What Do Tattoos Mean To Gen Z?

The meaning of ink on skin

Tattoo culture has slowly evolved into being accepted as a true art form, especially among the younger generations. From millennials to Gen Z, tattoos are becoming more accepted rather than a dirty little secret. Even in Southeast Asia, where cultures are still pretty conservative, younger folks are more open to getting inked and sharing their experiences. To get an idea of this, we spoke with Clare Chong (Singapore), Kiara Lee (Malaysia) and Krizia Macasaet (Philippines) of Generation Z on their views on local tattoo culture and what their ink means to them. Read on to find out what they have to say.

Inked in a conservative space

In conservative countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, tattoos still sadly hold a lot of prejudice. "[In the Philippines], some [people] think that people with tattoos are bad guys, prisoners, or rebels," 21-year-old Krizia shared. She shared that she initially felt hesitant to get a tattoo since some of her relatives were still "old-fashioned".

In a multi-racial country like Malaysia, tattoos also have a negative connotation. At least, it used to. "I think things are slowly changing now," Kiara observed. "Malaysia has annual tattoo events where tattoo artists and tattoo lovers from all over the country gather around and celebrate this form of art." She also noticed that there are more tattoo studios popping up in Malaysia, indicating an increasing demand for tattoos.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old filmmaker Clare thinks tattoos are becoming more accepted among the same age groups and social circles in Singapore. "Even if you're in corporate jobs, you'll find someone who has a tattoo. It's just that they hide it well."

Acceptance amongst peers

Despite the general leeriness around tattoo culture, Gen Z has found an overwhelming acceptance from their peers. Clare, who works in the creative industry as a filmmaker, shared that almost all of her peers have tattoos. She even inspired some of her peers to get their own tattoos after she shared her experience. She also has a supportive family, since she initially wanted to get a tattoo with her mum who was agreeable with the idea. However, "it never happened" and she eventually got one on her own.

Tattoo art on thigh

Tattoos are more welcomed among folks in the same age groups and social circles. (Photo from: Raspopova Marina via Unsplash)

As for Kiara, whose social circle consists of university students and young working adults, tattoos are seen as a form of self-expression. "They were really excited for me. Some of them were curious about the whole process and whether it hurt a lot, while others were interested in close up shots of my tattoo." A friend even commented that her ink matches her personality to a T, which made her really happy to hear.

Krizia documented her tattoo experience through a vlog and shared it on YouTube and Facebook. She recalled feeling very "surprised" at the lack of criticism, especially on Facebook where her relatives are active users.

Gen Z and the meaning behind their tattoos

Do tattoos need to have a deep, meaningful reason? Some people say so because they’re permanently etched on your skin. Others view them as a spontaneous decision. For some, it's a grey area of having both meaning and spontaneity.

Some of Clare's tattoos involve references to movies and series. Her first tattoo was a reference to A Clockwork Orange, while she has another one on her wrist that refers to Twin Peaks. Her latest, a skull with thick shading, was designed by her tattoo artist but didn't really have a special meaning aside from her liking the design.

Clare's favourite tattoo is her "Hunter x Hunter"-inspired ink between her shoulder blades

Clare’s “Hunter X Hunter”-inspired tattoo by @sohnx.

Her favourite ink is the set between her shoulder blades which was inspired by the Hunter X Hunter manga and anime series. “It’s the Phantom Troupe’s spider on my left and Kurapika’s judgement chain on the right to represent truth and deceit.”

Meanwhile, Krizia prefers minimalist line work for her tattoos. The first tattoo she got was the word "Dauntless" on her left clavicle. "I wanted a word that would describe me as a person ... my family keeps on saying that I am a brave person because I don't cry or get scared easily," she said. However, she doesn't necessarily see herself that way and got the tattoo to remind herself "that people see me like this."

Kiara's butterfly tattoo on her shoulder

Kiara’s minimalistic butterfly tattoo by @inkbyjoowei.

To this day, Kiara only has a single tattoo — a side profile of a butterfly fluttering in the wind that she got last year. "There is no special meaning behind my tattoo, other than the fact that I got it because it was pretty," she laughed. However, it was important to her that the tattoo can be easily concealed under clothes and that she wouldn't "get sick" of the design. She tested the design and placement by using temporary tattoos for weeks before having it permanently inked on her skin.

Art on skin

Astronaut tattoo on inner wrist

Gen Z see tattoos as art on skin. (Photo from: Ravisankar S via Unsplash)

Gen Z sees tattoos as unique pieces of art preserved on the skin, with deep meaning or not.

Krizia trusted the opinion of her tattoo artist, a veteran in the Filipino tattoo industry, who recommended that she go for a larger-sized tattoo than her initial design. "So you can see it clearly even from afar," she said.

As a creative person herself, Clare sees tattooing as a beautiful artistic relationship. "It is very intimate, because you're putting pain on a person to create some form of art." She also prefers to let the artist design the tattoos with very minimal feedback from her, to preserve the tattoo's artistic integrity. 

"It's more like, this is what I want. I'll tell you the story behind it and then you can interpret it however you want. Looking at your interpretation, if I understand it, it doesn't have to be pretty. If I see where you're coming from, then let's just do it," she explained. She also considers getting a tattoo as "taking responsibility" for a specific artwork, similar to how a museum protects the paintings it exhibits.

For others, it’s also a coming-of-age moment. Kiara recalls the exhilarating experience of getting her first tattoo: "It felt like an unreal experience. I was both excited and anxious on the way to the tattoo studio," she said. "It was such a new and unfamiliar experience, yet enjoyable at the same time." She also felt a sense of accomplishment for finally taking the leap after years of wanting to get a tattoo. "Overall, getting a tattoo made me feel really happy and I look forward to getting more."

The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

(Cover photo from: @worm.gurl)

Want to get inked? Here's what you need to know about getting your first tattoo.

Comments, questions or feedback? Email us at [email protected].

Related Articles