Way back around maybe fifteen years ago, getting pierced or tattooed meant that you were a Deep Person. This was the age of ReSearch's Modern Primitives book, the movie Dances Sacred and Profane, of Silence of the Lambs, and of the backlash against the Age of Greed that had preceded it. Getting tattooed meant that you were enough of a rebel to make an indelible stamp on your hide: I am not a sell-out to the Corporate World, like all those other people in my high school graduating class, I am an artist, a free-thinker, an entrepreneur. Like the other fads of its day, like cigar smoking, it involved pain, and risk, and the whisper of death. A person who got tattooed, especially with one of the tribal or Chinese/Japanese designs, was someone who'd travelled, someone who was a Deep Thinker who had gone on Spiritual Vision Quests and had made Life Decisions (kind of like how people, um, used to have children?) If you weren't afraid to say you read real books, you might even reference Stranger in a Strange Land. Tattoo people were, circa Early Nineties, always talking about how they'd gone to South America to take Yage with the Indians, or how they'd had this incredible trip on Ecstasy at the Rainbow Gathering, or once they'd been in the Program, or in some impossibly harsh martial-arts dojo, for a whole year...(somehow, drugs, either getting off of, or taking semi-unobtainable varieties, were always part of the story)..."and so, I knew right then, I needed to make a mark, that would always remind me...just who I am...To keep me always, mystically, in that moment, when my identity was engraved upon me..."
The S/M part of this made tattoos kind of sexy: a man with a tattooed penis was infinitely more likely to go from third base to home than a man without. A straight woman with a tattoo, like a woman smoking a cigar, had a certain black-pepper quality to her: she had a past, and hence a bit of mystery. The pain factor, plus its association with "tough" or "masculine" imagery made a visible tattoo and/or piercings, along with a low-saturation-colored wardrobe was an essential part of the Womyn's Studies set, broadcasting loud and clear that you were NOT in any way associated with plastic standards of female beauty. Maybe you had it done where no one but a lover would see it. Maybe you put it where it wouldn't show at work. Maybe you had it where it would show...just a little. Or a lot. So we went from linked Venus Mirrors and winged cherries on the inner thigh, to Snoopys on the butt to Flower designs on the lower back to Meaningful tattoos on the upper arm to...and all of a sudden, we had a new fashion accessory that complimented low-rider jeans, tank tops, and silicon boobs just fine. Usually the story that goes with this type is "Well, we were on vacation at the Indian Casino, and we'd won a lot of money...yeah, that's Suzanne and me, we decided to go for the week, and then...we just decided to get tattooed. So, I got a pink Pegasus, and she got a blue Unicorn, and so when we put our bippies side by side, in thongs, you got two halves of a rainbow...You know, BFF stuff. We got sooo many free drinks that Summer..."She flexes her hand with the acrylic nails, a carry-over from her old cigarette habit. "Anyway, it's a shame we don't see each other more often, but after the C-section I heard she doesn't wear thongs that much anymore."
Like acrylic nails or wearing fetish clothing in public this kind of tattoo screams "Hey, lookamee! I am sexy, no?". However, in-your-face female sexual attention-getting drops in fascination considerably after forty, and begins to look not alluring, but desperate, around fifty, when most women (outside of a few subcultures) have long since put away their four inch heels and push-up bras in favor of something a little more subtle. Unfortunately for the tattooed, they're going to be stuck with their ever-more-bruised-looking Mythical Horses In Like in managed care, endlessly having to explain that their tattoos are altogether different from that couples' the next floor over, who insist their beds be C-clamped together....
For awhile we had Fan Tattoos: it was sort of like having a permanent T-shirt -- from I ♥ Rock & Roll, to logos of bands, to (however hamhandedly executed) portraits of whatever celebrity or anime character, or whomever, charming, once done, two years later, an embarrassment. Let's not even get into the hip-hop variety, where you have people trying to make designs on skin too dark to really show much of anything, of memes that have all the longevity of a souffle. (Also, it's hard to persuade the judge you really didn't mean to hurt your girlfriend when your forehead is proclaiming
"THUG".) Sports fans...alumns of colleges...they've got their own problems without me trying to point them out.
At the last, we have ironic tattoos. "Hello, my name is..." Bacon. Fingerstaches. Chinese characters that say "I don't speak Chinese". Band-aids, even those which refer to real disabilities. This kind of says, "Yeah, I'm a Deep Thinker all right, but I think more deeply than those losers who have the Deep Thinker tattoos. Enough to make fun of them, in fact. So, let's just say I have the balls to get tattooed, and leave it at that." The first time you see one of these, it's just so clever! The next twenty, you wonder why they bothered.
Maybe you aren't following the IBM Dress Code, or working for Amalgamated Widget, but what you're doing is the same slotting yourself for life that you fought against when you were tattooless, as The Guy with the Dragon on His Neck, or The Woman with the Pearl Diver with Two Octopodes on Her Back. If you have something drug-related, as a friend (who got a woman skeleton slumped over a table with a needle and a spoon as part of a killer video from downtown New York with G. G. Allin) found out.... every year he has to tell his freshman English class the same dreary story, about how he was a junkie, kicked, and now, long after he's gotten bored with the whole subject of heroin, recovery, and even telling people not to take drugs, he's going to want their compositions in next class.
It's pretty much the problem with the current trend of witty baby names, except that you have no one else to blame but yourself.
As for myself, I am tattooless. But I can claim some interest in the artform: I was the subject of a tattoo parlor's portfolio. As the "White Slave", I was dressed in flowing Tyrian purple silk Chinese pyjamas, with short redbrown hair (as I had), holding an opium pipe(I had a William S. Burroughs fixation), during the late 70's, at Papillon's a place where I was resident pinball/videogame genius (which, surprise!, got me into the use of computers for lulz, as opposed to just work...). It is in the same era that I was a face in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose hero has indeed, several tattoos: one of which being a number, as commonly was given in a concentration camp. If anything, I feel respectful towards what this represents. Perhaps I am biassed...but I love getting those temptoos from coin machines with designs from Boog Phat Graphs...Just as long as I can change them any time I like...
Written for Amazon's Mechanical Turk, who was going to pay me $2.50 USD for an essay on tattooing. I chose not to take the job until the essay was a done deal. Someone beat me to it.......