Recently, I walked into a locksmith and the guy at the counter said, “Finally, a woman who has more tattoos than me.” He was probably flirting, but having tattoos always invites commentary. People tend to shout at me from the sidewalk, “Hey! Nice tat!”
It’s interesting, to say the least.
Someday, tattoos will be so popular, this commentary won’t be as novel, I suppose. The topic of tattoo popularity is for certain an interesting one to me, in fact, the theme of tattoos and meaning is weaving its way through a number of pieces I’m working on, and you can find the topic of tattoos in Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” (circa 1951). Flannery O’Conner wrote a short story worth reading called “Parker’s Back,” and Sylvia Plath touched on them eloquently in her short story, “The Fifteen Dollar Eagle.” Two of my favorite books revolve around tattoos: Karol Griffin’s (she’s now passed away) Skin Deep: Tattoos, The Disappearing West, Very Bad Men, and My Love For Them All and Jeff Johnson’s Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink.
A tattoo is a creation. It’s a strange exchange–cash for someone sticking moving needles in your flesh to create a permanent picture–but it’s one that for some, once they get the bug, they just can’t stop.
Tattoos for so long in America have meant being fringe or outside, if you have more than just a few. But really, I think they are often the reverse. Tattoos shout look at me. My body is a work of art. Place your judgments and fears on me. Put your perceptions on me.
In the early days of American tattooing, ink was something that wasn’t as accessible as it is now. Few ink companies would even sell to tattoo artists. A crafty tattoo artist finally made a fictional toy company and ordered inks to “test on his toys,” then tested them on his clients instead.
Tattoos are subjective. They mean different things to different people. They can be thuggish or criminal. They can be literary or nerdy.
A tattoo is an agreement to let someone else communicate on your skin. Getting one supports a tattoo artist, just like getting flowers at a florist supports a flower shop.
When asked, “Are those permanent,” I want to say, “Nothing human is permanent.”
Some people get really into the art and world of tattooing. They research history and artists. They fly all over the world to get tattoos from artists they admire. They write articles about tattoos, start magazines, go to conventions.
Others have one or two that they only show to a select few, like a secret badge of honor or shame.
Some people get a tattoo because their friends do it, they like it, or they want a thrill. They want to do something different. They want to put something their friend drew as a token of respect or they want to show that they overcame something. Tattoos are often a celebration of an event or a person.
We can’t choose the skin we’re born with. But we can decorate our skin to reflect more of what we feel we are. This is where tattoos come in for many people. A blur of color. A splash of multiplicity. A token of support or love.
It still makes people stare and grimace sometimes, it still makes some people look tough and unapproachable, it still seems weird to others, but tattoos are pretty much here for now, can’t avoid them.
One of my relatives was commenting the other day about how she feels about tattoos. She wanted to stand up on a bench in Walmart and shout, “If you want to be unique, DON’T get a tattoo.”
I don’t think having a tattoo makes you better or worse, but I think they’re (often, not always) pretty. I am drawn to people who have them. I like hearing the stories behind them. One of my friends has so many beautiful tattoos with such cool back stories, I could listen to her talk about them all day long.
None of mine have very deep meanings, mostly they’re just aesthetic. I personally started getting tattoos because I liked the people I knew who had tattoos and I liked their tattoos. Once I got one, it was easier to get another and there it went. It was something to look forward to, a way of connecting with other artists, a way of making me look outside how I feel inside.
I don’t really think about my own that much, except when I am around other people who don’t understand them, and then I can feel the unanswered questions in the air. But that’s not my problem, I can’t change your perception of my skin. I think if you’re going to go there, own it. A tattoo can be a powerful thing. It can also be simply a tattoo, nothing more than what it is.
And not having tattoos ain’t nothing to be ashamed of either.