Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tattoos are here to stay

     At lunch Monday, an older lady was going on about a young man of her acquaintance, and in the middle of her catalogue of his woes—smoking pot, doing poorly in school, facial piercings—she mentioned that he is tattooed too, and I opened my mouth to explain that whatever moral taint tattooing once had is now gone. Long gone. What was once the realm of sailors and bikers and hookers has been claimed by the young and the hip (plus the not so young and not so hip). "Everyone" doesn't have them, but many more people have them than was the case a few decades back, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. 
    Why? Theories abound, but to me it is clear. We are a mobile society where old strictures of community and religion have softened, if not fallen away, and tattoos are a colorful way to manifest yourself, to belong to a portable community of like-minded people, to illustrate your values, quite literally, and try to transcend yourself. Tattoos convey meaning, and getting them is seen as a significant act.  Denouncing them, to me, is an expression of cluelessness and stodginess on par with taking a stand against the Beatles in 1964.  It's a sign you're not paying attention.
     That said, I'd never get one, and over the summer, when I visited a few tattoo parlors, researching a story on the practice, I pondered why, particularly when, at one parlor, I considered getting the smallest of tattoos--say a tattooed freckle—to see what it felt like, and I recoiled at the thought, of even tattooing a dot. The moment I contemplated it, I pictured carving the thing out of my arm with a pocketknife. 
     Why? Because it was permanent? Even though so much we do is "permanent" -- choices we make, people we embrace or reject, doors we open or close. Life is permanent. Isn't the inability to paint a permanent circle on the sole of your foot represent some kind of bone-deep timidity? A flaw I should work on, perhaps by getting a tattoo?
     But know thyself, as the Delphic oracle says. And I'm someone who, as a young man, saw a much older, third-tier columnist who had the sort of column where he was always working as a dishwasher and a circus clown, being dipped in pudding and, one day, getting a tattoo. It was a tattoo of a quill pen in a crystal ink well—'cause he was a writer, see?—and I took one look at him, his shirt sleeves rolled up high, a la Bob Fosse, goatish beard, strutting the newsroom, and felt a shiver of revulsion I feel still. So no tattoos for me, ever, thanks to him. 
    Yet for people who are not me, they're fine.  I look placidly upon tattoos, attractive ones I mean. Some people have these enormous blotches, big green mandellas the size of saucers. Those I do shake my head at—what were they thinking?—but not because they're tattoos, but because they're ugly tattoos.
     Most aren't ugly, however. Most are artful, or at least intriguing, and the argument that they will look awful once the youthful skin ages is an empty one — that old skin won't look so hot, tattoo or no.
      Besides, I have eight lovely, smart, accomplished nieces, and most of them have tattoos, some more than one tattoo. That's also common. People tend to  love their tattoos and, rather than regret getting them, they tend to get more, to collect them. So times change, and we change with them, whether decorating your body with ink, or welcoming the practice as a manifestation of the human thirst for meaning and beauty. 


  1. There is a movie called Tattoo staring the great Bruce Dern as a Tattoo artist. I have always meant to see that movie. Here is Ebert's review. He liked the first part and hated the 2nd.He thought Dern was good.


    1. Dern's co-star, Maud Adams hated Dern. He claimed that during their sex scene, they actually did it & she denied it.

      As for tattoos, I read that there are studies showing getting a tattoo is a sign of low self esteem.

  2. I agree that tattoos look great on the young. I just really want to be around to see the tattoos on those who are covered in ink when they are older. Also, I am reading more and more stories about mid-30's women having tattoos removed and decrying the fact that (a) it's expensive and (b) painful. To each his own.

  3. I am in the process of having a tattoo removed which I had for one year. It takes 6 sessions of laser which burns and hurts for days after each session. Much easier to get the damn tattoo! Think first!!

  4. I often like tattoos on other people but would never get one myself. Does that make me a hypocrite?

  5. I don't see the appeal at all. The American tattoo fad is a symptom of the retention of adolescence in adults. At what other time in history were adults aged 30, 40, or 50 running out and acting like an 18-year-old who is going through the phase of asserting his individuality by doing what his friends are doing?

  6. I am thinking of getting a big tattoo of the invisible man. Wonder Woman flew an invisible plane. How did she find it. As the little phone told the pet store on the Starship Enterprise: "Beam me pup, spotty."

  7. that should read little boy, of course.

  8. Life is permanent? I'm perplexed by that line. Nothing is permanent, except perhaps tattoos, death & taxes. Maybe that's part of the appeal - something permanent in an impermanent world? I don't know. Whenever I see visible ones my first thought is to wonder about that person's employment. Good for them if they can be all freaky and still work. I haven't often considered a tattoo, but I'd shave my head if I could get away with it. There's something to be said for trying new things, like the colleague you mentioned. That sounds fun. Besides, if you get into an accident, that tattoo could help identify your body!


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