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bad tattoos forever

October 7, 2021

I’ve been spending my work breaks lately perusing online images of bad tattoos. When I feel like I need a short break, not one that warrants leaving my desk, I’ll just browse for five minutes, then get back to work.

I used to watch YouTube videos of mean tweets. Then it was historical photographs. Now it’s bad tattoos.

I don’t have any tattoos. I considered it in my early 20s but was too indecisive about the design, so I kept putting it off until I reached a point where I figured that since I hadn’t gotten one yet, I might as well skip it. Classic choice deferral (choosing not to choose for now). Classic inaction inertia (deciding against something increases the likelihood that you’ll decide against a similar thing in the future).

Many years ago, a friend of mine had decided to get a huge tattoo across his entire back. It was one of those epic tattoos that he had visualized and that his tattooist brought to life in drawing, a single image that encapsulated the sum total of my friend’s values, beliefs, and perspectives.

Tall order.

I went with my friend to the tattoo studio on the day that he was to see the final image on paper and to give the artist the green light to lock in the design. The studio was in the Capital Hill neighborhood in Seattle, close to the freeway. It felt more like a clinic than a tattoo parlor: sanitized, with white walls and clean floors. As soon as we walked in, the artist waved my friend over to the back, his smile reaching from ear to ear, excited to show off what he’d done.

My friend was excited too.

As we approached, the artist unrolled a large piece of drawing paper onto a table, holding down the edges so that the masterpiece could be seen in its entirety. In the center of the tattoo was a grim reaper, and around it were symbols of every major religion, from the Cross to the Star of David to an Om. There were intricate patterns filling the space, and at the top of the design were these words: “Your sins will be forgoten.”

My friend’s face lit up. It was perfect, he said, exactly what he wanted. The artist was happy, and so it was settled.

I looked over the tattoo, trying to read into an aspect of my friend’s character that I hadn’t been exposed to before. But something just didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t, at first, put my finger on it. Then it hit me.

“Hey” I said quietly, “Shouldn’t ‘forgoten’ have two t’s?”

They both froze as they stared down at the image.

“Does it?” the artist said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure. But we could look it up if you want.”

My friend pulled out his phone and did some digging. “Yeah,” he said. “It should have two t’s. Holy shit!”

“Oh man…” the artist said. “Damn….” And they both just stood there, staring at the drawing. The artist broke the silence, “Well, I should fix that.”

“Damn,” my friend said, looking at me in disbelief. “It’s a good thing you came!”

Yeah, I thought. It’s a good thing I came. Except, how did it get this far?

Lately, as I peruse images of bad tattoos online, I often think the same thing. How did it get this far? Shouldn’t tattoo artists regularly refer to dictionaries, given their line of work? Or know the basics of grammar? Or of drawing?! At a minimum, given the permanence of this type of decision, shouldn’t decision makers approach the process with a bit more doubt?

Many of our decisions get too far before we realize they’re bad. Some of those choices are tattoo choices: ones that are hard to take back. These are irreversible (or profoundly hard to reverse). Sure, you can remove a tattoo, but the costs of doing so are high enough that pretty much everyone who gets a tattoo assumes they’ll have it forever. In fact, that’s the idea: you want it forever.

Other choices are more reversible. These are Amazon choices, where you can purchase something, decide you don’t like it, and return it, no harm done. It’s OK to go too far on these choices, which makes it OK to not be too careful about making a mistake.

And then there are choices that fall in between: some are reversible but only to a point (30-day money-back guarantees), only at a cost (losing earnest money on a home offer), or only for some people (those without food allergies).

Too often in day-to-day life, we make choices without considering how reversible they are. We may think more about the pros and cons of each of our options, but not enough about whether we could take each pro or con back. If a drawback to an option can be easily reversed, then how much of a drawback is it? If a benefit to an option is irreversible, then shouldn’t it carry more weight?

Thinking back, I couldn’t commit to a tattoo in my early 20s because I knew it would be there forever. No design was good enough for “forever,” so I kept putting off the choice, hoping I’d land on a forever design. It didn’t happen, and then I abandoned the idea altogether. Meanwhile, some people just jump in, getting tattoos knowing they’ll be there forever, but not thinking through the implications of that. And some of those folks have tattoos they force themselves to love.

Honestly, I have a lot of regrets, but not getting tattooed isn’t one of them. Not because I don’t like tattoos; I just don’t care. What I do care about is making a decision that goes too far. If you can’t take it back, you may need to slow down before you choose. Otherwise, you could metaphorically end up with something like this:

That is all.

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