Why We Don’t Touch Tattoos


My Eric Clapton tattoo is a real dad-magnet.

It’s almost too bad I didn’t get it purely to snag men over the age of 50 because I’m sitting on a real goldmine. It’s a goldmine full of dad stuff: embarrassing puns, Grateful Dead T-shirts, socks with sandals.

At a bar last week, a man with long, gray hair and the body of an ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival roadie put his meaty hand on my arm. “Whoa!” He said, to himself more than to me, “That’s Layla!”

Nobody with tattoos likes when strangers touch their ink. But the bonanza that breaks out when a Baby Boomer sees mine is probably unparalleled.

The former college pot dealer at the bar wasn’t using a new pick up line where you just keep guessing names until you get it right; he was noticing that on my upper arm, I have a rendering of the cover of “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Eric Clapton’s 1970s band, Derek and the Dominoes.

I can count on one hand the number of people my age who have correctly identified it. It’s always older men, surprised to see a 23-year-old girl with a tattoo honoring a musician who was most popular before she was even conceived. Without asking my permission, this guy’s hand closed tighter around my scrawny arm.

“Guys, guys!” He called out to his ex-hippie friends, who were playing pool in the corner. “Check out this girl’s arm! It’s Layla!”

Then, he dragged me over to them like a bag of unwashed laundry and made me display my tattoo.

Before I left the bar, he also had me show it to some other extras from the cast of ‘Easy Rider’ who were sitting down.. They reacted similarly. There were a million hands on it like I was someone’s Yellowstone National Park vacation photo album and not a breathing person.

Months ago, the manager of an Italian restaurant –- an older gentleman with skin like wet leather –- asked me why I had Layla’s face on my arm. “I love classic rock. ‘Layla’ is my favorite song. I love the story behind the album,” I said, giving my usual answers.

He put his hand on his forehead and sighed. “Man, I saw all those bands live back in the ‘70s.”

I laughed, “You’re lucky. I wish I had.”

He asked how old I was. I told him.

“I would trade you your age for my concert experiences,” he replied. He was joking, of course. He’d once seen the Rolling Stones perform in a basement.

I understand the enthusiasm older men have for my Clapton tattoo. It’s nostalgia. It’s the shock of seeing someone who was a sperm back then with an image they haven’t seen in years on her arm. It’s joy that the music of their youth has survived. It’ll be like seeing a teenager with a Jay-Z tattoo in the year 2050. We’ll probably freak out and yell, “My name is HOV!” at them, too.

My real problem is more of a common one among inked people: My tattoo, whatever emotions it evokes, does not give you the right to touch me.

For every well-intentioned Deadhead for whom my arm brings back memories of getting high in a van with Hendrix on the radio, there’s also this person:

“I don’t care why you have it. I was just using it as an excuse to put my hands on you,” a turd-muffin bro told me one night, cutting off my explanation of how I got into classic rock.

Tattoos are art. Someone drew them and I paid to hang their work in the gallery that is my body. Would you bum rush the Mona Lisa and start smearing your dirty hands all over it? Do you need to touch every bump on a Van Gogh to appreciate what it looks like? Not if you’re not Mr. Magoo, you don’t.

Tattoos are also skin. They are not Braille. They feel just like your unmarked arm does.

You would never grab a stranger because you like their Biz Markie T-shirt or because you want to admire the key necklace they got at Forever 21. You would never say, “I love your haircut” and then rub that person’s head.

Why does having a tattoo erase all the usual touch boundaries? My tattoo is of a woman’s face, not of the words “Touch Me.” And even if I did have a tattoo of the words “Touch Me” because, I don’t know, I’m a big Rocky Horror fan, you still shouldn’t touch me.

I have a tattoo you like. Thank you. And if you’re a dad, I certainly appreciate your increased interest in “Layla.” She was beautiful enough to inspire one of the best rock songs of all time; of course she elicits wonderful, bell-bottom-tinged memories for you.

But that is still my skin you’re grabbing. Even if it looks like your favorite record, skin should still be recognizable to everyone.

I only put some ink on it.

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image – Amazon