Watching the NBA playoffs on television this week, I can’t help but wish I had some tattoos. I also wish I were young, athletic, adored by millions of fans, making tens of millions of dollars, and had a cool name like Nenê or Luol Deng or Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Unfortunately, none of these things are going to happen to me. Including the tattoos.
As a 57-year-old middle-class white guy, I am too old and too out-of-it to get a tattoo, even if they could find some skin that still had enough tone and elasticity to hold the ink. I’d be laughed out of the tattoo parlor. Especially if I called it a “parlor.”
Still, enough of the spirit of rebelliousness and nonconformity I had as a youth has survived into late middle age that I think I’d get me a “tat” were I about 35 years younger. Sure, there’s a big part of me that scoffs at the foolhardiness of those who permanently mar large swaths of their body, creating a youthful indiscretion that will long outlast their memory of why they did it. There will be some awkward explanations to the grandkids of the future about why “Pop-Pop” has a deformed vulture on his back — “It’s an eagle,” the elderly Zack answers. “Okay, then why do you have an eagle on your back?” responds little Sarah.
But today’s youth live for today, as well they should since their parents’ generation have virtually destroyed the earth and economy they’ll inherit. They want a sign to show the world that they’re cool. And nothing says “cool” like enduring hours of painful injections administered by a quasi-surgeon wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt extolling the virtues of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Tattoos have been around since the Neolithic era some 7,000 years ago. The remains of a fellow nicknamed “Ötzi the Iceman” (not to be confused with Ozzy the Osbourne) were found frozen in the Ötz valley of the Alps with 57 distinct carbon tattoos on his back and legs. The word itself is derived from the Samoan “tatau,” chronicled in Capt. Cook’s journal as he explored the South Pacific in the mid-1700’s. The custom of sailors sporting skin art began as a way their families could identify them should they drown at sea, and their bodies just happen to wash up on a shore near their home.
Despite some taboos surrounding tattoos, they have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years. A 2008 poll found that 14% of adults in the U.S. have a tattoo, with the percentage soaring to more than a third of all American adults under age 29. Only a tiny 8% of those aged 50-64 sport the tat, with most of these consisting of parolees, carnival workers and weird uncles.
Besides making a statement about what a staunch individualist you and 42 million other Americans are, there are many other advantages to having toxic chemicals inserted about four skin layers deep. For one, you don’t have to worry about the appearance of cleanliness. If you have the urge to flop around in a mud puddle, you can still head straight to that business meeting afterwards and few will be able to distinguish the dirt from your body art.
- I’d like some cryptic symbols. Everybody gets the symbolism if you’ve got a heart or a butterfly or barbed wire, but I’d like some artwork that’s a bit more mysterious. I think I’d put the image of a handheld calculator on my back, a hydroelectric dam on my chest, and a pair of Shake-Weights on my posterior.
- Being a writer and a proofreader, I’d obviously like to throw some words in there too. It would be really cool to have the word “TATTOO” tattooed on your arm. Then, right next to that, I’d have the words “ANOTHER TATTOO.” Then, further down toward my wrist, I’d have “THIS ONE’S A SKIN CANCER”.
- I’d like to permanently wax off my eyebrows and replace them with a tattoo in the likeness of perfectly groomed brows. I’m at the age now where the eyebrows tend to grow a bit bushy, and I hate to risk poking out an eye trying to trim them with scissors. Also, I eagerly await the tattoo technology that will make it look like I don’t have Afros growing out of my nose and ears.
- I’d like a slacks tattoo covering the lower half of my body so I can stop wearing pants.
- Keeping with the literary theme I’d try to convey, I would have an entire short story tattooed onto my belly, and a map of the world etched into my lower abdomen. When I revealed the map (at the beach or by the pool at the Y), I could then enjoy people coming up to me and pointing at various locations they’ve visited around the globe. (Hey, ladies: Any of you ever seen Antarctica?)
- I know it would be tremendously time-consuming and unimaginably painful, but I’d like to replicate a healthy, full-body tan with the use of permanent pigments.
Who knows? Maybe, someday I’ll work up the courage to recapture the heady days of my youth and become one with the “In Crowd,” as I understand they call themselves. A couple of radical tats, a few pieces of random metal piercing through some assorted appendages, and a shock of purple hair spiked into a mohawk may be all that stands between me and the life of the hip. Showing an image like that may stop the mailman from delivering all those AARP solicitations.