Not Just For Show

For many, many years tattoos have gotten a bad rap. Recently that has changed. When I was a kid the only people I knew with tattoos were military men, mostly Marines or sailors, who had traveled "overseas" to exotic, foreign places. Tattoos were their unique souvenirs of those travels. Sometimes a palm tree or a hula dancer; more often the initials USN with an anchor and a rope; often a ship's name or a port of call; or, with Marines, the "Eagle, Globe and Anchor" USMC logo. Sometimes the name of someone close-try "MOM"-or formerly close, "DORIS", say--- now covered with a band-aid for social occasions or permanently masked under a new tattoo depicting a Conestoga wagon upon marriage to Laverne.

Then there were the motorcyclists, groups of hirsute, leather-vested chauffeurs of huge, rumbling Harley-Davidsons. Their tattoos were a little more sinister-"club" colors or skulls, flaming wheels, knives dripping blood, etc -- always prominent, brightly colored and attention-getting. Influenced perhaps by Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," their inked decorations were less benign and more threatening than the military souvenirs. They did not project a positive image.

Then there were the rock musicians. Their markings, similar to the motorcyclists but even more elaborate and more colorful, seem to cover wider expanses of exposed flesh. Next the athletes, most notably basketball players, some of whom sported designs as intricate as Persian rugs, as spiritual as the Twenty-third psalm or as personalized as their uniform number.

For the most part tattoos have been a male phenomenon, perhaps not as sinister as first perceived, but never anything that evoked warm feelings from parents or potential fathers-in-law.

But times and demographics have changed. Now it's common for men and women of all types to sport tattoos. Some are placed in intimate locations, observable only by those duly licensed to be on the premises. Others, larger and more colorful, are in prominent locations and available for viewing by the general public. Birds, initials, dolphins, shamrocks, landscapes, sunsets. Almost-tasteful expressions of individuality.

Large or small, public or private, tattoos are just for decoration. They serve, I thought, no useful purpose. I can't say I was favorably impressed with this mode of expression. There are better, less permanent ways to stand out from the crowd, but it's a free country and who am I to say anything about what anyone chooses to do with their ankle, bicep or shoulder.

I failed to recognize, until recently, the utilitarian nature of this ancient art. The lesson was taught, as usual, by a client. I interviewed a young man facing run-of-the-mill criminal charges. As is my custom I began by completing an interview sheet to gather basic biographical information. Name, address, phone, age, education, marital status, children.

Nothing unusual until the last one.

"Children?" I asked.

"Yes. Three"

"Names and ages."

The response was direct. Two of the names, however, were unusual.

"How," I asked, "do you spell the first one?" Hesitation. Then an attempt. A pause. A restart. Another pause.

"Wait a minute."

Whereupon he unbuttoned his shirt, examined his left upper pectoral and read to me from inch-high letters the spelling of his daughter's name.

This was a first. I was caught off guard. In thirty years I'd never had this experience. But then he trumped even that when I asked how to spell the second name. This time he didn't even try. He smiled and unbuttoned his left sleeve exposing on the inside of his forearm the unusual name of his youngest son spelled out in Times New Roman Bold.

Now I understand. Tattoos represent more than just a sound investment in the arts. They are not just for show. They can contain, like a bible, a permanent record of family genealogy.