Miley Cyrus has a dream catcher on the right side of her abs. Justin Bieber has an eye with “Believe” under his right arm. LeBron James has Chosen1 stretched across his back. Megan Fox’s shoulder lets us know that “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies.”
When it comes to tattoos, teenagers don’t need an excuse to want what everyone seemingly has. Whether they see them on celebrities, athletes or fellow students, today’s generation accepts body art as a true statement and way of life.
“I think that young people (today) think of their body as more of a canvas instead of this sacred thing that nobody can touch. And they just want to decorate it,” said Aly Marie, 20, an employee at Twisted Tattooing and Piercing in Chicago.
In mid-January, Minneapolis hosted Marie and other tattoo fans at the Villain Arts Tattoo Convention inside the downtown Hyatt. With needles rattling around them, artists showcased unique work from across the country—everything from exotic birds and comic book characters to personal inscriptions.
The pained expressions on some faces said it all: To get a tattoo, you have to love it.
“It’s like a coming of age,” said Jason Donner, a tattoo artist at Mutiny Tattoo and Piercing in Minneapolis. “You get to a certain age and you know exactly who you are. You want to put something on you to define who that person is. And it’s something that is right of passage.”
The right age?
Except “coming of age” means your 18th birthday in Minnesota.
In 2010, a new state law made it illegal for anyone under 18, even with parental consent, to get a tattoo. The law was further tightened in August, with any individual caught performing body art without a valid license guilty of a gross misdemeanor.
That led to some headlines in December when Park High gymnastics teacher Terry Hardy was fired by the South Washington County school district for tattooing a 15-year-old Cottage Grove student at his home. Hardy was issued a citation for two misdemeanor counts of assault.
While eager teens might trust an adult willing to tattoo them, being patient is better, said Heather Markun-Heard, 19, of Minneapolis.
“I always wanted mine done unprofessionally, just because I wanted one so bad,” said Markun-Heard, who got her first tattoo on her 18th birthday. “Since I was little, I’d always ask for one but my mom wouldn’t let me. I was always tempted. Finally, I was smart enough to say, ‘No, I want it done well.’ So I waited.”
Donner got his first tattoo when he was 20. Though he’s glad to have waited for life experience to make his tattoos more meaningful, Donner understands the temptation facing teens.
“I got a tattoo a little bit older … but only because I couldn’t afford what I wanted to do,” he said. “If I would’ve had the money, or if someone would’ve been like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll tattoo you,’ you know, maybe I would’ve made a bad choice and done it.”
Marie is covered in tattoos—many of them representing her family and what she loves. Her knuckles are filled with meaning and inspiration, including nods to her autistic brother, including a puzzle piece in red—his favorite color—and a blue ribbon for autism.
Though she works around tattoos every day, if Marie were in control of laws, she’d push the age requirement to 22.
“Just because when you’re 18, you’re so excited … but you really don’t know what to get,” Marie said. “Tattoos should have meanings. And I think that’s what should be on somebody’s body. If they’re going to have something forever, at least have something that reminds you of why you got it.”
Left: Jake Hoel, 19, of Eau Claire braces for his first tattoo from Anthony Elliott II of Elliotts Tattoo in Little Falls. The pair met up this winter at the Villain Arts Tattoo Convention in Minneapolis. (Photo by staff)
More acceptable today
Donner said the mindset for those who appreciate body art hasn’t changed. However, it has become more socially acceptable. That can influence customers who may have previously denied themselves a tattoo because of workplace or family judgments.
“I think that teens have always wanted tattoos. I don’t think it’s special in this particular moment in time. When I was a teenager, we all wanted to get tattoos. My dad’s generation, they wanted to get tattooed at a young age, too,” Donner said.
“But the older generation now is more likely to get a tattoo. Because 20 years ago, you wouldn’t see a grandma getting one. It wouldn’t have been accepted. Now, I tattoo whole families from 18 to 75.”
Or as Marie said: “When I was little, my parents told me tattoos were horrible and it was the worst choice to ever do. Now they’re kind of learning that it doesn’t affect your character as a person.”
Married couple Teresa and Brian Morrill of Apple Valley still don’t agree about tattoos. Teresa loves them. Brian would never get one.
Yet even with different opinions, Brian admitted that he can respect the art—which is why he was willing to accompany his wife to a tattoo convention.
As for when their kids should get one …
“If 18 is the legal age, that’s when they can do it,” Teresa said.
“I’d tell them to wait until they’re a little older, maybe closer to 21, to make a permanent choice. It’s going to last a lifetime,” Brian said.
Find a professional
That permanence, more than anything, leads to complete agreement from artists and older fans: Getting a tattoo professionally done is the only safe and smart solution.
If teens want tattoos, they’ll find a way to get them—whether it’s a friend who knows a friend willing to tattoo someone in a basement or a teenager using a safety pin to carve his or her arm, then filling it in with eyeliner ink.
However, that can mean dirty needles, contamination, serious infections like HIV or Hepatitis C, and a lifetime of regret, Donner said.
“Teenagers by nature are defiant. So, I mean they’re going to do what they want to do—even if all the right information is out there,” he said.