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I'm a heavily tattooed woman, but I'm still entitled to my personal space

The author in all of her tattooed glory. (Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Manzella)

“I just wanted a better look!”

It was 5:30 p.m. on a humid July evening, and I’d just wordlessly yanked my heavily tattooed arm from the clammy grip of an utter stranger. His frustrated response rang throughout the crowded car of the Manhattan-bound N train, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment as fellow passengers shuffled awkwardly to avoid the commotion.

In the moment, I couldn’t understand his lunacy: How could this man, someone I’d never met and would likely never meet again, think that it was OK to grab my tattooed arm without asking?

Lucky for me, our train was approaching my stop. I exited quietly and quickly, but not quickly enough: As I turned around, the stranger sighed and called me a “rude bitch.”

I wish I could say this was the only time I’d encountered such blatant disregard for another person’s space. Unfortunately, it was my first uncomfortable tattoo-related encounter of many, and months later, I’m still kicking myself for how poorly and shyly I handled it.

I spent summer 2017 interning in New York City. It was a welcome change of pace from my country lifestyle in New York’s scenic Hudson Valley, but the two-hour commute meant that I spent much of my time walking, riding the train, or busing from place to place in high-traffic public spaces. The hot, humid weather meant I was usually wearing a sleeveless, knee-length dress — and baring all of my 20-plus tattoos. In a city full of outspoken strangers, my inked arms and legs were a sight to behold.

Over the course of my three months in the city, I was verbally harassed, objectified, and chided by countless people I’d never met.

Manzella reflects on encountering harassment as a result of being a heavily tattooed woman. (Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Manzella)

My interactions with presumptuous strangers ran the gamut from friendly conversations (“Your tattoos are beautiful!”) to outright harassment (“Got any more ink under your pretty dress?”)

With such a variety of experiences, I couldn’t help but notice how men antagonized me most frequently — and most unapologetically. Men grabbed me on the subway or approached me on the street with no prompt, let alone consideration for my personal boundaries.

Women who approached me, on the other hand, almost always asked polite questions or offered kind compliments. Save for one intrusive older woman, who aggressively demanded to know what each and every tattoo on my arm “meant,” I was harassed exclusively by men.

It was an issue of male entitlement, I decided. When I wasn’t being sexualized, which was a different misogynistic issue altogether, I was being verbally pestered or physically touched. The men I encountered felt entitled to my time, energy, and personal space, all due to the intricate art I’d commissioned to adorn my body.

It’s easy to argue that my tattoos were a choice I made consciously and with great privilege: After all, collecting tattoos is no cheap hobby. Didn’t I know what I was getting myself into?

Apparently, when I filled out the proverbial sign-up sheet to join the realm of heavily tattooed women, I not only relinquished my undecorated skin; I also signed away my ability to exist unbothered by creepy men in public spaces.

It’s this exact line of shortsighted logic, though, that promotes a culture of victim-blaming.

We’re taught to shift the “fault” from the antagonist (and the sociocultural environment that created them) to the person being antagonized. We learn to spot a side effect without ever pinpointing a root cause. And that’s a problem.

Yes, I chose to be tattooed, but that doesn’t justify the inappropriate and entitled actions of the men I encountered on the streets of New York City. And it definitely doesn’t negate my right to personal boundaries, or a harmonious existence in public, without unwarranted stares, comments, or touches from strangers.

This one’s for the women who own and cherish the skin they’re in. I’m right there with you — and I’ll sure as hell speak up the next time I’m touched without my consent, even if my antagonist “just wanted a better look” at my ink.

“This one’s for the women who own and cherish the skin they’re in,” writes Manzella. (Photo: Courtesy of Samantha Manzella)

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