Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Mark of Adulthood

Welcome to my life, tattoo
I'm a man now, thanks to you
I expect I'll regret you
But the skin graft man won't get you
You'll be there when I die,
- The Who

My good friend Emily's very conservative 52-year-old mom hates tattoos. Emily tells me that whenever her mom sees someone with a tattoo she makes some kind of comment about how much she dislikes them. "Why would anyone ever get a tattoo?" she says, in a tone of disgust. (Mind you, she is a very nice woman, she just has a strong aversion to tattoos.)

I am assuming the generation gap contributes to her hate of tattoos. I feel like (and I could be way off on this -- let me know if you think otherwise) that 30-50+ years ago tattoos were generally associated with ruffians, military men, and jailbirds. Certainly, they were not associated with "civilized" young ladies, or "refined" business people.

In 2009, tattoos have become accepted as a form of artistic expression. In fact, some tattoo artists complete years of study to perfect their craft. But aside from tattoos being "more accepted" as a form of expression, let's go back to Emily's mom's question and ask, Why would anyone ever get a tattoo?

It is too simple to merely answer this question with: "It is a form of expression." Really, everything is "a form of expression" -- speaking, moving, laughing, drawing, writing, singing, hairstyles, fashion, etc.

What is it that compels us to alter our body so permanently? To endure pain, often for hours, to yield an immutable image?

I think we need some pictures to really try to probe this question -- analysis follows.

The first picture (below) is of my friend Danna. She recently got a tattoo (still not complete -- it will take a total of three sittings) of a vine of morning glories on her back. I won't go into the reasons why she chose it (she promises to blog that story for you later), but what I will tell you is she is 28, well educated, articulate, and works at a good corporate job. She is hardly a ruffian.

Here are a few more pictures of Danna at her second sitting as she is getting some color added.

Here is a really good shot of the detail.

What an awesome tattoo! I can't wait to post the completed work of art once she goes for her final sitting in two weeks.

The second tattoo I want us to look at is from my friend Michael, an M.D. at Stanford. Next time you visit your doctor, imagine what might be under his/or her clothes. This might be the last image you would picture on the back of your straight-laced doc.

Isn't that tattoo incredible? I love the detail in the Buddha and the demon, contrasted with the simple, clean lines of the wheel.

So, what can we make of these kinds of "expressions"?

In our search for the elusive adulthood, I think we can view tattoos as a metaphor. Sometimes "adulthood" means breaking out of our suit and ties, our doctor's coats, our high heel work pumps, and making this beautiful, indelible mark on our own existence -- literally.

Perhaps our generation is on to something really important.

We are unafraid of the moment. We embrace the permanence of tattoos, perhaps because we are wiser than we know. For, after all, life is short -- and we must savor every moment. We must feel it all, pleasure and pain. And ultimately, we know too, the tattoo is not permanent at all: our body is only a vessel. Our ashes will one day blow away, our body will one day fully decay.

But the life we lived, wasn't it grand? And maybe the tattoo is just a reminder to live in the moment, to cherish the past, to feel pain, scar, and heal. And when we are old and grey, and our tattoos are wrinkled, faded, or stretched, they will serve to remind us that we were once brave, bold, and uninhibited, and we lived every moment as our last.

What do you think? Do you love or hate tattoos? Do you have any tattoos - why or why not? Can you answer Emily's mom's question? Let's discuss in the comments.


  1. I've never gotten a tattoo but I'm not totally averse to the idea. If I did get a tattoo, I think it would probably be something small, easily concealed, and mean something important to me.

    I wouldn't want to get a tattoo purely for artistic or aesthetic purposes. I know that my tastes and preferences for art have changed over time and probably will continue to change.

    A tattoo for me would serve as a reminder of something personal and dear to me that I would want to be able to look at for the rest of my life.

  2. I do not have a tattoo . . . yet. But I now have in my possession two designs that will soon grace my forearms. The designs are ones that I created out of my sons' initials.

    I always wanted a tattoo. In high school I hung out with the kids who would smoke out, do a few shots of something out of their parent's liquor cabinet, and ink each other with a makeshift tattoo gun. It was a mark of badass-ness and I yearned to be one of them. I wanted to be a badass, too.

    But the truth was, just as I wasn't ready to get married at 16, I wasn't ready to make a lifetime commitment to a shoddy piece of art created by some giggling stoner in his bedroom while watching Saved by the Bell reruns. I didn't have anything to say that was so important I had to display it on my skin.

    Now I await my inking with relish. I am even looking forward to the pain, because there is truth to it. I suffered to have my boys; they were a part of me once and always will be. My tattoos will be a badge of honor, a thing of beauty born from pain, just like my boys.

    Besides, it's not like I can go around showing off my C-Section scar.

  3. Wow! Selena - what a powerful and poetic response! This deserves its very own blog entry. Really.

    Keep us posted on your tattoo and then, if you feel like it, write a guest blog entry on it (or on anything!)