to sleep with you, which I most certainly will not wish to do after you’ve asked me a question like that. (I’m currently in a monogamous relationship, but it’s fun to speak hypothetically.)

Actually, let’s back up a little. I realize not everyone who asks this question is trying to be creepy; some have just taken the wrong messages from the media. While they’ve been helpful in normalizing tattoos to people who don’t have them, TV shows like Miami Ink have also given people skewed perceptions of how much tattoos mean to people and how openly they’re willing to talk about them. The truth is that not every tattoo has an explicit meaning. In fact, most of the tattoos I have, I got for one very simple reason: I liked the way they looked, tried them on for size, liked how they looked on my body, and wanted to make them permanent. Those flowery things on my left arm? They signify “flowers.” And those colorful, bird-like things on my right arm? They signify “birds.” Fascinating, I know.

Why is a person aesthetically attracted to one image over another? Why did I choose birds and not a pirate ship, a giraffe, or a naked she-demon with six flaming skulls for heads? Well, why do you like the art that you like? You can probably give a decent explanation, but at a certain point you have to admit you just dig it, man, for deep, Freudian, subconscious reasons that probably go back to childhood. Would you like to analyze my childhood? Let me get the photo album. Just kidding, it’s at my mom’s house. And why did I choose to put the art on my body instead of on a wall? Do I belong to a subculture that’s brainwashed me into thinking tattoos are beautiful? Basically, the answers to all these questions are simultaneously too short and too long, and will make me feel like an asshole either way.

Conversely, some tattoos do mean things to people. Let’s do a thought experiment and say that my birds do not just represent birds, but four family members who’ve died of cancer. It’s kind of painful for me to talk about, but I will try to summon the courage, right here in this bar, on my night off, just for you, stranger. Maybe I’ll cry a little bit. You will feel so much closer to me afterwards. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I actually do have one tattoo that means something beyond “here is a work of art that I like enough to want permanently etched on my skin.” It’s a tray of toast and tea, and it’s a bro tattoo I have with my friend Jess, because we like to eat breakfast foods and drink tea together. It’s kind of our special time to catch up on everything that’s been happening in each other’s lives.

I actually don’t mind talking about this tattoo, but you have no way of knowing that before you ask, do you? Or maybe I’ve overstated my case a bit and it’s okay to ask about one specific tattoo (choose wisely!), but if the person says something like “it’s personal” or “it’s a long story,” you shouldn’t push.

This is not to say that it’s never okay to comment on someone’s tattoos. After all, they are out there on that person’s flesh for all the world to see. I think a good rule of thumb is to treat them as you would any other aspect of a person’s style: hair, clothes, accessories, etc. Would you assume there’s a deeply personal meaning behind someone’s blonde bob? Here are some okay things to say: [tagbox tag=”Tattoos”]

“I like your tattoos, they’re so pretty.” Thanks!

“Who did those birds on you?” Jess Versus at 1228, she’s the best!

“What does that little tea tray mean?” Friend love forever!

Here are some dumb things to say/do:

“Did those hurt?” No, having twenty needles in my arm felt like a massage.

“What is your tattoo of?” If you’re unable to decipher this figurative drawing I’ve commissioned, I want my money back.

“How much did they cost?” How much money do you make?

“What are you going to do when you get married?” Wear a white dress? Drink champagne? Get lifted up in a chair by my relatives? How is this question relevant at all?

“What are you going to do when you’re old?” Be an awesome old lady with great stories to tell, hopefully. And saggy, colorful body art to distract from my leaking colostomy bag.

[stranger touches my person without asking (yes, people actually do this)] [I start digging around in my purse for pepper spray]

Are you starting to pick up what I’m throwing down? Basically, use common sense and don’t be a jerk. Far be it from me, a rock and roll degenerate, to tout the importance of proper etiquette, but some social codes exist for a reason, and a little bit of thoughtfulness goes a long way.