He grabbed me by the wrist but I didn’t touch him back—he should consider himself lucky. On a normal occasion, uninvited hands on my body would be equated with either a loud roar of curse words or a piercing stare that would make you regret seeing the kind of stranger that I am. But on that particular day, I was walking along the street with a good friend, exchanging life stories. The sun had gone down but it’s still hot. And out of the blue, a grown-ass man with too-rough hands grabbed me.
I stopped and looked at him—not with a piercing stare but more of a ‘What the hell?!’ stare. Yes, those two are different. I saw that he was wearing a traffic enforcer uniform and I swear I thought I’d be arrested for a crime I am clueless about. My mind immediately went to where I was standing, where was I walking, and if there were road signs I paid no attention to. See, I suck at road rules.
“Oh, sorry. It’s your tattoo… Is that real? It’s really nice!” the cop bellowed at me.
Fuck. Some people just know how to scare the shit out of you with their stupidity.
I’ve had so many uninvited hands invade my body, my tattoo, that if I get a dollar for every unwanted touch, I’d probably be a millionaire at this point.
Where I’m from, a small country that is the Philippines, women are still stereotyped to have clean, fair skin, but more and more are getting inked. We see them from time to time sporting the most common tattoo designs for ladies – cherry blossom, butterfly, stars, someone’s name, and the good ol’ dreamcatcher.
I’m a 5-foot, ridiculously thin woman who at 26, still look like 16. And being small with a half-sleeve ink is enough to make people stare. An abstract watercolor design—splashes of rainbow color covering my arm—is enough to make people touch me without permission. Some days, I wish I have a shirt that says “Yes, it’s real. NO, you cannot touch it.” and I’d wear that shirt every time I go out.
I can’t remember the first time it happened, but I know that every time since, it sends chills to my spine. Maybe it was this guy at the pedestrian standing beside me as we wait to cross the street… or I think it was a woman at the grocery counter standing behind me. Maybe she thought it’s okay to feel my ink while waiting for her turn at the conveyor belt. Few weeks ago, a guard was checking my bag as I was entering the mall. Or, he was supposed to be checking my bag but instead, he poked my arm like it was a normal thing people do. It wasn’t until I asked what was going on that he said, “It’s a real tattoo! Amazing!”
While I try not to call it “harassment” because I don’t want to make a big deal about it, fact is, it is a big deal. It is an invasion into my body. Putting your hand on my skin without permission, without my knowledge until it’s already there is an invasion. It makes me feel like some sort of item in the grocery store rack being examined by a potential consumer.
And if we’re being really honest here, I still cannot wrap my head around how people think it is okay to randomly touch someone simply because they were interested and/or curious about her tattoo.
It is moments like these that, no matter how happy and proud I am of my ink, sometimes I just want to hide it. Thus, even on hot weather, which is basically every single day of the year in the Philippines, there are days when I find myself choosing long-sleeved shirts than sleeveless ones.
To this day, three years after I got my half-sleeve ink I’m still not used to random touches. I still stare and growl and curse because these are the only ways I know how to be towards disrespectful people. And I just wish they’d consider thinking first because really, there are ways to show your sincere appreciation without physical contact.
Ask questions. Strike a conversation. Be fucking respectful. These are welcomed things. What isn’t welcomed are strangers’ hands on bodies. While you may not intend to make me, and maybe other women, feel disrespected, unpermitted touching does send that feeling of disrespect. Not to mention harassed. And unfortunately, this is an experience most tattooed women are familiar with. Just because we have tattoos doesn’t mean you have the permission to use us to boost your manhood. Just because we have tattoos doesn’t mean we’re asking for your attention. Our art, is ours.
Yesterday, I was at the mall looking for a new pair of pants. The saleslady clearly wants to say something but she’s trying to hold it. For a good 10 minutes, she managed to hide between clothing racks, doing her job that is making everything if folded and hung perfectly. And then, she couldn’t hold it anymore…
“Hi, I’m sorry but can I just ask, is that real?” she asked with genuine interest.
“Yep. It’s a real tattoo,” I replied.
“Can I touch it?”
“Oh wow. It must’ve been so painful. But it’s beautiful!”
“It sure is. The artist was really good. And no, the pain is only on the first few seconds. You’ll get used to it.”
“My brother has a tattoo too, on his forearm. But it’s not that big.”
And in that moment, I have never been grateful for strangers striking up a conversation. And I couldn’t be more grateful for people who choose to ask permission first, before they put their hands on someone else’s body. She prodded my tattoo quickly and smiled. I got my new pair of pants, smiled back, and walked away.
Related: How Painful Is It to Get a Tattoo?
“Our art, is ours.” 🙌👏 I’ve never understood why people feel so entitled to project meaning and ownership onto other people’s tattoos.
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