Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I'm No Angel

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.


Shauna Roberts said...

How about a picture of your tattoo?

reality said...

who knows....perhaps angels do have a tatto or two.
On the wings?

Lisa said...

Shauna, My tattoo? It would be too hard to photograph because it's on my back and my arms won't bend that way ;)

Reality, that would not surprise me!

Carleen Brice said...

Lisa, I believe Scott could take a picture, right? :)

I got my tattoo in 1991, when it was still a relatively wild thing to do. A yin yang symbol on my ankle, because I didn't want it anywhere it would sag.

Ello said...

Carleen! I wanted to do it on my ankle but I am such a chicken and I hear it is the most painful place to get one. But I hear you about the sagging thing!

Lisa - sorry about your friend. Tattoos are definitely a power statement although much of the stigma that used to be attached to it is gone. YOu don't have to show a picture of your tattoo, but can you give us a hint about it? :o)

Melissa Marsh said...

My husband loves tattoos - has one on each shoulder and one right above his heart. He plans to get more, too.

I just can't bring myself to do them, largely because they're so, well, PERMANENT. ;-)

Ello said...

Hey Lisa - I tried posting twice on the meme post below but for some reason it isn't catching my comment. But just wanted to let you know I got the tag and will be posting! Cheers.

Lisa said...

Carleen, OK you got me. He could, but I'm shy. I don't even have a picture of my face out here! Yin Yang -- good one and yes, in '91 you were living on the edge. Hell, anytime you do it you are. Contrary to what the bad boy will tell you, YES it hurts to get one, right?!

Ello, Here goes. When I decided to do it, I wanted something with leaves, vines and flowers and I wanted it on my lower back. The kind you only see when your shirt gaps because you're reaching for something on a high shelf. I worked with Art D'Amore from Art With a Pulse in Colorado Springs and we designed it and he did it (ouch). A piece like that is pretty big. Then I became possessed and I thought, how cool would it be if I extended the motif up my back? So -- leaves, purple flowers and some tiny birds go up my back and to the backs of both shoulders. You can see the top of it when I wear a tank top. You can see none of it most of the time. I wear a business suit when I meet clients and work with VERY conservative people. It freaks people out if I've known them a long time and then suddenly they realize I have a tattoo the size of Dallas ;)

Melissa, I've second guessed this once or twice when I've wished I could wear something strapless to a formal (I wouldn't do it now), but other than that -- eh, you only live once :)

Ello, I can't wait to see your answers!

Ello said...

It sounds beautiful! But it must have hurt like hell! hey no pain no gain. and we are supposed to suffer for our art!

steve said...


A fascinating story. The Air Force people probably had your best interesits at heart. Maybe my regional prejudices are showing, but I suspect that many tattoo parlors in and around Biloxi did not always use sterile equipment.

I'm about 10 years older than you are, so I grew up when tattoos were considered low-class (not lower class, but low-class). People 10 or 15 years older than I thought pierced ears were almost a mark of promiscuity (in West Side Story, there's a remark about Maria's pierced ears).

I realized things had changed dramatically in the early 1990s, when many of the young women I worked with were getting tattoos. And they were definitely not low-class.

Charles Gramlich said...

by the time I got around to thinking about getting a tattoo everyone else was so it seemed more rebellious not to.

Lisa said...

Ello, it's weird. I probably sat 5 times at 3 hours each time. The first ten minutes each time hurts -- a lot -- and then you just go into this zen mode and it's tolerable. At about the 3 hour point, it gets annoying, although at that point it's more the constant swiping over the newly opened skin with witch hazel that seems to be too much. To this day, I still can't really explain what drove me to do it, although I really do take a huge secret pleasure knowing I have this ginormous thing on me when I'm in businesswoman Lisa mode ;)

Steve, I doubt many tattoo parlors anywhere were using disposable needles or worrying about cleanliness -- the first time I ever heard of AIDS was either in late 81 or early 82 when I read about a strange "cancer" that was hitting gay men. It was in my subscription to Rolling Stone -- which was printed on newsprint then.

Actually, you're absolutely right. I'd forgotten that aspect of it. It was only "low class" types who had tattoos. I don't think I ever knew anybody who had one until I went into the Air Force. You couldn't even get one in Massachusetts back then because there were no legal tattoo parlors.

Charles, yeah, I know what you mean! BTW, congratulations again to you and Lana on your marriage!

liz fenwick said...

Your post brought back memories...I didn't know anyone who had a tatoo until I was out in the working world after college then it turned out that a group of boys that were just older than me had got drunk one night and all got tatoos........I was horrified and then intrigued because of where they got them :-)

Now tatoos are so common that there is no nephew pissed his parents off when during his gap year he had a tatoo done right down his spine - it read in chinese 'made in Hong Kong' - which is true as his parents were living out there at the time.

Denis said...

when i was in boot camp (1966), our company got out for one night at the end of the 7th week. A lot of guys got drunk and got tattoos. I rmember a bunch of them got a little heart with their girlfriends name in the center of it on a shoulder. One of the guys didn't have a girlfriend so he got that tattoo and had his own name 'TIM' put into the heart....hmmmmmm?

Lisa said...

Liz, times have definitely changed. I think I was pretty shocked at the first tattoos I saw on people my own age and don't get me started on the first boy I met with a pierced ear!

Denis, that's too funny! I can only hope he later went back and had the heart filled in or otherwise altered to disguise his own name -- or not!

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