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A body of art

Published November 12. 2011 09:01AM



I admit that I should have averted my eyes. There she was, our office's student worker, squatting down in front of the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. Her top was up a little, her jeans down a bit. And there it was, an itty-bitty butterfly, fluttering there at the base of her spine. Yes, I should have looked away a lot faster than I did. At least it gave this old man a little something racy to share with old Father Dooley in the confessional on the subsequent Saturday. He must have been grateful: just three Hail, Mary's.

Despite their proliferation in recent years, tattoos still seem exotic to me. The saying goes, "If you remember the Sixties, you weren't there." Because of the hallucinogens, the psychedelic music, the (alleged) sexual liberation, the communes and war protests, the decade when I was a college student rightfully deserves this reputation. But, one thing you didn't see much among Sixties youth was tattoos.

As best my moldy memory can recall, the only people who got tattooed were sailors, military lifers, truck drivers, and (sometimes) blatantly gay men. Had I wanted a tattoo, I don't think I would have known where to get it in those days. Google "tattoo shops in Philadelphia" today and you'll quickly compile a list of 25, just within the city limits. The Philly 'burbs have their fair share of shops, too. Some of the names seem a little scary to me: Sink the Ink Tattoo and Body Piercing; Moo Tattoo; Infinite Body Piercing (ouch!).

Almost all of my college's basketball players and wrestlers sport body art, some of it pretty extensive. Not so extensive as the guitar a young acquaintance of mine has across his back. Charged to his Visa, he wound up paying it off, like a college loan, then paying again to try (not very successfully) to have it removed. As the great sage and musical philosopher James (aka Jimmy) Buffett once observed, "It's a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling."

Yes, indeed, the shop on South 43rd in Philly, named the Everlasting Art Tattoo Studio, has it right. When my friends and I grew up in the 1970s, we got haircuts. We switched from stimulants I won't list here to Cabernet and Pinot Noir. We bought a grown-up wardrobe and put the old Polaroids in a place where the kids couldn't easily access them.

My advice to the Younger Generation on this topic can be captured in two words: SKIN SAGS!


Tattoos certainly are commonplace nowadays. Whether as a way of expressing oneself or as a way of expressing one's desire to get picked up at the local bar (oh, come on, you knew what you were doing when you got that tramp stamp), tattoos have become less of a status symbol and more a right of passage. These days, a tattoo on the lower back, hip, or ankle is more akin to getting one's ears pierced than to the act of rebellion it once was.

But leave it to us crazy kids to push the envelope. The tramp stamp is now a tired cliché and the prison tat just doesn't say "hoodlum" like it once did. So what do we do? We go for the eyes. Literally. Did you know you can get your eyeballs tattooed now? Or your tongue. The inside of your lip, your teeth, your cat - all fair game, thanks to whatever visionary decided that was a dream worth pursuing.

So don't worry, folks, there are still plenty of reasons to be disgusted with the younger generation.

But what about the poor schmucks who want a small, simple - dare I say "old-fashioned" - tattoo, and are simply too scared to go under the needle?

Because, I'll admit it, I've always wanted one. Not anything big or showy, just a little bird on my shoulder blade or something. And despite my dad's warning - "skin sags!" - my parents have always been willing to let me make my own mistakes, apparently. They even went so far as to take me to a tattoo parlor while we were visiting my brother in Germany one summer.

I'll never forget walking into that tattoo shop. Burly men and women with shaved heads and multitude piercings sat in leather chairs while the artists worked on them, seemingly impervious to the needles that sadistically scratched and injected ink up and down their sinewy arms. Each one of them appeared to be on their thirtieth or fortieth tattoo, while I was standing in the doorway without even a single ear piercing to my name.

Shakily, I walked up to the counter and made a few brief inquiries regarding pricing and selection. Then I asked the question that was really on my mind.

"How much does it hurt?"

The man behind the counter leaned forward and gave me a skeptical once over.

"Vell," he said cryptically in a thick German accent, if a thick German accent can indeed be cryptic, "I say, if you have to ask, you are not ready to know."

I nodded - this man clearly knew my kind all too well - and hightailed it out of there, never to return to a tattoo parlor again.

Perhaps that was my parents' plan all along.

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