How to Look at a Stranger’s Tattoos

© Copyright 2020 Vanessa Mainella, Ryerson University

Figure 1. “Photograph of Japanese Heritage Tattoo.” Photographed by Mark Hughman. “Japanese Tattoos with History & Meaning.” 2017.
Retrieved January 2020

When going about my day, I tend to notice and admire other people’s tattoos. I often wonder what that tattoo means for them. In passing, I noticed a traditional Japanese heritage piece on someone’s forearm. On a different person, I noticed a caricature of Bart Simpson riding a skateboard. Figure 1 represents a similar tattoo to the one I saw in person. The tattoo’s vibrant hues catch the eye and effortlessly blend together in an artistic expression of cultural pride. Figure 2 is a nearly exact replica of the other tattoo that I happened by. These tattoos are completely different, but they are both works of art that tell a story. These images came to fruition because of the stranger’s interests, actions, and choices. I am interested in the experiences that the strangers lived that lead to these images. 

Receiving a tattoo is no easy feat. The process involves a tattoo gun rapidly releasing needles that pierce the second layer of skin with ink, creating thousands of tiny wounds (Del Prado 1). The immune system sends blood cells, called macrophages, to heal the wounds and build scar tissues (Del Prado 2). The ink combined with the layering of scar tissue creates the tattoo. This process is evidently drawn out and painful. If one decides to endure this unpleasant procedure, it signifies the importance of the images they choose to wear. When looking at a stranger’s tattoos, remember that the art itself, coupled with the time they spent in the tattoo parlor, tells a story through the vehicle of their skin.

Tattoos have been specifically designed for colour, size, and placement to express the inner workings of the individual’s mind. They capture and represent moments in time, beliefs, and loved artifacts from one’s life. Tattoos can also be mistakes, which is a story in and of itself about learned lessons. Sometimes tattoos do not have a meaning at all. Not every inked Bart Simpson represents epiphanic life moments, rather, the image was simply desired. Yet, a seemingly random depiction of Bart is still indicative of pop-culture interests. Skin that is adorned with tattoos signifies more about a person than the absence of that art.

A simple line tattoo of Bart Simpson riding a skateboard
Figure 2. Photograph of a tattoo, designed , inked , and photographed by Brian Cornwell. Retrieved from – “The Simpsons Ink Ideas” 2017.
retrieved Jan 2020

When looking at a stranger’s tattoos, try to look at more than just the image itself. Try to look beyond them to understand the expressions of individuality communicated by their scar tissue. Learn the narrative constructed by the biology of their body; the mingling of macrophages, skin, ink, and memory. Broaden your thinking to imagine the life experiences that lead to that tattoo. If you see someone with a traditional Japanese back piece, wonder why they chose to honour Japanese heritage, in those specific colours, in that specific location. Try to understand why someone with a simplistic line drawing of a skateboarding Bart Simpson found two hours of needle puncture and blood-cell filtration worth their time, money, and physical comfort. Tattoos are stories being read simultaneously by the canvas and the viewer. If you want to know a person, ask them about the experiences that lead them to their tattoos. 

Works Cited

Del Prado, Guia Marie. “Here’s What’s Really Happening to Your Skin When You Get a Tattoo.”  Business Insider, 2015,

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education