by April Thompson
Few things in life are more permanent than a tattoo. Yet those most likely to change their life course—in careers, relationships or fashion styles—are also most inclined to get inked. Nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
“If you change your hairstyle or look often, you probably aren’t a good candidate for a tattoo, because of the limited flexibility to change that decision,” says Dr. Gregory Hall, a primary care physician in Cleveland, Ohio. Hall created the website ShouldITattoo.com to help inform others after seeing so many patients that regretted the tattoos of their youth. Hall has also authored Teens, Tattoos, & Piercings to try to reach school-aged kids before they even consider body art.
The Millennial generation, which is getting inked in record numbers, is also the leading demographic for ink removal. More than half the tattoos removed by medical professionals in 2013 were for people between 19 to 34 years old. Removal often costs many times more than being tattooed, sometimes requiring a dozen or more sessions over several months.
Beyond the likelihood of changing one’s mind about a tattoo, Hall cites employment, discrimination and health concerns in urging teens to decline getting inked or pierced. Employers have the legal right to reject a job candidate because of a tattoo—a challenging fact of life for young people to reconcile when they’re still undecided on a career path. Different branches of the military have their own restrictions on body art, which can include the tattoo’s size, placement and subject, while some companies ban tattoos and piercings altogether.
The commitment of a tattoo never interested Lauren Waaland-Kreutzer, 25, of Richmond, Virginia. “I don’t know how I’m going to age and who I’ll be in five years,” she says. Two days after turning 18, however, she got her nose pierced, a decision she hasn’t regretted, even though it’s affected her employment. “While I was working my way through college I gave up slightly better paying jobs in order to keep my piercing,” she says.
Her current employer, a local nonprofit in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is piercing-friendly, but she has friends that have to cover their tattoos and piercings at work; a former classmate-turned-lawyer even had to remove a small star tattoo from her wrist.
While piercings are more reversible than tattoos, they are also more prone to certain health risks. Tongue and cheek piercings can accelerate tooth decay, according to Hall, and the risk of infection can be high, especially if it impacts cartilage. “Some skin rejects piercings, and you can end up with permanent scars,” he adds.
The good news is there are more natural, less permanent alternatives for young adults to adorn and express themselves, including custom-made temporary tattoos, plus magnetic and clip-on jewelry that are indistinguishable from a permanent piercing. Temporary tattoos work to try out the look before possibly committing.
Henna tattoos, an import from India, are another popular alternative, although Hall has seen many patients develop allergic reactions to this plant-based ink, so it’s always best to test on a small spot first.
Permanent organic inks fade more over time, a downside for someone that keeps a tattoo for life, but “come off beautifully” in a removal process compared to the standard heavy metal inks, reports Hall. Also, “We just don’t know yet what impact the heavy metals may have on people’s immune systems down the road,” he says. “Organic inks are much safer.”
State laws vary regarding age criteria, some allowing tattoos at any age with parental consent. Hall’s tattoo website has a downloadable contract to encourage kids to talk with their parents before making a decision, regardless of the need for consent.
Name tattoos, even those of loved ones, are among the tattoos most likely to be removed later in life. Hall saw this with a young man that had the names of the grandparents that raised him tattooed on his hands. He said, “I still love them, but I’m tired of looking at them and I have got to get them off me.”
A Harris Interactive poll revealed that a third of company managers would think twice about promoting someone with tattoos or piercings—a more critical factor than how tidy their workspace is kept or the appropriateness of their attire.
Connect with freelance writer April Thompson, of Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.
“People change over time and so do symbols. A symbol that means one thing in society today can easily change. Very little is truly timeless.”
~ Gregory Hall