COUNTERPOINT: Tattoos

by Jilian Gundling | 4/24/09 2:32am

In asserting my admiration for tattoos, I'm not going to give an intellectualized answer of why I think they are cool. Four years of academia has made me bored of searching for explanations and rationalizations of everything. Tattoos aren't for the planners, the everything-by-the-book kind of people. I think they're interesting because you make a decision and you go for it.

That said, I've recently been crowned the most indecisive person on the planet. I've been wanting to get a tattoo for the last few years, but have not yet made the plunge. I often get distracted from my desire by various friends who tell me I won't want a tattoo when I'm 80. But what will I want when I'm 80? Soup that doesn't stain my dentures? Cool. That's a lot to look forward to.

When the highlights of my life have morphed into watching re-runs of "The Price is Right" and fighting with my crotchety husband over his cholesterol level, I think it would comfort me to know that a long time ago I was young and careless and have a tattoo to prove it. Maybe at the time, I'll even break out my iPod that has somehow been preserved, turn on some MGMT, jump up from the rocking chair and just rage.

So now that I've decided to commit to a tattoo, I've narrowed down my options to getting one of the following sayings on my forehead: Green Key '09, Mrs. Billy Bob Thorton, General Tso's Chicken, Hello My Name Is Jilian, Keystone Light or President Wright. Actually, I'm open to suggestions. Blitz me your name and if it has a nice ring to it, I'll consider putting it on my body.

In all seriousness, when choosing a tattoo of my own, I'm looking to avoid the tramp stamp placement or the I'm-so-in-love-with-you-I-want-your-name-on-me-forever-until-we-have-a-divorce-and-custody-battle-when-I-will-cover-it-over-with-an-unidentifiable-abstract-object tattoo.

I have specific requirements in mind: small, classy, meaningful, not corny, coverable at work, but also exposable when desirable.

I wish someone would say something to me soon that is so profound and life-altering that it would warrant a portion of my body. The "has meaning" part is the thing I am having the most difficulty with. I've been scanning books, poetry, lyrics, blitzes and memories to try to find some worthwhile, three-word phrase to imprint in tiny cursive somewhere on my back or hips. I've told my friends for the last year that I would do this in May, so that is my deadline to find meaning.

Now for those who think tattoos are trashy, let's get this straight, I'm not attempting to win the "looks most like a pirate award," or the coveted "biker chick of the year" trophy. I'm not going for 16 tattoos or 16-inch tattoos, or even a six-inch tattoo. Rather, I want something small and subtle because I think these type of tattoos can both be interesting and meaningful.

Take the professional soccer player who has a tiny soccer ball on his ankle, or the religious person with a small cross on his or her neck, or a tattoo for an organization, like a secret society. I think the idea of expressing a passion in tattoo form is intriguing. Tattoos are also great markers. If you want to see if your boyfriend is in a secret society, meticulously examine his underarms and arms.

They can also be warning signs. Are you about to have sex with someone who has "Bernie Madoff" tattooed on his chest? Pull your clothes back on and get out of the room. Did your boyfriend disappear one night and arrive in the morning with a tattoo that says "Shelly Forever," although your name is not Shelly? It might be a warning to end that relationship.

Now for the question, are tattoos a valid form of art? Who knows? Probably not. But maybe they are art in that they represent the delirium of embracing the present, the instant gratification of a needle into flesh, pigment swelling to the surface, the commitment to sharing a small patch of your body with ink.

Nevertheless, tattoos are great conversation pieces. At one point or another, you'll be at a cocktail party where every other topic has been played out, and someone will say, "Do you have a tattoo?" And if you don't, you'll say "no," and it'll be time to move onto the next topic. And if you do, you'll smile coyly.

"What is it? Where is it?" They'll ask. Then, "Can I see it?" And depending on the attractiveness, personality and purchasing power of the individual, and on your boredom level, amount of drinks consumed and current romantic status, you will either respond with, "Maybe later," teehee, bat eyelashes, throw in a wink, or, "No. Get away from me."

I think most people dislike tattoos because of their permanence. After all, parents seem to have no problem handing out semi-permanent tattoos of random Disney characters to their kids at birthday parties and on Halloween. But I'll bet that they wouldn't want Donald Duck to be permanently etched on their child's face.

Like everything, circumstances come into play. If you are five games deep, and suddenly black-in to find yourself in a small West Lebanon tattoo parlor, looking through a book of designs while the tattoo artist Sal pants down your neck, licking his lips with his tattooed tongue, it's time to reevaluate what you are doing and wait for the morning.

But after all, nothing permanent is really ever permanent. And, the smaller the tattoo, the easier it is to cover it up someday if need be. My skin is going to sag either way when I'm 80, and I'd rather have it sag in style.