I don’t mind that they hurt like the dickens—like a shard of burning, jagged, broken glass being scraped into your skin with a feel and sound of an electrically short-circuiting, combined buzz saw and drill bit, and the blood that’s being wiped away signaling the permanence of that ink as it’s buried beneath and on your skin … forever. You walk in, flashing virgin epidermis, and walk out with the Chinese symbol for “light starch” tattooed to your chest. It sounded like a fine idea at the time—you dreamt that you’d be reincarnated as a shirt and didn’t want the world to be too hard on you.
Physical evidence going back over 5,000 years has shown us that there’s not much new under the skin as far as inking goes, or the variety of people who adhere to the processes. Priestesses and pirates; soldiers, sailors, and carnival workers; criminals and tradesmen; samurais and slaves; and religious pilgrims and whores all have had something to show on their skin that set them apart from the unadorned. Headhunters and circus showmen; Popeye the Sailor and Lydia the Tattooed Lady. The Illustrated Man and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Rose Tattoo, The Crying Heart Tattoo. From Siam to Siberia and Samoa, ink under the skin set sects apart—from ordinary citizenry—bringing luck and the protection of the gods. Seamen from the 17th century used tattoos as identifying marks to avoid unlawful impressments and as body identification in case of shipwreck. “Songs are like tattoos, you know, I’ve been to sea before.”
When I was a kid in the 50s, we had fake transfer tattoos. I got my first real tat in 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, another in the shadow of the Panama Canal: a Janis Joplin rose from Lyle Tuttle’s studio in San Francisco, the word “Mentirosa” (liar) on one shoulder to commemorate love lost, my daughter’s name on a forearm, and yes, I’ve got “ROSIE” on my chest.
Back in the days of my youth, it was the bad boys, the tough guys, the outlaws that sported ink. Men got them in the military, women had showpieces in special places, and—unspoken but understood—all tattoos stayed clear of the face, neck, and below the cuff line. A man with a tear tattooed to his face is said to have killed someone (two tears, two someones, etc.). LOVE and HATE on the knuckles signified someone ready to use his fists. My mother’s first husband had FFFF on his knuckles signifying the Four F (Find ‘em, Feel ‘em, Fu*k ‘em, and Forget ‘em!) Club. Back then, you could read people by the pictures they had on their bodies because, yes, it hurts, it’s permanent, and most times semi-thought-out; but, your tattoo then became part of your identity and persona. I have my initials on my wrist from the needle, thread, and India ink method used when I was incarcerated once; jailhouse tats are notorious in their complexities and stories.
Back then, a tattoo parlor had books of pictures that you could have put on your body and they charged by the illustration that was chosen. Today, tat artists will charge by the hour and are capable of Michelangelo-grade work in scope and concept, plus there is an epidemic of amateurs who just need some friends to practice on. Ink has gone from subculture to pop culture, and it is a lot easier to get inked today; also, in some cases, a lot more expensive. Some of the better artists can cost between $300 to $500 an hour (and up); in some parlors, there’s an apprentice standing by to take the overflow just for the practice. In all cases, you get what you pay for, and then pay for what you’ve gotten.
It is said that getting tats got goosed in 2005 with a TV show called Miami Ink and was further propelled into the mainstream with social media, tattoo artist superstars, and superstars who started sporting tattoos. But I’m not quite sure if that statement is completely accurate. I was kinda busy with hurricanes that year.
Putting aside deviance and decoration, today’s tattoo cult got its start in the 60s with the hippie and biker cultures and went into full bloom with young women in the 80s having lower back and nape-of-neck decorations, quite sexy at the time. Sports stars got into the act and younger kids wanted to emulate their heroes. And then it happened that bigger and more better became better and more bigger.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a myriad of unprofessional (bad, naïve, inexperienced, homemade) tattoos out there that have a body wondering what people must be thinking—or not thinking—to have something silly or less-than-wise permanently put on their skin. Like the folks who look like someone has taken a Sharpie marker and doodled on them, or a name or saying that will mean nothing to the person five years down the road, or that person who had neck and facial ink that will be a logical cause for limited employment opportunities.
Be that as it may, personally, I love tattoos, on myself and on other people. When I spy someone with tattoos, I want to go up and find the story behind them. Unfortunately, with the plethora of ink on bodies, I have this pessimistic fear that some people get inked “just because.” Perhaps they become addicted to the experience; perhaps they have too much money. I, myself, have a story with each of my renderings; they’re like pieces of art hung on the gallery of my body, and I want more, except I find that I can’t afford them.
Would I recommend a person getting a tattoo? Yes, but with the caveat issued by Carlos Torres, a world-renowned ink artist: “Think long term.” (I say, “Think nursing home!”) So, I’d shy away from zombies, Herman Munster, a portrait of someone whom you (believe that you) know/love, cat butts, Jesus playing basketball, ANY politician, sex organs, anything in old English lettering, or above your collar line. And, for heaven’s sake, check all grammar and spelling so you don’t wind up with “Never Don’t Give Up!” or “No Regerts.”