Friday, July 25, 2008

Ink Matters

Did you see this tragically uninformed rant from Richard Cohen?

Tattoos are the emblems of our age. They bristle from the biceps of men in summer shirts, from the lower backs of women as they ascend stairs, from the shoulders of basketball players as they drive toward the basket, and from every inch of certain celebrities. The tattoo is the battle flag of today in its war with tomorrow. It is carried by sure losers.

About 40 percent of younger Americans (26 to 40) have tattoos. About 100 percent of these have clothes they once loved but now hate. How can anyone who knows how fickle fashion is, how times change, how their own tastes have "improved," decorate their body in a way that's nearly permanent? I don't get it.
Leaving aside the undeniable hey-you-kids-get-out-of-my-yardishness of the column (and really, could he sound any more like a miserable cranky old man?), this is something I hear people say a lot about tattoos. "Ew, I could never put something on my body permanently." But permanent changes happen to your body all the time. Look at that scar on your chin from when you were six and you fell off the swing set; remember how after the doctor stitched it up you stumped around for a week pretending you were Frankenstein's monster? Then there's that other scar on your leg, from when you slipped on the Metro escalator on the day you had your first date with the person you eventually married. If you've had children, look at how radically they've changed the geometry of your breasts and belly. Tattoos are the same kind of thing, only on purpose and more beautiful. They're memories inscribed on the body.

I have a smallish black and grey tat of a jack-in-the-green on my upper arm. I got it about sixteen years ago, when I'd finished grad school and moved in with my girlfriend, and I was enormously, profoundly happy to be alive. It's not a very good tattoo at all--I didn't know any better, so I brought in a photo for the artist to copy instead of having him draw up a more tattoo-friendly version of the image, and he he didn't give me any input about the size or placement. And it's not an image the 43-year-old me would be interested in, and it looks kind of smudgy and murky now because I haven't taken very good care of it. Even so, it's a reminder of an incredibly joyful period of my life, and I'm glad it's there.

A tattoo is permanent, but only insofar as your body is. And time will wrinkle you, turn your hair grey and make it fall out, weaken bones and eyes and ears and internal organs. Your tattoos, being a part of you, will age right along with you: outlines will spread, pigments will darken and change. That's part of the deal. To wear a tattoo, in at least some small measure, is to accept the fact that you're going to grow old and die. Not just accept it, but to loudly proclaim your acceptance, in bright jewellike colors cascading down your arms and across your chest. In a culture that demands we never age past 25, that's bound to make some people uncomfortable. No wonder poor old Cohen gets so squicked out.


pleasurefromthethorns said...

damn right! i wholly agree that tats are only as permanent as we are and that they're art with a pulse. they're badges, emblems, purposeful scars we wear to commemorate a time, a feeling, an event, or just a visual expression of whatever the fuck we want. i just got my third last week and am having my artist draw my half sleeve ('cause my job won't let me have a whole one). i always love new ink. how's your back piece coming?

Ed Bruske said...

there's something permanently happening to my body every day--it's getting older

Rob said...

Awesome, Thorns! I didn't know you were becoming such a slave to the needle. What's your half sleeve going to be like?

The back piece proceeds slowly, slowly. Which was the plan.

Ed: yep. I remember what a kick in the head it was when I first started going bald at the age of 24. Nothing gives you that coppery flavor of mortality like seeing death's thumbprint right there on the top of your head when you're in the prime of life.

pleasurefromthethorns said...

24 was my prime? fuck! i missed it.

slave to the needle am i. i'd wanted one since i was about 17 and was finally baptized by that sweet sting with the punisher tat you've seen on my leg. m'lady and i each got a small snowflake on our wrists as a commemoration of the closeness we share through music (long story), and i just got the roman numerals XXII (our anniversary) on my other wrist.

my sleeve, limited to half coverage by damn professional standards and department policies, has yet to take shape. the idea kernel is the latin phrase "servo permaneo bovis provestri" which roughly means 'save the last bullet for yourself.' i want my artist to use that phrase as the inspiration for a noir comic strip (in the vein of sin city, dark knight, the crow, etc.) and then translated into tattoo form. it is still very much a work in progress but i'm STOKED about the prospect of what it could turn out to be.