L O V E & H A T E

How I love hand tattoos.

How I love hand tattoos.

If I could have one tattoo – just one, that’s what it would be. On the hand.

There are tons of different options. The classic swallows or other symbols on the web between thumb and forefinger. Pictures on the hands. Words along the outside edge, which are a military tradition so you could send a message while you salute.

There are a lot of bad ideas for hand tattoos of course. And I really don’t like the wedding ring tattoo idea. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t speak to me.

There are reasons not to tattoo the hands. First, because of the mobility of that skin, the tattoos break down and fade quickly. The skin moves, it’s exposed to the sun. It’s not a great place for color tattoos or small delicate detailed tattoos.

But more — it’s a commitment. It’s a huge commitment. People with no tattoos don’t know; people with tattoos in hide-able places don’t know. Once tattoos move from places you can hind in normal clothes, it all changes. And it’s not where you think, this line. It’s not the elbows when you’re in short sleeves. It’s not the wrist when you’re in long sleeves. It’s somewhere on the upper half of the biceps or six inches up from the wrists. Because as you move, things show.

And here’s the thing. Once people notice extensive, elaborate tattoos, they treat you different. Not always bad different, in a lot of places you get more respect or recognition for being heavily tattooed. But it’s going to change people’s opinion of you. Forever.


It was a huge thing to me when people started talking to my tattoos instead of my face. It showed me what women go through when men talk to their chests. It’s odd and annoying in some ways, yet understandable.

But there are two places on the body you just can’t hide. The hands, and the face.

I like it. I like the commitment. I like things that are truly, decisively permenant. It’s part of what I like about tattoos; it’s a lot of why I like tattoos actually. It’s why I want to commemorate things with tattoos. Events. Important people. Lovers, mates, children. Deaths. Events; anniversaries, graduations, marriages.

I want to put these things, these people directly into my skin. I want to make them permanent, and in effect, make them part of me.

I envy cultures like the Maori of New Zealand who have a cultural justification for tattooing the face. There are few things in tattooing more beautiful, more dramatic, more striking than the Maori Moko. I’d wear such a thing given a cultural context, but for all I choose to be different in many ways, there’s a line that sets one too far apart that I’ve chosen not to cross. Temporary modifications, sure. I’ve had facial piercing, I still have many ear piercings. But the facial tattoos are simply too far outside the cultural norm and leave one no choice but to be out on the other side, the fringe, all the time. I’ll be on the fringe, but I prefer to choose when and how people know that.

Hand tattoos are the step before the face. I guess neck tattoos are also in this same territory but I generally just don’t like neck tattoos that much (or more accurately I am indifferent to them, liking those which are particularly interesting or flattering, bit as a category I can take or leave).

But the hand tattoo; for some reason, it’s what speaks to me.

Words on the knuckles. That’s really the one. All those traditions; “L O V E”/”H A T E” are the best known. We’ve seen it in prison films, biker films, in Cape Fear, on Eddie in Rocky Horror. We even saw a play on it in The Simpsons, “Luv”/”Hat” (three fingers you know, cartoon characters). I even have motorcycle gloves that have Love and Hate on the fingers.

There are a few others that are known, but it’s “H O L D”/”F A S T” that speaks to me.

There are several reasons. It’s an old sailor’s tradition; it meant both to hang on tight (which was life and death on an old ship, in a storm), but meant to be strong, be brave. It also had a faith connotation, hold to our faith in the face of fear and temptation. That doesn’t speak to me specifically but I can relate. This is me; strength, stubbornness, resistance to the storms and the attacks. Hang on, batten down, stand strong. Hold Fast. Bikers took that one up for the same reason; hang on tight. Keep the machine under you, and the rubber side down. Keep it under control. Hold Fast. Clan MacLeod makes this thier clan motto. Were I a MacLeod I’d have yet another reason to wear this tattoo.

Then there’s also the line that if you lace your fingers just so, it say “Old and Fat”, which is at least a good joke.

I’ve seen all sorts of variants. Some make sense, some don’t. Some spread a word across both hands, or try to work in the thumbs, or put a symbol on one finger to work in a wrong word count. They work or don’t, depending. Dave Navarro of the Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addition has his birth date in Roman numerals; I’ve seen symbols, Japanese kanji, all sorts of things. One of my friends, a Texan, had “F U C K”/Y A L L” which I adore though it’s quite a commitment.

To me though there are two things that really speak to me; the old classics, one word per hand, four letters each, no thumbs. This means a limited set of words that will still makes sense. “L A S T”/”C A L L” speaks to me (Not least because of Tim Powers brilliant novel of the same name.) If you’re going to do a single word there are a few that work for me and that I’d consider, “T H I R/T E E N” being the leading contender. The number thirteen has great tattoo significant and also has great personal significance for me.

One of the reasons I don’t have the tattoos yet is that I can’t quite settle. These, a few other things, speak very much to me. But if I’d done this when I was 20, I’d have wound up with “R O C K”/”R O L L” which would have seemed very cool to me then but now would not really so much be me.

There are other things. Small symbols. John Lennon’s rhino drawing which you now see on kid’s clothes all the time but to me represents something about who Lennon was and something about being a father; it’s also something I share with my kids that has a lot of internal family meaning. Some other small symbols, mythological, symbolic. Lots of ideals, limited space. It’s why I don’t have ink on my hands yet.

It’s “H O L D/”F A S T” that I keep coming back to though. Diver, parent, biker, the rock of stability for friends, family. It means something to me in a lot of ways.

One of these days. I look at my hands on this laptop as I type; my hands need more ink.

0 thoughts on “L O V E & H A T E”

  1. Totally agree on the visible tattoo effect. While I am far from “heavily tattooed” (elaborate arm band around left mid-bicep, small piece on upper right shoulder), thed armband has a pretty noticeable effect on folks when they first spot it. Which is, I assume, parto f the reason I got it there in the first place. But I gotta admit that sometimes it can be annoying, the way I get pigeonholed in large groups as “the guy with the tattoo.” It can be fun to play the image a bit, but the manner in which you can get objectified and judged can be a bit disconcerting.

    It’s funny, but it’s like how lots of folks who meet me immediately assume I played football in high school or college. I’m a big guy: Almost 6’1″, broad shoulders, and just generally thick: arms, legs, chest, not much of a neck, etc. But all of my size came along very suddenly, in the space of about 18 months after high school. I was all of 160 pounds when I graduated from HS. By sophomore year in college I was 195. And I was thin!

    But, the point is, not an athlete. A runner, sure, at least until I started smoking enthusiastically, but not a physical athlete. But because I’m big, every guy who meets me wants to talk football. Cause big guys always play ball, right?

    I hate football. Can’t we talk movies?

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