A Great Mystery: the Tattoo

In the category of human behavior, there are quite a few things where I’m like, “Why on earth would they do that?” Sometimes it’s only a passing thought. Other times, the sense of wonder lingers.

Here’s an example of the kind of question that settles in for a long stay: Why does anyone get a tattoo? Not that I think being tattooed is evil or should be illegal. Simply, it’s not my cup of tea, and I guess I just don’t understand why it’s anybody’s.

The origin of the tattoo’s bad reputation is its historical function of labeling felons, slaves, concentration camp inmates, and other subjugated people. Like head-shaving, branding, and mutilation, the tattoo was a mark of guilt or shame imposed on people to advertise their status as criminals and outcasts. The concept of paying one’s debt to society and starting over with a clean slate is a recent one. In the old days, an offender was meant to be punished forever by society in general. A tattoo defined its wearer as someone under the control of authority, as a less-than-person, vulnerable to abuse by upstanding right-side-of-the-law citizens, who would not be penalized for violating the non-existent rights of a marked individual. It was like wearing a sign that said “victimize me.”

When the tattooing of convicts fell out of fashion in penology circles, the bikers, mafiosi, aryans, and other underworld characters took over the practice and began to voluntarily tattoo themselves and each other. Penitentiaries are showcases of skin art drawn with homebrew ink from ball point pens and other sources adorning the bodies of society’s designated dregs. In some ethnic criminal milieus, the style is to have teardrops applied to the face, one for each year of time served.

In former eras, the power of avenging Authority forced tattoos onto the skins of prisoners. Nowadays, convicts obligingly do it themselves.

There’s a real dark side to the tattoo culture. Plenty of sleaze merchants will sell you stuff like a 100-minute videotape made at Manhattan’s Hellfire Club, featuring extensively tattooed people. For another $49.95, you also get Erotic Tattooing & Body Piercing II, an adults-only opus that is touted as Even Hotter Than Part I!

The tattoo scene also harbors a whole lot of bad attitude. One shop’s ad reads, “If you ain’t tattooed you ain’t shit.” It’s a linguistic oddity – logically, the equivalent of saying, “If you are tattooed, you are shit.” The copy writer didn’t think it through all the way. Anyhow, grammatical nit-picking aside, we all know “you ain’t shit” is a colloquialism that means “you’re even less than shit, you’re nothing.” I get the message.

So let’s look beyond the words and consider the in-your-face hostility. For what? I don’t try to close down their shop or prevent their customers from going in. People who want to be tattooed can do so with no interference from me. But they want to dismiss my very claim to humanity, because I won’t pay them to poke dye into my skin.

In Africa’s past, tattooing served a useful purpose. There was a practical reason to decorate a child’s face with distinctive markings. It was like a bar code that only the parents could read. If a child were stolen by a rival tribe, s/he might not be seen again for years. An individualized tattoo guaranteed that no matter how long before the retaliatory raid in which they could recapture their children, the parents would be able to recognize them.

Americans have long been fascinated with tattoos. One of speculative fiction’s all-time classics is Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In this collection, each story is based on one of the scenes on the man’s fully tattooed body, which come to life like miniature TV shows.

Corporeal art of all kinds enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960s, when faces were adorned with rainbows and unicorns by artists at Be-ins, and body painting kits made great wedding gifts. The longhaired barefoot young woman wearing a gauzy dress and ankle bracelets, with a single rosebud tattooed on her shoulder blade, was a common sight.

In the 80s, a convention of the Tattoo and Body Art Society of New York drew over one hundred enthusiasts. Tattoos became quite chic. The Professional Tattoo Artists Guild grew and the Tattoo Art Museum was established. Even conventional people saw the advantages of the tattoo as facial cosmetic, in the form of “smudge-free” permanent eyeliner, eyebrow delineation, and lip outlining. In upscale LA boutiques, Betsey Johnson sold body suits, dresses and jackets covered with the designs of tattoo artist Mark Mahoney.

If I were fatally allergic to a pharmaceutical, I might consider having that information permanently affixed to my body, in the unlikely event of being brought to the ER naked and unconscious. Or a tattoo could take the form of a living will: “No heroic measures, do not resuscitate.” If you sell or donate your carcase for research, you may have a tattoo on your foot to notify medical personnel of the fact, after your death. If you’re an organ donor, they’re going to want to know before you die.

Some people just plain think tattoos are fun. Why not have a hula dancer engraved on your bicep, and flex to make her sway? As poet William Plomer put it, “And the muscle playing / under the skin / makes the rose writhe / and the skull grin.”

What started me thinking about all this, recently, was a teen who said she wanted to get a tattoo but her father was reluctant to greenlight the project. Why did she want to do this? The circumstances didn’t seem exactly right for asking her. So I asked myself. In the ensuing days I consulted my inner adolescent, who is never very far from the surface and always ready with an opinion.

Because I can. In other words, just to prove a point, namely that it’s my body.” Do we own our bodies? Incontestably yes. At what age? Here the waters become murky. How old should a person be before society grants autonomy? (For now, let’s not even get into the really complicated questions, like whether society should be the grantor of autonomy.) The age of reason and age of consent vary considerably, depending on where you are and what you want to do – see a movie, gamble, drink, drive, smoke, screw.

At what age should a person be legally allowed to decorate herself with body art? I don’t know. For a parent, the problem is whether to outright forbid; actively discourage; or say, “Do what you need to do.”

In Wally Lamb’s novel I Know This Much is True, a man motivated by religious conviction chops his own hand off. His brother upholds the decision and tells the medics not to retrieve the hand for surgical reattachment.

It’s difficult to stand by and let someone you love do an incomprehensible thing. It’s hard to respect that person’s right to do what s/he needs to do.

Recently a man in (why am I not surprised?) California paid a former doctor to cut his leg off. It’s a rare variety of sexual weirdness, apotemnophilia. The ex-doctor was arrested. And rightly so, many people say. But others say a private contract for the performance of a service is only the business of the concerned parties, and the government shouldn’t even be involved.

The legal validity of self-ownership is not the real issue anyhow. More significant is the perceived need to prove it. When a person is sure of something, they don’t need to prove it. Anything about you that is worthy of proof, life will shower you with plenty of chances to prove. There is no need to seek or create opportunities to demonstrate that you can take the pain.

Besides, proving something to anyone else is a fool’s game. The only person worth proving anything to is yourself. Especially in the case of parents. As long as you’re reacting to your parents, you’re not free. To do something only because your parents want you to, is not grown up. To do something only because your parent’s don’t want you to, isn’t grown up either. Grown up is when you stop reacting to your parents one way or another.

To be different.” Forget it. In this time and place, it’s way too late to count on the uniqueness factor of body art.

To express my personality.”This can backfire, can be misread, and say something about you that you didn’t intend. Whatever it is you think a tattoo says about you is open to different interpretations. In his autobiography, the Dutch “action painter” Jan Cremer talks about the blue star on his left arm. “I can make it come alive,” he says. “Whenever I wind up in jail and everything is taken away from me…I always fall back on my little blue star, gazing at it for hours on end.” Okay, whatever. If it works for him, fine. But it’s damn pathetic when the only solace a person in an extreme situation can turn to is his imaginary friend, the tattoo. What this says to me about Jan Cremer’s personality is probably not what he anticipated.

To be interesting.” Anyone who’s ever been in parochial school or the army knows that interestingness is there (or not) no matter what kind of dull uniform covers the body. A person with true charisma doesn’t have to do or say anything except walk into the room. A compelling presence is something that radiates from the interior. No amount of disguise can hide it if it’s there, and no amount of decoration can take its place if it isn’t.

Maybe it would be interesting to have a tattoo in a hidden place, a secret for a lover to discover. The trouble is, the surprise factor only works once. After the first time, and no matter how strategically located, the butterfly or even the dagger-pierced flaming heart is old news.

In time, the tattoo may turn out to be interesting in a way you didn’t bargain for. A decoration that enhances a healthy young physique will be unattractive, even hideous, later on. Faded, sickly colors on a body distorted by seventy years of life – forget it.

In the Netherlands, at the height of that country’s artistic glory, painters could be fined for not using high-quality canvas which would remain intact for posterity’s sake. But tattoo artists deliberately choose to practice their uniquely perishable art form on surfaces that will deteriorate and ultimately vanish. There are some great artists working in the body art medium, and I have to admire them for not being discouraged in the face of the inevitable extinction of their art. It must be frustrating to know none of your work will survive for even a hundred years.

There are many ways in which the permanence of dyed skin can become a liability. For instance, if you ever get into the serious crime business, or become involved with a political movement the government decides to persecute, an identifying mark could cost your freedom or your life.

The embarrassing tattoo with an old girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s name is a cliche’ of comedy. Suzanne, one of the legendary women of the Sixties (Leonard Cohen wrote a song about her) had the name CARL tattooed just above her pubic hair. Once Carl was out of the picture, she had it changed to CARE, but not everyone is lucky enough to have an ex-lover with such a conveniently mutable name.

To get off on it.” An extensively tattooed friend tells me she is hooked on the endorphins produced by the pain of the needle. Hey – whatever floats your boat, okay? But surely there are less expensive and less permanent ways to procure the pain experience.

Because guys get off on it.” If tattoos are sexy, it must be in an unhealthy, unnatural way, because the concept violates Darwinian logic. Here’s why. According to evolutionary theory, the mandate to self-replicate, to have offspring and pass along one’s genes, is the strongest drive in any animal. By this reasoning, what’s innately sexy are traits favorable to reproduction. We are told, for instance, that a female bird is attracted by a male bird’s glossy plumage because it proves the absence of parasites. She doesn’t reason this out, of course, but on some level the ability to recognize a healthy partner is hardwired.

By this same theory, a human male supposedly is attracted to big tits and rounded hips because, on an instinctive level, he translates these as signifiers of capable and abundant motherhood. Even though it’s not true. But let’s go with this theory, just for the mental exercise. Suppose we accept the idea that sexiness, in the most primitive part of the brain, translates to “biologically superb specimen with genes that will benefit my offspring.”

What natural phenomena does a tattoo most resemble? A bruise or scar. A patch of discolored skin, evidence of disease or a healing wound. These are bad genetic bets and must be off-putting to the subconscious. If a man is aroused by a tattoo, his atavistic brain is probably not thinking, “Here’s an appropriate mate to bear my offspring.” It’s probably thinking, “Here’s a female who lets men beat her.” When a woman sees a tattooed man, that primitive brain probably thinks, “Here’s a male so clumsy and inept he can’t stay out of the way of things that injure and scar his body.” Does this sound like the perfect father for one’s children? No, in terms of survival of the fittest, it simply doesn’t make sense. Arousal at the sight of a mark on the skin must be a learned response and not an intrinsic one.

Empirical evidence confirms this. If men were innately turned on by multicolored skin designs, they would love stretch marks. Trust me on this – they don’t. If women were innately aroused by multicolored skin designs, they’d be wild for rosacea and port wine birthmarks. Which isn’t generally the case

I’m afraid I have to stick with the conclusion that being aroused by a tattoo is not at all natural, but is a learned and highly specialized response. And that in itself is no argument in its favor. In the old days, Chinese men became conditioned to arousal by women’s stinky rotting bound feet.

To show commitment.” I know a man who has an astonishing full color portrait of his wife’s face, lifelike and nearly lifesize, over his pectoral. This is true devotion and a very strong indicator of monogamous intent. But what if something bad happens anyway, like if she dies? Imagine being his second wife, having that face stare at you every time he takes off his shirt.

The renowned Skibo has said that a tattoo is a sign of commitment. But lovers find new partners; men marked with the labels of biker gangs and hate groups find Christ; people find a number of reasons to regret their tattoos, and then they pay big bucks to laser jockeys to get rid of the things.

If I were putting together an investment portfolio I’d buy stock in dermatology clinics (and hearing aid manufacturers) and cash in on the folly of youth when the chickens of excess come home to roost.

Anyway, most tattoos don’t include either names or organizational affiliations. They are just pictures. Having them applied may be a sign of commitment, but to what? To having an ineradicable mark on one’s body. Big whoop.

Getting back to the muse who inspired all this: for a young woman, there’s really only one important consideration: the worst case scenario. Further on down the line, what if you meet the Great Love of Your Life and it turns out he absolutely cannot bear tattoos? He totally refuses to consider a long-term or even a short-term relationship with you, because of this aversion.

My easily accessible inner teenager on 24-hour call has an answer for that, too. “I could never fall in love with anyone so superficial/judgmental/obtuse.”

Well, maybe. It’s easy enough to say, until it actually happens; a stand that is easy to take but difficult to maintain. Because, when it comes to love, never say never. If you fall head over heels for a guy who totally refuses to consider a tattooed woman as an appropriate mate, that’s gonna be real painful. It’s bad enough when a man rejects you for a reason you can’t do anything about – your advanced age, your child from a previous marriage – but to be rejected for some thing you could have prevented is miserable.

RL tattoo by Klipang Torok Creative Commons License

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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6 Responses to A Great Mystery: the Tattoo

  1. Random T. says:

    Not that I’m totally impressed, but this is a lot more than I expected for when I found a link on Furl telling that the info is awesome. Thanks.

  2. GOt to say i really enjoyed reading your writings, keep up the good job.

  3. thanks !! really helpful post!

  4. I love tattoos and don’t for a minute regret getting any of them, I’m currently getting a angel tattoo down my right arm can’t wait to get it finished! as can only afford smallsittings at a time. My tattoo artist is very experienced and also very expensive but, he’s worth it! Great site btw

  5. Nita Balmir says:

    Great post, I saved ones web site we check out once in, All the best

  6. This looks interesting!

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