Inked under 19

Students with tattoos speak on decisions, regrets and self-expression that last a lifetime

Most parents don’t approve of their kids skipping classes for pretty much any reason. Skipping is a universal don’t-tell-my-mom activity, but it’s what you do, or don’t do, during your time away from campus that can really get you into hot water.

Senior Oona Moorhead shows her tattoo of a devil on her left shoulder. The devil was her fourth tattoo. "My aunt is an artist, and when she was in grad school she used to draw all these devils all the time, so when I was a little kid I just had all these devils everywhere,” Moorhead said. “I really liked it, so I got one of those.” Photo by Charlie Holden.

Senior Oona Moorhead shows her tattoo of a devil on her left shoulder. The devil was her fourth tattoo. “My aunt is an artist, and when she was in grad school she used to draw all these devils all the time, so when I was a little kid I just had all these devils everywhere,” Moorhead said. “I really liked it, so I got one of those.” Photo by Charlie Holden.

“I skipped English class [on my 18th birthday] to go get a tattoo, and when I got home my brother was at the house,” senior Oona Moorhead said. “When he saw the bandage on my arm he was like, “What’s that?” And I just sat there smiling and he was like, ‘No. Dad’s gonna kill you!’”

Moorhead was not killed by either of her parents; in fact, her new ink went unnoticed for several days.

“My mom didn’t know [I got a tattoo] until three days after the one on my birthday, which was my third tattoo,” Moorhead said. “So that was the first one she saw.”

Since her birthday in February, Moorhead has received two more tattoos, upping her total to five. The three newest, a devil face on her shoulder, a cactus flower on her forearm, and the words ‘wild thing’ on her thigh were done professionally. Moorhead did the other two herself during freshman and senior year using a method called stick and poke, where a needle dipped in ink is repeatedly poked into the skin to form a design.

“My first [tattoo] is a little stick and poke on my wrist that I did freshman year, by myself, which was a horrible idea,” Moorhead said. “I’m just bad at [stick and pokes]; that’s just a fact of life, I’m bad at it. Freshman year I wasn’t any good at it; I don’t know why I thought senior year I’d be any better, having no practice in between.”

Moorhead hasn’t had much practice with stick and pokes, but junior Scout Yu, who is currently finishing up her seventh tattoo, certainly has. Having so many tattoos, all of which are in the stick and poke style, hasn’t made Yu any less cautious, though.

“A lot of people believe stick and pokes are so easy and the materials are easy to get— it’s just a needle and India Ink— but it can get so unsafe,” Yu said. “It can be dangerous, and you might regret it. You need to know which precautions you need to take and which ink you need to get; you need to know what’s inside your ink…it can be toxic.”

Despite the dangers, Yu continues to tattoo herself in an informal setting, sticking with what she knows best.

“In the beginning I got stick and pokes because [I wasn’t old enough] to get a real tattoo, but now I’ve gotten used to that pain, and I know what it feels like,” Yu said. “If I know what it feels like, then I would rather go with that tattoo than one that I have no idea what it’s going to feel like. But I definitely want to get a legit tattoo.”

Moorhead went from getting stick and pokes to getting professional tattoos, and Yu also hopes to one day make that transition, but others, like junior Jimmy Reyes, have taken a more direct route to the tattoo shop, bypassing DIY tattoos entirely—often because they don’t think the risks of stick and pokes are worth the reward.

“Don’t get stick and pokes from your friends,” Reyes said. “Half of the time they might be able to do it, but it can get infected, the ink will probably get washed away soon, and it’s really just hard to do a good job with that kind of thing. Go to a professional.”

Reyes got his first and (so far) only tattoo by a professional, even though he is underage. When it comes to tattooed minors, stick and pokes are more popular than professional tattoos. This is because these tattoos require a willing artist and because tattoo shops can’t legally accept business from minors without parental consent.

“My dad was the one who took me to go get [my tattoo], so he was pretty thrilled about the idea,” Reyes said. “But my mom, well, I didn’t tell my mom. So when I came home from my dad’s house she yanked my arm and she was like, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘I’m not going to forget this!’ And I was like, I mean, me neither. Because I paid for it, and I got it, and I’m going to see it every day.”

Reyes’ mother wasn’t his only family member quick to criticize his new ink, which is of a ram’s head.

“Some of my family is more conservative,” Reyes said. “They kind of frown upon [tattoos]; they’re kind of like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ or, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe you ruined your body like that,’ but I really don’t care what other people think about it because it’s for me.”

Yu has also faced a few critics of her tattoos, and many of them tend to be from an older generation.

“I don’t want to be stereotypical but [how people react] depends on the age,” Yu said. “So if it’s a person around my age, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ but if it’s someone older they lecture me on the dangers of tattooing. For example, I could get ink poisoning, or I’m too young. And then somehow they bring what I want to do and my way of life into my small little tattoos and just tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

Judgement from peers and family can be disheartening, but the worst result of a tattoo is regret.

“I want to get a few of [my tattoos] covered up,” Yu said. “The thing you should never do is get a tattoo based on a feeling, because that feeling will go away. Even [getting a tattoo] of a memory or a person [can be bad], because if things change then you’re screwed and you have that forever. I also messed up on my star [tattoo], so it scarred and [the ink] somehow bled into the rest of my skin so it doesn’t look like a star, it just kind of looks like a blob.”

Yu is not the only student who has had tattoo plans go awry.

“My stick and poke is supposed to be a pine tree,” Moorhead said. “It’s supposed to be a pine tree, but it’s so blown out that you can’t tell. I did it because I really liked the Pacific Northwest, and of course I don’t care about the Pacific Northwest anymore, that’s just so stupid. But I still like [the tattoo]. I feel like my tattoo will always reflect how I felt at one time. So I’m never mad, I’m never going to regret it, because it was true at one point. It may not be true now because this is the next version of who I am. But it was true at one point.”

Moorhead may be seem casual when it comes to tattoos, but don’t let that fool you.

“Just because I am so blasé about the importance of tattoos and how easy it is and how fun it is does not mean that you should immediately go out and get a tattoo all over your arm,” Moorhead said. “It’s just the more you think about it now, the less you have to think about it later, and pay for it later.”

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