Should I get a tattoo? / You asked Google – here's the answer

Every day millions of people ask Google life’s most difficult questions. Elle Hunt, a Guardian editor, answers one of the commonest queries

This is my image
‘One-fifth of people said they’d spent no time at all settling on the tattoo they now regret.’ Photograph: Alamy

I got my first tattoo 14 months ago. I see it every day except when I am especially absentminded in washing myself. Yet, still, the sight of it takes me by surprise.

Almost 20% of Britons aged 18 and over are estimated to have a tattoo. Among 25- to 39-year-olds it could be as high as 30%. A furtive recce at my gym suggests more women have tattoos than don’t; the real distinction is level of commitment. The woman I saw last week, with the elaborately shaded Illuminati eye across her décolletage? She had committed. Me, with my line drawing no larger than a credit card, placed just so on my ribs – not so much. And that had felt like a leap.

A tattoo does not inspire trepidation in everyone. My colleague – with whom I authoritatively talked through the pros and cons – seems to have easily acquired four or five tattoos in a matter of months. But for years I couldn’t get past the question: “What if I regret it later?”

People do – at the very least, the 1,000 of them in the UK who were recently surveyed about it for Casino.org. A fifth said they’d spent “no time at all” settling on the tattoo they now regret. Star constellations, Asian characters and tribal designs in particular – and especially on the lower back – did not age well beyond a split-second decision.

Tattoos involve the injection of ink into the second layer of skin, known as the dermis, where it remains permanently unless removed. Photograph: Alamy

My younger sister and I had long talked about getting a shared tattoo to commemorate the sailing holidays of our childhood. Jess already had a yacht on her ankle, acquired during her gap year in Spain. She’d been given a discount because the apprentice had done it. “Bargain,” she’d told me triumphantly. I thought, at the time, that it was not a purchase that I personally would be looking to scrimp on.

She outdid herself with her second, when her then-boyfriend’s colleague revealed himself to be an aspiring tattooist at a work drinks. He later demonstrated his skill back in the office after-hours, on a massage table, I think – my memory of the details is hazy, as is Jess’s. The succulent plant on the back of her calf is somewhat more precise.

Another tattoo would be no big deal for her. For me, however – so fundamentally risk averse that as a child I got down on all fours to traverse cracks in the pavement – my first felt momentous. Yet I’d always entertained the idea in a vague, indulgent way. I think many people do, even if they never act on it.

For years I noted down symbols and imagery I gravitated towards. A protea. A tornado. “PRE FTN”, an acronym that, reviewing the long list of possibilities today, I am at a loss to decipher. Jess and I periodically revisited the idea of “sister tatts”, often instigated by her sending me a possible concept she’d sketched herself.

“What about this?” she asked of a highly detailed pen drawing of a flying fish that, on a conservative estimate, would run from elbow to wrist.

“Uhhh,” I wrote back, “maybe something smaller.”

The bar that every potential design was assessed against was “forever”. Forever was a long time. I thought back to bands I’d obsessed over in high school that I now felt deeply embarrassed to have even passing knowledge of. Better to have written “DAVE GROHL IS GOD” in Tipp-Ex on your pencil case than permanently on your body.

But as the idea settled in my mind, the unequivocal indelibility of a tattoo became a selling point. I was 26 and about to move as far away from my family as I’d ever been. I was leaving a permanent job for a contract; I was not in a relationship; I was nowhere near home ownership, or even dog ownership.

‘Lena Dunham’s explanation for her tens of tattoos appealed: ‘I think it gives me a sense of control and ownership of a body that’s often beyond my control.’’ Photograph: Mark Schafer/2017 Home Box Office

It was not often that I agreed with Lena Dunham, but her explanation for her tens of tattoos appealed: “I think it gives me a sense of control and ownership of a body that’s often beyond my control.” Not just a body. A life.

After much back and forth, Jess and I eventually found a compromise between our different aesthetics and bravery levels, with a design referencing our maritime history and my own newfound commitment to embracing the unknown. It would last forever, yes – but the act of going through with it would be inoculation against overthinking, and the result would be a constant amid change.

There wasn’t much in my life that felt permanent, and it had recently dawned on me that maybe there never would be. For the first time a tattoo felt like a desirably declarative statement, a steadying stake in the ground. It was not often that I agreed with Lena Dunham, but her explanation for her tens of tattoos appealed: “I think it gives me a sense of control and ownership of a body that’s often beyond my control.” Not just a body. A life.

After much back and forth, Jess and I eventually found a compromise between our different aesthetics and bravery levels, with a design referencing our maritime history and my own newfound commitment to embracing the unknown. It would last forever, yes – but the act of going through with it would be inoculation against overthinking, and the result would be a constant amid change.

The week before I was due to leave the country, Jess and I took a road trip to visit our parents. We stopped at a cafe, where she sketched a design on a napkin based on a few I’d found on Instagram, while I made a phone call to an artist she’d found. Six hours later, we were in a basement tattoo studio, and Jess was gingerly sliding off the table, her ribs lined with black and red after what had seemed a sometimes gruelling 90-minute session. It was my turn.

The artist traced the same design on to my side in temporary ink, and I reviewed it in the mirror. It looked bigger than I’d pictured. “How much smaller could you make it without losing any of the detail, d’you think?” I asked the artist, my pitch a semitone higher than that of a casual inquiry. Jess rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry,” I said quickly.

I couldn’t back out now. Not when Jess had paid full price.

‘I got my first tattoo back in the mid-1980s and have added several more over the years.’ Photograph: Alamy

The next morning I was quietly shocked by the sight of my new reflection. It seemed outrageous that something so significant – harder to overturn than a marriage, in some ways more intimate than sex (certainly longer lasting) – could be procured for mere money. For a moment I intensely regretted what I’d done. But only a moment.

Because I wear clothes and keep my arms down by my sides in all but exceptional circumstances, my tattoo mostly goes unseen and unremarked upon. I sometimes have a flash of surprise on noticing it in the mirror: “What is THAT?” then “Oh, yes, that.”

Before I got a tattoo, I would have thought that at this juncture I’d pause, even for a second, to reflect on its significance – to dig out the kernel of truth at its core to carry with me in the coming day. I’d thought a tattoo would act like a meditation prompt – that’s why it had to mean something.

Instead, on the rare occasions I think about it, I wonder how it is that an original line sketch, amalgamating three or four carefully chosen designs to the deliberate exclusion of hundreds of others, could nonetheless end up looking exactly like Hokusai’s Great Wave.

Then I think, warmly, without any regret: ah, well.

 Elle Hunt is a commissioning and communities editor with Guardian Cities

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