“When Should I Tell My Family I’m Getting a Tattoo?”

My husband and I are graduating from medical school this spring (hallelujah!). To celebrate, I am finally getting the tattoo that I have wanted for many years. It is a large back piece, and it will be my first and probably only tattoo. I am very excited, and my husband is extremely supportive. Notably, the tattoo will be completed before our graduation in May. My father and my in-laws both detest tattoos. Passionately. They feel that tattoos reflect poorly on the characters of those who have them (couldn’t disagree more, but that’s their opinion). Because graduation is a festive weekend where women will be wearing their loveliest summer dresses, I will have to actively work to hide my new tattoo. I definitely don’t want to have the “unveiling” of my tattoo to our families be at graduation weekend, because that would create drama that would detract from a special time.

However, our families will eventually see the tattoo, at one holiday or another. Hiding it for multiple decades just seems silly, as well as very out of character for me. I think the longer I hide it from them, the more incensed they will be when they finally learn about it. So, I am thinking of mentioning it casually in conversation when I speak to them next and letting their unpleasant reactions happen over the phone. Hopefully then, they will have it out of their systems by graduation. But perhaps that will just cause more drama? I honestly have no clue how to proceed. I would very much appreciate your thoughts! — Getting Inked

Admittedly, I don’t really understand the big deal — about tattoos or about someone’s reaction to said tattoos. What does creating “drama” over your adult daughter’s tattoo even look like? Are you anticipating a few sighs and eye-rolls and words of disapproval, or do you anticipate being disowned and uninvited to future family get-togethers? Honestly, if you think your family’s reaction is really going to be so terrible that it’s going to ruin your graduation weekend, you could wear a cardigan over your loveliest summer dresses when you’re around your parents, or just wait until after they leave to get the tattoo.

If neither of those options appeal to you and you want to minimize whatever drama you think is going to happen when your tattoo is unveiled, then mention it over the phone or email a few days before your May graduation: “Oh, by the way, to mark this milestone of earning my MD, I got a tattoo on my back. I know you disapprove of tattoos, but it felt meaningful to me to get one to mark this occasion and I wanted to let you know now so you aren’t in shock if you happen to see it over the weekend. Can’t wait to see you guys! Bye!” And then suck it up and deal with whatever fall-out there might be. You’re a big girl — you can handle it.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.


  1. Thank you for the advice, Wendy. You are right. My side of the family in particular can be a little crazy, but I can handle it.

  2. I’m with Wendy. What, exactly do you expect your father and in-laws to do to a grown woman – who just graduated medical school, no less – making the personal decision to get a tattoo? I’m assuming that they are not supporting you or your husband financially at this point and you obviously don’t live with them. I suspect they may express some dismay and then deal with it.

    At any rate, this sort of stuff is what social media is for, assuming one or all of these family members are on it. When your tattoo is finished, post a pic on Facebook or whatever and say that you’re celebrating graduation and let the congrats come in! And then, don’t mention it to them and wear what you want to wear at graduation. You’re going to have the artwork of your choosing on your back forever. As long as it makes you happy, what does it matter what anyone else thinks?

    1. LW here. You are absolutely right, Miss MJ. I grew up always having to hide things from my dad because of his extreme reactions. (Example: if he had found out I had sex before marriage he would have disowned me and kicked me out of the house.) But I am completely independent from my parents now, so I just need to suck it up and ignore his outbursts.

      1. I get it though. My mother still had some pretty intense, painful to partake in, emotional reactions to things until, well, still, but she’s mellowed a bit now that her kids are in their 30s and 40s. And you become an expert in managing situations to minimize such things.

  3. bittergaymark says:

    Truthfully, I fucking LOATHE tattoos. So much so that I think they are ALMOST as classy as serving warm Boone’s Strawberry Hill… at a wedding…in dirty, stained styrofoam cups…
    But hey, it’s your back. Still, if you aren’t mature enough to simply handle people’s reactions to a tattoo without worrying about it — are you really mature enough to get one? Also — hello, as they are increasingly so obnoxious and so garish and so massive, like say, covering one’s ENTIRE back… it strikes me (and many who DON’T particularly favor tattoos) that the ONLY logical reason most people even bother to get a inked is for said tattoos to be noticed and commented on… Enjoy the notoriety, I guess. But honestly, whenever I see a guy that is all tatted up, I just find it so very sadly distracting… And so decidedly… NOT hot. They clash with damn near everything you wear, it seems… Funny, suddenly everybody is covering themselves with ink in some hilarious bid to express their INDIVIDUALITY when REALLY in the end they wind up just looking like EVERYBODY else… Talk about sheep following the herd.
    Whoever invents a truly effective method for tattoo removal will be set for life. Bittergaymark, my words. End of rant.

    1. They don’t clash with band/concert t-shirts 😉 I love tattoos and have a large number of them but as I work in a professional environment, they’re all where they can be covered.

    2. RedroverRedrover says:

      I”m not a tattoo fan either. I’ve never seen one that I’ve found attractive. And the clashing, yes! I’m someone who, while I love my sapphire engagement ring, is always a little bit bothered when I’m wearing a colour palette that doesn’t go with sapphire. 🙂 That’s how much I need everything to match. No way could I stand a tattoo. Unless it was neutral, I guess, but as you say the trend seems to be going in the direction of even bigger and more colourful.
      Anyway, that being said, it really doesn’t matter what my opinion is if that’s what someone’s into. You just ignore the people who don’t like what you like. If my son got a tattoo, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but it’s his skin so what am I gonna say?

    3. tbrucemom says:

      I completely agree with everything you said, BGM. I can’t stand tattoos. Seriously, has anyone ever looked at someone and said “They’d look so much hotter if they only had a tattoo”. Don’t see how it’s supposed to be about individuality when EVERYONE has one! A woman I know just got diagnoised with Hep C from her tattoos. Having said ALL THAT, you’re a grown woman and if you really want one, get one. It’ll be covered up while you’re practicing medicine. My son has 7 tattoos, one of which covers his whole back. I detest them, but I love him more than anything. I told him I wouldn’t bitch too much if he promised to never ride a motorcycle and so far he’s kept his end of the bargain!

      1. Actually, I’ve looked at lots of people and said just that.

      2. Dude, my hairdresser was totally inked and he was totally hot. Umm, yes please! I mean, if he wasn’t gay of course.

      3. Anything can happen!

    4. I agree with BGM, you don’t put a bumper sticker on a Ferrari

      1. Heh. Just read that as advice that Kim Kardashian gave one of her lil sisters about tattoos.

    5. Wendys Dad says:

      Wendy’s mom and I were driving up one of our local thoroughfares when she spied a tattoo removal salon. It’s name? “On Second Thought”. I thought that was pretty clever.

    6. Avatar photo Addie Pray says:

      I fucking LOATHE tattoos, too. In full disclosure.

  4. I agree with Wendy, but wanted to add that I wouldn’t tell your family until after it’s done. That way it can’t be seen as asking permission and they won’t feel like they can talk you out of it.

    1. Yeah, I’d agree with that more than anything.
      On a different note, I made the mistake once of telling my dad (a doctor) I was thinking of getting a piercing and he went on to tell me about all the disfiguring infections I could get, depending on location. The tldr version is don’t get a lip piercing our anything on your jaw.

      1. This is exactly why the only things I have pierced are my ear lobes.

      2. My mom freaked out when I told her (after the fact) that I had gotten my ears pierced. But, she took my brother’s tattoos in stride.

      3. I had a friend pierce my tongue at a party when I was 15 (I was young, dumb and alcohol may have been a factor) and the hole got infected and the bar fell through and I nearly choked on it. Now I have nothing pierced but my ears.

      4. On a side note, have you guys seen the new trends of fake nose rings and fake upper ear clips/cuffs? I’m sure it’s not the first time for the trend, but it seems to be popular now as they are selling both on F21, and there are thousands of options for pierceless ear cuffs on etsy. I really want to get some ear cuffs, but I’m not sure about the fake septum (inner nostrils) rings.

      5. RedroverRedrover says:

        I don’t know. My grandmother used to wear clip-on earrings, and holy hell, they hurt! I can’t imagine that on my nose! Also, as someone who blows their nose constantly, I wouldn’t be able to stand it, it would always get in my way. Well, so would a real nose ring. The ear cuffs, maybe, depending on how much they hurt. I would think they wouldn’t need to be as “grabby”, since the cartilege there forms a ridge that would help hold them in place without so much pressure.

      6. These were big when I was in middle school. I had a few ear cuffs and the nicer ones weren’t bad but the cheap ones would pinch. The idea is basically the same as a cuff bracelet, just a bit tighter, so some of it probably depends on ear shape too.

  5. Btw, it won’t be your last tattoo. I don’t know *anyone* with just one. I guess it happens, people get one and get it out of their system. All the tattooed people I know, though, get one then just keep getting them. So you are going to have to acclimate your family to them at some point.
    My mom thought tattoos were icky until I started getting them. We don’t really have the same aesthetic, but she must’ve liked something because now she has three. ^_^

    1. Oh! I have just one! Got it, love it, stopped. I think because I knew what I wanted for the first one for years, but never had anything that I felt that strongly about again.

    2. I have just one. It was, gosh, 13 years ago. And, when I got said tattoo, I made sure the artist placed it just below my bikini line on my right butt check. Unfortunately, swimsuits, have gotten smaller, but meh, I don’t really care what others think anymore.
      So no, I didn’t get one to get noticed. I got one because I wanted it. It really was just for me, regardless if people say otherwise.

  6. lonemirage14 says:

    My only tattoo I planned for many years and I casually began mentioning that I wanted one around the age of 16. my dad basically told me that if I got one, he would not pay my college tuition. I know my dad is going to get hate, but he’s old school and that’s his feelings on it, so I respected that and waited until I had graduated college and was financially stable before getting it.

    Interestingly enough, my mom who hates my ear piercings doesn’t mind the tattoo and my dad who thinks the tattoo “is a good design” but hates that I have it likes my ear piercings.

    I think you definitely need to let your family know beforehand, because you don’t want to shock them by revealing it out of nowhere at graduation.

  7. I would wait until after you get it and just let them discover it on their own. My parents always hated tattoos, but now my brother has a sleeve. Our family is conservative, but no one comments on them because he’s 28 and it’s his body. I have a bunch of piercings (which my parents also hate), but they don’t know they exist since they are covered up. Unless my parents see me in a swimsuit, they don’t see anything except my ears. Honestly, if it’s family you don’t see very often I would just cover it up to avoid the grief.

  8. I would probably try to hide the tattoo forever, but maybe that’s just me. I once hid a relationship from most people I know (including my family) for 2 years. I’m 25 and if I told my parents I got a big back tattoo they wouldn’t disown me or do anything crazy, but they would incessantly tell me how stupid it was and try to get me to remove it every time I talked to them for years, which would be too much of a PIA for me to want to deal with.

  9. I say get the tattoo and either tell them ahead of time or don’t. But I wouldn’t change my behavior just to please them (ie: covering it up). If you’re worried that the first time they’ll see it will be over graduation, then give them a heads up. And let them know its not up for discussion. I would tell them after I got it though, otherwise they may think they can talk you out of it.
    As someone who has many tattoos (and loves them and is damn proud of them), I can’t understand the anti-tattoo people. I understand if its not your thing, but actually being ANTI them is crazy to me. I got my first when I was 18. And honestly, I’d have a shit ton more if I could afford them. I go to one place that I know is clean and has a great health record and who has awesome nationally-recognized artists who listen to me. I take good care of them after I get them (and get a ton of compliments from my artists about the care) and watch for signs of infection or anything else like that (and as far as I know I’ve never gotten Hep C). I see them as an extension of myself.
    So, if this tattoo is something you want, get it, own it and be proud of it.

    1. RedroverRedrover says:

      Yeah, being anti-tattoo is weird. I’m not a fan, but to each their own. Although did you know that in Japan there’s a huge anti-tattoo stigma, because they’re worn mainly be members of the Yakuza? I thought that was interesting. You can get kicked out of shopping malls and restaurants and stuff for having them. It’s like a no shoes, no shirt, no service thing, but with tattoos.

      1. I have heard of that. I actually find the cultural biases (or the opposite of that in other cases) of tattoos to be incredibly interesting. I have a few books on the culture/psychology/sociology/philosophy of tattoos.

  10. Both of my adult children have several tattoos – including 1 sleeve each. I won’t lie – every time I look at them I wonder if they will regret doing that to themselves. And, I have 3 small tats myself.

    1. bittergaymark says:

      Yeah, it’s the sleeves I can’t stand — it’s all just too much. (of a bad thing!) 😉

  11. I love tattoos. I don’t think most people get them to look hotter. I have tattoos that mean something to me. I never got any for more or less attention or because it’s cool or not cool. Mine are a mix of visibility with normal clothes.
    I don’t like people coming up and touching them and starting a conversation about them. It is not okay to touch strangers. I also flat out tell some people it’s personal if they ask what it means or why or whatever.
    I will say this about SLC, you can tell who is Mormon vs. not – real quick with tattoos.

    1. RedroverRedrover says:

      But then why do you get them? I think that people who don’t understand tattoos (like me) try to ascribe some kind of reasoning to it. Is it just an urge that you have? If it’s not something that you’re trying to show, why get it? Like I mean, if you don’t want the world to see it, why put it out in the world? If you don’t want to have a conversation about it, why have it? Like if I got an unusual, unsubtle piece of jewelry to commemorate or remember something, and someone commented on it or asked if it had meaning, I wouldn’t think that was out of line. If I didn’t want to talk about it, I wouldn’t wear it. You see what I mean? Totally agree with the touching though, that’s messed up. That’s not ok.
      I hope I didn’t word this badly, I’m not trying to accuse tattoo-ers of being show-offs or anything. I just don’t get it, and I’d like to understand a bit better.

      1. So, my husband feels very much like you do: since I’m going to have the tattoo covered up most of the time, why get it at all? The (not great) example that I think of is lingerie. When I was single I would often wear sexy lingerie even though I had no expectations of anyone seeing my knickers on that day. I just enjoyed wearing the lingerie and got a bit of a confidence boost from it. Obviously a tattoo is much more personal and permanent, but I think for me it is similar. I’ll enjoy having the tattoo, even when no one can see it.

  12. HollyMarie says:

    Nicki and booknerd, totally agree. I love my tattoos and they are very meaningful to me – I thought about both of them for over a year each before I got either one and they both symbolize important aspects of my life. I’d get more if I could afford them (I have two planned out right now) but dog walking is not raking in the big bucks at this moment 😉
    My mom is one of those people who is anti them and I hid my first one from her for almost three years until she saw it. She knows about them and has seen them but they are both in places that are covered by clothing so most people cannot see them unless I’m in a bathing suit. My brother in law has a ton of them (legs, chest, and is getting a full sleeve right now) and she knows but he’s always covered them up for the most part around my mom since he knows how she feels about them. She’s not mean about them, she just doesn’t get it and she’ll always say things like why would you want to mark your skin like that? And what about when you’re older? I think for her it’s a generational thing because she always says that when she was growing up, the only people who had them were sailors.
    LW, I wish you luck on whichever way you decide to go with this. Just remember that you are incredible enough to have made it through med school and getting a tattoo is not going to suddenly make you a person lacking in character, no matter what any relatives may say. Who knows, maybe you can even be the one to help bring your relatives around on tattoos – they already know you and how awesome you are, so maybe they will realize that not everyone with tattoos is a reprobate if you have one! Okay, probably not, but still. And hey, congratulations on being almost done with med school!

  13. I mean, you can see them if I’m wearing a tank top. I have one that’s visible if you are close to me. If someone is interested in them, and not touching me, or otherwise being weird, I talk about them
    For me, I went through a lot of traumatic personal events. It felt cathartic to have beautiful artwork to look at and know that I’ve overcome those things. So the ones I have, remind me of how strong I am. I want more.

  14. They are incredibly personal beautiful pieces of permanent jewelry that I will never take off. Sometimes I feel like sharing the stories, other times, nope.

  15. In the LW’s defense, not all parents treat their adult kids as actual adults (as everyone here seems to think the case is) and if the way parents respond to certain things is extreme enough, this can be enough to make even an adult be horrified of doing anything which the parents won’t “approve of”. You are all criticizing the LW for being immature because “she is an independent adult”, but certain types of parents don’t agree with this at all… And very often it does not just come down to raising eyebrows and unhappy looks. I TOTALLY understand the LW not wanting to go through the drama the tattoo would be bring. I don’t think it’s fair minimizing and almost mocking the upcoming “drama” she mentions if you don’t really know the potential consequences which might occur. Sometimes they can be a lot more toxic/damaging and even traumatizing than you might envision – I don’t think maturity has anything to do with this.

    Having said this, sadly sometimes you DO need to suck it up and go through the drama, particularly something which you can’t really hide such as a tattoo. Hopefully the more you do things they don’t like (and lets face it, the more you start living your own life, the higher the chance they won’t agree with some life choices you make) the more they will realise you are your own person and it will become easier for them to accept your life choices in the future, even if they don’t agree with them, and will stop giving you a hard time.
    You know your parents best and know how to deal with their extreme reactions. I really am sorry you need to go through their extreme behaviour in response to something as personal as a tattoo, I’d say just get it over with sooner rather than later. Mention it in an email or phone call when the tattoo is done, they will be very unhappy but hopefully will get over it. There’s no other way around it really… Good luck, fingers crossed!

  16. Slightly off topic: Have any of you girls (booknerd, HollyMarie, etc) who have tattoos watched the film “Tattoo: A love story” ? I found it quite inspirational and meaningful. 🙂
    I might have a small tattoo one day but I want it to really mean something. I feel I am too young and haven’t been through anything as significant to actually leave such a mark on me for the rest of my life. I don’t really like the massive tattoos but I entirely respect and acknowledge people’s choices regarding… most things really. I mean I don’t judge people based on the lack of/presence or size of a tattoo, piercing or whatever.

    1. HollyMarie says:

      Eve, I haven’t seen it but apparently it’s on Amazon Prime so I know what I’m doing tonight! 🙂
      On another note, I hope it did not sound like I was minimizing the LW’s concerns. I know what it’s like to be a grown woman and still be concerned about how certain family members will react to certain things so I totally get it. My grandmother was very conservative and very religious and you can bet she didn’t know about my tattoos because that would have been some major drama and most of the rest of my family would have been pissed at me for getting her upset. Only the LW knows how her family members will react based on previous situations and I hope she can figure out the best solution for her own peace of mind.

      1. I wasn’t referring to your responses, don’t worry! 🙂

        Did you like the movie? What did you think of it?

  17. True story: My mother got a tattoo when she turned forty. Her husband of 20+ years didn’t talk to her for a week! That makes him sound bad but he’s a big softy except for being really anti-tattoo, he did get over it eventually.

    1. Haha, my first boyfriend told me he’d dump me if I ever got a tattoo. He is now engaged to a girl with a large tattoo on her back. So ironic. People change I guess. 🙂

  18. Avatar photo veritek33 says:

    I managed to keep my first tattoo a secret for four years before my mom called my bluff on thanksgiving and I showed it to them. The second one was 8 years after the first and I just flat out told them
    Do they like them? No. Do they still love me? Yes. Are they glad I went to a reputable shop and had it done in a clean and safe environment? Definitely.

    You do you. Congrats on the MD

  19. So my sister too decided to get a tattoo after she graduated from medical school. For some reason, I knew about it and my parents did not. Mexican American parents from a small town…yeah they weren’t usually down with stuff like that. My sister also got it on her back and was trying to hide it from them. Me being the little shit sister i would go up behind her and smack her on her healing tattoo. They eventually found out, my Dad admitted he always wanted one, and we moved on. She got the Chinese symbol for physician on her back, so nineties!

  20. Congrats on your graduation from med school, that’s awesome!!

  21. inkyboots says:

    I got my first tattoo on my back shortly before graduating from college. My parents are very conservative but generally accepting people. When I finally told my parents about the tattoo (a few months after I got it), my father didn’t speak to me for a week. Since I was living with them at the time (long story about an abusive roommate), it was pretty awful.

    Three years later, though my dad still occasionally teases me, things are a-okay and I’m even married to a man who has sleeves on both arms. And my family, even the judgmental extended family, absolutely adores him.

    Obviously I have no idea what your family dynamic is like, but I have to assume that if they love you for you, their initial reactions may not be great, but eventually they’ll get over it and life will go on.

  22. wobster109 says:

    Wendy, your family doesn’t do that sort of thing does it? The drama and fallout? Here’s what adult daughter drama looks like. It’s your mother telling you what a bad idea it is (was?), and offering to pay for the removal, and linking you ridiculous articles several times a week. It’s trying to close the discussion like a reasonably person, “Thanks for your concern, but I’m happy with my decision”, only to get “whyareyouclosedminded” (all in a rush as mother talks over you). You see, there’s a part of you that always feels cruel hanging up on your own mother, but now you must learn to be cruel three times a week. It’s visiting home only to listen, captive, as your parents loudly talk about why you’ll never succeed. It’s your father handing you a shirt with a disgusted look on his face, telling you to cover up. It’s 300 confrontations a year. Plink, plink, plink, a constant stream of pebbles against your psyche. Some people just don’t let things go.

  23. wobster109 says:

    Wendy, your family doesn’t do that adult daughter drama stuff, right? Here’s what it looks like. It’s your mother several times a week calling to say how unhappy she is, sending you emails, linking you articles, and pleadingly offering to pay for the removal. You try to end the conversation like a reasonable person, “Thank you for your concern; I’m happy with my decision” only to get “whyareyousoclosedminded” (all one word as she rushes to talk over you). You always feel cruel hanging up on your mother, but now you must learn to be cruel three times a week. It’s visiting home to listen, a captive audience, as your parents tell your sister why you’ll never succeed. It’s your father’s disgusted face as he hands you a shirt, telling you to cover up. It’s 300 confrontations a year. Plink, plink, plink – a constant stream of pebbles upon your psyche. Some people just don’t let things go.

    1. wobster109 says:

      Whoops! Sorry for the double-post. It didn’t come out the first time. Can I delete posts?

    2. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

      Oh, my mom would probably flip out if I got a tattoo. But I’ve been so independent for so long, I just can’t imagine much drama ensuing — nothing at all like what you describe. Maybe when I was younger and hadn’t yet proven myself as the, like, totally mature and responsible adult I am now, there would have been more to-do over something like my getting a tattoo. But now? Yeah, I can’t imagine a big deal being made about it, and if there was, I’d shut that shit down pretty quickly (sorry, Mom, if you’re reading this, but you know that’s true).

      1. I think that with some parents, they just won’t be shut down though. Like, at her peak, you couldn’t respond in any way to my mom that would calm her down – being rational, screaming back, ignoring her, it didn’t matter, she just turned up the hysterics. And short of just not being in touch at all, which wasn’t what I wanted, it was just easier to avoid making waves, ya know? Some people don’t have respectful boundaries.

  24. I got my first tattoo when I was 19. I called my mom after and told her I’d done it. She started to cry and said “I thought I’d been a better mother than that…” and then she hung up on me. I actually think it’s kind of funny all these years later.

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