Helen Argiro will never forget the day she found out her l7-year-old daughter’s secret. Krista had slept through her alarm on a school morning. When Argiro entered Krista’s bedroom and turned on the light, she found her fast asleep in a crumpled T-shirt which exposed her backside. And there it was. A shiny green rectangle enfolding the sign for Gemini. The forbidden tattoo.
“I freaked out,” recalls Argiro. “What the hell did you do?” she yelled, startling her daughter awake. Krista jumped out of bed and immediately began talking back. “Relax, you’re making a big deal out of nothing,” she said.
The whole ordeal began two years earlier. Krista had always enjoyed being the centre of attention, and was used to “pushing the limits” in her clothes, hairstyle, and jewellery in her conservative private school. And when her theater buddies began acquiring tattoos, Krista was hooked. “She thought it would be pretty cool,” says Argiro.
But Argiro steadfastly refused. There were health risks. She was concerned that Krista might regret a tattoo when she was older. And she worried that some people regarded carved up skin as “trashy,” and might deny her daughter job opportunities.
Argiro could understand the rationale for getting a tattoo, but she vehemently opposed the prospect. The daughter who had always been a good kid, began to butt heads regularly with her mom. “Mom, it’s safe if you go to a reputable place,” Krista would say. “And it’s my body—I should do whatever I want with it. When I’m l8 I’ll do it anyway.”
The same arguments cycled round ad infinitum. Just when Argiro thought they’d settled the issue, it would rear its head again a few months later. Argiro sloughed it off as merely a battle of wits. She never imagined that her needle-phobic daughter would actually go through with the painful procedure.
Now she was faced with the grim reality of the newly healed tattoo, already six weeks old. What rankled her the most was that Krista had gone behind her back and betrayed her trust.
As the day wore on, Argiro reflected on the best way to approach the dilemma with her daughter. Ultimately, she decided “my relationship with my daughter was more important than the tattoo.” Krista had always felt safe coming to her mom for advice. If she maintained her unbending stance, her daughter might stop confiding in her.
So she used the best weapon at her disposal. Guilt. “You went against my wishes by getting this tattoo,” she told Krista. “You owe me one.” Then she coaxed a promise that the “tramp stamp” would never get a companion. Krista sobbed, apologized, and agreed.
In retrospect Argiro feels she dodged a bullet. At least the tiny tattoo on Krista’s buttock is concealed most of the time. A sleeve tattoo would have been open to public scrutiny, potentially incurring critical judgements. “The tame (hidden) three inch rectangle is not such a big deal,” she says.
The tattoo incident has also had a silver lining. When Krista pointed out that Argiro had sported a head of shocking purple hair in her youth, Argiro realized they weren’t so different. “I was a nonconformist, the black sheep in my family,” she says. “I guess she was just trying to exert her individuality. She’s like me.”
Argiro isn’t alone. When children enter adolescence, it’s normal for them to explore ways to make themselves stand out, says Dr. Jillian Roberts, child psychologist in private practice in Victoria, and a Professor at the University of Victoria. “When kids get a tattoo,” she says, “they’re voicing their desire to speak loudly and be heard.” But tattoos can open the door to infections and some kids may regret the impulse later in life. For that reason, Roberts suggests steering young adults toward other, less permanent forms of self-expression, like pink hair or pierced eyebrows.
If your child does blindsides you with a tattoo, Roberts advises, don’t panic or punish. “If you flip out or shun the child, you’re going to harm the relationship. That’s more important than the tattoo,” she says. Instead, use the opportunity to find out more about why your child chose to have one. “Then just move on,” she says.
Vivien Fellegi is a former family physician who writes about health.