Monday, September 28, 2009

Improbable Art

Old and out of it, I've never understood getting a tattoo. I know they are common among 18 year old Army or Navy recruits (brotherhood, solidarity) but "sleeves"? One's entire arm is covered, often both. The barbed chain around a bicep used to mean that the owner had done prison time as does the cheek "teardrop" in blue (Mariel boat people.) I have seen pictures of backs that are entirely covered in tattoos. At our gym, many of the women proudly strut "tramp stamps."

But permanently covering one's body continues to amaze me. I certainly don't care if someone is covered in tattoos -- it is their business after all -- but the "why" of it mystifies me.

Then I ran across "TATTOO MACHINE, Tall Tales, True Stories and My Life in Ink" by Jeff Johnson (Speigel and Grau, 249 pages, $25) at the library. Eagerly I checked it out. Now I could find out.

Johnson is the proprietor of the Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, of Portland, OR. The book jacket claims that a tattoo shop is no longer a den of social outcasts and degenerates -- it's a workshop where committed (leave it alone!) and schooled artists paint on living skin.

Tattoos are notoriously difficult to remove and if your affair with "Mary" doesn't work out and you start all over again with a "Barbara" it's going to be difficult to change it.

Furthermore, note the part about painting on "living skin." No one lives forever. It's only a question of when you and your tattooed body are going to be laid to rest and never seen again. Understandably, this depresses the tattoo artist. The very impermanence of a "permanent" art.

Johnson recounts typical days at a tattoo parlor, the prevalence of practical jokers as artists and relates how the art has progressed from relatively crude tattoos to fine art (better equipment.) He stesses the major importance of checking out the sterile conditions of the shop and says that the artists themseslves fear getting some terrible disease. Gloves, disposable needles (and the red contamination box for them) alcohol bathing the skin -- don't omit a single one.

I finished the book not a lot clearer on the "why" of a tattoo, but more informed than when I started it. And absolutely no desire whatsoever to get one. I wish the youngsters getting tatts today wuld realize that they won't always have young and taut skin. Picture the demise of a sunset sagging unevenly across one's derriere -- not a pretty sight, not at all.

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