Dani Silverstein was a freshman in high school when she first thought about getting a tattoo. Silverstein says, “I am extremely interested in art. I always found amazement in certain designs and pictures. Tattoos are art, and I am all for having art on my body.”
Once seen as somewhat alternative, tattoos have become a more mainstream form of self-expression. Celebrities from David Beckham to Justin Bieber have tattoos all over their bodies. Jodie Michalak, Beauty and Cosmetology Editor for About.com, says, “The popularity and acceptance of body art has certainly influenced the younger generation to hop onboard.”
A 2013 report from the Pew Research Center study says that 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have tattoos. While most states require teens to be over 18, some states allow minors as young as 14 or 16 to get a tattoo with parental consent—either written or officially notarized. Often, parents have to also accompany their child to the parlor.
What Motivates Teens to Get Tattoos?
The motivation for getting a tattoo varies among teenagers. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., co-author of the book "Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential," says, “Teens may want to get a tattoo as a statement of their individuality or to commemorate an important event.”
Silverstein, now a freshman in college, has gotten two tattoos so far. “I knew I wanted my first tattoo to be words—either a quote or song lyrics that had special meaning to me," she says. "The Beatles song ‘Let It Be’ always lifted me up, and that saying is one I’ve tried to live by. So my first tattoo is the words ‘Let It Be’ on my forearm.”
Troy Pallitto also wanted his first tattoo to be of words that spoke to him. Pallitto, now 25, recalls, “I was 16 when I first thought about getting a tattoo, but had to wait until I was 18 because my parents would not let me. My first tattoo was ‘Hold My Own’ because I wasn’t going to let anything hold me back in life. At the time I thought I was going to work in the business world, so I had it done where it could easily be covered if I needed to.”
While some teens contemplate getting a tattoo for years, the decision can also be impulsive. Silverstein explains, “Like many teenage girls, I love to doodle. I was sitting at lunch one day with a few friends and I was drawing a flower on my wrist. I looked across the street, saw a tattoo parlor, and decided, ‘Why not?’ ”
Should Parents Give Their Teen Permission to Get a Tattoo?
The biggest mistake parents can make when teens says they want to get a tattoo is to dismiss or demean them. Rather than flat out saying “No,” parents should use the opportunity to open up a dialogue with their teen. Find out how long they have been thinking about getting a tattoo, why it is important to them, and what they are trying to express. Michalak says, “No matter how young, a person is still a person and they deserve love, respect, and acceptance.”
While being open is important, parents should not rush to give a teen under 18 permission to get a tattoo. Michalak asserts, “Personally, I think all teens should wait until they are at least 18 years old before getting tattooed. Tattoos define who you are and usually pay some respect to life experiences. I believe you need to live a little and have your heart broken at least once before you even know who you truly are.”
Azadeha Aalai, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at George Washington University, comments, “Parents should try to convey to their teen the practical implications of what they are doing. Teens are likely thinking in the moment and not anticipating how they may feel about the tattoo five or even ten years down the line.” Although tattoos may be removed, the process is usually costly, painful, and not always effective.
Kennedy-Moore explains, “Developmentally, a teen’s job is to figure out who they are, but their sense of self can change a lot over the teen years. Acknowledge and respect your teen’s desire to form an identity, but encourage less-permanent forms of self-expression, such as changing hairstyles or clothing.” Temporary tattoos are another good option.
Regardless of personal feelings, parents do want to make sure that if their teen is getting a tattoo, they go to a reputable and clean establishment. Unsanitary tattoo practices can result in teens getting serious skin infections and diseases including hepatitis C.
Make sure to do some research online before you choose a tattoo parlor or artist, and read customer reviews.
Will Teens Regret Getting a Tattoo?
Whether or not a high school student will regret getting a tattoo cannot be predicted. According to a 2008 Harris Poll, 83 percent of people with tattoos do not regret their decisions. But of those that do regret it, 20 percent say it is because they were too young when they got the tattoo.
Aalai says, “Regardless of age, careful consideration should be made before embarking on inking one’s body permanently.” DeAnne Mullet, a mother of two teenagers, is in the process of having a tattoo removed—one she got in her early 20s. Within days, Mullet knew she had made a mistake. As she matured, Mullet grew more self-conscious of the tattoo and always worried about it showing at fancy parties—including her own wedding. Mullet says, “I think tattoos are tasteless. Plus, bodies and skin change over time and my tattoo looked worse each year.” Mullet brought her daughters with her to the laser removal sessions so they could see how painful it was.
Pallitto did not end up working in the business world and instead is in a creative field where tattoos are very much accepted. He has gone on to get many more tattoos. Pallitto says, “My tattoos tell the story of my life. I love how they look, and I love what they mean.