Back to school: a conversation about tattoos

When did it happen? Was I looking the other way? How is it that the tattoo - the sailor's creative choice for venting - become an acceptable form of all-over bling for even a soccer mom?

Not open minded you say? True, my children may refer to me as the Bureau of Humiliation and Embarrassment, but I suspect that I am not alone in my opinion even as a somewhat typical generation Xer, that is, one who is concerned with blue jean back pocket design.

To be honest, if I think hard about famous tattoo-bearers out there I come up with the following: Britney Spears, Charles Manson, Popeye. And, unfortunately, these personalities correspond to the adjectives showy, possessed, goofy.

My children - except for the female adolescent - currently think that tattoos are gross. I chalk this up to their primal recognition of what is truly beautiful (good) and ugly (kind of evil). So, for example, the roses in my front yard are "pretty" but the squirrel carcass under it is "ugly". A sparkly necklace is pretty; your garden variety tattoo is ugly.

Somewhere along the timeline of aesthetic development, this all changes. Indeed, university art departments thrive on this. (That lump of clay may not actually hold liquid, but it sure makes a nice deconstruction of the patriarchical device of oppression known as the water pitcher.) This shift in sensitivities may be the result of watching too many Simpson's episodes or spending too much quality time with a nasty looking crop of Cabbage Patch dolls, but many of us know that by adolescence, the simple demarcation of ugly and pretty may blur like fine print to aged eyes.

Since a good percentage of my waking day is now dedicated to scoping the bowels - er, tunnels…no, pathways of adolescent tastes, I engage in tattoo conversation on a pretty regular basis. For example, my daughter might say:

"So you think that tattoos are mutilating the body?"

Okay, I'm not going to fall for the old "mutilating the body" trap. But out comes: "Of course!"

"Well then," she adds, "so is ear piercing, kidney removal, and bunion surgery…"

Yup, I saw that one coming. "No that's different," I protest.

"How?" she taunts.

"Charles Manson has one," I answer.


Later I realize that I could have told her about the pain of the tattoo-needle-thing, the permanence of tattoos, and the fact that laser removal also hurts.

"Well, now there are temporary hemp tattoos Mom!" The triumph is gleaming in her eyes.

"But, but, but you'll look like Popeye…and he's goofy!" I'm really groping now.
In a more contemplative moment, I remember the aesthetics thing and realize that this argument is just not going to work. (Young parents: Disconnect your cable TV and throw away your ugly toys now) So I try the reliable "one day you will be older and respectable" line of reasoning. Here's my daughter's answer:

"Alright Mom, if everyone else is getting tattoos now, then it will one day be respectable for older people because all old people will have them."

I see that my children's high priced education is paying off. This kid can sure deal a good argument.

"No it won't," I say. "You can't bet on all respectable people getting a tattoo…and staying respectable. It's still a low class thing…Britney Spears has one, er, many…I think."

Uh oh. Huge mistake. The class argument never works because I always end up with that self-righteous smirk of class consciousness.

So then we go to Church. The "respectable older" (fifty-something) lady in front of us is a fine illustration of decorum - until she bends forward to adjust a strap on her shoe.

An inky skull stares back at me and my family from the base of her spine just above her generous underwear cleavage. Did my daughter see it?

"Ewww," say the preschool twins."

"See Mom," my daughter nudges. "Even old ladies get them."

This takes quick thinking on my part, so I go for the multiple argument strategy.

"She's a Harley Davidson executive (it's possible here in Milwaukee)… It's really a bandaid…She used to be into extreme surfing… She's actually twenty-two but the tattoo injected a chemical into her body that makes her look fifty. So, there!"

(I often think that if I could have spoken a little more freely in that pew I could have pointed out that the old skull on the lady's back bone looked like it was melting because that's what happens to marks on the skin as it ages. "Old people" stuff always stops children in their tracks.)

Alas, however, even by the next Sunday, I haven't made much progress in the anti-tattoo crusade. But I'm adaptable. A few more moments alone with myself and my Bon Bons (that's what we mothers of adolescent children eat) and I have it all worked out.

Tattoos are pretty to an awful lot of people. The good residents of the Polynesian Islands used tattoos like the Scots used tartans. In fact "ta" is the Polynesian word for "to strike something", and Captain Cook coined the English term "tattoo" for the rest of us to use. There is even evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans indulged in a little needle-in-ink fun too, so it seems that there is ancient tradition behind this apparently modern act of fashion rebellion.

Yes, it's true that body art is more popular than at any time in the past, even the sixties. This is due to the incorporation of flesh as a fabric in fashion and the resulting Great Recession of cloth from across wide swaths of the body. (You have to make plain old skin interesting if you are going to show so much of it.) Remember that Polynesians are not known for large swaths of cloth.

It's also true that there is nothing intrinsically evil about a tattoo. A few not-really-permanent-after-all tattoos on discreet areas of the body probably won't track a fellow into a life of servile misery. (Don't tell my daughter that I made such a radical statement!)

Indeed, it takes a lot more than Bon Bons (it takes caffeine) for me to realize that the truly wisest counsel against tattoo mania is related to a very simple concept in fashion: focal point.

Humans experience each other through the senses, especially vision. We read each others' visual presentation just as we listen to the words and sentences, intonations and expressions of the spoken language. In turn, this language facilitates not only personal relationships, but also the necessary mutual understanding and, hopefully, respect.

That's a tall order for something which seems to foster so much vice. But fashion, perhaps because of the safety net of convention (read, syntax and semantics), can do this beautifully. It can lead others to understand who we are and where we are headed.

But it can only do this if it leads the eye to one very important focal point: The face.

Once someone looks into my eyes I know they are not just listening, but learning. They are learning about my experiences, my opinions, my tastes, my intelligence, my attitudes, my aspirations, and even my sense of self worth.

If my listener is distracted - especially by something which is made to distract, like a tattoo - he stops learning about me. That rose on my cleavage or unicorn on my forearm only tells him that 1) I view the tattoo as an acceptable form of bodily adornment, and 2) There's a suspicious mole next to the rose. (I think I've seen just about every sort of skin disease in this Great Recession of fabric.)

The other thing learned by the listener depends upon the listener himself because he brings his experiences, opinions, tastes and attitudes to the entire exchange. In short, he comes with his own notions about the tattoo.

True, tattoos seem to be ubiquitous and it would seem to follow that people would generally accept them because they are so widespread.

But that is not what is happening. The acceptance of this form of adornment (as ancient as it is) has not crossed the borders of all cultures, locations, generations, professions, and social groups. Just look: there's a brouhaha over its appropriateness - I've written an article on the subject and you are reading it.

Few of us operate in complete homogeny. We each will eventually meet someone with different notions on the meaning and purpose of many different forms of fashion. Again, the safety net of convention prevents misunderstanding by allowing us to adorn ourselves in ways which lead to our faces.

What my children must ultimately understand is that the focal point of their fashion needs to be their faces, and that the tattoo (skull, rose, unicorn, or even "mother") only serves to distract, thus frustrating the possibility for understanding and mutual respect. That might require a lot more tattoo conversation, but I suspect that each one of my children will come to understand the potential of their personal fashion through many other fashion experiences - both positive and negative.

Mary Sheehan Warren is a fashion consultant and author of It's So You! Fitting Fashion to Your Life. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.


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