This is What It’s Like To Have A “Canceled” Tattoo

Published on December 9, 2020

A canceled tattoo is a tattoo that references a person or thing that has since been “canceled” or, in other words, has pissed off the cultural zeitgeist. A perfect example of this exists on my own body. I have two Harry Potter-themed tattoos, albeit subtle ones. When J.K. Rowling got onto Twitter and made several deeply transphobic statements, I was forced to redefine and reconsider my relationship with my own body art.

This is by no means a unique experience, but it is a relatively new one. I reached out through social media to see if others might have similar experiences with a ‘canceled’ tattoo. I received less responses than I thought I would. As it turns out, not many folks are walking around with Harvey Weinstein tattoos. However, the overwhelming majority of people who responding to my inquiries were sporting Harry Potter tattoos, often quite similar to my own.

The Canceled Tattoos

It’s like having an exes name tattooed on you, something that a friend in just such a predicament hilariously pointed out. One of the most significant problems with body art is its permanence. Once it’s there, it is quite difficult to change or remove. That means when you get anything indelibly inked on your skin that is linked to another person, you are committed to that person, for better or for worse. Of course, it’s painful when you tattoo the name of someone you love on your skin and then they cheat on you. But what happens when you tattoo the words of someone you’ve never met before and then they disappoint?

The Harry Potter series was nothing less than a cultural phenomenon. The series, its themes, and its characters impacted a generation of children and adults on a deep and meaningful level. Kids dressed up as Harry Potter characters on Halloween. People started Quiddich leagues. There is an entire theme park dedicated to the series. And thousands of people got Harry Potter themed tattoos.

Even this beloved children’s tale is not immune to the effects of cancel culture. The author of the series put out several tweets in which she repeatedly questioned the validity of trans women and their identities. She followed up those tweets with a novel in her mystery series under her pen name. In the novel, she reaffirms her prejudices against transgender people. After all of that, fans around the world were deeply disappointed. They questioned their devotion to the beloved series. Many had to reckon with their body art and it’s newfound complicated nature.

A Canceled Tattoo Story

Personally, I have two Harry Potter tattoos. Like all of my tattoos, I got them very young, before my 21st birthday. For the most part, I love my ink. I chose most of my pieces very carefully, and most of them have very strong significance. The two tattoos that come from my favorite childhood book series are the word “Always” with the stars from the Harry Potter pages on my wrist, and the words “anything is possible if you’ve got enough nerve” on my leg. Both quotes are dialogue, the first from Snape and the second from Ginny Weasley.

I struggle less with the tattoo on my leg because it’s very subtle and not particularly visible. I also took a great deal of time planning out that piece. My wrist, however, is obviously connected to the Rowling series, as anyone who’s read the book or seen the films will notice. It’s also the only tattoo I got on a whim, with no prior thought or planning.

Part of the concern with having such a noticeable reminder of something that has become culturally controversial is how others will perceive this body art. Because of the blatant and incredibly public transphobia that Rowling has displayed, my tattoos now very visibly connect me to these ideas that I do not share. Could seeing this mark of something so harmful make trans folks uncomfortable around me now? Could others see me as sharing in the harmful views of the author who’s words are forever inked into my skin?

Others Like Me

One girl I spoke to, who’s in her mid 20’s, worries less about this aspect of things. “Books and movies aren’t canceled in my opinion, even though the author for sure is,” she said. Her tattoos are not about Rowling, but instead about a series so powerful that it transcends the author and her controversies.

Another young woman I spoke to simply said, “it’s a little embarrassing to have a tattoo you don’t like anymore but I just try not to think about it too much”.

The embarrassment is a theme that seems to go along with any canceled tattoo, whether it be privately canceled, like an exes name, or publicly canceled. For many tattooed people, body art is a source of pride. They are deeply meaningful for many, and an expression of art just like any painting you would hang in your home. They’re fun to show off, until, one day, they’re not.

How Far It Goes

These questions go beyond just the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. People are walking around with Kanye West lyrics tattooed on them, which may very well carry different meaning now. Anyone with a Captain Jack Sparrow tattoo might be questioning if they really want Johnny Depp‘s face on their body these days. That’s not even including the multitude of white people walking around with tribal tattoos or dreamcatchers, which is a whole different kind of canceled.

The increase in popularity of tattoos in combination with the outbreak of cancel culture is bound to create a certain amount of unfortunate situations like these. It seems more and more frequent that a formerly beloved celebrity does something stupid, or hurtful, or downright evil and the fandom crashes down around them. Movies and songs and books take on new meaning. It becomes harder to consume media without thinking about where it comes from.

This strange phenomenon of the canceled tattoo will continue to occur as more of our idols inevitably disappoint us, with more platforms every day allowing them to do so.

How To Manage It

Like the connection to body art itself, each person’s thoughts and experiences are going to be different when it comes to a canceled tattoo. Some are completely fine wearing the markers of something they love, regardless of any controversy that might surround it. Others, however, struggle with having permanent reminders of a fallen idol on their skin.

The great thing about tattoos in this day and age is that they can be removed or covered if that’s in the budget. I go back and forth on this. I will never remove or cover the tattoo on my leg, but I may very well have the “Always” on my wrist covered or incorporated into a larger piece to make it less noticeable.

A bad tattoo can easily make a person feel dysmorphic about their body and skin. However, covering or removing is not always an accessible option for everyone. It’s important to remember, regardless of what others may think, that your tattoos belong to you. Even if you no longer resonate with or approve of the views of the creator, those words or that character or something about that piece of entertainment meant something to you at the time. You do not owe an explanation to anyone, but if you wish to provide one, it can be a great conversation starter.

Having a canceled tattoo is a strange and uniquely modern experience. Our grandparents did not have this problem, and we are left to forge our own path. There is no one perfect answer for managing a canceled tattoo, and no two people share the exact same experience. Just make sure you really trust an artist before indelibly marking your skin with their work.

Olivia Smith is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. Based in San Francisco, she covers events, entertainment, fashion, and technology. She also serves as a Voices contributor at PopSugar.

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