Whenever someone asks me about any of my numerous tattoos I tell them I wish I’d never gotten any, and that I plan on getting many more. I am not trying to be obtuse. The reason for this apparent hypocrisy is that I feel like I’ve long since crossed a line with the amount of tattoos I have, and that getting more will barely budge the aesthetic needle on my skin’s already tarnished image. It’s interesting to think about how I arrived here.
despite the ever growing ubiquity of tattoos, mine are often responsible for a negative, non-verbal miscommunication before introductions are even made. It’s one of several reasons I wish I’d never gotten any to begin with.
Life is both short and long, depending on how you look at it. Paradoxically, it’s when we’re young and still have an abundance of it ahead of us that it seems so short. I myself suffered from this youthful myopia. It explains in part the reason my skin now resembles a bathroom stall.
All tattoos possess a bit of the memento mori. Their permanence is lasting only on the scale of a human lifetime which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that long. At least that’s what I used to think. In my younger days I dwelled on life’s fleetingness and fragility. In hindsight, I focused too much on its ephemeral aspect while under-estimating its potential to be and feel long. Now that I’m a little older, I consider the marathon, not the sprint, the metaphor more apt to describe it.
I once had a girlfriend’s mother tell me I didn’t look like a person who has tattoos. What she meant by this was that she saw me as a basically decent person, which is not the type of person she normally associated with tattoos. This woman was an English baby boomer and the wife of a doctor. What I mean is that she was, by virtue of her social and domestic position, relatively sheltered from the more superficial swings of Western cultural. Because this woman was focused on her family and cooking incredibly elaborate and delicious dinners for them (to this day I’ve yet to taste a better panna cotta), she had missed the memo that tattoos had become ever more commonplace–that getting one no longer exclusively signaled criminality, as they had for most of her life. Never mind the fact that I think it an error to consider criminality (of a type) and morality to be mutually exclusive. After all, many criminal fraternities have their own honor code. But I digress.
The reason I mention this anecdote is because by her telling me this, this mother of my girlfriend demonstrated a rare sort of honesty. I suspect her opinions regarding my tattoos are shared by many, she was just the rare exception that had the temerity to voice them.
It’s one of many experiences I’ve had that demonstrate, despite the ever growing ubiquity of tattoos, mine are often responsible for a negative, non-verbal miscommunication before introductions are even made. It’s one of several reasons I wish I’d never gotten any to begin with.
My first sick tat
The first image I had drawn onto my body’s largest organ was designed by Banksy, a London graffiti artist whose popularity was, at the time, ascending. For the English housewives among you with more important things to keep up on than 21st century street art (I say this sincerely), Banksy conveyed the image of an artistic rebel critiquing the 21st century idols of militarism and consumerism. One of his more recognizable pieces depicted a bandana wrapped rioter, pitching arm cocked back to throw a bouquet of flowers. The piece serves as a suitable stand in for all Banksy’s work, which usually featured two or more pithy images, contrasting in both color and content. His art juxtaposed the serious with the silly, the mundane with the imaginative, the individual with the collective. It was whimsically rebellious and in retrospect, rather heavy-handed with the sociopolitical critique.
At eighteen Banksy’s art resonated with me. Like so many others, I was drawn in by its subversive, anti-authority, anti-celebrity message. I know this because I have a Banksy tattoo of a hunched little figure in a coat wearing an old-fashioned diving bell on its head, a pink heart hovering above its head. I later learned the image was created for a Blur album cover. I have since gone on to get many more tattoos, some of which have origin stories even more cringe than the Banksy.
Mistakes were made
I think it’s natural to feel embarrassed for eighteen year old you. If you don’t, you’re either much wiser than me or you simply haven’t grown enough to put the kind of gulf between your present and past self. Or maybe I’m just consoling myself. It seems as though I’ve always had to learn things the hard way, that is, through personal, lived experience(s). My numerous scars, tattoos, and injuries are a testament to the fact. I’ve never been able to heed perfectly good advice.
It’s not like they didn’t tell me I’d live to regret my decision to get tattooed. It’s just that, on first glance, their advice seemed so obvious as to be self-evident. I assure you that to many young people, it is not as simple a concept as it may seem. While I accept the bulk of the responsibility for this particular lapse in judgment, I would like to make a suggestion to the older and wiser set who would counsel their legacy from getting inked. The most popular argument I hear them employ could be much better elaborated for maximum understanding and impact. Simply saying you shouldn’t get tattoos because they’re permanent, while true, is, at best, unconvincing, if not downright misleading. You see, it isn’t the permanence of the tattoo that’s problematic per se, but the tattoo’s inherently static nature in conflict with the inevitable change of the individual over time that becomes grounds for regret.
At eighteen I had some conceptual grasp of the idea that, moving into the future, I would change–that my future self would be different than my present self–but the full depth and extent of this change was impossible for me to internalize. By way of comparison, consider the size and scale of the universe on both a macro and micro level, or a number larger than one million. Conceptually we all have a form of understanding of these things, but the knowledge is purely theoretical. It’s not the same as knowing where the best place to dive under a wave to avoid its energy is, such knowledge having been acquired through countless bouts of trial and error and aquatic thrashings (negative reinforcement being a powerful teacher).
Most of us ‘know’ that our current favorite song won’t maintain its favor past the present date, let alone the distant future. We probably also know that we won’t always have the same habits or love the same person. You may consider this knowledge ‘common sense’, but as a young person, I’m not sure I’d had enough of these experiences to fully grasp how my future self would include all of this while also undergoing change at an even more fundamental level.
In ten years time, the cells of which you are composed will no longer exist, to say nothing of the even more plastic features that define your personality. Given these facts, there’s a good chance you won’t like the same art you like now. You might even become someone who dislikes a whole form of art entirely, say, for instance, that of tattooing, in which case it wouldn’t matter how classic the image you decided to get tattooed is, you would still prefer its absence.
Some of you are reading this and thinking ‘well, duh!’. I know. I’m not making excuses. We must all live with the consequences of our actions. As I said, I’m just trying to figure out how I got here with an eagle with a revolver for a head on my chest (don’t @ me). My impulsive nature certainly played a role. So did the fact that a good portion of my friends growing up also got tattooed.
In thinking about how I came to have so many tattoos I’ve discovered there were many factors at play. My go to answer when people ask me about them is that I think they look cool. This is the short answer. I did, and do, occasionally find tattoos ‘look cool’. However, these cases are in the minority. I’ve come to think that most people would look better without any. This is not helped by the fact that many tattoos I see ‘in the wild’ look hopelessly homemade, amateurish, and just objectively bad. I actually prefer these kind of tattoos. They reek of a kind of authenticity I’ll never achieve with my obviously well done, professional tattoos.
But so why do I have so many tats? To answer this question I’ve had to think critically about myself, where I come from, and the power our experiences and environment has on shaping who we become.
The boy with the hole in his hand
I have never had what would be considered good skin. This is partly due to an incident that occurred when I was eighteen months old. My mom was ironing some clothing on an ironing board when my dad called her on the phone. She left me in the room on the floor with the iron on the board. While she was in the other room on the phone I managed to get the iron off the board, onto the floor, and onto the surface of my left palm.
The burn was severe. To salvage function of my hand, the doctor took a graft of skin from the right side of my body to replace the skin the iron had melted off my palm. The result of this surgery left a rather interesting looking scar on my left palm. Well, to me it’s interesting. In others it’s inspired everything from wonder and curiosity to a strong mixture of disgust and revulsion.
To give you some example of the less ‘mature’ reactions to my scar, I once had a boss, a Captain on a hotshot crew who, upon seeing it, began to dry heave, while managing, between his violent throat spasms, to proclaim ‘it looks like there’s a butt hole on your hand.[sic]’ Yes, wildland firefighting is not much concerned with political correctness.
Children are naturally adept at recognizing and exploiting individual differences. They also possess a strong instinct to adhere to the social group. One very common and effective way to strengthen group cohesion is by the isolation and alienation of a token individual. By identifying and ostracizing this scapegoat, the group asserts its own internal hierarchy. We see this trope played out all the time in fiction and film (Ender’s Game, Lord of the Flies, etc.). Because of my hand and it’s bizarre scar, I was, at certain points in my childhood, on the receiving end of this in-group out-group dynamic.
I don’t want it to seem like I was bullied all through childhood. Though always a bit out of step, I would say I was in the upper quartile of the social hierarchy throughout adolescence. In all honesty, I also played the role of bully. Whether this was done out of sheer malice or as a possible reaction to my own humiliation is uncertain.
Besides the scar on my hand, I had, like many teenagers, raging hormones which resulted in a moderate case of acne. This certainly didn’t improve my opinion of my skin. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, the scars and the acne had a cumulative negative impact on my self image. I think this made the proposition of marking it up with a needle and some sub-dermal ink more appealing to me.
If this sounds like a case of removing the nose to spite the face I couldn’t agree more. In trying to assert my personal agency I was simply acting out the script society had written for me. This cliché is the most lamentable part of my tattoos. That and their intractable persistence! They fade, but they never go away. Why didn’t anyone tell me!
Given my honest regret at ever starting down the path of permanent subdermal decoration you may be surprised to learn I often think about what I’ll get tattooed next. I like to joke that I’ll get more tattoos to distract from the bad ones I already have. Like all jests, there is some truth in this.
I hope that in writing about my tattoos I have not exhibited signs of self pity. I can think of no more contemptible an emotion. I don’t dwell on my skin’s cluttered imagery, I’m simply honest about it. Until they develop full body skin grafts, there is nothing to be done about it. My objective in writing about my tattoos is to honestly express my regret and, in doing so, perhaps prevent someone else from making a similar mistake.
They say you should never leave things on a bad note. So, I will tell you the one positive consequence of having images tattooed on your body you wish weren’t. The unintended side-effect of this is that it forces you to adopt a sort of stoic, zen-like attitude towards your self perception and life in general.
If I first got tattooed as a sort of rebellious, punk rock, and adolescent way of saying ‘I don’t care what you think of me’ (translation: I care a lot), you’re actually forced to adopt this position or else suffer terribly from the resulting cognitive dissonance. In a classic case of ‘fake it ’til you make it’, I’ve basically forced myself into a position where I receive a great deal of judgment from complete strangers on a daily basis. If I were to allow this to affect me it would result in a significant mental toll. So, I choose not to. It’s a conscious choice that requires constant effort. Human beings have evolved to pay heed to the group and fear exclusion from it. I’ve had a lot of practice at willfully ignoring this.
Not caring about what others think about us is a pretty good thing. Some would even claim the trait is a superpower. Despite this, I would encourage you to pursue other, less expensive and embarrassing ways to cultivate it.