Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In defense of bad tattoos

Posted By on 09.19.12 at 06:48 AM

One of the authors many bad tattoos
  • One of the author's many bad tattoos
People who don't like tattoos often ask people who have tattoos, "Do you know what that's going to look like when you're 80?" Ignoring the subtle, mean-spirited passive aggression of the question, I probably agree: yeah, they're almost definitely going to look terrible. The first tattoo I ever got—a cartoonish fairy/angel/devil girl from a sketch by the front man of the Canadian indie rock group Eric's Trip that I was obsessed with throughout my teens—is 17 years old, which is almost as old as I was when I got it, and the delicate shading meant to evoke pencil on paper that looked so incredible and lifelike when it was new it has already faded, the lines blending together into a slightly blurry blue-black mass. Between that and the tattoos that I've seen on elderly men, I have no illusion that anything inked on my skin is going to look like anything but a vague suggestion of what it looks like now. And that's fine by me.

For one thing, I hope that if I'm lucky enough to make it through my 70s the last thing I'm going to be worrying about is whether or not my tattoos look cool. There is also the fact that pretty much all elderly men with tattoos look completely bad-ass, even if it's a 60-year-old eagle he got on leave when he was in the Navy that now just looks like an ink stain. (Actually, especially if that's what it is.)

But I honestly just love bad tattoos. Faded ones, poorly executed ones, poorly considered ones—pretty much any bad ink that's not related to gang-banging or white power. And unlike most people who gawk at online photo galleries of bad tattoos, this isn't a simple ironic appreciation. While tattooing as an art form has evolved to a point where even people who aren't interested in getting inked themselves are willing to consider it as such, that gorgeous, intricate needlework does nothing to move me. I'll take Mr. Cool Ice over a photorealistic portrait of someone's dead grandparent any day of the week. Mr. Cool Ice has a singular vision that he's dedicated to at an insane level, and I respect the hell out of that.

As the criminally underappreciated Philadelphia garage-pop group the Tough Shits so perfectly put it in their song "Flash Art"—about choosing the tattoo equivalent of clip art over custom work—"The last time I checked, a tattoo is just a cool picture that you put on your body until you're dead." Tattoos can be artful and tasteful, but bad tattoos have character, and I like character a whole lot more than I like tastefulness. Bad tattoos come from teenager-like single-minded obsession over something, or from a spur of the moment decision made with no concern for its consequences, or from someone taking a joke so far that they're willing to get it permanently inked on their body, and I love all of those things.

I have seven tattoos right now, and the one that I gave the most thought to beforehand was that first one I got. It's also my least favorite, and I might consider getting it covered up if I didn't think cover-ups are an absolute cop-out. I actually like it less than what is, from a technical standpoint, probably my worst tattoo. It's a "13" on my chest—the result of a dare with a fellow Pixies fan—that a former roommate cajoled me into letting him top with flames at the beginning of his apprenticeship at a tattoo shop, despite the fact that I knew it was going to make me look like a rockabilly fan.

And it did, at least until the yellow and orange inks faded away, leaving only a web of red ink that's visible when I"m wearing tank tops. So now instead of people mistaking me for a rockabilly fan they mistake me for someone with a serious-looking rash on his chest. In terms of artistic merit, it ranks well below a lot of bathroom graffiti. But every time I've had to explain its back story to some friendly stranger who's concerned I might be having a serious allergic reaction we've shared a laugh. And that's worth way more than whatever it would cost to fix it, if that's even the right word.

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

"Death and tattoos: an introduction to this week's Variations on a Theme," by Tony Adler
"Gay tattoos and Samuel Steward," by Julia Thiel

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