The Illustrated Man


Poster Boy
Image by slagheap via Flickr

Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave. – Samoan tattoo artist’s song

It was a 75 degree January day.  To the east, across rigid mountains and the endless steppe of middle America, a third consecutive nor’easter was decorating New England roof tops with ice dams and eight foot icicles, while schools declared snow days and road crews could no longer find places to relocate frozen winter.

I was tempted to call home but it would only invite derision and accusations of abandonment.  It would be suicide to mention the 80-degree temperature difference or the grey whales in the distance spouting as they migrated down the Pacific Coast toward Baja California. I had paid the extra $8 per day to upgrade my business transportation from a dull Mid-sized sedan to a Mustang convertible.  The V8 engine rumbled underneath while the sun pumped precious Vitamin D into my skin.

It was Babylon revisited as I drove down an upscale Newport Beach boulevard reconnecting with my past life as a newlywed living in an 1100 square foot cottage less than two miles from the Pacific Ocean. As I soaked up my old neighborhood, I passed a new and unlikely establishment – – a tattoo parlor. Normally, one would be more likely to spy LA Ink between Chico’s Bail Bonds and a “We Cash Unemployment Checks” liquor store and gun shop.  This LA Ink was wedged between a Whole Foods and a Kinko’s in an upscale strip mall less than a six iron from Fashion Island.  I felt a sudden surge of abandon that was either brought on by the sun and nostalgia or a spike in blood pressure from the MSG laden Chinese lunch I had just devoured.  Gratefully, unlike the elephant crush of cardiac arrest, this feeling was clearly the soft anxious flutter of forbidden temptation.

As I idled at the red light, an attractive forty-something woman with a rose tattoo on her shoulder exited her Mercedes and entered the establishment. At that moment, I felt a sudden gust of wild hair desire to create a permanent symbol of my life – – a tattoo.

I had watched enough national geographic channel to understand the ancient and sacred Polynesian traditions of the tattoo. To Samoans and Maori people, the body “tatau” is an expression of profound significance and an indication of one’s tribal status, skill and ability.  It is a social birthmark that tells much about the person. On the other hand, I have also watched the TV show, “ Locked Up- San Quentin” where a tattoo might indicate how many people one has killed or a membership within a murderous secret society. It is a tricky thing to get a tattoo and a permanent decision not to be taken lightly.

Each ink emblem is a banner of self-expression and seeks to project to the outside world a physical expression of your intrinsic identity. In ancient times and tribal societies, the tattoo was a symbol of strength and order. It’s slow assimilation into western society came at the hands of adventurers and those seeking to distinguish themselves among a homogeneous society. The sacred nature of the tattoo became corrupted over time by Western culture. In the 1940’s, ink was found primarily on sailors or soldiers and was often etched in the image of a swim-suit model or a cartoon character.  In the 1950’s, delinquents and bikers adopted images of skulls and daggers and in denigrated society’s opinion of the tattoo as an art form.  The early 60’s witnessed an outbreak of hepatitis and blood poisoning that relegated the tattoo and its quirky artists to back alleys and disrepute.

My first memory of a tattoo was Popeye the Sailor Man.  The cranky but irrepressible cartoon mariner had two distinct blue anchors adorning each arm.  When fueled with cans of spinach, these inked images would literally spin and convulse on his arm – – leading up to extraordinary feats of strength.

Popeye was one of the few “good guys” that displayed tattoos.  In the 60’s, a kid was taught to be on alert if he spied an ink blot leaking out from underneath a white tee-shirt or tank top.  One was wary of a bicep that was protected by a dagger encircled by a serpent.  These marks meant membership in secret and illicit societies.  To be indelibly marked with a tattoo was a public admission to being a misanthrope, gang member, wayward merchant marine, non-commissioned officer or the survivor of a lost weekend while on leave in Subic Bay, Philippines. Many first time tattoos involved waking up in a flea-bag motel with a dry mouth, splitting headache and an empty wallet. Upon peeling back the dirty gauze from your shoulder, you discover the receipt for your bender in the form of a screaming eagle tattoo.

In the 60’s, women with body ink were associated with circus sideshows, Polynesian communities or the back seat of a Hell’s Angel Harley.  While rock icons and celebrity tattooist Lyle Tuttle opened the door for free spirits to express themselves with permanent badges of independence, conservative America was not ready to accept the ancient art. I can recall my rush to adult judgment when swimming at my friend’s house and witnessing his young uncle remove his shirt to show a Mako shark rising out of his lower back and twisting toward his right deltoid.  Having recently returned from Vietnam, he had changed and become more dangerous.  Clearly, the tattoo was a warning that I needed to avoid him – – lest he tried to get me addicted to drugs, and tattoo me just before we knocked off the local community bank. I will never forget that shark – it’s diabolical ebony eye focused on me, following my every move – wanting to drag me into the underworld of corrupt, soulless carnivores.

Later in high school, I became friendly with Bruce S, one of the many younger umpires who would call our high school baseball games.  Bruce had been a long-range reconnaissance patrol (LURP) soldier in Vietnam. He had seen a lifetime of carnage in just 14 months of combat.  He was a friendly but damaged soul that had died inside before the age of 25. His arms were adorned with dragons and American Flags.  He proudly displayed his “Semper Fidelis” Marine tattoo which promised: “Always Faithful”. He was haunted by nightmares and sometimes talked to himself, conversing with dead friends and imaginary foes.  His tattoos were badges of honor.  Bruce the LURP was Bradbury’s Illustrated Man trying to give a voice to stories too twisted and disturbing to articulate.  To understand his muscular mural was to understand a boy’s chronological descent into hell.

With Y2K, 60’s stigmas were shattered. Tattoos became in vogue and TV shows like Miami Ink celebrated the human body as a canvas for liberted expression. Generation Y was ready to declare rebellion against the established social order and wear it on their sleeves – literally.

As of 2011,tattoos are officially considered body art and fashion.  A best-selling fictional protagonist is now an anti-social, brilliant force of nature with a dragon tattoo. For girls, it seems the risk of stigma from a tattoo remains but it is more than offset by its perceived statement of personal power.   Yet, prejudices still exist in our society as new and old generations clash over the implications of body art.  Some still quietly judge tattoos as a sign of loose mores and vacuous minds. Yet, for the most,  tattoos are now viewed as less troubled and more tribal. In the end, it’s really all about self-expression.

I turned into the strip mall and sat in my car screwing up the courage to go inside.  I had always wanted a skeleton with a crown of roses chronicling my long, strange trip across forty years of following The Grateful Dead.  I might consider a celestial-looking compass underscoring my belief in God, my managing partner and captain. Yet I remained outside, debating between the imaginary risk of Hepatitis and a hip new tat.  It was exciting and scandalous – – a 49-year-old executive sneaking into a parlor to be branded like a Hereford cow.  Was it my declaration of independence or perhaps, simply a mid-life cry for help?

Perhaps the tattoo would force a unification of my myriad personalities.  After all, most of us lead fractured lives where we are three people: the person we project to the outside world, the person we secretly believe ourselves to be and the person our partner knows.  For many, the Holy Grail in life is simply to be the same person – – all the time.  To become one is to be centered. Perhaps a tattoo would force a shotgun marriage between my schizophrenic persona – blending the citizen, artist and the iconoclast. But what image could reconcile and combine these forces?

I sat in the parking lot watching the front door of LA Ink. A young, goateed man with a knit cap and dark glasses emerged with a long white bandage covering his forearm.  His tank top revealed a complex undergrowth of ink and imagery.

“Does it hurt”, I asked like a five-year old.  My face must have told my total story.

“Nah man, you should do it. Sort of feels like a burn or road rash for about a day.  It goes away.  Depends on where you get it.” He flashed a smile,  “Where the skin is thinnest, expect to grimace.” He disappeared between two parked cars.

I started to get cold feet.  Where in the hell would I put a Grateful Dead tattoo anyway? I’d have to hide it from my wife.  That would be tricky.  Perhaps I was not ready to make my life statement. I kept thinking about his warning, “where the skin is thinnest, expect to grimace.” I unconsciously rubbed the inside of my arm, turned the key in the ignition and drove to my next meeting.

I’m still thinking about it and probably will for a very long time. Perhaps if I finally ever do screw up the courage to get my ink, it will end up a traditional tattoo of a heart. It’s inscription will simply read, “Mama’s Boy”.

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