Ethics Quiz: The Children’s Fake Tattoos

This story comes to Ethics Alarms from New Zealand, but if it’s there now, it will be here eventually.

New Zealand-based tattoo artist, Benjamin Lloyd, specializes in realistic airbrushed tattoos for children. They look like an actual tattoos, though they are only spray painted on.

The average age of his human canvases is six.

“The kids are so amazed. As soon as they get the tattoo it boosts their confidence,” Lloyd says. “The only bad thing is that they don’t want to take a shower afterward.”

Is that really “the only bad thing?”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it responsible for parents to do this to their children?

Let me stipulate that it is undeniable that most children, having been so conditioned at a tender age, will actively seek to have their bodies permanently altered when they can legally consent to it. This kid, for example, is a good bet to be the very model of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” by the time he is 40:

Is that responsible parenting? Maybe this is another “Ick” issue rather than an ethical one. I recognize that New Zealand has a cultural fondness for tattoos, thanks to its native people the Maori, who even now are likely to show faces like this to the world…

I will also stipulate that I am biased on the topic. I find tattoos generally to be a waste of money, narcissistic, and the equivalent of branding oneself with a message that tells everyone forevermore, “Yes, I was really drunk, stoned or stupid when I did this, but trust me, I’m better now.”

Don’t tell my son or his girlfriend.

54 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Children’s Fake Tattoos

  1. I generally see temporary tattoos as no different than Halloween makeup. I have a hard time finding anything unethically about mere body art itself. Obviously, it can be abused for political messaging or other disturbing images, and rashes or other injury must be monitored. None are unique to temporary tattoos, though. Absent excessive use like anything else, it seems harmless.

    • *Like a harmless but fun activity. Activities that bring joy without injury, I imagine, should be thought of as ethical.

  2. “boosts their confidence”

    Is certainly a euphemism for “temporarily juices them with dopamine because of sudden increase in attention they get and think they will continue to get”.

    No…confidence comes from practicing something good, useful and productive and doing it well.

    People have been conditioned by movies to think that all you need to do something is confidence. No, you need courage. Confidence comes from successful efforts.

  3. I think this is more of an ick issue than an ethical issue. I think it’s a cultural choice, not an unethical choice, and I really just don’t give a damn – it’s their body.

    Related Note: I’m x-military, an Army grunt and what many people would consider a life long “biker” and I don’t have any tattoos.

    • As long as you never pissed someone off to the point where he hit you with a branding iron (Yellowstone reference). 😀

      • Steve-O-in-NJ wrote, “As long as you never pissed someone off to the point where he hit you with a branding iron”

        Oh with the natural outspokenness of my character I’ve pissed off a LOT of people in my life and a fair number of those people have swung inanimate objects at me, once in a while they made contact. I’m guessing there are a few online commenters across the internet that have thrown objects around their computer rooms because I’ve angered them so much.

  4. I think it’s permissible in NZ for the limited purpose of allowing Maori kids to participate in traditional events, and generally in limited circumstances like Rennaissance festivals etc. But, when the event is over, they give way to the shower.

    Personally tattoos are not for me, although at least two of my friends have them and they are getting more common now, especially among young people. If I want to wear a message, that’s what t-shirts are for, which you can put on when you want to display the message, then swap out when you decide you want to do something else.

    BTW, Jack, what is your opinion on wearing “edgy” historical t-shirts, which are popular among us “history as hobby” people? There is this outfit (no pun intended) in Peachtree City, GA that makes aviation t-shirts, both modern and vintage. A lot of the vintage ones are WW2 ones, and among them you can get shirts that feature both Allied and Axis planes and pilots. Typically they show a badge-type crest on the front and the plane on the back. The thing is, they sell shirts that feature Eric Hartmann, Hans-Joachim Marseille, and the other major Luftwaffe aces. They have the black and white Teutonic crosses on the wings of the planes, but then, if you look close enough, they also have swastikas on the tails, as they did in life. If you wear one, have you de facto embraced the Nazi cause enough to raise questions, because you have worn its symbol? ,

  5. Other than the quality of the artwork, what’s the difference between this and face painting, such as happens at school, community and social events here in the US?

    Rationalizing it by statements such as “gain confidence” strikes me as a bit over the top, but realistically, what’s the harm? I don’t know a single six-year-old that wouldn’t jump at the chance to get something like this done.

    • That was going to be my point. This is on the spectrum of activities that include face-painting.

      However, this is on the worse end of the spectrum, as it mimics adult activity that is not child-appropriate. Face-painting is obviously childish and an activity you would expect the child to outgrow, instead of growing into (like fake tattoos).

      Contrast: kiddie beauty pageants? (Are these tattoos comparable to such pageants?)

      -Jut

      • I think kiddie pageants are in another realm altogether. Those pageants emphasize appearance above all else, often sexualizing pre-pubescents, and subject kids to unrealistic expectations. To say nothing of the pressure to perform! Clearly unethical.

        By contrast, this, it seems to me, is basically harmless fun. By the way, temporary tatts were a thing 50 or 60 years ago, too. They were water transfer. Us kids loved ’em, but I don’t know of any of my peers who said “God, can’t wait to get a REAL one!”

        • AIM, don’t you think there’s a difference in scale between that six-year-old half covered in a tattoo (at significant expense) and a Cracker Jack water “tattoo” the size of a quarter?

          • Of course there’s a difference in scale. So what? It’s still temporary, and unless they’re using nasty chemicals in the paint, it’s almost certainly harmless. Like I said, I never met a six-year-old that wouldn’t think this was the coolest thing ever (at least, that they’ve seen so far this week). Methinks some here are really objecting to the rather ghoulish nature of the artwork in the photos. But six-year-olds are intrigued by that sort of thing, too.

            • No, I don’t think the nature of the tattoos matter to the ethics issue at all. My concern is that parents who do this are pre-conditioning children to favor a practice that cannot be adequately analyzed or assessed until adulthood and maturity, and the influence of relevant life experiences.

              I have the same concerns about body-piercings

              • Jack Marshall wrote, “I have the same concerns about body-piercings.”

                I’m confused; isn’t there a clear difference between allowing a child to get a temporary tattoo and allowing a child to get a body piercing, temporary tattoos are not permanent and body piercings are “permanent”.

                • Not the issue, though: the issue is sending a message approval of a practice before a child has the perspective to her own judgment. Ear-Piercing at 6: Body-Piercings are swell! Body decorations: Tattoos are swell! Whether its permanent of not is irrelevant. (An ear piercing will close up if it’s not used, and might as well be temporary.)

                  • Jack wrote, “An ear piercing will close up if it’s not used, and might as well be temporary.”

                    Almost all piercings are that way that’s why I put “permanent” in quotes, it almost always leaves a scar too.

                  • “ the issue is sending a message of approval of a practice before a child has the perspective to her own judgment”

                    I don’t see how this is at all avoidable as a parent. Most of the values you teach a child, implicitly or explicitly, are taught before they have the ability to form their own perspective on that value. That’s why we have to teach them.

                    Is it unethical to take a child to church or bring them up with certain religious beliefs? Because I got a temporary tattoo as a kid, and I was also told that my non-Christian friends would go to hell if they didn’t get saved, and I’ll let readers guess which one I felt more unprepared to analyze rationally.

                    Saying it’s wrong for parents to teach their kids that there’s nothing wrong with tattoos presupposes there is something wrong with tattoos. If there isn’t, then there is nothing wrong with parents sending this message.

                    • 1.I don’t see how this is at all avoidable as a parent. Most of the values you teach a child, implicitly or explicitly, are taught before they have the ability to form their own perspective on that value. That’s why we have to teach them.

                      What’s avoidable is doing it irresponsibly, recklessly, or instilling dangerous values. You know this. The question, and the reason this was an ethics quiz, is where conditioning children to get tattoos falls. I presume that having your child smoke, drink or shoot up in grade school would fail your test of things parents should teach.

                      2. Is it unethical to take a child to church or bring them up with certain religious beliefs?

                      It often is. Just as it is unethical to teach young children racism, or the ideology of the KKK, the Communist Party, or Black Lives Matter.

                      3. “Saying it’s wrong for parents to teach their kids that there’s nothing wrong with tattoos presupposes there is something wrong with tattoos. If there isn’t, then there is nothing wrong with parents sending this message.”

                      Tattoos can be harmful to a tattooed individual. Search for “Tattoos” on EA. It’s a matter of degree. I a child grows up thinking there are no disadvantages of a large face tattoo or a picture of a snake on her neck and goes full Maori the second he or she is old enough, that cute airbrushing may have cost the kid many thousands of dollars in future employment, and narrowed career and job options.

                      I assume you’ll concede this qualifies as “harm.”

                    • “What’s avoidable is doing it irresponsibly, recklessly, or instilling dangerous values.”

                      Ok, but that’s very different from what you originally said. And like I said, this presupposes that acceptance of tattoos is a dangerous value.

                      The comparison between letting kids do drugs and letting them get temporary tattoos is ridiculous, as you know.

                      Yes, getting full face tattoos is likely to cause people trouble. But only a very small percentage of people with tattoos do that, so this slippery slope argument is silly. Tattoos in and of themselves are not harmful, nor is allowing children to get temporary tattoos.

                    • It’s not different or the same—I didn’t go that far into the issue. All I wrote was “it is undeniable that most children, having been so conditioned at a tender age, will actively seek to have their bodies permanently altered when they can legally consent to it.” It concludes that the acceptance of extreme, large visible tattoos may be a dangerous value, and I explained an example of when it is.

                      “The comparison between letting kids do drugs and letting them get temporary tattoos is ridiculous, as you know.” Foul, Nate. The comparison was parents actively encouraging a child to do drugs as a positive thing, not “letting them do drugs.” It’s not ridiculous, and you have to argue better than that. Both are behaviors adult advocates believe are harmless, that indoctrinated children are not in a position or level of knowledge and experience to evaluate.

                      “But only a very small percentage of people with tattoos do that…” So far! This country doesn’t have a realistic fake tattoo business. Nobody knows what will happen to those New Zealand kids. If it’s a risk that they tattoo their faces like Mike Tyson, why take that risk? What’s the upside? (there isn’y one.)

                      “Tattoos in and of themselves are not harmful, nor is allowing children to get temporary tattoos.”

                      Restating a position isn’t an argument, and you know it.

                    • “All I wrote was “it is undeniable that most children, having been so conditioned at a tender age, will actively seek to have their bodies permanently altered when they can legally consent to it.””

                      I’m glad you brought up that quote again, because I meant to address it. Of course this is deniable. There’s no evidence that getting temporary tattoos as a kid makes one more likely to get permanent tattoos as an adult. I got temporary tattoos as a kid, but have no permanent tattoos as an adult, because I don’t want something like that on my body permanently. (I don’t begrudge other adults who do want permanent tattoos on their body because it’s none of my business.)

                      ““The comparison between letting kids do drugs and letting them get temporary tattoos is ridiculous, as you know.” Foul, Nate. The comparison was parents actively encouraging a child to do drugs as a positive thing, not “letting them do drugs.” It’s not ridiculous, and you have to argue better than that. Both are behaviors adult advocates believe are harmless, that indoctrinated children are not in a position or level of knowledge and experience to evaluate.”

                      Which adult advocates believe that drug use is harmless? You explicitly mentioned “shooting up;” can you name any prominent advocates who argue this is harmless?

                      Children are not in a position or level of knowledge and experience to evaluate a whole lot of things they will be exposed to on a daily basis. I hear a similar argument about letting kids know that gay people exist, but that’s not going to make me keep my kids away from their gay uncles.

                      ““But only a very small percentage of people with tattoos do that…” So far! This country doesn’t have a realistic fake tattoo business. Nobody knows what will happen to those New Zealand kids. If it’s a risk that they tattoo their faces like Mike Tyson, why take that risk? What’s the upside? (there isn’y one.)”

                      The upside is that it’s fun for the kids and there is no actual evidence of lasting harm. You saying “Ok but what if this makes them get a real face tattoo when they are adults” is not evidence. There’s no reason to think that’s likely, meaning that such a fear is irrational. Irrational fear shouldn’t be enough to stop kids from doing something they enjoy.

                      ““Tattoos in and of themselves are not harmful, nor is allowing children to get temporary tattoos.”

                      Restating a position isn’t an argument, and you know it.”

                      If you’re arguing that a seemingly harmless activity is actually harmful, the burden is on you to prove that. All you’ve provided are incredibly speculative slippery slope arguments, so you haven’t done that. Because of that I will keep calling this behavior harmless until proven otherwise.

                    • Nate, the whole point of the quiz—which means I am not certain of the right answer—is whether there is a substantive risk that it might be harmful. Your experience with stick-on tattoos is irrelevant to the issue: they weren’t like the tattoos in question. When I stipulate something, the point is to set that as a basis for the discussion. You’re right—I shouldn’t have written “undeniable.” It’s deniable, but I think what we know about how kids form values and ideas makes it more difficult to deny than you pretend.

                      There is no evidence either way—that’s also part of the exercise. We haven’t seen kids get the kinds of tattoos that were pictured. As intelligent human beings, we need to often make our best judgments about conduct without sufficient “proof,” especially involving our kids.

                      I think the safest call is to eschew this , but go ahead, have your kid get a full, realistic body tattoo. Don’t cry to me when he ends up in the carnival….

                    • Oh…the comparison with drugs was not to imply that I think tattoos are anywhere in that ballpark as far as harm goes, but rather to give an example of how children are conditioned regarding what adults show them as desirable behavior.

                      And there’s a much better example: in the Fifties and Sixties, candy cigarettes were very popular with kids. They were white with pink tips, and you could pretend to be smoking, just like your parents. Eventually, candy companies were pressured not to make or sell them. But there was never any proof that kids who got them were more likely to start smoking for real. It just stood to reason. Similarly, flavored vaping has been banned, and there was no hard evidence that those products would cause kids to use nicotine products—there hasn’t been time.

                      The argument that one has to wait for predictable negative results to be proven before taking the precaution of rejecting products and behaviors is irrationally reckless. Anyone who watched how their room mates acted stoned on pot and after routine use over time knew that there were cognitive risks in using the stuff. Now that evidence is coming in. People knew smoking was deadly long, long before the research results “proved” it. No, I’m not saying that tattoos are comparable to cigarettes at all; just that the process whereby a child grows into an adult prone to conduct with downsides is well established.

            • Scale matters, AIM. Putting a postage-stamp sized piece of paper on your arm with your friends and wetting it is markedly different from going to an air brush parlor (I guess?) with your adult (I guess?) parents and sitting there for an hour or so (I guess?) while an adult guy air brushes your body while your parents look on admiringly and then pay the guy a goodly amount of money are significantly different in terms of scale, or if you prefer, experientially.

  6. Tattoos: “A permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.” -Jimmy Buffett
    It is certainly unethical to use or allow one’s children, who cannot give meaningful consent, to be used like this. I find it (and many tattoos) personally disgusting, but I am from the generation that came up when the only people with visible tattoos were convicts, outlaw bikers and Navy / Marine personnel who served in the South Pacific. Adults certainly have the right to ink their own bodies or get multiple bizarre piercings or even cut off an ear if they want, but the desire to mutilate one’s own body has never struck me as an indicator of a healthy psyche. The inclination to “decorate” one’s children, which need no decoration, is even more odd and off-putting.
    As many of the younger generation of law enforcement officers began to get tattoos back in the 1980s, I would tell them, “At least you’ll have something to talk about in the nursing home someday. You can compare tattoos on your saggy hides and ask each other, ‘What is THAT supposed to be?'”

  7. I’ve always had a problem with immature adults dressing and grooming their young children in hip ways. Remember when little rat tails were a popular style, most likely among Hispanic guys. I’d see five- and six-year-old guys sporting little rat tails. Or having kids wear shades and baseball caps as “lids.” Let kids be kids for a while. If they want to dress in a particular way when they’re able to truly shop for themselves, fine, but until then, don’t go overboard making your kids little mini-mes. This is analogous to having six-year-old girls wearing “Porn Star” branded outfits.

    • It’s hardly uncommon for young kids to want to imitate their parents or older siblings. A rat tail hurts no one, and can be snipped away the moment a child tires of it.

      So yes let kids be kids within reason. Face painting, temporary tattoos, different hair at the time in life when it’s least impactful and easily cut later if needed.

      Jack’s objection is pure ick factor. Old man disliking things that don’t match his own upbringing. It’s just dress-up and trying on personas. At that age I wanted to be a Jedi.

      *waves hand* You will buy me a pony.

      Dammit, still doesn’t work.

      • Obviously, you don’t see any problem, I do. Ho hum.

        I assume you’re okay with little girls wearing “Porn Star” attire.

          • Of course. Your mantra is “If it feels good, do it,” or, “Who am I to judge?” right? I think that’s dumb and destructive. I’m a conservative. You’re not. There you have it. I see danger, you don’t. I think civilization is fragile and needs to be conserved. You think civilization is virtually impregnable and needs to be destroyed and remade. I say, “Be careful what you wish for.” You say, “La Di Dah! It’s all good!”

            • I shouldn’t bother to answer since you insist in making assumptions about me and nothing I say will dislodge the straw man that you’ve built.

              I believe that in a free society people can do things of which I don’t personally approve. That means belonging to religions I dislike such as Scientology, That means liking reality tv, that means kids these days can enjoy that damn noise they call music. That we can tolerate a diversity of opinions, that we should be very wary of forbidding the things we do not approve of when they don’t impact others. That if I want to make my own choices–and I do–others must be given the same freedom in their personal choices.

              Now it’s time for me to make some assumptions. You belong to a homeowners association don’t you? I don’t believe in telling my neighbors what colors they can paint their house, what color christmas lights they can display or going out and measuring the length of their front lawns.

              So, you’re free to feel butthurt that I don’t care if a child wears a rattail in imitation of an older sibling but it’s not going to move me because that child’s hair is none of my business.

              • Sex work is harmless. Drug use is harmless. Porn is harmless. Abortion is a woman’s right. Graffiti is art. Hooking up is harmless. Property theft is harmless. I’m sure you’re cool with all these.

                Again, you and I have different opinions on what’s harmful and how much “harm” a society can withstand before it crumbles. I’m going to assume it’s generational. I’m just not as sanguine as you are.

                • “Sex work is harmless. Drug use is harmless. Porn is harmless. Abortion is a woman’s right. Graffiti is art. Hooking up is harmless. Property theft is harmless. I’m sure you’re cool with all these.”

                  Boy, that’s a lot of strawmen for one paragraph!

                  “I’m going to assume it’s generational”

                  I mean, valky already pointed this out when she said these objections are just motivated by old age and fear of change. You could have just said “I agree” and moved on.

                  • Objections are NOT just motivated by old age and fear of change. They are motivated by sound observations, experience and research as well as common sense, and the recognition that norm-destroying advocacy based on little more than “change is good” is reckless and frequently leads to disaster.

                    I find it fascinating that you nod to validity of the generalization “drug use is harmless” after writing to me that no adult would ever say that regarding injectable recreational drugs.

                    • “I find it fascinating that you nod to validity of the generalization “drug use is harmless” after writing to me that no adult would ever say that regarding injectable recreational drugs.”

                      I did not do that.

                      “These objections” refers to the objections about tattoos, not objections to drug use. Again, no one here has argued that drug use is harmless!

                    • It’s not worth quibbling about, but I read your comment several times, and you did, in fact, attribute Bill’s objection to “drug use is harmless” to age and other factors rather than, you know, to the fact that drug use is NOT harmless. All you have to do is say, “Ooops. That was not my intent.”

                    • What I said was “I mean, valky already pointed this out when she said these objections are just motivated by old age and fear of change. ” Referring to an earlier comment from valky here:

                      https://ethicsalarms.com/2022/07/20/ethics-quiz-the-childrens-fake-tattoos/comment-page-1/#comment-812370

                      When she made that comment the issue of drug use hadn’t even come up. She was specifically talking about your objections to tattoos. So my comment couldn’t be fairly read as “nodding to the validity that drug use is harmless.” I can’t believe I even need to explain that.

                  • Boy, that’s a lot of strawmen for one paragraph!

                    And it didn’t engage with anything I actually wrote. Note my comment never used the word harm or harmless.

                    He replied at me not to me. This is why I shouldn’t have bothered to answer at all.

            • I’d say a healthy mantra is “If it feels good, do it, unless it causes harm.” Since things like temporary tattoos and rat tails on children do not cause harm—except to some people’s very delicate sensibilities—they’re ok for people to do, even if you don’t like them.

              Unless of course you can articulate the harm that they do. I’ve read many objections to tattoos here and no one has done so. I would think whether something causes harm is a good starting place for determining whether something is ethical.

              • No. My point is dressing little kids like hipsters without their having the capacity to be anything other than little dolls for their parents’ amusement is harmful. It’s not healthy. That’s where we disagree. You’re fine with it. I see that. I’m not fine with it. I think it’s corrosive behavior and bad child rearing and bad being an adult. You don’t have to agree with me but please at least understand what I’m saying.

                • I understand what you’re saying, I just don’t understand why you’re saying it, because you won’t explain your reasoning. Why is dressing kids like “hipsters” worse than dressing them in any other fashion? (Also, you don’t know what hipsters are. Hipsters don’t have rat tails. In fact almost no one does these days. When was the last time you were actually around young people for any extended period of time?)

                  Of course you’re under no obligation to learn about stuff or come up with reasons for your feelings before you express them on the Internet. But if you’re going to be as insulting as you have to valky, it would sure be nice if you made an attempt.

        • I do not understand your comparison between sexualizing children with “Porn Star” attire and a totally non-sexual tattoo.

          It seems like you’re leaping to this absurd comparison because you’re unable to articulate a reasonable objection to children getting temporary tattoos.

  8. I don’t think my position will surprise anyone: I don’t see a problem here.

    I’m unable to differentiate this from fairground makeup. It’s temporary, the kid almost certainly wants it, and if they don’t it can be removed. Some of it seems in bad taste… That Joker reference, as an example… If that kid saw any of the movies Jared Leto’s Joker were in… That’s… disappointing. But a couple of idiots taking a harmless idea to stupid places doesn’t make the idea harmless, it just makes them stupid.

  9. It seems what we have here is a clash of cultures compounded by nuance. As Jack points out tattooing is part of the Māori culture. What body modifications adults do to their bodies is of little concern to me. I agree with the concept of live and let live provided you don’t harm others in your quest for happiness.

    Tattoos are not part of my culture. I don’t have a tattoo for the same reason you don’t often see bumper stickers on Ferraris. I believe the unadorned human body can be a beautiful work of art. I also admit that there are bodies out there that would benefit from a great many bumper stickers. But I digress. As you can imagine except for a single piercing in each ear lobe, I think all other body modifications detract from the human form and are off-putting to me.

    I also believe it is incumbent on parents to mold into their children the behaviors and morals they wish them to maintain throughout their lives. I think that is the point Jack is trying to make. I also agree that extensive or highly noticeable body modifications may diminish a person’s employment opportunities. It is therefore irresponsible to encourage body modifications in youth.

    If however, the parents themselves have body modifications then the issue is a moot point. Typically, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Finally equating the realistic-looking temporary tattoo Jack pictured in this post with face painting and makeup is a stretch.

  10. I somehow missed this post in my email feed when it was originally sent…
    So I’ll just just opine that if you’re more likely to do certain things when you’re drunk than when you’re sober, you might want to seriously consider whether doing that thing at all is ever wise. That caution should extend to desensitizing a minor in your care against doing so as well.

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