The age of body art
June 17, 2009 By Ian Robinson
A couple of weeks ago, I hit the pool of a time-share condo complex in Vegas and, when people started peeling off their shirts to go swimming, I nearly swallowed my teeth.
I turned to my wife and said: “What the hell?”
We were the only people I could see without body art.
There was enough ink on everybody else to sustain the entire print run of a major metropolitan daily newspaper.
“Wow,” my wife said.
“What is this, Convict Week?” I wondered.
Half the people in my line of vision looked like outlaw biker thugs
serving life sentences in one of those A&E network shows about
At first, I assumed my reaction was a middle-aged, grumpy thing, but
half the people in my line of sight were middle-aged and older… and
they were tattooed as well.
Times had changed and my generation—except for me—had changed with it.
When I was a kid, you occasionally saw a guy—and only guys—with a tattoo.
Such tattoos fell into four categories:
1) A heart with a dagger through it.
2) A heart without a dagger through it, over the word “Mom.”
3) A ship’s anchor.
4) Their name on their forearm.
The heart with a dagger meant that some heartless beastwoman from the
bowels of hell had lured them into love and then broken their heart and
they’d had ink driven into their flesh with a sharp needle to remind
them to never—ever —offer up their heart to be broken again.
Personally, I’ve never needed a tattoo for that purpose.
Love hurts. Yeah. I get that.
The heart without a dagger with the word “Mom?”
That meant the guy loved his mom.
Apparently more than the guys who didn’t have that tattoo.
Paging Dr. Freud…paging Dr. Freud…
The ship’s anchor meant they’d been in the navy or the merchant marine.
Their name on their forearm meant they had a serious drinking problem
and needed a reminder of who they were on their arm for those mornings
when they woke up and had to ask the all-important question: Who am I?
I have woken up wondering: “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?” and “Who do I know with bail money?” but never, “Who am I?”
Anyway, those four tattoos were it.
Women of my generation didn’t get tattoos, at least not when they were young.
When they wanted to rebel and annoy their parents, they got busy doing drugs and having pre-marital sex.
I know the term sounds corny, but that’s what it was called.
Hell, when I was a teenager, we had a biology teacher who called it
“marital relations” so that if somebody did it before they got hitched,
technically they were having “pre-marital, marital relations.”
Which confused everybody and may have contributed in no small part to our high school’s staggering teenage pregnancy rate.
One girl I went to school with had two kids between freshman and senior year, and her parents just adopted them.
Maybe if our teachers had quit trying to sound respectable by calling
the procreative act “marital relations,” this poor, dumb girl might
have figured out what caused pregnancy and done something about it.
But while some of the girls in my high school could carve more notches
on their bedposts than Wyatt Earp could on the handle of his Colt
Peacemaker, and some of them could make a passable water bong in five
minutes with an empty pop bottle, a pocketknife and a roll of duct
tape, none of them would ever have dreamed of getting a tattoo.
That would have been, well, kind of too wild and trampy.
Then somewhere around 1990, I guess, things changed.
Some girl at the beach would walk by and she’d have a butterfly tattoo the size of a dollar coin on her shoulder blade.
Or a unicorn on her ankle.
For a while, that was it.
Then came Tweety Bird. Lots of girls got Tweety Bird tattoos. Guess ’cause he was cute and nonthreatening.
And then it seemed all bets—and all moderation—was off, and the next
thing you know, you’re sitting poolside in Vegas, and there are
20-year-old, middle-class girls parading around with full-sleeve ink
featuring flames and barbed wire and skulls engulfed in flames and
wrapped in barbed wire, like Yakuza gangsters in Tokyo.
Not to mention the ones who combine tattooing with scarification, branding and body piercing.
Half the time when I come upon a young person, I don’t know whether to
smile and say hi, or call 911, because some of them are walking around
with so much metal in their faces, they look like they lost a fight
with a guy armed with a rivet gun.
Although I’d dearly love to be 18 again, I think I’d be afraid to try it.
When I was that age, all I had to do to look cool was buy the right kind of jeans and quit getting haircuts.
No needles or rivet guns involved.
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