In Defense of Tattoos

Several years ago, a friend of mine covered his enormous tricep with a portrait of his parents. On the whole, it was a good tattoo, even if the black-and-white fine-line work did resemble a style popular among inmates of Arizona’s state penitentiaries. For some reason, he’d had it superimposed on an older, cruder piece — a single strand of barbed wire — with the upshot that he appeared to have sent Mom and Pop to Auschwitz.

Stories about tattoo faux pas are all to easy too come by. Your tastes can change. You could succumb to the infamous tattoo fever and beggar yourself on ink out of mindless compulsion. The design you picked might end up implying something about you you never in a million years would have wanted to imply.

On every single one of those points, Yours Truly could serve as a cautionary tale. I got my first three tattoos in the space of five months, when I was 17. It took me only a few years to recognize that every single one of them was cheesy enough to spread on a Triscuit. Worse, every single one has an unwholesome meaning I could never have guessed at the time. That top-hatted skull on my left bicep is actually an image of Baron Samedi, the most powerful loa in the Voudun religion. That black heraldic lion, rampant on my right shoulder? Why, that’s the Vlaamse Leuuw, or Lion of Flanders, beloved of far-right Dutch-speaking Belgians. That Asian-style dragon perching on my left shoulder, its tail hanging down my tricep, is a near match for the emblem of a Hong Kong triad gang. Or anyway, that’s what I surmised one tense evening in a Kowloon sauna, from the surly looks of a native with a similar tattoo and — apparently — no sympathy for the ecstasy of influence.

But for all my hideous mistakes, I simply cannot reject tattoos out of hand in the manner of fashionista Simon Doonan. In Slate, Barney’s ambassador-at-large declares himself ink-free and proud to remain so. Not only does Doonan rate tattoos lower than tap-dancing and accordion music, he thinks tattoos, simply by entering the mainstream from the margins, have lost all their meaning. Finally, he accuses ink enthusiasts of nurturing a subtle, socially acceptable masochism. “If you look at Facebook, play video games and online Scrabble, and/or scour Slate 24 hours a day,” writes Doonan, “you will eventually reach a freaky plateau of desensitized unreality. You will crave the enlivening, awakening, back-to-reality release which comes from the jabbing pain of a tattoo needle.”

In the first place, I take issue with Doonan’s view of history. It’s true that 45 million Americans are now tattooed — probably a record number — but that trend predates social media, and even the Internet as we currently know it. I got my first three tattoos in 1989; when I showed them off, my classmates gasped. But the following year, when I went off to college — in Arizona, mind, back when the state was happy to be known as a haven for retirees, Mormons and John Birch types — I found a tattoo parlor right across the street from campus. As I recall, the artists there did better work than either of the guys I’d given my business to. By the time I earned my degree, the studio had a number of rivals, all catering to students with dreams of upward mobility.

Neither do I buy Doonan’s point that tattoos have come down in the world because they no longer carry the message he summarizes as “Don’t mess with me because I am insane.” Why should criminals and cannibals have the right to bar the rest of us from their private party? My mistake — and I plead my extreme youth as an extenuating circumstance — was picking tattoos in the hope that they would make me look insane. With hindsight, I wish I’d had the self-confidence of those people who cover their biceps or calves with R2D2 or Harry Potter. These tattoos send just as strong a message, namely, “I am a socially retarded fanboy (or -girl), but I make enough at my IT job that I can fly my freak flag high.”

Here, in a nutshell, is why tattoos are trendy, and trending: they represent a form of physical beauty you can pay cash for. Those aren’t as common as they should be. Height and good bones are things you’re born with; muscles require obsessive cultivation. Even tans take time (if not energy). Tattoos are like nifty haircuts that never grow out, or snappy leather jackets that cost nothing extra to clean. And they make better conversation pieces than any more detachable or perishable accessories. Maybe some people have figured out how to say, “Wow, great dye job” without sounding like complete imbeciles, but I can’t pull it off. Tattoos, on the other hand, demand attention; once people start talking about them, and the stories behind them, the challenge is getting them to shut up.

Tattoos also make fantastic compensatory chic. Ink haters like to ask, “How are those things going to look when you’re old and wrinkled?” That’s the very moment at which tattoos start earning their keep. When your body looks good on its own, marking it might mean gilding the lily; when it starts looking blah, those markings may be the only nice things left to be said for it.

By way of analogy, consider Oscar Wilde. Even before his prison term, he was a fat, middle-aged guy with bad teeth. He also sported a top-drawer wardrobe and waved his hair into what he liked to call a “Neronian coiffure.” When he got out of prison, he was a fat, middle-aged guy with bad teeth who wore cheap suits and derby hats. His appearance went further downhill in two years than Elvis’ did in 20, and it was the accessories that made all the difference. Sure, the post-Reading Wilde was also completely demoralized and fatally ill, but I maintain he could have fought his way back, given the funds for retail therapy.

Come to that, a tattoo might have done Wilde some good. I don’t think he’d have been quite institutionalized enough to have “C.3.3.,” his prisoner’s ID, etched into his chest, and he didn’t have enough knuckles to acccomodate “ALL MEN KILL THE THING THEY LOVE.” A lily entwined with a shamrock might have been more his speed — anything but “BOSIE.”

Most people aren’t aware of this, but I have a conservative social critic living inside my head. His name is Dr. Stuffy, PhD, M.Phil, and he serves as a contributing editor for Commentary. And, oh my stars, does he ever hate the cult of youth. He thinks Western civilization fell when men stopped wearing fedoras and suspenders (or, as he learned to call them up at Magdalen, “braces”). On women, he likes to see pantyhose (so much so that I think he’s a bit of a fetishist). You should just hear him on tattoos: “Noxious traces of the false romanticism that exalts the infantile and the primitive” is about as generous as he gets.

But even Dr. Stuffy clammed up that time in grad school when I took a friend’s mother to get tattooed. The woman was about 50, and the tattoo was her way of raising a triumphal arch over some major event. I’m a little embarassed to admit I forget exactly what she’d done, but it was something on the order of beating cancer or starting a new career. The body art served to remind her that she was still capable of dramatic and positive change. As a declaration of “Not dead yet,” the tattoo was a lot cheaper than a new car, and probably more reliable than a new boyfriend.

I suppose it’s strange, then, that I’ve never been attracted to tattooed women. To see a woman with something she considers special enough to insert into her very dermis is plain unnerving. Tattoos are less like cats in this respect than kids, but kids who will never exhaust their mother to the point where she collapses, broken and desperate, into my waiting arms. I am threatened; I am jealous.

I’m also all inked out for now. But if I ever feel the itch again, maybe I should have “TOTAL NEUROTIC” scrawled on my forehead. But nah — why ruin the surprise?

  • Baltimore Catechesis

    You know the Church sides with Dr. Stuffy, don’t you? It’s considered mutilation.
    That aside, they usually don’t do much for me. I thought the old ’70s butterfly on an ankle was fine, but they get bigger ond odder all the time. Go to the beach, and you’ll see lots of people making a statement with their tats. Usually it’s “I was SO drunk that night!”

  • Nina Evans

    I’ve heard of the Church position. Gladly though I am that I am Protestant(albeit Episcopal), I understand what the position wishes to convey. We are the temple of God and not landscape artists. Still, I am not overly fond of this body and will cheerfully chuck it when the trumpets call me home. This body however is the first gift God gave us. He has shown me that I should be properly grateful(which I am when faced with the myriad forms our humanity can take, not all as pleasant as what I have now). Now, tats have only one drawback for me. Needles. I have a terrible phobia of needles. Not ever going to get better, and I have stopped trying. So I have no interest in “landscaping” via ink. However, do I like those who use tattoos, wish to say something about who I am? Yes. And what I would like most people to know is: I am a work in progress. Maybe if I got a tattoo it would be ……. or TBA(to be announced). Perhaps that is the lesson of tattoos…..

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    Hooray! We’re back to the coffee spit take! (Last line did it.)
    I have never been tattoo tempted, but mostly because I know the suddenness and brevity of my own enthusiasms, as well as the pain and expense of laser removal. Maybe, like Constantine, I’ll hedge my bets and be a deathbed ink convert.
    But this is very timely for me, because in a Sunday-night skirmish with the people Jesus has moved into the houses around me in order to test that Who-is-my-neighbor? thing, I was accused (at arena-concert volume and with police backup) of being a stuck-up old (w)itch who judged people and found them wanting on the basis of their tattoos. I vehemently denied that, but decided it would be wise not to enumerate the many other bases upon which I judge my neighbors and find them wanting. My neighbors are tribal in some distinctly Appalachian ways, and though some have done time, their ink is not prison-related or bad-ass showing off; it’s as true a clean marker as it is in any other tribal culture anywhere in the world.
    At the other end of the scale (though maybe not so much now that I think of it) is a gay man I know who spends enormous amounts of money, time, and pain resculpting and redecorating his essentially schlumpy Long Island Jewish nerd self. He’s you at 17 (minus the gay), but he’s 40. It plays into stereotypes of gay male narcissism as easily as my neighbors’ habits play into trailer trash memes, but again I think the roots are tribal and about belonging.
    Coffee spit take AND anthropological musing. Swell post!

  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    That’s supposed to be *clan* marker. Hate autocorrect.

  • Adrienne

    Moving from the East Coast to the Left Coast was a shock to my sensibilities when it came to body embellishment. I have never seen so many bad tattoos in my life! If you are going to decorate yourself, that’s fine. But find a GOOD tattoo artist since this is a permanent thing. I mean, why put the equivalent of a velvet Elvis on your body? I’m thinking of investing in a tattoo removal salon because about 10 years down the road, business will be booming.

  • bones

    Balt Cat: The Church is against tattoos? Strange! I recall a recent Vatican-sponsored conference that was focused on ‘body art’ – and a quick spray of the Google reveals that tats were widespread among Christians in less sophisticated times.

    Anecdotal evidence: My grand father – may he rest in peace – a British Sergeant Major and Irishman whose father had anglicized his name to escape persecution – was a heavily tattooed fellow, so my mum tells me. His arms were replete with blued ink in curious shapes and lettering. Amazingly, despite his affinity for le tat he was a dedicated Catholic with a deep affection for St. Mary.

    [On the same trip to Hong Kong when I ended up in a sauna across from a like-tattooed Chinese, I visited a tattoo parlor that featured flash designs dating back to the Malay Emergency. In one, a pair of squaddies leaned on a lamp post, slack-jawed and drooling, over a banner that read: "YOUR NAME HERE and YOUR NAME HERE: BEST MATES; BORN TO BOOZE." Something tells me your granddad would have approved.]

  • Baltimore Catechesis

    Bones, You were right and I was wrong.
    Don’t see that very often in a combox, do ya?
    http://www.ewtn.com/vexperts/showmessage.asp?number=463499&Pg=Forum3&Pgnu=1&recnu=7
    Heck, if Mother Angelica says it’s OK, that’s almost as good as the Pope.
    But I remember the nuns warning us that tattoos were mutilation when I was a kid.
    The faith doesn’t change, but sometimes interpretations can. And interpretations, may change, but so do tattoos, and they never get prettier. Something to think of before you get one!

  • Kristen indallas

    Awesome Article. Yeak there are a lot of poorly thought tatoos out there… but lots of good ones too. People get them for as many different reasons as there are people. A good friend of mine is devoutly Catholic and has a giant Madonna and roses on her upper arm. I can’t imagine her ever living to regret that choice… and if she ever did, I’m sure she’d smile at the thought of “sticking it” to whatever future version of herself didn’t want the virgin mother out there for all to see.
    For me the tatoo was a reminder of a (very painful) lesson that I learned about life, somewhere along the way. I felt a very strong need to reinforce that lesson with more physical pain, rather than allowing myself to forget and repeat the same stupidness again. It was and still is a great way of processing. The 3-4 hours of excruciating pain giving me a non-girly excuse to cry was also good for processing. I still love the memory of one of the biggest burliest tatoo guys I’ve ever met mopping up my cry-snot and looking at me like he kind of got it.

    [It can be like an initiation rite in that respect. Incisive, needle-type pain never really made me cry, though. What makes me cry is concussive, punch-in-the-face type pain.]

  • Gerry

    What are you smoking? Those monstrosities are as far away as anything in this world can be from “beauty”.

    [What am I smoking, or what was I smoking when I got that stuff scratched into me?]

  • MissJean

    It is the Jews, not the Catholics, who were traditionally opposed to tattoos. Several women in my family have tattoos, but they’re forklift operators, former gang members, etc. They wanted to look tough – or in the case of one cousin, she let a budding tattoo artist practice on her. (The newer tats are so much better.) Their children don’t have tats because it’s vaguely uncool, like wearing mom jeans.

    I admit I’ve talked several teenagers out of tattoos. One of them was a girl whose best friend died of an O.D. and she wanted to have his name and birth/death date put on her arm. I asked her, “Do you think that he would have wanted you to turn your arm into a grave marker?” He was such a sweet guy for all his problems; I’m sure he’s happier that he’s tattooed on her heart.

    I personally find Grateful Dead bears and Warner Bros. cartoon characters hilarious, especially when sported by a 40-year-old who thought she was daring when she got it in ’89. My youngest brother thought about getting a tattoo, but was turned off by a classmate saying, “I want one, too. I want to be different like everyone else.” (Yes, like everyone else. To this day, they laugh.)

    Scars, though. Scars are way cool.

  • Pearty

    I checked out the link Baltimore. Not sure about that – strong hints of Marcionism there. I figure something so explicit in the Old Testament holds enough authority to not be so easily dismissed with “We are a resurrected people” pap.

    Tattoos unashamedly draw attention to the self. I reckon if I was asked to give one line to sum up Christianity it would be: “It’s not about you dickhead!”

  • http://notlukewarm.blogspot.com/ Deanna

    Both of my children have religious art tattoos. A crucified Christ, an Icthus and Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. One day a priest saw my son’s (Christ) while in confession and he blessed it. The only you can see if they are wearing business clothes is the icthus on my daughter’s foot. They each have other stuff as well, but none of it offense. Chrsit and Aslan are beautiful and took two days of work. My daughter said she would only but religious symbols as all else is fleeting in terms of likes and interests. Like in most things, the intention with which you do something is important.

  • Tim

    I had a friend in college who had tattoos up and down both arms (and probably other places, but I never asked). According to him, the tattoos told some kind of story. My memory is hazy, but I believe the “art” consisted of a T-Rex, toxic sludge and a monkey. His whole life was dedicated to tattoos and he wanted to become a tattoo artist. He was an art student and last I heard he moved to Oregon (somehow that is relevant).

  • Thomas R

    Yeah, I think an outright rule against tattooing would have made dealing with early Polynesian converts difficult at least.

    I used to have some interest in getting a tattoo, but I’m wimpy about needles. Now that it’s become so common/talked-about I’m kind of less interested. If I were to do it I thought I would go for vaguely geeky. Like an “impossible triangle”, the symbol for pi or phi, or the Chinese character for either “Book” or “Moon.” (Because those are two of the characters I remember from Chinese class so I wouldn’t be tricked. Also I think they’re kind of pretty)

  • Veronica

    I always thought it was kinda like putting a mustache on Mona Lisa. Why try better then God it in the first place.

  • David J. White

    Sorry, Max; I often agree with you — and always find you worth reading even when I don’t — but you’ve lost me on this one. I think it’s generational, though; I think I’m about ten years older than you (I just turned 50), and this is one area where those ten years make a big difference. When I was in college 30 years ago, if a woman had a tattoo it meant that she was either a stripper or a biker chick. Now, intellectually I know that that isn’t true anymore (and probably never was). But I just can’t get past it. My gut emotional reaction will always be “tattooed = slutty”. (Which would probably come as a shock to some of the good Christian girls I know who get Christian-themed tattooes, but there it is.)

    I realize that some people might say that I’m judging people by their appearance. But tattooing isn’t something one is born with; it’s something one chooses to do to oneself, and thus is an indicator of values and character, like choice of clothing and hairstyle.


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