Monday, September 17, 2012

Death and tattoos: an introduction to this week's Variations on a Theme

Posted By on 09.17.12 at 06:46 AM

Tell me somebodys never going to regret this.
  • Rex Douglas
  • Tell me he's never going to regret this.
The only image I ever actually considered inking into my skin was a Reader illustration. I can't find it now—and I may have it completely wrong in my head—but I think it was drawn by the estimable Tom Herzberg sometime in the late 1980s and showed a baby floating among clouds. I had an idea that I might get two copies of that baby tattooed on my left bicep, one for each of my sons.

It was partly a joke, of course—a riff on those flag decals World War II fighter pilots used to stick alongside their cockpits every time they downed an enemy plane. I'd made successful hits on two ova. But there was also an at least semiserious calculation involved. As far as I could see, fatherhood was one of the very few things about my life that couldn't be undone. I could get unmarried and stop writing. I could renounce my citizenship, reject my religion, and repudiate my favorite works of art. Putting a picture of Jimmy Stewart on my calf may prove embarrassing some day, however much I like It's a Wonderful Life. But nothing is ever going to cancel out the fact that I had a part in creating two new souls. No way, no how. I couldn't shake that if I wanted to, and I don't. So, yes, two babies would do fine.

Which is why I'm a little mystified at how far the fashion for tattoos has gone.

It's been around for years, sure—a friend published a book on what she called the "new tattoo" back in 1996. But this summer of 2012 was when I noticed the sheer ubiquity of decorated epidermis. It seems everybody's got something, and a good proportion of them have something extensive. Can it be that they've all found an image that passes the no way, no how test? Do they truly believe they'll always love that barbed-wire armband tat? Are they sure they'll never regret that cascade of stars running down the stomach toward the groin?

In a way, I admire them for the risk they take in allowing themselves to be marked so permanently, though I also wonder if that isn't the point, after all—to have something indelible about you in an implacably mutable culture, even if it's just a Hello Kitty character sitting on a nest of filigree at the small of your back. Inasmuch as your parents are no longer together, dating is dead, and the job you were trained for has disappeared, the notion that little button-eyed Kitty abides may prove comforting.

But it still seems like a bad bet to me. Time will inevitably work on that tattoo and turn it into a dark irony. (The cascade of stars ending in what?) Maybe it was a superstitious fear of inviting such ironies that kept me from getting babies drawn on my bicep.

In that respect, the most ingenious tattoo I've ever seen belonged to a woman I met at the theater one night, who had the entire 23rd psalm written out in Hebrew on her back. Whatever transformations are in store for her, she'll encounter them while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

(Click here to read writing about foraging, last week's Variations on a Theme.)

Read more from Tattoo Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Gay tattoos and Samuel Steward," by Julia Thiel
"In defense of bad tattoos," by Miles Raymer

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