Tattooed teens: Getting inkwork despite red tape


Patrice Graham

SLEEVE SECTION. Despite being 17 at the time, senior Michael Pan was able to legally get a sleeve tattoo at a parlor in Indiana with parental consent. He chose to get flowers on his arm in tribute to his uncle in China.

Sahana Unni, Features Editor

When one of Ava’s friends asked if she wanted to get a tattoo, Ava agreed. She said the friend had been practicing for a few months, and Ava wasn’t thinking about the permanence of the ink. 

That day, setting up lawn chairs in the living room, three of Ava’s friends wielded a tattoo gun Ava presumed was bought off the internet. Then they took turns tattooing an “exquisite creature” on her ankle. While she said she only felt a tickle at first, the needle pricks quickly became extremely painful, making Ava bite her lip to stop herself from making noise. 

Many people get tattoos for self-expression, for sentimental value or simply for fun, but students under 18 have to be creative if they want to be tattooed. Some teenagers are now turning to permanent options by using real tattoo guns or giving using a needle dipped in ink to give themselves stick-and-pokes.

“This was like a total impulse decision,” Ava said, “but I trusted them. I still do trust them, and I really like it.”

Illinois law states that a person must be 18 or above to receive a tattoo at a tattoo parlor. However, some students have found workarounds — like going to Indiana parlors, where a minor can get tattooed as long as a consenting parent is present, which is what senior Michael Pan opted for when he got flowers tattooed onto his bicep.

“My uncle in China, he had this flower bed that he really liked and it eventually got destroyed,” Michael said. “It was more a representation of my uncle than the flowers themselves.”

While Ava’s tattoo experience was very painful, Michael did not have the same experience in a tattoo parlor, where he received numbing beforehand, although it wore off during the six-hour tattoo process.

“I think if it’s very brief, then it doesn’t really hurt,” Michael said, “but it’s like if someone pokes you with a needle, eventually your skin kind of hardens up.”

Professional tattooers typically communicate specific aftercare instructions to avoid infection and possible damage to the tattoo. However, without access to special bandages and disinfectants, Ava said she somewhat improvised the aftercare process, washing the tattoo with antibacterial soap and regularly applying moisturizer.

“It definitely took a while. I didn’t exactly know what to do,” Ava said. “Like, we didn’t wrap it or anything, but I was wearing shorts at the time, so I didn’t have to. I was just, like, extra careful.”

These tattoos won’t be the last for Michael or Ava. Michael is scheduled to get a tattoo of a phoenix on July 18, and Ava plans to get another tattoo from her friends in a few weeks.

“Some people pointed it out, and some people’s comments were not as great,” Ava said, “but that’s OK. I 100% don’t regret it. I’m very happy to have it on me for the rest of my life.”