Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Unillustrated Man

Current Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Inspirational Quote: "Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?" -- Anonymous

Last Sunday, Cassandra and I went swimming at the local pool. We were splashing around in the water surrounded by scores of other parents and children and teens all doing much the same thing.

What struck me was the abundance of tattoos. It seemed like everywhere I looked, I saw ink. This pool is close to a military base, and the military has always had a tradition of marking themselves. However, that alone couldn't account for the sheer volume and variety of stuff on display. It wasn't just men, of course, but women too and one of the teenage lifeguards had the Chinese character for luck emblazoned on one shoulder.

Why is this so popular? I think my head is the wrong shape for this idea.

In the old days, a tattoo marked you as part of a social group... usually something a little more formidable than the bridge club, maybe even actually dangerous: bikers, criminals, and for some reason, sailors (my father was a sailor, but he remains unmarked. I think that, had he gotten one, something along the lines of "If found, please return to..." would have been appropriate). Now, anyone and everyone seems to sport ink.

I've seen everything from microdots of butterflies to half-body dragons in blue and red and yellow and green. They're impressive for the sheer ingenuity and stamina required to create them and inject them onto the human body, but I don't find them attractive and so I wonder what the incentive is.

I'm not a particularly handsome man, and if someone were able to tattoo a picture of someone who WAS a handsome man over my features, why then I'd go right out and get one today. Sadly, that seems to be beyond the current state of the art.

I wonder if anyone's ever gone out and gotten a tattoo done in flesh-colored ink?

My sister-in-law has a butterfly just east of her collarbone. It's "cute," I guess, in the way that small bugs often can be. However, I have no desire to decorate my body with members of the order insecta. I have enough nightmares about bugs on my body as is without waking up to discover one permanently etched on my skin.

The same goes for just about every species of fauna, real or imaginary. I have no need of tigers, dragons, or snakes in real life so I don't see any reason to carry their image around with me. True, such images speak to one's courage or ferocity, but if the only way you can display those characteristics is to go under the needle, then a tattoo isn't going to do much for your insecurity.

Some tattoos I see are very small. When I ask why so small, the usual reply is, "I didn't want anything gaudy." My audible reaction is polite acknowledgment, but inside I'm thinking, "oh, then you shouldn't have gotten a tattoo." Some are very large, taking up a quarter of the body or more and demanding some degree of nakedness to be fully appreciated. I figure, if you're beautiful naked, then don't colorize perfection. If you're not beautiful naked, coloring your skin blue and black and red isn't going to improve things. It's just going to make you look like a victim of incredibly precise and artistic domestic violence.

I've seen a lot of Chinese characters. Few people, including some of my Chinese friends, know what they mean. 'Luck' is popular, supposedly, but if you don't read Chinese ideograms how do you know what you've really got? You might think you're walking around with the word 'Brave' on your ankle, but the first time you run into someone with a translation fetish you might find out you've labeled yourself 'Spongecake' by mistake.

Words and phrases are common as well, beloved quotes or names of significant people. I'd be honored if someone immortalized me by inking my name on their skin, but I think far too many people have inked someone's name on themselves only to regret the action after they've fallen out. I suppose "Mom" is safe. She loves you even if you're practically invisible under all that markup. The quotations are a neat idea too, although I'd stop at one or two lines. War and Peace, for example, would be almost unreadable due to the required font size. I suppose you could end with "Continued on next body," down around your heel...

And who reads these? The owner? I think that if you have to write something down on your body in permanent ink in order to remember it, then you have issues that a tattoo won't solve. Casual passers-by are unlikely to stop long enough to read what's been written. They rarely stop long enough to read billboards, and saying to someone "Stop a moment, I want to read your body," is likely to get you a slap or a punch depending on the sex of your reading material.

I have an Oriental friend who has no tattoos, but once considered getting "Made in Taiwan" tattooed on the bottom of her foot.

One thing I see a lot is stylized spiky things. Like barbed wire. I've encountered barbed wire in real life, courtesy of an upbringing in farm country. I've been marked by it sufficiently that I feel no need to wrap an imaginary strand around what passes for my biceps. If you think it looks tough, try wrapping real barbed wire around your arm. THAT will impress just about anyone.

And of course despite the availability of laser removal, tattoos are permanent. Which means that whatever you acquire when you're twenty will still be there when you're thirty, or fifty, or seventy. As a result, I think that before you get a tattoo, you should give some serious thought to what it will look like on that loose, baggy skin you're going to be sporting in the distant future. That eagle on your chest is going to devolve into a gothic vulture after forty years, which is going to send a very different message to viewers than I suspect you intended.

I am unmarked, as should be obvious, but I deny no one the right to decorate themselves as they see fit. Those of you who have chosen to be tattooed have your reasons, and I respect that.

I just don't get it.


Michael Offutt said...

I think tattoos are pretty cool myself and I especially enjoy beautifully done ones.

Ulysses said...

I can respect that.

slcard said...

Ah, you're back in funny form, Captain. I love it!

I've got two tattoos. I'm rather fond of them.

Ulysses said...

Yes... but why?

slcard said...

Why not?

Ulysses said...

Well played, S.L., well played...