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Piercings, Tats, and Teens: Notes from the Field

“Mom, I’ve got a surprise for you! “

When your kids are little, those words can warm your heart. By teenage years, that same phrase can freeze your blood, as your seemingly innocent son finally reveals his tongue piercing while your sweet collegiate daughter shows off her tatted hip.Sound impossible? Modern youth culture embraces body art like you loved baggy jeans, chokers and the word “phat.” It’s not new that teens are drawn to self expression in the form of tattoos and piercings — but what’s actually happening may be news to you. Looking for ways to help you through the strange and perilous landscape of modern body art? Knowledge is your navigation system.

In most states it’s illegal for minors to get tattoos: informed parental consent and physical presence of the guardian is required. Other states have no such decree (hello, Alaska). In nearly half the country, we have no piercing laws at all. Find out what’s okay where you live and beware the shop that illegally encourages minors: if they’re breaking that law, chances are they’re skirting other regulations, too.

Swelling, bleeding, bruising and oozing are all considered NORMAL after any piercing. Some piercings leave no scars; others are permanent — especially in the likely chance of infection. Piercing is an unregulated industry. People getting tattoos run the same risks as anyone sharing needles: hepatitis B and C virus can live on a surface for ten days. Even tuberculosis can be transmitted. Tattoos are expensive, time-consuming and painful to apply and to remove. Some parlors are cleaner than a doctor’s office; others look like a post-rave hazmat dump.

Educate yourself about different kinds of tattoos and piercing and share what you learn with the kids. Do the girls know a belly-button pierce can take a year to heal? Do boys realize oral pierces (lip, cheek, tongue) can cause uncontrollable bleeding and nerve damage? One or two tiny holes in the lobe of an ear can be fun at the right age; pierce the upper ear cartilage and you’re in a world of hurt.

Blow your kid’s mind during dinner by dropping this handy nugget: “Please pass the butter. So, as far as piercings go, which do you think is cooler, the Medusa or the Labret?” Body art culture comes with it’s own language — research what parts get pierced and what each is termed. “Medusa” is a single stud in the dip of the upper lip, and “Labret” is one in the lower lip. Be warned: you may learn things you’ll want to un-know.

Teenagers are like big, hungry toddlers. They’re frontally-lobe challenged mini-scientists who want to experiment and you’re their semi-sane leader. Do some research, let your kids in on the pros and cons surrounding body art (you know the cons, they’ll tell you the pros), keep feeding them and relax a little. Ask about their thoughts on peer pressure and different ways to express themselves as they grow and change.

If your curious spawn is interested in body art, do not remain in denial. Instead, consider finding a reputable establishment with licensed technicians and tour the site together. It’s better to know your adversary than to pretend one does not exist. Liberal use of the term “wound care” may turn your teen away from the idea, altogether.

Keep your mind open and the teen conversation going. Set limits, trust your off-spring and give them room to make an informed choice at the age of consent. Don’t be afraid to peer into the future — you may be pleasantly surprised by what you see.

Written by Kellie Flanagan and originally published on

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Sierra News Online

Sierra News Online