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.
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.