What’s it mean, this body wallpaper? Seriously. Do these people have jobs? Do they have children? Can they have children? Is there a different mortality rate among people with lots and lots of tattoos? Do you become a vessel for all that ink (is it ink?) without any consequences?
A few weeks ago, I took my old mother for an MRI. Everywhere in the MRI unit are warning signs about tattoos. They’re made with metal apparently and the image resonance magnet pulls the metal right out of your skin, to excruciating effect. Do the tattooed know this? That their inner organs can’t be inspected?
I believe the conventional wisdom is that tattoos are no longer a class distinction—certainly not distinguishing truckers, seamen, and former inmates from the rest of us. Caroline Kennedy has a tattoo (I’ve glimpsed it); Samantha Cameron, the wife of David Cameron, the new British prime minister, is said to have one. Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, is decorated. I know a young man who has political aspirations in New York state who has…well, a tattoo of New York state.
But I certainly know a lot of people who don’t have tattoos. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who has a job—not a job you’d want to keep, anyway—who has a tattoo. So, fairly, something is being said here when you sit for the needle—some statement. What, though, remains opaque. People with tattoos are, in my experience, inarticulate about their tattoos and the motivations that got them tattooed. Often, in fact, when queried they express regret. Or sheepishness. And yet, the tattoo industry is clearly thriving (thriving, and yet the tattoo parlors in the East Village have certainly not upgraded themselves).
Is a tattoo saying, simply, I’m not old like you? Or, I have more sex than you? Or, I’m an expressive human being? Or…fuck you?
Or, perhaps what’s really being said can only be shared with other people who have tattoos.
Is a tattoo just the evidence of having made a big, body altering, never-to-be undone decision? The more tattoos the more determined the decision? A way of saying I’m not ambivalent? I’m a gargoyle.
As a parent, I assume a tattoo is specifically directed against me. (I once asked a young woman I know with an ungainly tattoo on her forearm how her parents felt. “My mother,” she said, “cried for three weeks.”) My own mother, however, seems strangely interested in tattoos, and particularly interested in getting one, she’s said, if it would spare her from more MRIs—an unpleasant experience even for the untattooed. The only meaningful threat I can make to my own children on this issue, seems to be, if they get one, I will, too.
The heatwave reveals tattoos spreading down legs and arms and over shoulders and up necks, and now creeping onto faces. The plaids, the swirls, the geometrics, the Escher-like tricks of perspectives, the ever-popular dragons, are engulfing us, or suggesting good reason to invest in the laser-removal treatment business.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
Among the things that the wretched hot weather means in my neighborhood in New York—the East Village—is more tattoos. If it’s been clear for some time that tattoos are a commonplace fashion, only in this heatwave have I become aware that actually everybody in a seemingly wide demographic has a tattoo, and many have quilts of them.