Wissot: Do you tattoo?
I don’t. But please don’t be upset if you do. It’s a generational thing with me. Growing up in the 1950s, tattoos were worn by sailors, convicts and bikers, the ones sporting black leather jackets, not spandex shorts. Kids my age didn’t get tattoos, although my parents did worry I’d wind up in prison and might need one there to fit in.
Tattoos are an entirely different symbolic statement for the generations who came of age after mine. Millennials lead the way. According to the Wall Street Journal, “An estimated 47% of that group, which range in age from 18 to 35 have at least one tattoo; 37% have at least two; and 15% have five or more. In comparison, 36% of Generation X and 13% of baby boomers are inked.”
A friend of mine in the oil and gas industry in Texas tells me that employers don’t rule out hiring tattooed young workers. The odds of finding enough clean-skinned candidates is apparently waning. I’m not sure if their standards have been stretched far enough to include face tattoos, a la Mike Tyson.
Every generation finds a way to demarcate themselves from previous ones. Indigenous people on this continent and elsewhere in the world have used body tattoos, scarification, for purposes of initiation, indications of status, and expressions of beauty.
My baby boomer generation was hardly daring or, in my opinion, original. Guys like me slicked our hair with vaseline to emulate the Frankie Avalon “Philly” look popular on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Marlon Brando, James Dean and Sal Mineo wore the collars of their leather jackets up in the movies and we followed suit.
We were rather drab and sad copycat wannabes. We weren’t trailblazers. We were trail followers. We distinguished ourselves by being undistinguished.
Contrast that with today’s body art. The size and scope of tattoos amaze me. Where a typical tattoo years ago might be a heart with a person’s name inside, I see women now with one of their legs covered in what resembles friezes, the intricate ornamental decorations found on 16th century Italian Renaissance chapels, altars and shrines. The men are no slouches either. Where once they might have settled for a simple statement of personal rebellion like “Born to Raise Hell,” today’s male Gen Xers, Y’s and Z’s are more partial to elaborate depictions that would satisfy the patrons of a Diego Rivera mural.
Even though I don’t see myself employing the services of a tattoo parlor anytime soon, the explosion of generational tattooing fascinates me. I see nothing wrong with it. I say that bearing in mind the health risks involved in exposing your skin to needles and chemicals, not to mention the physical pain and economic cost of having tattoos removed.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “At $49 per square inch, removing a 3×5 inch tattoo that requires eight laser treatments would cost $5,880.00. At $300 per square inch, it would cost $36,000.”
Ouch, ouch, and one more ouch for good measure. I can’t imagine a more expensive example of paying for pain.
While I am reluctant to take the tattoo plunge, my lovely wife, Alyn, isn’t. Several years ago as a comical gesture, I bought her a gift certificate for Christmas to a tattoo parlor in Denver. To my surprise, she readily agreed to use it. She settled on decorating a spot just below her left hip with the word, “Vonce.” It’s a Yiddish term which loosely translates to “waterbug” in English, something I have been calling her since we met 29 years ago.
We have talked about adding a second tattoo just below it. She hasn’t quite decided yet what that might be. If she decides to go with an English word, I’m going to push for “Tinkerballs.”
At first glance that may seem a tad crude, but it actually combines two very real qualities of hers: tenderness and toughness. The tenderness stems from her innate sweetness; the toughness goes back to a 50-mile trail race she once completed in pitch darkness at Sam Houston State Park, outside Huntsville, Texas, wearing a smile on her face and sporting three cracked ribs garnered hours before from a fall.
If there is such a thing as a tattoo for valor she certainly deserves to have it emblazoned on her left hip.
By the way, if you enjoyed this column, please look for an upcoming one titled, “Is a nose ring your thing?”
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.