Friday, July 22, 2011

PLEASE Do Not Touch

A person like me -- i.e., a person with vividly colored arms -- has largely given up the luxury of anonymity, of slipping quietly under the radar in the warmer months when long sleeves are out of the question.  It's a funny thing to be this tattooed -- it's deeply personal and yet also simultaneously loudly public.  It leads to all kinds of interesting interactions with total strangers, something which can be delightful or just plain weird.

And sometimes a little shocking.

Most of the time I don't mind at all being the subject of curiosity.  Most of the time I answer whatever question I'm asked.  I also note the pattern of the questions.  Besides the inevitable "did that hurt?" question (duh), it used to be, for years and years, that I would be asked, "what does that mean?"  I don't hear that one so much anymore.  Now it's shifted almost entirely to, "how long did that take?"  Which, seriously, evidences a very different mindset, don't you think?  From a search for understanding to a mental calculation of how much this process entailed.  Another popular question is, "what made you decide to do that?"  My recent favorite: "What's your theme?"  Now that's thoughtful!

I have a perhaps odd desire not to put people off in certain situations because of how I look, particularly old ladies.  I always have a lightweight long-sleeved cardigan in my car or bag, to throw on if I'm going to be in some situation, the pharmacy at Kaiser or a church, where the population will be a great deal older.  Or if I'm going into some group of strangers I've never met before, like my first Obama 2012 meeting two months ago, where I want the judgment of me to be based on something other than how I look.  I choose to reveal or conceal based on the situation and weighing various factors, one of which is how available I want to be for commentary and connection.

Because, let's face it, one of the weirder thing that happens is that some people assume that we're the same because they have ink, too.  I'm not a fan of Social Distortion and the reasons why I found myself reading an interview of Mike Ness are a whole other story, but I did appreciate this one thing he said enough to go dig the magazine out of a pile of Thrashers and Tattoo Artist magazines in the hall bath:
...back then [in the old days], and throughout history, it seems that tattooing was for anti-social reasons, an anti-social statement.  And now it's become social.  So that's kind of where I have a problem with it.  It's like, "You mean, because you're sleeved, you and I have something in common?"  To me, that's the same as just living in the same city as me.  That's not really enough to bro-down, you know what I mean?  Not unless it's the right situation. And "no, I don't really want to see your tats, nor do I really want to show you mine."
Besides the fact that I love this expression "bro-down," I so appreciate this sentiment.  But since my arms are art, not anti-social, I am open to the conversation.  Just sometimes I don't want the connection.  In fact, I go perversely the other way.  It took me months to talk to my friend Joanne, whom I'd seen in yoga classes for ages.  I didn't want it to be like the two tattooed girls just automatically being friends.  Being friends just because we both have tattoos: that's weird. 
But the thing that never ceases to amaze me is the frequency with which people actually look with their hands.  By people, I mostly mean men.  Sometimes they even grab.  And pet.  

That's crazy, right?  I'm always shocked, but also being an animal who likes pets, I submit to it.  I'm super uncomfortable, but I am a little paralyzed with the shock and the petting.  As a toucher myself -- as someone who learns with my hands -- I try to cut these people some slack, understanding that they can't necessarily help themselves.  If there's a baby alligator in front of me, I'm going to reach for it and pick it up, without thinking.  So I get it.  But still...

Just yesterday, the older man bagging my groceries at Trader's Joe's, the older man with the fucked-up teeth and the sparkly dollar-sign necklace showing through the open collar of his TJ's polo shirt, he laid his hands on me, turning my arms this way and that, taking it in.  Between swiping my debit card and taking my receipt, I was locked in this interaction, shocked as usual, trying to remain good-natured, smiling, answering questions, but also hearing the loud voice in my head which really wanted to be so impolite and bark, Take Your Fucking Hands Off Me Right Now.  I don't want to be that person, but honestly, I also don't think being a work of art means I have to endure the man-handling.  

It's super interesting to me, as a shy person (don't argue with me about it, it's the truth, even if you don't believe it), that I've made myself so public by permanently painting my arms.  It forces me into interaction many times when I just don't feel like it, and I need that.  But there's a balance, don't you think?

So I'm asking for your help.  I'm looking for suggestions on what to say in these situations, something not too Clint Eastwood, something not too Pollyanna (I have that one down, apparently), which will express calmly, lightly, that my skin is off limits.  

It's hot as hell out now, so I'm on display for weeks to come.  I am thanking you in advance for helping me to craft a witty, kind little statement to help me maintain some small bubble of untouchability in this curious, grabby world.


Look with your special eyes!


Janna said...

Great musings....I also pick and choose when to reveal, but in my line of work I almost always wear tank tops and while I did get my tats in places that would be seen I was not prepared for the touching, long-looking, judging etc. Bro-down...classic!

yoshe said...

Wonderful topic. I AM guilty of being one of those people staring at other people with ink. Especially if it's gorgeous. As you say, it is art and some people can't help it but admire and want to see it more (I have indeed swallowed the question "Can you show me the rest of that?")
But I think the issue is a social etiquette that the mass population needs to be educated... and I am sure they will learn, given the time....
In the meantime, how about "I appreciate your interest, but I don't like to be grabbed"