A theory of optimal tattoos

David Stearns, a loyal MR reader, asks:

How would you pick a tattoo, if you decided you were going to get one? How would you pick something that your future self is most likely to be glad to have? A favorite piece of art? Follow Leeson's lead and get an economics-related tattoo? Names of family members are off-limits, as are answers like "get a small dot in my armpit that nobody would see."

I would pick a country which I loved visiting, such as Mexico or Brazil, both of which have distinct shapes.  It would be an excuse to narrate previous visits and I don't think it would repulse many people, other than the fact that it is a tattoo.  An artwork in tattoo form would look low-brow.  A Celtic geometric design would be another option.  The obvious alternative would be to pick something which looked criminal, but I don't think that would mesh well with my other strategies in life.  For some men it would pay off. 

Here is Dan Ariely on tattoos.


Get a tattoo of a wolf.

I have 3 tattoos.

One on my back, one on right forearm, and one on my left inner-arm.

I have three criteria for any tattoo:

1) Aesthetics. It has to look GOOD. I want it to be beautiful.
2) Symbolism. That it carry some significance to me. I like the idea that when I'm 80, I'll be able to see these and think back to where I was, in what stateofmind I was at when I got them. This is why I have about 6 years apart between each piece.
3) Serendipity. The personal connections that may occur in my life, several years from now even, because of my ink. Maybe it'll be a conversation-starter in a bar in New Orleans, or an interesting way to gauge reactions picking up my kids from school in the suburbs. Maybe it's insurance against becoming square :)

Tattoos in foreign languages (that you don't understand) can lead to gibberish. See this site on asian character tattoos for examples:

Also, if its on this site, you probably shouldn't get it:

But, if the recent A-Team movie taught me anything (and that is a big 'if'), its that military tattoos can come in handy.

I approach tattoos like the lead character in Momento. So far I only have one, and it is on my right inner forearm so that it's often in my field of vision. It's a word that reminds me of my life philosophy, and as such I think it makes my actions more rational and more coherent.

I think all my tattoos will be words in similar locations. I find that words are better primers for keeping a complex concept in mind. I think they also tend to retain their meaning better over time.

You could have ugly little homemade tattoos on the webbing of your fingers, one for every academic institution you had taught at or attended. That would let people know that you were a Hard Man. Of Letters.

Your future self would prefer nothing. To your future self it will be an ugly splotch.

"I would pick a country which I loved visiting, such as Mexico or Brazil, both of which have distinct shapes. It would be an excuse to narrate previous visits and I don't think it would repulse many people, other than the fact that it is a tattoo. "

Yeah but suppose you do that and then later the political borders of Mexico change (as they have done many times in the past). Wouldn't you look like an idiot then!

At 18 I got a somewhat outlandish pirate tattoo on my shoulder (most short sleeve shirts still cover it fully.) At the time I considered it a permanent obstacle against becoming someone that my 18 year old self would abhor, calling the high costs of laser removal a 'sellout tax.' I'm 22 now, and while I still like the design and receive regular compliments on it, the tattoo has become a reminder of a time when life felt so urgent, the world so fleeting that it drove me to such a drastic action to preserve a piece my identity. It's a good thing.

I've thought about getting a tramp stamp of the normal curve.

Tattoos should be a reflection of self, a statement or principle of who one is and who one wants to be. Thus, there can never be a general 'get this' statement with a tattoo, but one can use the principle of 'what do I want to say about myself' as a guiding example of what to get.

For the sake of pure self-indulgence, my latest tattoo, which is a binary representation of the word 'logic' in an 8-bit system.

This might be the post on this blog that has most surprised me.

I generally don't like visible tattoos and I find it difficult to believe I wouldn't change my mind about whatever I got, so I don't have any. If I were to lose a bet or something and get one anyhow, it would probably be Bayes' Theorem, in as close as possible to Computer Modern, on a shoulder blade or an ankle or something. Both as a reminder to myself and a conversation-starter.

If I were a young woman I would have a rose tattooed on my breast. Then as i aged it would become a long-stemmed rose.

Nicholas...they have programmable tattoos...

I've got 3 tattoos. All hidden by a short-sleeve shirt, though the two hula girls on my back can show through thin dress shirts. All three were reminders of trips to Hawaii, because, at the time, I thought, "When am I ever going to travel this far again?"

These day, my current job has taken me to places far and wide, so...it's still a nice starter for stories.

I would tattoo something on my head... and then when I get bored, I can just let my hair grow and cover it up. Ok, so it's a bit of a sellout, but -- why not? Imagine showing it to your kids ("And THIS is why you shouldn't drink!").

Clear tattoos that glow under black light. That way you have the benefit of the tattoo in some conditions, but very little of the social drawback.

There are two things here- first of all, if you think about getting a tattoo so much, you should probably never get one.

Secondly, I've already thought it through. The best thing to get would be a small calendar, perhaps just a week's worth of boxes, Mon, Tues, etc. Then you could use a permanent marker to write your appointments down, right there on your arm! While you're at it, maybe the multiplication tables, or maybe a metric-standard length conversion scale- Hell, just put everything in the back of that damn composition notebook!

I believe picking the country could be a very good idea because it wouldn’t disgust many people and it would be a very good conversation starter. However, I believe a tattoo that could show something artistic is a very optimal type of tattoo to get. It shows that art is an important part of your life and you really appreciate artistic aspects of life. It can give someone a way to express their beliefs and tastes to other people. I don’t think it needs to be a very gaudy tattoo that is oppressive to people. Yet, it can be one that can let people know something about you. I don’t think the criminal idea is such a good one either. That really doesn’t help when someone is looking for a new job or career.

I think tattoos in general aren’t the best idea ever unless they aren’t anywhere someone can see them. I think tattoos really are an unnecessary thing to have within the business world of today unless of course that is your business. Otherwise, I believe if you are going to get a tattoo the optimal tattoo is one that cannot be seen unless you are swimming in the pool. I really think it’s not very reassuring if you walk into any type of business and an employee who is covered in tattoos deals with whatever type of service you may be wanting from the business. That may sound very stereotypical but it’s also unprofessional within the business world to look like an art book. I’m not saying tattoos are bad I’m just saying few and covered tattoos are the optimal type.

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