Talk of the Town - Geriatric punk corpse July 11 2001

My close brush with tattooing

When I went to the Pride celebration in Piedmont Park a few weeks ago, a friend urged me to defy all those internalized voices of my mother by getting a tattoo. I didn’t even think twice about doing it — probably in the same spirit with which my brother rolled his brand-new Harley onto the deck outside my paralyzed mother’s bedroom window a few years ago.

Tattoos, like motorcycles, were fixations of the lower class, according to my mother, who visibly shuddered when passing a trailer park. Indeed, getting tattooed (especially with a heart labeled “Mom”) often made it to her ever-changing but incessantly recited list of “worst things you could do to me.”

Of course, I have ever since devoted my life to doing nearly all of the forbidden things but, really, I have stopped short of tattooing. Although I long ago abandoned her classist argument, I find most tattoos objectionable on pure aesthetic grounds. I have high-class friends from the ’70s whose flesh is marked with the most obnoxious figures — like faded teddy bears in boots and cowboy hats or yin-yang symbols that have aged to look like melanomas.

So you’ll understand that I only got a temporary tattoo.

“Illustrate me,” I told the man at the booth.

“You need an arm band,” he said. In less than a minute, I was sporting a “tribal” band around my left biceps.

Then it started. I hadn’t walked five minutes when a stranger presented himself and said, “Great tat, man. Who did that? It’s really hot.”

I eyed him suspiciously, noting a unicorn bounding across his naked chest toward a dragon that peered around his shoulder.

“Oh, it’s, um, a temporary,” I said.

“Bummer, dude! You need to get a real one.”

“I am not a dude. I am a really old Baby Boomer,” I mumbled.

But so it went. I walked into Starbucks and the barristas oohed and aahed over my new tattoo. People I knew only peripherally took to squeezing my biceps muscle. It got so that when I got dressed, I wanted to make sure my new tat showed. “I have become a conversation piece,” I confided to a friend.

After four days, my tribal marketing started to fade. “That must be a temporary,” the hardware store clerk had the nerve to say to me. I removed it that afternoon with mineral oil and felt suddenly naked.

I could hardly believe it when I next found myself at a tattoo shop in Little Five Points chatting with the young artist. Thank God, I did not see anything that I liked because I would undoubtedly be typing this column in pain. He urged me to research designs on the Internet, any of which he could reproduce. I agreed and then, on the way home, a certain degree of sanity returned to me.

As I was driving through the graffiti-tattooed Krog Street tunnel, I had a fantasy of myself dead in my coffin, my withered arm encircled by some silly pseudo-tribal marking turned grayer than my dead flesh. And then, eerily, I ran into a female friend about 60 with a yoni tattooed on her shoulder. It wasn’t pretty.

I was, after five days, free of the obsession but not of questions. What the hell happened to me? I could wear an Armani suit and not get such a reaction. Why did people respond to me so differently because of some ink on my biceps?

I called my friend and classmate Maureen Mercury, author of Pagan Fleshworks, a heavily illustrated new book on tattooing and piercing. Subtitled “The Alchemy of Body Modification,” it is a look at the subject from the perspective of our mutual field of study, depth psychology.

“The important thing about a tattoo,” she said, “is the placement. It’s more important than the content of the image. It is almost always a bookmark, an indication of where someone is stuck. The left side of the body corresponds to the right brain, the emotional part of you, so I’m guessing you ended up getting ‘opened,’ which made you more accessible to people. Now, if a temporary can do that, imagine how stimulated you would be with an actual tattoo, where all those needles are piercing your flesh.”

She told me several stories about people whose tattoos gave her an immediate clue to health concerns. Weirdly, when I described the rather picturesque tattoo on a client of my own, she immediately summed up the woman’s issues without any background information. “You are reading these images like dreams,” I said. “I wonder if people who actually get tattooed think much about what it means at depth.”

“Hardly ever,” Maureen said. “I’m trying to get people to give it more thought, not to get tattooed impulsively but to use active imagination with the image they are considering. Generally, I think tattooing and piercing have become popular because we all need to penetrate to our imaginative cores, to reclaim the imagination in our bodies. That’s the other thing, the tattooing itself brings you rapidly into your body.”

What about contemplating a tattoo in middle age? What about my vision of myself as a punk geriatric corpse?

“Middle-aged people are getting tattooed in droves,” she said. “It’s part of the denial of death, I think. Baby Boomers have no clue they are old, so that argument about thinking how you’ll look with at tattoo at 80 has no meaning to anyone any more.”

“I think I’ll skip the permanent tattoo and save my money for cosmetic surgery,” I said.

“It’s not the same thing,” Maureen said. “Very few people tattoo their faces. Cosmetic surgery is about putting your best face forward, the face the culture values. Tattooing is about just the opposite. It’s about presenting your body’s individuality.”

I sighed. Maybe I’ll just get a motorcycle — one bigger than my brother’s.??