Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

How I avoided the cosmetic surgery called tattooing

Ouroboros-1When I was a kid, I received almost weekly instruction from my mother never to get a tattoo.  It was one of  many things she deemed “hideous.”  She most often issued the edict as we passed a trailer park on the way to her sister’s cabin on the Catawba River, not far from our home in Charlotte.  “Only tattooed gypsies live in trailer parks,” she said.

So, I was horrified when many of my friends began getting tattoos in the 1980s. I found the aesthetic, um, hideous. Why would anyone get a tattoo of a teddy bear in a cowboy hat and boots? What was up with the barbed wire encircling the biceps, the indecipherable tribal designs, and the ideograms? These were at least comfortable abstractions compared to many tattoos I’d seen in biker culture. I went to a tattoo “conference” once and saw a man with a bag of Cheetos tattooed on his back and the crucified Jesus on his shoulder.

Then one summer day in 2001, I browsed the Gay Pride market and came across a booth selling temporary tattoos. A friend talked me into getting a tribal/barbed wire armband. Walking around Piedmont Park afterward in my tank top, I noticed a lot of men smiling at me. When we went to Starbucks afterward, a very sexy stranger walked up, grabbed my arm and said, “That is so hot.” I had the same kind of experience the next day.

I found myself not washing the tattoo. It “worked” too well to give up. Eventually, it did of course fade. Then I began obsessing about getting a permanent one. I visited several tattoo shops to look at designs — I did not want the typical one — and found nothing appealing. Eventually, I decided I’d like an ouroboros, a classic alchemical symbol of a snake or dragon swallowing its tail (above right photo). No shop I visited had such a design, so it was my task to produce one an artist could trace.

barbedwireI found an image and carried it to a shop in Little Five Points. I hemmed and hawed as I talked about putting this symbol of infinity and “wholeness” around my arm. I wanted it but I didn’t. Finally, the artist told me, “You need to go home and think this over. Wait a few days. If you still want it, come back.”

I decided to take his advice. On the way home, traveling through the Krog Street tunnel, I suddenly imagined myself dead in my coffin with a faded snake or some tribal cliche fencircling my arm.

Then I stopped at Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbagetown, where I ran into a lesbian activist friend I’d not seen in 20 years or more. She had a yoni tattooed on her shoulder.  The yoni, at least in its tattoo form in the feminist ’70s, was a y-shaped image from antiquity that represented the vulva, a symbol of female power. Unfortunately, my old friend’s tattoo was barely decipherable. It looked something like a melanomic inkblot. Her skin was old, sagging, lined with fine wrinkles.

I was instantly cured of my desire to get tattooed. I could hear my mother sighing with deep relief.

What kind of anquish?

This memory came back while I read Dan Brooks’ engaging essay, “The Existential Anguish of the Tattoo,” in the Feb. 14 New York Times. It’s a great read, but it also annoyed me somewhat. A principal point  is the way tattoos expressed rebellion in the youth of Brooks’ generation, then turned into emblems of conformity, eventually imposing a potentially embarrassing, constant reminder of values left behind. Oh. Did I mention Brooks is 36? His youth, apparently, is over. Oy.

He writes this:

Surely, my generation understands the transience of youth. We grew up watching nostalgic television shows about our parents’ childhoods, and so we know that the age of free love and nonmaterialism lasted approximately as long as their adolescence. Ask any 60-year-old what defined the baby boomers, and he’ll say their values; ask a 30-year-old what defined them, and she’ll say the way they abandoned those values as they aged.


 Seen this way, our tattoos can read as an assertion of rebellion against what our parents did. Unlike them, we will carry the aesthetics of our youth into middle age, our hearts literally on our sleeves. If the boomers have taught us anything, it’s that the trappings of youth will embarrass you as you get older. We grasped that lesson only partly, and we have implemented it in the most ironic way imaginable.

Only someone still quite young could write this. For one thing, as I indicate, many boomers did get tattooed. True — they did not go to the extent of the succeeding generation’s sleeve-length, sometimes head-to-toe imagery. But, existentially speaking, that’s not the point, is it?

brazilm2aBrooks makes a common assumption that irritates the hell out of me. Most of my generation certainly did not participate in or adopt the values of progressive alternative culture (to my regret). This popular myth is an expression of the inevitable dissing by a younger generation of its parents’ generation. Boomers’ alternative values — the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement, the psychedelic fascination, the attraction to socialism — were all part of urban culture, in any case. They were not adopted by the majority of boomers.

Indeed, much of the contemporary young’s “identity branding” is, if anything, a radical adoption of the worst of overall money-obsessed boomer culture. And the extent of such inflation, including the tattooing, may express the desperation to be noticed. But, as with boomers wearing flowers in their hair, not everyone does that, right?

As for personal aesthetics, the, um, boom in “anti-aging” technologies is certainly an expression of the wish to hold onto youthful appearance and be noticed. People who get cosmetic surgery and botox treatments typically end up looking exactly like what they are:  older people trying to look younger. It’s a painted but transparent mask. Short of actual surgery, I don’t believe most of these techniques cost more than tattooing a koi-fish pond on your ass — or erasing one. Tattoos and cosmetic surgery both fade and that actually highlights aging.

By the way, my mother the tattoo hater was one of those who subjected herself to the flesh’s alteration via cosmetic surgery. Repeatedly. After the healing was past and the effects were fresh, she did indeed look younger. But the effects faded. The followups, more radical surgeries, turned her into near-caricature to my eyes.

I could go on. I won’t. Just cease your boomerism and get off my lawn, Mr. Brooks! Your generation is no more aesthetically haunted than my own.

( I wrote the story of my tattoo avoidance in more detail in a “Headcase” column years ago. It includes an interview with my classmate Maureen Mercury, author of the book, “Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification.” Maureen disagrees somewhat with my comparison of tattooing and cosmetic surgery.)

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