I grew up in a world that was divided into two kinds of people: those who had tattoos and those who were afraid of people with tattoos. In the movies, prisoners and gang members, carnival workers and criminals had them. They marked reckless, defiant outsiders…tribal members with a shady moral compass. Nazis tattooed people. End of story.
Then in the 70s, the stigma dimmed a bit. Fashionable, creative, adventurous celebrities like Cher, Peter Fonda and Janis Joplin displayed their ink. The chests and arms of those “in the service” in Viet Nam showed their proud affiliation. For the first time, although far from my thing, I saw tattoos as an indicator of something relevant to a person’s individual story, a canvas of their experiences.
When I went to the beach this summer, I was amazed at the number of tattooed bodies I saw. So amazed, I was motivated to look up some facts. Are you ready? Tattooing has been a way of expressing yourself without words for 1200 years. Winston Churchill had an anchor tattooed on his forearm. Thirty eight percent of Americans have them…more women than men…more college educated than not. Seventy two percent are hidden under clothing. Over one third of those entering the workforce have tattoos.
While none of my friends are among the tattooed, most of their children are, as are mine. I always felt like I was invading someone’s private space when I stared a few seconds too long at their tattoo. So for the last few months, whenever I could, at the park… on the street… on line at the supermarket…whenever I saw one, I asked for the story behind the art.
Most often my question sparked conversations about a memory or life philosophy: “In honor of my mother” “marking the birthdate of my first child,” or “this represents what I was going through at a certain time in my life.” Other times it was simpler. When I asked a young girl what the significance was of the flower on her wrist, she said, “Absolutely nothing, it’s just a flower.” She explained it was like dying her hair or piercing her ears…it made her feel pretty.
It’s not just Rihanna and Johnny Depp and seemingly every player in the NBA who sport tattoos… it’s Caroline Kennedy and Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. Julia Roberts has the names of her children and her husband’s initials on her back. Jennifer Aniston has “Norman” tattooed on her foot in tribute of her beloved dog. And Victoria Beckham has one on her spine which reads, “I am my love’s and my love is mine, who browses among the lilies,” in Hebrew. And then there’s my friend Susan. She’s never worn a wedding band and now after 54 years is thinking about tattooing one on her ring finger. Sigh.
Social media has fueled the rise in status of tattoos from shady subculture to cool art installation. The elaborate artistry seen on a scroll through Pinterest or Instagram is astounding. I loved the exact signature of someone’s dad on their forearm. It stopped me cold, musing about the oh so familiar handwritings I no longer see and whose I might choose to honor.
Given how many hours of my life I’ve spent struggling to express myself in the best words, it’s no surprise my favorite tattoos were inspiring quotes and affirming turns of phrase. I have drawers full of T shirts and walls full of prints and a kitchen cabinet full of mugs, all attesting to my love of words said best. And given what this year required of me to keep body and soul in fighting shape, I can understand how a soothing reminder to buck up couldn’t hurt. Like a permanent bumper sticker, I would get to wear my insides on my outsides.
I kind of liked C.S. Lewis’s quote Courage, dear heart. And How is that thought serving you? And Actually, I Can. Then there’s Mary Oliver’s What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? And Be here now.
What used to intimidate me about tattoos no longer does. That they’re unalterable and permanent are not issues at my age. They can join the creases and wrinkles and birthmarks and age spots my body has accumulated on its journey through life. If I ever got one it wouldn’t be a regrettable impulsive act like a tramp stamp (are they still a thing?), but one it took a lifetime to be brave and free spirited enough to contemplate. Mmmm… now where would I put it? Ankles are discreet… forearms, more conspicuous. Wrists are a little of both. Shoulders are sexy… upper backs, a sweet secret.
Come to think of it, I’m not going to worry. If and when I’d ever commit to getting a tattoo, it would tell me where it belongs. And besides, from what I’ve seen, tattoos are like potato chips…I might not have to choose just one.