Ink and Skin

When I was growing up, only sailors and bikers had tattoos. I didn’t personally know anyone with one. I read Muscle and Fitness in high school and I only remember one bodybuilder with a tattoo: Barry Demay. He had a rose on his left deltoid.

Now, I know dozens of people who have tattoos. I’ve seen head-scratching tattoos, like the lady in the gym who had what looked like a mason jar of jam tattooed on her calf. I’ve seen some really bad do-it-yourself tattoos. And I’ve seen tattoos that I can say were well done, though I’m still not sure I can say they were a good choice.

Looking on the internet I can find reasons for and against tattooing, though some of the reasons on both sides are pretty flimsy. Finding a list of reasons to get a tattoo supplied by a tattoo-removal service seems suspect. A list promoting why you should do it before you turn 25 fed all the stereotypes it was trying to disprove.

The two biggest arguments I have against having ink injected into my skin are questions. First, what do I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I won’t change my mind about? As I look back at my 18, 25, and 30 year-old self, there are things they may have thought were a good idea that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with now. Second, and even more compelling, what can I do with a tattoo that I cannot do without one? Is not having a tattoo holding me back from anything? The obvious answer is no.

I think the issue is bigger than just tattoos. They are merely a more permanent and visible manifestation of the way we proclaim identity. I think there is a connection between tattoos and following on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. We desire to fit in and to proclaim our identity—who we perceive ourselves to be and what we are about. In many ways, a tattoo is just another way to self-categorize.

I’m young, I’m edgy, I’m expressive, I’m an individual (just like the thousands of others who….) That’s what I see when I see tattoos. That’s what I see when I see logo clothing and graphic T-shirts. I’ve been trying, with some success, to weed such things from my wardrobe in recent years. Why should I give anyone an easy way to either think they know what I am about or to dismiss me? I don’t have bumper stickers for the same reason.

The most permanent things in my life are represented by jewelry, but even that permanence is questionable. I wear a wedding ring until death do us part, though who knows after that. My dad has remarried since my mom died a few years ago, though I’m sure it’s not what he planned when he said ‘I do’ in 1968. I wear my seminary class ring for multiple reasons—it has a cross and a Bible on it and my wife gave it to me—even though my affinity for that institution and what it stands for has waned in the 20 years since I graduated. One of these days, I may either stop wearing it or replace it. That’s hard (and painful) to do that with a tattoo.

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