My Son Got a #Tattoo

Category: Weekly Columns

The title of this column probably brings shivers to parents of toddlers and kids under the age of 12. Many parents do not like or appreciate tattoos or any so-called “Body Art.” I am one of them plus it is against our religion and is expressly forbidden in Judaism. Nonetheless, we parents have to choose our battles and this is one I chose to lose.

My older son has been a passionate musician since he was about 11. His music of choice is good ‘ol Rock ‘N’ Roll, from loving Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepellin to all the newer bands, including Green Day, Periphery, and Incubus – and so many others whose names I can’t even remember. We’ve gone to concerts together since he was a kid, beginning with Bruce Springsteen at Dodger Stadium and most recently Dream Theater (his choice, and I LOVED them) at the Gibson Amphitheatre.

We saw Green Day on their “American Idiot” tour when I had to lift him up to see, since we were “on the floor.” He now towers over me. We bought scalper tickets to see Eric Clapton. We’ve seen The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tenacious D, the Outside Lands festival (we’re going again in August), The Dave Matthews Band, The Foo Fighters, Kid Rock, The Black-Eyed Peas, and so many others that I’ve forgotten.

Arnie was not much of a student, in spite of his intelligence. Getting him through high school was quite the struggle because “everything is stupid” and he didn’t get the importance of doing well, though he cared enough to graduate. But, he never stopped learning his music. In his junior year, he decided he wanted to go to The Berkee College of Music.

The problem was he had no grades to speak of and no plans to even take the SAT. He finds out they don’t require the SAT, though it and grades factor into their acceptance process. What matters most to Berklee is your music – your audition. So, he set his mind to ace that.

Auditions are held all over the country, but I chose to take him to Boston so we could see the belly of the beast, the place where I would go broke should he by chance get accepted, and to audition right there where we felt he’d have the best audience.

We had an amazing 72 hours in Boston. Touring Berklee, I saw the Wonder-Eyes that my teen son hadn’t shown since he was a kid going to Disneyland. He was in heaven. He applied for early admission and thought he did pretty well on his audition, for which he’d practiced a ton.  The audition also included random music tests in which he had to sing back – in notes – random things played for him, copy rifts on the drums, jam with Berklee teachers, etc.

He got in. Early acceptance. I got a heart attack upon learning how much the tuition was (see The College Scam Hurts Us ALL). I was proud.

Now, he wanted his first tattoo. He had just turned 18. Our understanding, after several years of discussion, was that he could not get a tattoo before he was 18 and he had to pay for any tattoos with money he earned vs. his savings, birthday money, or allowance. He got a job. He showed up last month with his first tattoo. I say “first” because he plans several more.

Parents must choose their battles. I wrestled long and hard with this one. My son’s commitment to his music was evident. While we all know and say that a kid thinks one thing but ends up doing another more often than not, my gut said my son would end up in music – one way or another. Tattoos are part of the culture. His culture.

What is more important to me than his body art is his character and I’ve seen unbelievable growth from him the past two years. Sure, he’s still lazy with his chores, but he is thoughtful, cares about his friends, and even seems aware now and then that the world doesn’t fully revolve around him.

He’s growing up. That’s what I want. Tattoos are not important. Being a good person is.

Do I like the tattoo? An emphatic NO. Maybe he’ll keep them off his face and neck. I think I may have impressed upon him enough that those sorts of tattoos are very off-putting and may hinder some choices in his future. But ultimately, it will be up to him.

He’s going to Berklee in the fall. My requirement for his continuing there is maintaining a decent grade average and not reverting to partying or any mischief that would result in me getting a call from the school. I also require that he sign the authorization that I have access to all his school records. I’m paying for it; I insist on that.

Finally, since our family qualifies for ZERO aid – thank you very much – he got a loan from me for ¼ of his 4-year tuition expense because I want him to be invested in his education as much as I’m investing in it.

Tattoos? Not worth the fight…

  • Q

    All I have to say is “wow” on the monster coming out of the guy’s back.  That’s a little much for me.  I’ve never been one for a tattoo.  I can’t think of anything that I love enough to engrave permanently on my body.  Call me a wuss, but that’s just not me.  To each their own.  For those who like them, so be it, but when it becomes a mural, then I have issues with it.  I guess I’m just too “old school.”

    • Bruce Sallan

      Well Q, then you and me are both “old school!”

  • A Modern Dad

    Hi Bruce. While I do like to look at cool tattoos, from an art perspective, I doubt that I will ever have one myself. And should my children choose to get them at some point, I hope that they select a location that can be covered up in professional settings. The neck, chest, and sleeve tattoos are bound to cause career and perception problems at some point in a person’s life…which is something that certainly escapes most 18 year olds. 🙂 

    I am curious…does Arnie’s tattoo have any significance? Does it say something in some abstract or ancient language? It doesn’t look familiar. I do like the red color. 🙂

    Take care!!

    • Bruce Sallan

      Brad, Arnie’s tattoo is sort of like the Ten Commandments of Buddhism – all in one connected image…

  • @MimiBakerMN

    My daughter wanted a tattoo when she was 17. I was ok with it, but my stipulation (since she couldn’t get it without my signature) was that it not be on her wrist. So, she got it on the side of her calf. Totally fine with me. Didn’t even bat an eye. =)

    • Bruce Sallan

      Where’s the photo of it, Mimi?

    • Dave Taylor

      Why not on her wrist?

  • Charity Kountz

    I don’t disagree with you. However, you have a son and it’s different when it’s a daughter. My daughters better not come home with a piercing or tattoo before they’re 21 or there will be all kinds of hell to pay. If you want to mark up your body after gaining three additional years of maturity (hopefully) and being responsible for the consequences of your own actions, be my guest but don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

    I am personally terrified of needles and dislike pain so there’s nothing that could bring me to endure a tattoo (although I did get a second piercing in my ear as an adult as an experiment – hurt like crazy too! Has since closed up – #epicfail). 

    Cute post – wish more Dads were as involved as you are. My daughters biological dad hasn’t seen her since she was three months old (now 5 1/2) and she’s being raised by my husband who adores her. Kudos for great men!

    • Bruce Sallan

      My boys’ biological mom pretty much abandoned them TEN years ago…minimal contact ever since…

      • charitykountz

        Wow. Incredible that humans have so much capacity to walk away from their responsibilities. My mom abandoned me when I was ten & I will never understand how she could. Or why she feels entitled to my love. Lol

        • Bruce Sallan

          It’s been sad, but she also has some legitimate issues…Thank G*d I found a wonderful woman who is my 2nd wife and for all intents and purposes my son’s mom now!

  • Dave Taylor

    Good piece, and I agree with you that once he’s 18, well, it’s up to him. I have always looked at parenting as ship-building anyway, and by the time they’re in their adolescence you have to just push the boat down the ramp and hope it floats. My oldest is 15, so I’ve got a few years before we face this sort of issue (I hope). 

    Oh, and my article on the very same subject:  (with slightly less scary photos 🙂

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx Dave, I always welcome and appreciate your comments…and, no, I didn’t steal the idea for this column from yours! LOL…

  • Brad Marmo

    I like tattoos on others, but could never fathom one on myself.  I like my body as it is (extra lbs aside) and marking it up just isn’t in my thought process.  But again, enjoy them on others and don’t frown upon the practice.  That is until you go above the neckline.  Those pics with tatts on heads freak me out a bit.  I think you son’s is awesome btw! (shhh, I know).  Great #DadChat too last Thursday, I enjoyed the contest format.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Thanks Brad…and KEEP QUIET around my son! LOL…

  • dadblunders


    I applaud you dad! I can tell you first hand as a social worker that investigated child abuse, many fathers would not have given in on something they felt so strongly about. Sadly, it is the same fathers (and mothers) that would not see their child again upon the child’s 18th birthday (or sooner in some cases.) Many fathers fail to realize that someday they might want to have a relationship with their child. Unfortunately, by the time they realize it….its often too little too late.

    I believe the true worth of one’s self is the values we instill in our children. They have to have strong character and be able to go out into the world and make it on their own. We aren’t always going to be here and they our legacy. If we choose to fight and argue that is what they will do as they get older (not just with us either.)


    • Bruce Sallan

      Thx Aaron – and, ironically, my son’s tattoo is ALL about values!

  • Linda Bernstein

    My son got a tattoo before he started law school. It says “justice” in Greek. Unfortunately, it has not so far landed him a job. It wasn’t worth fighting about. BTW – that agreement about seeing his grades? I’d be surprised if Berklee goes through with that. My kids’ schools absolutely would not because a person cannot relinquish his right to privacy unless he is in someway disabled – unless court cases have changed that. I had a fit  when I found out that I wouldn’t see my son’s grades. We were paying. A lot. But I got over that too. Mostly both kids showed us their grades. The letters saying they make Dean’s List come to your house, unless your kid has legal residence elsewhere. They let you hang those on the refrigerator. This parenting thing – it goes on and on. You really should read Sally Koslow’s book “Sloucing Toward Adulthood.” She was on NPR today, had a CNN column the other day, was mentioned in the New Yorker. Her book is making a big splash. I’m learning from it all. Still.

    • Bruce Sallan

      I will get the book Linda – do you know her? It would be GREAT to have her/you as guests on #DadChat!

      • Linda Bernstein

         Yes, I know Sally for ages and ages. She was one of the first editors I wrote for when I left the halls of academia and became a writer. She is also a novelist. Both of us are interested in how baby boomers are interacting with our adult kids, and she wrote a book, which has gotten major reviews and notice everywhere but the NYT. Sigh.

        • Bruce Sallan

          The NY Times is no longer THE paper…it has lost its integrity, IMO…

          Want to ask her to guest, along with you, on #DadChat to discuss her book and the issues it raises? Could/Would be a GREAT topic.

          We still need to talk, Linda!? Thursday I have drive time to and from Santa Barbara that is great talk time for me…in the a.m. and at lunch – my time…????

          • Linda Bernstein

             I think the NYT is still the best newspaper in this country. But their book review policy is kind of not transparent. She got reviewed in WSJ, Post, WaPo, etc. Sometimes it’s better not to be reviewed by the NYT. They can be harsh. (My cousin, who’s a big time children’s book illustrator with lots of awards just did a review of some kids books where he was less than glowing about one of them, and he felt guilty.) I used to review for the NYT, but now they use people who have just had books or are famous or won awards or stuff. Thursday I’m actually out of the house all day. I don’t know how Sally would do with a Twitter chat. She’s on Twitter, and she has a natural voice, but she doesn’t do chat, though I’ve tried to get her to. You could tweet her @sallykoslow:twitter  and ask. I could coach her through.

          • Bruce Sallan

            Thx LB…I’ve followed and tweeted Sally – will let you know what/if she says…

  • Gina Schreck

    My 21 year old daughter got her “first” tattoo – just the words- “Im Second” and then another one that reads “But by the grace of God go I” and while I love the idea and commitment she has to her faith, I asked her if she wanted to look like a text book.  Ahh parenting is so WONDERful–I often WONDER what she is thinking! It is great to see our kids growing and making choices on their own, sometimes with our suggestions and sometimes with our opinions afterwards.  What a great post to start my day! Thanks Bruce

    • Bruce Sallan

      Gina, did you know that that expression, “But by the grace of God go I” was the centerpiece of a really beautiful song:

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  • David Weber

    I never considered getting a tattoo until 1974, when I was in Europe (the classic 1970s drop-out-of-college-and-see-the-world-for-a-year vagabond experience).  In Copenhagen, I saw two tattoo parlors, with colorful storefronts and windows full of flash, down around the harbor, near the “Little Mermaid” statue.  I thought, “What a great souvenir, a tattoo!”  I walked toward one of the parlors, not sure of WHAT the tattoo would be, only that I was going to get one that spoke to me. 

    Then I thought, “It could hurt” and “What would my parents say?” But I never lost my desire to get a tattoo, and always liked seeing unique or aesthetically pleasing tattoos I saw on other people.

    In my late thirties, I met a fellow who, when he turned forty, got a tattoo, a small rose on a pectoral muscle.  I thought, “Cool, I am going to do that when I turn forty in a year or two.”  But again, “It’s going to hurt too much,” although at forty my parents’ reaction did not factor in.

    In about 2008, the lady I was seeing at the time wanted to get a tattoo to tie in with a book she had written and that had made a splash.  I told her, “If you get one, I will get a matching tattoo.”  We collaborated on some design ideas and, for a variety of reasons, decided on the head of Athena, the Greek goddess of war, peace and wisdom.  The tattoo artist who inked us said, “If you break up, come back and I can add a noose around the neck of Athena.”  We replied, ha-ha, how funny that was, since we were never going to break up. 

    Well…we were through as a couple by 2010.  Fortunately, the tattoo of Athena happens to tie into what I do professionally, so it’s not like I am stuck with a tattoo that has no meaning for me.  And it is a good-looking tattoo, B&W line drawing covering roughly 8-10 sq. in. at the top of my left shoulder. I haven’t been motivated to get the noose inscribed around Athena’s neck, though.

    What that Athena tattoo started, though, was a real enjoyment of getting tattoos.  It does hurt a little bit, especially the coloring step, but in a hurts-so-good kind of way.  I read somewhere that the pain of getting inked releases endorphins.

    For me, it is sort of pent-up demand…I call it the double-breasted suit syndrome.  When I was a youngster, I wanted a double-breasted sport coat.  My mother said forget it, for several reasons.  Nonetheless, years later, in the 1980s, whenever I bought a suit, it was d.b.  I must have had a dozen of them.  It was to make up for all those years I went without.  Wanting to get tattoo’d had been simmering for me since 1974.

    In about 2009 I had a view of Mt. Fuji tattooed on my right shoulder.  I downloaded about two dozen Japanese woodblock designs from the Internet and shared them with the tattoo artist.  He attempted to replicate the aesthetic and the imagery.  I lived in Japan for a few years and loved my time there and wanted to have a little bit of Japan with me.  Then, I started another tattoo project: getting a tattoo of the flag of each country I have visited or lived in.  I have eight on my shoulder at present, and about thirty to go (plus however many other countries I visit in the future).  All of these tattoos are NOT visible unless I’m shirtless…and because of sensitivity to the sun, I always wear a top even at the beach or hiking.  So I still look like the mild, buttoned-down college professor I am.

    As a Jew, I was initially concerned about how tattooing is not acceptable.  I wondered why the proscription against tattoos.  I assumed it had to do with a reaction against the tattooing of i.d. numbers on the arms of those put in Holocaust camps.  Some research revealed, though, that virtually all COSMETIC alterations of one’s body are not permitted under Jewish law…the idea is that God gave you the body He did and you must treat it with respect by not adorning it…you know the Bible verse, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”  Bearing a tattoo means I technically can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery…but I was thinking of willing my body to science anyway…I can imagine a medical school student saying to his or her associates, “You should see the great tattoos on my stiff!”

    • Bruce Sallan

      HOLY Cow, David! I had no idea! Now, I want photos of these #tattoos!!!!!

  • Cgrothaus

    Thanks for your post. My son (he’s 20) recently got his first tattoo. It’s large and on his forearm…a quote from Abe Lincoln that means something to him. It was gut-wrenching to support his interest in tattooing himself, but I do. Even though I wished he wouldn’t do it. But your words about character being more important than body art have stuck with me. I’ll think about that every time I see his arm.

    • Bruce Sallan

      Wow @Cgrothaus:disqus – I’m so glad you commented and so glad you think this way (now)…bigger battle to fight for sure!