It’s true. I’m no angel. I was in the car Monday night and this Gregg Allman song came on the radio. It was released in 1987 and listening to it made me think of a series of recent posts Charles at Razored Zen has done about power words.
In particular, I was struck by the line, “come and let me show you my tattoo”, which in 1987 had a lot more power as a lyric than it does in 2007. Twenty years ago, I don’t believe tattoos had achieved mainstream status. Bikers, ex-cons, veterans, G.I.s and other assorted bad boys had tattoos. When you ran across someone who did have one, it was not uncommon to ask to see it – as if it was a sixth toe or a three legged dog – something different and dangerous.
Although we normally don’t think of tattoos other than those people pay to have done, there were other kinds of tattoos. You rarely saw them, but when you did, it was always a heart stopping moment. When I was in third or fourth grade, I had a neighbor named Barbara, who lived across the street. Barbara’s father had been a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII. About once a month, Mr. Barbara’s Father (we could not pronounce their last name and so that’s what we called him), would get drunk and he would stand in the street in front of his house and rant in Polish for an hour or two. No one ever complained, called the police or tried to stop him. We never, ever said anything to Barbara about it. Now and then, as he would gesture wildly, you could see the blurry numbers on the inside of his wrist.
In 1981, most guys, and very few girls had tattoos.
In 1981, I was in the Air Force at technical training and living on Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. There was a long list of things that were against the rules, but one of the big ones was: Do not get a tattoo.
In the dormitory where I lived, I was in a “bay” with six dorm rooms and twelve girls. Only my roommate and I remained tattoo-less throughout my seven month stay in Biloxi. Despite my wildness in almost every other respect, I was horrified at the idea that my fellow airmen would permanently ink themselves. We were in the eighteen to twenty year old range and I was fairly certain that anything that seemed like a good idea for a permanent skin embellishment then, would likely not stand the test of time. Despite my proselytizing, one by one, the unicorns, roses, hearts, tweetie birds, smiley faces and dragons all appeared on backs, pelvises, shoulders and ankles. The initial tattoo after-care had to be done in secret, so it was pretty common to get a knock on the door and have a bottle of lotion shoved in your face, while a girl would turn her back to you, bare her shoulder and request you rub lotion over a freshly engraved fairy or wizard.
Nobody ever had a custom tattoo. It was all done from whatever flash was hanging around. The first boy I dated who had a tattoo was a guy from Philly with this exact tattoo:
He was a bad boy. After Biloxi, I ran into him again a few years later in Germany. By that time, he was married and had a little boy. Not long after I returned to the states, I got word that he’d died of brain cancer.
Several years ago, I got a tattoo, but by then, it wasn’t the rebel move it had once been.
Tattoo was once a power word for a lot of reasons. Maybe for me, it always will be.