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.