Yesterday The New York Times published what can simply be known as the worst thing I have ever had the displeasure to read about tattoo etiquette.
You can head on over to the link to read it, but to sum up it was part interview with Ami James and part list of courtesies for people about talking about ink (their own or someone else's).
A couple of the rules were fine, like don't walk up and touch someone without their permission (do you want to get punched in the jaw?) or that it's OK to ask politely about someone's ink. But the rest were just terrible.
The "City Critic," who acknowledged having no ink of his own, seems to think the tattooed somehow owe the rest of the world unfettered access to their skin. One rule said that if you show any part of your tattoo, you must show the entire thing. Another said you should have a good story at hand for people who ask, even if it isn't true.
To sum up: no.
People with tattoos do not owe anyone anything relating to their ink. They don't have to show off the whole thing, they don't have to have a good story, they don't even have to answer your questions if they don't want to. Getting a tattoo does not suddenly revoke your right to personal boundaries and body autonomy.
I know the argument: "but you got a visible tattoo, what do you expect from people?"
This is what I expect: To be treated like a person. To have my personal space respected. The exact same things I would ask for with or without tattoos.
Grabbing someone without their permission is assault. True, your intentions may be curiosity and appreciation rather than violence, but it is still unacceptable behavior. If you want to know something about a tattoo you see, smile and ask nicely. Pay them a compliment before launching into your questions.
And by all means, you do not have to dress a certain way to show off or not show off* your tattoo. I happen to be showing off my shoulder tat in the picture below. But if I am wearing that dress in public, it may just as likely be because it's hot out or I just felt like going strapless. Wanting to share that particular tattoo might not have even factored in when I got dressed (though I admit to buying a few extra racerback tank tops after I got it out of excitement). Sometimes I wear ribbed tank tops with thick straps. When I do, you can see some parts of that tattoo but not the whole thing. I am breaking the City Critic's rule, and I am glad to do so. I like that style of shirt, and whether or not someone can see my whole tattoo isn't really my problem.
As far as stories go, you may or may not have a good one. I got a ball of yarn because it's pretty and I like to knit. I don't know if that classifies as a good enough story, but that's the truth and if I feel like talking about my tattoo that's what I will say. My other two have stories as well, and it doesn't matter to me if they are interesting to others. I'm not going to lie about why I got them. If I got one because I was at a party all night and my friends and I thought it was hilarious to get matching ink, that's the story I would tell. Tattoos don't have to have a deep meaning. Some do, some don't. People can get them for whatever reason they want.
Plus, some stories are so personal or painful that the inked individual might not want to tell them to a complete stranger. That's OK, too. If you ask about someone's tattoo and they don't want to tell you, don't get bent out of shape about it. They have no obligation to share for whatever reason.
So my rules are basically this: for admirers, be courteous. Don't touch, by all means, and if you want to ask something do so politely and maybe open with a compliment. And if the person isn't interested in talking, that is their right. Simply walk away. For the inked, yes people are going to ask questions if you have something highly visible. Human nature is to be curious. But you don't have to tell them anything if it's too personal, to complicated, or you just aren't in the mood to chat. Just try and be polite. Or be at least as polite as the person asking is being.
Oh, and for everyone, if you get caught staring, smile before you look away to indicate you are staring out of appreciation instead of judgment. Unless you're staring out of judgment, in which case feel free to get the hell away from me.
*Obvious exception: certain places of employment may have rules about how much ink you can show. I happen to think those rules are stupid, but you should probably respect them if you need to keep that particular job.