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Details of tattoos on Paris Jackson’s hands.
Photo: JB Lacroix/Getty Images

Is the Internet Ruining Tattoos?

Picking your finger tat off of Instagram has its downsides.

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Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to get a tattoo. An obscure line of poetry in high school, a big art-deco design in college... over the years, the ideas changed, but never the basic desire. Then, in July 2016, after almost two decades of talking about it, I walked into a local tattoo parlor on the Jersey Shore with a sense of resolve: I wanted a simple black line, representing the crest of a wave, inside my wrist. The year, like the ocean, had been a series of ups and downs: I’d had my first child, published my second book, and dealt with a health scare. At the end of it all, I felt surprisingly buoyant. If this wasn’t the moment to reward myself by indulging a long-held wish, then when?

The appointment took less than an hour, and the tattoo was done in a matter of minutes. I showed the artist a picture of what I wanted on my phone, and he kindly and dutifully copied it. When I left the shop, my mind buzzing and my wrist wrapped in cellophane, I was proud of myself. But there was also a question nagging at me from the moment I got back into my car.

Did I just get a Pinterest tattoo?

Ask an experienced tattoo artist and he or she will tell you that the internet is changing the business. What I did, somewhat impulsively, on that hot July afternoon — walk into a random shop with a photo of the image I wanted loaded up on my iPhone — has become the new normal. Once upon a time, a person seeking a new tattoo would have to go to a tattoo parlor for inspiration and flip through stacks of industry magazines or skim the colorful sample images (“flash”) that lined the walls. Now, more often than not, customers research a design online and then simply seek out a nearby artist to execute it.

The result, artists say, is that clients, particularly walk-ins, are generally less interested in the styles of specific artists and less open to input — they have rigid ideas about how they think their ink should look. While not a problem in and of itself, this attitude is complicated by the fact that the photos of tattoos that are popular online aren’t necessarily indicative of how they’ll turn out.

“The problem with Pinterest tattoos is that they’re not always real,” Tyler Mate, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s 20-year-old mainstay Flyrite Tattoo, says. “They’re sometimes photoshopped or just freshly done, which isn’t representative of what the tattoo will ultimately look like.”

When talking to a tattoo artist, the phrase “Pinterest tattoo” has few different connotations. It’s a minimalist or geometric black design, like mine, popularized by Buzzfeed listicles like this one. It’s a trendy image, like an embellished infinity symbol, or a dream catcher, or a finely drawn feather, or a dandelion with flyaway seeds that transform into tiny birds.

It’s also about the placement: It’s become popular among young women to tattoo the side of the ribcage or the sternum, right between the breasts. For the artists, these jobs are repetitive and mindless (“fucking annoying,” one guy joked) but not necessarily problematic. The bigger issues come from online tattoo trends that professionals regard as fundamentally flawed, meaning that they won’t hold up in the long term. These include stick-and-poke tattoos, white-ink tattoos, and inner-lip tattoos. “Watercolor tattoos” — impressionistic pastel images done without an outline — are especially controversial: Artists who tattoo in the traditional style say they should be avoided, and younger, more experimental artists maintain that they’re just as durable as regular tattoos, as long as they’re done right.

However, everyone seems to agree that finger tattoos are a terrible idea. Just because they’re having a moment with cool-girl celebrities like Cara Delevingne and Zoë Kravitz doesn’t mean they’re going to look good in five years. Rihanna’s “Shhh” tattoo on her pointer finger has been particularly influential, according to longtime Los Angeles artist Paul Timman. Timman has worked out of Sunset Strip Tattoo for two decades, and was once called “the Rembrandt of Sunset Strip” by the Wall Street Journal. He’s adamant that although these tattoos might look good temporarily, they should not be done.

“Microscopic tattoos on the fingers will not work, they will not hold up, they will collapse and fall apart and look awful in two to three years time,” he says. “You will be stuck with a blob on your finger.” You can’t get much clearer than that. Timman estimates he gives this speech about poorly conceived, internet-inspired tattoos roughly 10 times a day. Even still, he says only about 60 percent of the customers he’s talking to actually listen. “If you still want to give us money, we’ll do it, because we have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed, but we sleep better at night knowing we’ve told you what’s going to happen.”

But Timman recognizes that for some clients, the quality and longevity of the work isn’t all that important, even though tattoos are permanent. With walk-in customers under the age of 25, it’s often more about instant gratification, social-media likes, and shareability. Certainly, these latter concerns are unique to our particular time, but impulsiveness in young people isn’t anything new. Case in point: I asked my friend Amanda, a 37-year-old Brooklynite, to tell me about the infinity symbol she has had on lower back since 1998, now that these tattoos are getting popular again. “It was my first,” she says, “mostly inspired by hearing about other people [in college] going to get a tattoo and thinking it sounded fun. I came up with the idea pretty quickly, based on a vague, stoned sense of wanting to have something on my body to remind me that everything’s interconnected.”

The difference between then — the late 1990s — and now is that ink is more socially acceptable than ever before, which could mean that young customers are even less likely to have second thoughts before plunking down their credit cards. A 2015 study from the Harris Poll revealed that a whopping 47 percent of millennials had tattoos, as opposed to 13 percent of baby boomers. It also suggested that the stigma against tattoos in the workplace was lifting, with up to 58 percent of adults responding that they’d even be comfortable with a tattooed presidential candidate. This is undeniably good news for people who are in the business of giving tattoos, even if it means having to deal with customers who think the internet is a better resource than the artist.

Adam Korothy of Magic Cobra Tattoo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, says, “The frustrating thing with the internet and Pinterest is that I’ll be halfway done with a drawing and the client will still be on their phone, coming up with ideas and changing their mind.” But he agrees that there’s a real upside. “The prevalence of tattoos on Pinterest and Instagram is definitely getting more people in the door.”

Once they’re in the door, there’s every reason to think they’ll become a repeat client. Today’s iPhone-wielding walk-in could be tomorrow’s most loyal customer. “You don’t make people feel foolish [about what they want],” Korothy says, “because they will come back.” Speaking to professionals in the industry, it’s clear that the internet is having a homogenizing effect on the art form. But in some cases, this can actually be regarded as a good thing.

Morgan Shanahan, a senior editor at Buzzfeed Parents, has been candid about struggling with OCD and other mental health issues since giving birth to her daughter seven years ago. When she first heard about Project Semicolon, which promotes mental-health awareness by way of a viral semicolon tattoo, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. “I never thought I’d be a person who would get a tattoo that’s the same as anyone else’s,” she says, but about a year ago she had a small black semicolon placed on the outside of her wrist, where it would be obvious, especially when she appears in videos. “Ultimately, the decision was very deeply intertwined with what I do for a living,” she says. “I have a job that can at times be highly visible, and knowing that millions of people, most of them teenagers, would see it was very compelling to me.”

For Shanahan, the semicolon means more to her than the sum of its parts, which is important when it comes to a person’s long-term happiness with their tattoos. That same Harris Poll survey found that among respondents who eventually regretted their ink, two of the top five reasons were that it’s “poorly done” or “isn’t meaningful.” Even Amanda, with an infinity symbol tattoo that she describes as “objectively terrible,” admits that she appreciates that “it connects her to who she was back then.” For me, my thin ocean wave commemorated a year that felt like a battle. Even if it eventually looks dated, I have to believe that I’ll always enjoy it as a symbol of triumph.

And like any tattoo trend, Pinterest tattoos will absolutely look dated, Paul Timman warns: “What do you think of a lower-back tattoo? It’s a sign of the times. The guys who are 40 to 45 years old, walking around with a band around their arm — you know they were frat boys in the 1990s. People with finger tattoos, side-boob/rib-cage tattoos, minimalist black tattoos — it’s going to date them, plain and simple.” To avoid getting a stereotypical or sub-par tattoo, he recommends doing your research, talking to your artist, and, most importantly, being open to their input. Malaika “Mecca” Burke and Alejandro “Bear” Sedaca, who co-own Sailor’s Cross Tattoo and Gallery in New Orleans, echo this advice. “You have to trust your artist,” Sedaca says, “You have to let us do our job. You don’t go to a dentist and tell them how to clean your teeth.” If you’re inspired by something you saw on the internet, Burke recommends finding a talented person who can translate that image into a design: “I think Pinterest tattoos already look kind of dated, but tattoos come and go in trends. A well-done tattoo is always a good thing, even if the subject matter is overdone.”

If you want something quick, inexpensive and easy, don’t discount the flash that’s on the walls, which the artists themselves have drawn. “People have this idea that you can’t walk into a tattoo shop and get something off the wall, because it’s not original,” Tyler Mate says. “And yet they’ll pick something off the internet.”

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