Over the last couple of years, I’ve started to see tattoos becoming more accepted and popular. I grew up being told that tattoos were a sign of disobedience and naughtiness—two particularly bad traits for Asian girls and boys. I remember my parents telling me not to get tattoos because I’d have the same image as a certain family member (we all have one of *those*). I remember seeing the inked scorpion and tiger on their body and thinking, “I'll never be like that."
Personally, as a young Asian woman, I feel pressured to be perceived in a certain way. I’ve always been told that if I got tattoos, I’d lose others’ respect, whether it be from my grandma or my professors. Maybe this is because of how we’ve been taught to behave and look: submissive, docile, and weak. But do tattoos really give you the opposite effect? And are they still highly unaccepted? Here are answers and stories from teens with tattoos living in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“I feel like tattoos are more accepted in Bali, where I’m from. I don’t worry about how others perceive my tattoos.”
The 20-year-old business major shared the stories behind his three tattoos with me, although our conversation covered much more. When asked whether any of his family or friends are against him having tattoos, he explained, “No Balinese give me crap about it. It’s very accepted in my culture because it’s considered art. Not a lot of Balinese are skeptical about it. Although I still worry about those who aren’t so accepting of my tattoos, I know I just have to be ready to face others who are judgmental.” He has plans for his next tattoo: the words "we all die trying to get it right." It’s a line from a song by Vance Joy.
I can see a glimpse of his tattoos on his right arm. “My four tattoos are located very close to one another. I want to do a full sleeve one day. I just got the biggest one in June and now short sleeves can’t cover them.” He proudly rolls up his right sleeve to show me his first tattoo he got, when he’d just entered university. “The rose and cards represent my relationship with my father. The numbers on the cards are his birthdate. We’re very close and I wanted my first tattoo to honor him.”
I asked Wilsen if anyone’s ever treated or viewed him differently because of his tattoos. He shared, “The seat next to me was empty and this high school girl was eyeing it. She glanced at me and kept standing up, though. She was too scared to sit next to me because she saw my tattoos. An older lady sitting across from me told her to sit because I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. The fact that someone was so scared of me because of my tattoos really shocked me. I think one of the reasons I got tattoos is to challenge people’s perceptions. Having tattoos doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Born into an interracial family (she is Australian-Indonesian), Jelita was dealt two very different families. “My mother’s family is still very conservative Moslem, so I cover up when it’s Eid Adha because I don’t want to face all the criticism. My dad, on the other hand, is very liberal. So are my brothers. They haven’t said anything about my tattoos.”
Jelita (pronounced juh-lee-ta), means "beautiful" in Indonesian. She's as vibrant and radiant as her name. The 20-year-old patiently went through every single story behind her tattoos with me. Speaking of one with a deeper meaning, she pointed to a design behind her left calf.
“One of my best friends was in the mosque where the Christchurch shooting happened. One day, I opened the news to see what had happened and just kept thinking, ‘I know he must have been inside this particular mosque.’ I couldn’t contact him, so for a good moment I thought he was dead. Turns out he was alive, but the whole tragedy left him understandably traumatized. ‘Lonely rivers sigh’ is a lyric from our song. I got this one done for him.”
Joshua and Mabel met in uni. They share a love for fashion and were instantly joined at the hip. Both of them got their first tattoos done in 2019. “The tattoo that I have doesn’t really have a specific meaning to it. The main reason is its aesthetic,” expressed Joshua. But Mabel’s tattoo has a deeper meaning.
“My tattoo represents my family members; my mom, two sisters, and brother. It’s the first tat of a collective because I want to get one for my grandma, grandpa, and dad. The flower I picked is from my garden, which is a really big part of my childhood—something I definitely don't want to forget.”
I spoke to both of them about Indonesians’ negative perception of tattoos. “They’re a form of art, just like dancing and drawing. I think everyone is entitled to their own body, so think twice before you judge someone.” Building on Joshua’s argument, Mabel remarked, “Your body belongs to you, and it’s fine what you choose to do with it."
Similar to Joshua and Mabel, Natashia and Jeslyne are best friends. “Our bond started in preschool. I go everywhere she goes,” according to Natashia. She's a tattoo artist located in Tangerang, in the province of Banten. She shared with me the struggles of gaining her customers' respect, specifically being a tattoo artist in a country that still holds a negative stigma around the art. “People in Indo don’t treat tattoo artists that well. If I meet a disrespectful customer, it affects my mood while tattooing them. Sometimes, they’re even disrespectful. They make fun and tease you. The difficulty of the job is in the energy of the person, not the tattooing itself.”
Natashia has four tattoos, while her best friend, Jes, has five. Jes shares, “Don’t underestimate tattoos or take them for granted. You only see the surface, it's visual. But it will stick with you for a long time. Right now, tattoos are a trend. But it’s deeper, it’s art. Why would you put up with all that pain in that long period of time to get the tattoo done, if it doesn’t mean something to you?”