Why You Should Keep That Tattoo of Your Ex

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You might not expect tattoo artists to be romantics. They’re well-weathered in the stages of love, having inked new love tattoos, drunk love tattoos, broken love tattoos, and everything in between. But Scott Campbell (who has tattooed Marc Jacobs, among others) is such a strong believer in love that he offered free tattooing sessions on his Instagram to couples recently in New York. M.A.C Cosmetics and director Steven Sebring filmed the project, creating a film called With Love that M.A.C creative director James Gager called a “beautiful depiction of the emotions evoked through [Campbell].” Click to watch the film and read below to see why Campbell doesn’t hate a spring break tattoo, what he does with tattoos of his exes, and why he thinks nothing bad can come from falling completely in love.

How do you think being a tattoo artist has affected your views on love?
Well, in all tattoo shops, there’s a customary disclaimer that people give a guy or girl who wants to come in and get a lover’s name. Like, are you sure this is the one? It lasts forever. There’s a bit of cautionary advice.

But I’ve always leaned into the opportunity. Fuck it! Do it. If you took a poll of how many relationships work and don’t work, the odds are against you. But it’s important to keep trying and I want to be supportive of people who want to fall in love 100 percent, even though it doesn’t often work out. Do it as often and as hard as you can, because it’s the only way to get good at it.

How do you think tattooing has affected your view on love as eternal?
Nothing’s eternal. There’s something in having tattoos that makes you realize that we are ephemeral. In having a bunch of tattoos, you end up taking your physical self much less seriously. It’s not precious. We’re not precious. And I’ve seen that since falling in love when I was a kid and getting girls’ names tattooed on me, which are now faded and blurred and buried under others. We are a narrative that has a beginning and an end. If you try to hang on to anything forever, it’s not going to work. What works is appreciating who you got.

Do you see a difference between a “love” tattoo, like the couple ones you see in the video, and a regular tattoo?
No, tattooing is just a way of communicating. It’s like a language. The idea is where the power is. It’s not in the type of ink you use. If you’re tattooing a powerful idea, it will be powerful. If it’s meaningless and just aesthetic, it will be meaningless.

And when I say meaningful, that doesn’t necessarily mean I disagree with spontaneity and lightheartedness; there’s an honesty in that. If you got a dolphin on your ankle during spring break, that’s valid. It doesn’t have to summarize your entire existence. It’s the documentation of a moment. Some moments are heavy and some are light, and they’re all valid.

In the film, the tattoos you choose to do on the couples are all names. Why names and not symbols or pictures?
We have had people say, “Can I get a symbol?” or tell us that one of them wants to do it or the other person do the other. But I feel like a name is immediate and courageous. It’s a stronger gesture to get someone’s name. It’s not ambiguous at all. It’s literal. I like the face value of that.

There’s often this thought that getting someone’s name as a tattoo is a poor decision. You mention in the film that when you got Lake Bell’s name tattooed on you that people were surprised. Do you ever feel like it’s irresponsible to encourage someone to get a tattoo of someone’s name, to get something they might regret?
No, not at all. You’re talking to someone who has tons of tattoos on them. I don’t see anything hazardous in having a tattoo on you that might become irrelevant. Like if you have an ex’s name, and you’re not with them anymore, it doesn’t make it any less significant.

I encourage people to get their lover’s name, if they believe in it. Nothing bad can come from falling in love completely. Yes, you might get hurt. But in the long run, having an ex-girlfriend’s name on you is much less tragic than being 70 and having never allowed yourself to never let go. Not getting a tattoo out of fear of regret is taking the skin on your legs, for example, and putting that on a higher pedestal than your emotional journey through life. That’s an imbalance of priority.

You mention you have the names from some of your previous relationships still as tattoos. Why not get them removed?
They don’t bother me. There’s an honesty in it. If it made my wife uncomfortable, I would. Tattoos take away the luxury of denial. We all have exes and people who broke our hearts and people whose hearts we broke. It forces you to accept it and understand it and understand the things that happened before now.

I’ve covered stuff up. There’s places on me where I’m on my third of fourth coat piled on top of others. I have ex-girlfriends that are crossed out. For some reason it seems more dishonest to remove someone’s name than to cover it up with something else. Getting others on top of it seems like adding more and other chapters. A removal seems like trying to go back, which is an unhealthy thing. It’s like trying to pretend it didn’t happen. It’s better to acknowledge that it happened, and learn from it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.