Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thinking about tattoos, still

A Facebook comment got me thinking about tattoos again. I suppose I do think about them often enough, as it is. After all, I was a tattooist for 15 years, a good chunk of my life. Often, I long to do it again, but my hands are shot. I had tattooed for some years that way, and I was hurting myself daily, and not being able to work as well as I once did. I couldn't live with that, and so I stopped.

I also had terribly mixed feelings about tattoos themselves. I never understood the urge to be a tattooed person, though I had it myself. The first time I saw someone being tattooed, not a tattoo itself, I wanted to get one. I went to every tattoo shop I could find (not an easy task way back when), and was refused over and over. I wasn't yet 18. Luckily, I knew no one who tattooed from their home and it never occurred to me to pick up a needle and ink and do it myself.

The other thing that made me wait was one tattoo artist that told me not to get a tattoo until I was absolutely sure I'd never be a part of normal society. This in itself will give some idea of how long ago this was.

In spite of the fact that approximately 1 in 8 people in the United States now have at least one tattoo, I still hold that there is something essentially true about the seemingly outdated advice that this unknown tattooist gave to me.

The motivations for marking one's skin permanently are myriad, and so little examined by those that get and give them. Just ask yourself this simple question, "Would you want to wear the same shirt for the rest of your life?" Some might say "yes" with comfort and perhaps even pride. Bikers wear their jackets and their colors for a lifetime, or hope that they will. Same with a military person, anyone who wears a uniform.

Therein lies the contradiction of the identity of a tattooed person. The notion is that a tattoo reflects a person's unique identity, but the tattoo marks that identity now as a "tattooed person." Not so unique, no matter how hard one tries. Add to this that what one's tattoo looks like the same ones of those you identity with and what the passing fads of the year are, and the conundrum multiplies.

Here in New York, I'm seeing hundreds of Japanese sleeves these days. Beautiful art, no doubt, but identity? What part of a person finds meaning in the goldfish, the tiger, the rolling clouds, the lightning, the ties to the centuries of Japanese culture and to the Yakuza? Borrowed imagery, borrowed identity. For years it was "tribal" work, other years a million Godsmack suns across America, Japanese calligraphy, Celtic knots. . .

Upon my own body, I have a mishmash of borrowed culture. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but ultimately, I see it as empty. For years, I covered my arms and legs. The weather is getting warm, and now I have little choice but to uncover. The person who acquired these tattoos long ago is no longer with me. Who I am today is not who I was decades ago. I am not ashamed of my tattoos but it's not who I am. I am not part of the heavily tattooed "tribe", even if I look like it.

I hear about pride at having the guts to wear such altered skin forever. This is a false pride and a false stance. It's a scream that demands a response from strangers at first meeting: "accept me." I find this a childish notion. It is the cry of a little child who needs unconditional love. It's the longing for belonging. It's the desire to have others accept us as we are underneath the skin, and that altered skin wears the owner's longings for a lifetime.

As tattoos became more acceptable, those who felt as outsiders turned to more drastic measures to set themselves apart - tattooing their hands, faces, necks, places that could not be hidden. They say it takes strength to wear these marks. I contend this is a false strength, or an empty challenge. Life's struggles are hard enough without having to win over every stranger who judges. And yes, they will judge. You who have tattoos may balk at those who do judge, and align oneself with those who were born with skin color that causes them the same problems. On the other hand, oddly, some of the most heavily tattooed white people are racist. Try to figure that one out.

At the heart of the matter, I have held for years that the resurgence of tattoos obviates a deeper problem in society. We all yearn to belong to a tribe, even more than we yearn for individuality. We also yearn for ritual and meaning where there is seemingly little left. And so, we go to the tattoo shop and unconsciously pray that we'll have an experience that will change us, mark us, fix us, fix us in time, memorialize this or that moment, our grief, our happiness, our idealism, our rage, our fears, or conquer our fears, or make us learn some lesson, or man up, or give us relief through going through some pain. The reasons are endless.

I live with my tattoos. I rather wish I had none, that I could wipe my skin clean. Other days I do wish the bad tattoos were covered up, the old ones touched up, and the unfinished ones finished. And yes, I also yearn for a Japanese sleeve, though I'd need a third arm for that. Even I, who's given this years and years of thought, still find it a mystery, though, in the end, I do think it's a search for self, and a part of the mistaken desire to absolutely once and for all be sure of who that self is, and as a Zen Buddhist, I have to say, grasping at the permanence of the tattoo to deal with this dilemma is searching in the wrong place.