Tattoos: out of the closet and in your face

My uncle, ex-Navy, had a tattoo. I can’t remember exactly what it was because, as a child, I was too busy being terrified of him. No doubt it was something traditionally maritime, like a mermaid or an anchor or scurvy.

I’m quite confident, however, that he was the only adult I knew at the time who had a tattoo. Back then, only bikers and carnies had tattoos, and the grownups I associated with were more likely to be vicars and tenors. I don’t imagine any members of the St. James United Church choir had Jesus-themed ink – “Onward Christian Shoulders” and the like.

I knew tattoos had gone mainstream when I saw my first elementary school teacher openly sporting a tatt. I wondered: how does that work out discipline-wise? “Johnny, stop drawing all over your arm and pay attention! Also, I know an excellent parlour on Delacroix I’ll take you to if you’re good.”

Tattoos have come a long way. No longer is having a tattoo code for “I don’t actually want you to hire me.” Tattoos are as much a part of contemporary style as those cheap plastic wristbands that read “Livestrong” or “Pastries for Parisians” or “Isn’t This Just the Ugliest?”

Even the needle jockeys, once perceived as greater potential threat than the risk of hepatitis, are now considered artists. My eldest daughter, who has a discreet silhouette of a rhino beetle tattooed on her ankle (at least, that’s the only one I know of…), says she can identify Montreal tattoo artists based on the exposed flesh she sees on the streets. And they say youth doesn’t care about culture…

No longer the shameful consequence of too many Gin Sploogies, tattoos are out in the open, proudly on display, begging to be viewed, admired and possibly ridiculed.

At the same time, tattoos are embedded in your skin, an intimate part of a person. A tattoo isn’t like a T-shirt with an ironic slogan stenciled across the chest, although this too can lead to awkward moments.  (“No, I’m not staring at your breasts. I’m reading your shirt… still reading… I’m a really slow reader…”) A tattoo is like a volunteer mole on one’s face – highly noticeable but not something everyone’s sure how to react to.

If I say to that grocery clerk with the tattoos covering her arm, “I like your tattoos,” will she smile at me? If I say, “Can I read your tattoos?” will she oblige me? If I say, “Can I show you mine?” will she sic security on me? What if I joke about being in the “8 tattoos or less” aisle? See? This is the uncharted territory I’m talking about!

Not that I have a tattoo. I’ve missed the boat on that one. Women of a certain age can still get a tattoo (probably during a night out with “the girls”) and pull it off as “kooky” and “empowered” and “still trampy after all these years,” but middle-aged men aren’t fooling anyone. (Although, if I did get a tattoo, would horizontal stripes make my chest look broader?)

Being excluded makes it that much harder for people like me (squares) to know how to deal with hardcore tattooism. Why isn’t there some kind of established etiquette for tattoo viewing? A support group maybe. Surely we’re entitled to some kind of compensation.

Please, explain to me the significance of South Park in your emotional growth as a person.

Please, explain to me the significance of South Park in your emotional growth as a person.

For example, are you allowed to ask whether someone got her tattoo for personal reasons or just for the attention?

Is it safe to assume they never plan to run for office?

Does one point out typos? Because, at this point, there’s nothing they can do about it, so really you’re just being pedantic, not to mention a bit of a jerk. But still, apostrophes exist for a reason, kids!

Can you inquire whether the pride/regret ratio fluctuates through the years or remains pretty constant?

For clarification purposes, can you ask, “Is that a tattoo of your girlfriend or Leonid Brezhnev?” Does it depend on whether he’s bigger than you?

Can you wonder out loud what’s the point of having Chinese written on your skin if no one you know reads Chinese? And how can you be sure it doesn’t say “mudflap”?

We’ve come a long way since tattoos were taboo but, if I’m any example, we clearly have a way to go in fully accepting them. No doubt tattoo enthusiasts dream that they will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour on their skin but by the content of their tatt.

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About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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51 Responses to Tattoos: out of the closet and in your face

  1. Katie says:

    HA! I like the 8 tattoos or less idea. I don’t have any tattoos, either. Sometimes I think they’re okay, other times they seem like a desperate cry for help (yes, I’m talking about sports team tattoos).

  2. pinklightsabre says:

    Seems the canyon between us and the younger ones just got wider. I’m with you, looking across as they get smaller and smaller. I do think Starbucks should let our baristas wear tattoos. A lot has changed in 20 years (more people wearing tattoos). I think if it’s an important means of expression for people, let them have it. It ain’t me, babe.

  3. Geez, you have a daughter old enough to have a tattoo?!

    When I was 19 I started working at a local tourist attraction and there were a lot of retired men who were former war veterans who worked there as well. Two bits of advice they gave me were to watch where I “dipped my wick at work” and “don’t ever get any fuckin’ tattoos!” They all had tattoos that they probably got while piss drunk overseas in some back alley to impress a lady because they may or may not have even been as fine as prison quality tattooing. They all had them though and they all regretted them as they got older for some reason. Maybe theirs reminded them of something that they were trying to forget, I don’t know. I took their advice to heart. While I’ve never found anything that I loved enough to have inked onto my body, I don’t begrudge those who do, except for one of my coworkers. I begrudge him because he’ll complain for an entire week about being broke and then come in the next Monday with $500 worth of new ink to show everybody. Hello!?

    • rossmurray1 says:

      “Don’t ever get any fuckin’ tattoos” might have been code for “Don’t enlist.”

      Like I said in another comment, I didn’t even consider the cost, but, yeah, you’re right. Kids!

  4. Amanda Fox says:

    Ross, I think you are the perfect candidate for the quintessential “I’ve been to jail” tattoo. It’s the letters “EWMN” (all caps) which stands for – you guessed it – “evil, wicked, mean, nasty”. Oh wait, you haven’t been to jail. Or have you? 😉

  5. goldfish says:

    I made the mistake of getting writing on my body in Saudi Arabian royal dialect no less. People ask me what it means all the time. Depending on my mood, I usually just say “it’s personal” and leave it at that. Then, I made the mistake of getting more writing on me. This time in English on my knuckles. The funny thing is, even though it’s right there on my hands in English, people still ask me what it means.

    Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me when people ask questions though, unless they’re really stupid questions (Did that hurt? No, having a bunch of needles penetrating my flesh for hours made me feel like a spring daisy.) And for the record, I did intentionally get knuckle tattoos so that I would never be tempted to take another soul-sucking corporate job.

    By the way, bonus points for using the word “sic” correctly. 🙂

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Gonna need photo evidence so I can properly judge you.

      And, thanks! I did look it up just to be sure. I’m a former editor, so to me, “sic” first of all means, “it’s the other person’s typo, not mine” — like if they misspell their tattoo.

      Full circle…

      • goldfish says:

        I know. That’s the meaning I always think of, too. It’s weird that “the person I’m quoting was wrong, not me” and “release the hounds” would have the same word. English is weird.

  6. My fiancee has a tattoo of a pirate parrot smoking a substance similar to that of a cigarette. His only good judgement at 18 was not having the color filled in. Aw, my future husband and the future father of our child. I’m so proud…

    On another note, when my mother turned 40, she took the family to the tattoo parlor to pick out her mid-life crisis. Now a large peacock sits proudly on the bicep of my 57-year-old mother.

    And you’re not square! I’d say your shaped like a maple leaf!

  7. I pride myself on being “modern” or whatever but I’m square too! I just can’t get behind tattoos! On some people they’re OK but just…not my thing. I especially don’t find them attractive on women which makes me so mad at myself (terrible feminist!) but them’s the breaks. Can’t lie about it! I do hate when you ask someone about a tattoo, out of genuine curiosity and they get offended about it being “private.” I feel, if you’ve got art on your body where people can see, you should be open to talking about it!

    Did you know your daughter was getting the tattoo before it happened…or after? My mom would flip, still!

  8. Two. Have a third in mind, but I don’t have the fundage yet. My father pretends like I don’t have them. They are discreet (ankle, back of left shoulder) but I admire those people that become a canvas – I could NEVER do that. I think I have a split personality – one is all goody-two shoes and the other wants to be a tatted up rawker chick. Luckily for me (and my parents) GTS usually wins. 😉

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I never thought about the cost. The good ones are probably expensive — darn kids and their disposable income. Unless they’re prison tatts. Are yours prison tatts? ‘Cause that would up your RC ranking.

  9. Kylie says:

    So funny, Ross. And the piercings… and those big holes in the ear lobes. I do wonder where people who do that can get jobs.

    I have an unfortunately stretched-out blue moon tattoo, from my Mists of Avalon phase. It’s *not* on my forehead.

    The first time my then-new-boyfriend (now-husband) saw it, he asked, “What IS that?”

  10. Letizia says:

    A former student of mine had her name largely tattooed down her arm. It made roll call much easier, especially at the beginning of the semester when I was still learning everyone’s names.

  11. In Chinese, the symbol for Mudflap is the same as the symbol for Honor. It has caused innumerable problems for translators since before Chinese even existed, or mudflapped.

  12. sheenmeem says:

    Sorry to say to those who tattoo, to me it looks like disfiguring yourself.

  13. Elyse says:

    The best teacher I ever had (sophomore English) told our class never to trust anyone with a tattoo — we were reading In Cold Blood — the killer had tattoos. And you know what, I think he was right. I am too old to be a fan. Tattoos belong on pedophiles and sailors only.

    About 5 years ago I so a pretty woman with a butterfly tattoo on her left breast. By the time she is my age (56), it will look like a turkey vulture.

    Last point — if it’s art, you should be able to re-sell it.

  14. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I keep telling my 89 year old mom that she and I are going to get tattoos as a surprise to the rest of our family. Hers will say “Daughter” and mine will say “Mom.”

  15. El Guapo says:

    I’m glad tattoos are mainstream now, because apparently, many people have Native American and Celtic tribal associations of which I was unaware.

  16. Laura Lynn says:

    Tattoos aren’t for me. I came within moments of getting a tattoo, 1976 on Hollywood Blvd, it was going to look like a rubber stamp that said ‘Made In Canada’ on my butt. Oh man, the taste level just wasn’t there. Thank you giant tattoo dude and also God! At the last moment he asked me how old I was and I told him the truth…16. He said get a note from your Mother and chucked me out.

    So, no tattoos but my favorite bar, Helter Skelter, is next to, actually there’s a connecting door, to a tattoo parlor. So you just never know…a few Fireball drop shots too many…HEY! I just realized my head is bald! I could get a tattoo and it would be covered up when chemotherapy ends and my hair grows back! Hmmmmm…

    Ps: I received the book and thank you. I appreciate your patience. Thanks Ross.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      I would never want to say there’s a plus side to chemo but that option does lead one to think.
      Also, I know someone who has a maple leaf tattooed on his butt for the sole purpose of identification in case his body turns up in a foreign country.
      Glad you got the book!

  17. I live in Portland, Oregon. (Waits for applause to die down from Portlandia viewers.) But, I live on the west side of Portland, Oregon. (Enjoys the indignant silence from same group.) That means the tattoos-to-SUVs ratio is comparatively low. Still, I get out a lot. Here’s what I’ve picked up.

    The proper etiquette for ogling body signage is as follows:

    You: “Nice ink.”
    Human billboard: “Thanks.”

    At this point, it’s important to note body language. If they track where your eyes are looking and turn to present art, you are allowed to get your zombie on and stare hard. If they roll up the sleeve or pant leg or (insert more personal article of clothing here), you have just been invited. Now, you are expected to lean in and critique their stains with no less than three appreciative adjectives. One syllable only each, if you are from east Portland.

    “Sweet.”
    “Cool.”
    “The snake coming out the bird’s ass is profound.”

    If they mention anything about self-design, brace yourself for more body reveals. There are doubtless several other sketches rendered somewhere intimate that were put out of sight for good reason, When the dude pulls off his shirt or the dudette tells you to “Go ahead and pull the collar down, it’s a big Death Butterfly,” you must be prepared for your childhood nightmares to be cut and reshot in your cerebellum. You now have new material. Heightened emotion is necessary at this point in the exchange to conceal either the bile rising in your gorge or the bulge rising in your pants.

    “Sah-weeet!”
    “Cool, man!”
    “Does that butterfly wrap all the way around to the. .uh…you know…front?”

    Closing comments often involve them thrusting the business card of the tattoo artist at you. Take it. Admire the artwork on it. Promise to check that guy out and nod a lot while you back away. Don’t allow the conversation to turn to whether or not you have any ink. Because you don’t, and when the disappointing information comes to light, you are never gonna see the rest of that Death Butterfly.

Go ahead, don't be shy.

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