Several years ago I spent a few days in Miami Beach, Florida, and came away with the impression that it is the tattoo capital of the world, or at least one of its principle pilgrimages. An abundance of tattoo shops and more body art than the Louvre or Auschwitz could contain. I even saw a man who had gone all in, his entire face covered in tattoos. If the eyes are the window to the soul, those were some distracting drapes.
Since then I have noticed just how common tattoos have become and how they are no longer just an artistic expression of the…err…rough and tumble orders. Traditionally you expected to see them on Marines, or bikers, or inmates of the Russian prison system, but not so much on the middle or trendy classes. That has changed. For example, I have a lady attorney friend who, when attempting to hire a paralegal, was surprised at the number of college-educated female interviewees that were sporting ink, and I know of a fundamentalist preacher who has a couple himself.
As an art form it must be at least in part an expression of how the owner interprets or views or imagines himself, and when the art is visible to others (as it so often is), how he wishes to be viewed. Tattoo art is often highly symbolic and often conveys a powerful sense of danger, strength, or mysticism. Like architectural expression, it is permanent, or only renovated at some expense, but unlike a living room or a tricked out car, it is carried with the owner everywhere he goes.
Setting aside the question of whether it is permissible for a Christian to get a tattoo, it stands to reason that a decision as inescapable as what you have tattooed on your body ought to be made only after careful deliberation. Not only is the book indeed judged by the cover, but we also have to answer to ourselves when we are older.
With these ideas in mind I wish to offer a few simple guidelines.
- Do not seek the opinion of Mr Jack Daniels, George Dickel, or Jim Beam. They may be a lot of fun and good in a fight, but they are notoriously bad counsellors.
- If you are twenty, trust me, the forty-year-old-you has no respect for your opinion, doesn’t have as much money as you think he has, and doesn’t want to spend it on tattoo removal. Consult him. If you are forty, consult the sixty-year-old-you. If you are sixty and still have canvas taut enough for a tattoo, just be satisfied and leave well enough alone.
- Symbolism is fine and dandy, but avoid that of ephemeral fancy or rootless fad. Keeping the future–you in mind, choose imagery that is interpretable, would make sense to your ancestors, and has some bearing on your traditional culture. Regardless of whatever is motivating you right now, you are, as likely as not, going to remain in or return to the cultural stream in which you were born. If you are not Chinese, pass on the yin and yang. Choose acanthus, rather than cannabis, the Celtic Cross rather than the gates of hell, Guinevere rather than Hello Kitty, etc. The future-you will thank you.
- Only tattoo parts of your body that can be easily covered by commonly worn clothing. Yes, that tattoo will make you look amazing, but just in case the one-year-older-you actually wants that job, dont prejudice the interviewer who might be unnerved by tangled vines growing up your neck or the grim reaper’s scythe protruding from underneath your cuff. Only your significant other should be required to ponder the significance of the snake coiling through the flaming skull that is staring her in the face.
- Speaking of significant others…family and children’s names are safe, but in today’s revolving-door dating and marriage (more or less the same now) culture, tattooing the name of that current special someone on your arm is never wise.
- Never choose your tattoo artist on an impulse or because he can fit you in. Choose him because you have confirmed that he is very good, and pay what you have to.
- Less is more. Just because you have more canvas doesn’t mean you have to paint on it. Too much will drown your message and swallow good art. Remember your skin is the cover of your book, not the book itself.
- If you are dark-skinned, remember that black ink stands out on white paper. A mass of fine detail will only increase the likelihood that you will appear to have skin disease or massive birthmarks. You have to be even more creative. Again, less is more.
- Lastly, unless you live in Miami Beach and never go anywhere else, or unless you truly delight in being shunned everywhere you go, do not tattoo your face.
There still remains the question of how tattoos have become so popular amongst the middle class today, if not quite respectable.
For men, my theory is that it is an unconscious protest against a post-agricultural, suburban, emasculated, tribe-less, and vapid American culture. A statement of manliness in a culture that despises it. A primordial instinct to belong to something that has meaning, even if it is but a loose sub-culture.
For women, besides self-expression it is certainly in part a manifestation of their inborn instinct to adorn themselves just as they do with clothing, make-up, and jewelry. But why tattoos? Is it a form of solidarity with their men, like any other custom that identifies men and women as coming from the same tribe?
Who knows? Regardless of the motivation, since it is a garment that you can never take off and will define you in others’ eyes as well as your own, it should be done thoughtfully, and yes, tastefully, and with the opinion of the much-older-you in mind.
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