Tattoo: Graffiti or Art Form
by Marjorie Dorfman

There are two types of people in this world: those who have tattoos and those who are afraid of those who have tattoos.
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Do you ever really wonder why some people have tattoos and others don't? What is it that makes someone want this form of self-mutilation? Or is it an art form? Examine this controversial cultural phenomenon and see why some of us are more nuts than others. Enjoy!

Anyone remember that movie from the 1970s entitled: "Tattoo"? It starred Bruce Dern (one of my favorite psychopaths), and told the story of a demented tattoo artist obsessed with a model (Maude Adams). He abducts her, holds her hostage and expresses his undying love by covering her entire body with his creations (against her will, of course). Although this is certainly an extreme situation, tattoos have been a part of the American cultural scene for a very long time. Their dark and lingering appeal transcend the stereotypical images of "tough guys and gals" and all of their underworld friends. In this disposable society, tattoos symbolize permanence and they retain a power and mystique all their own. A tattoo is a personal statement, but is it graffiti or art? You be the judge. Here is one fresh perspective on this ancient and mysterious tradition of self mutilation.

If you think it’s hard to forget a lover when you buy them a gift on time, consider how much more difficult it would be when their name and/or image is indelibly stored deep within your scar tissue. (The lyrics to Cole Porter’s "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" take on a new and painful perspective when you apply tattoos to the subject at hand.) They are created by placing colored pigments in between the permanent base layer of your skin and the constantly changing top layer. Machines utilize a hollow needle filled with permanent ink, while an electric motor pushes the needle in and out of the skin at the rate of three thousand punctures per minute. The needle inserts a drop of ink about one-eighth of an inch below the surface of the skin each time.

Down through history, many famous personalities have adorned their bodies with tattoos. Songstress Pearl Bailey had a heart on her upper thigh; David Bowie a lizard across one ankle. Cher tops them both in numbers and assortment, bearing a cluster of flowers on her butt and a black rose on one ankle, just to name a few. Tsar Nicholas of Russia had a star tattoo, although no one is certain as to exactly where upon his royal body it was. Both Winston Churchill and his mother, Jenny, had tattoos; he an anchor on his arm and she a snake upon her right wrist. Thomas Edison bore five dots on his left fore arm in a dice-like design. John Wilkes Booth had his initials inked on the back of his left hand and Barry Goldwater bore a crescent with four dots in the shape of a snake bite somewhere upon his political person. Even one model of "Barbie" has a dragon tattoo running down her entire back and another bears one butterfly on her stomach (not in but on). The list, like the beat, goes on but two questions remain: Why do more than thirty million North Americans and countless more millions world wide subject themselves to such mutilations and where on earth did the tattoo come from anyway?

The answer to the first question, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. Instead, it lies somewhere near that gray area of our brains where primal urges run amuck and broccoli is not an acceptable food option. According to Thomas Lockheart, who has inked more than thirty thousand tattoos, "the tattoo may be only skin deep, but its significance can run as deep as the soul." For everyone the trip is unique and deeply rooted in individual perceptions of "Maccho Man" and "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar." I once knew a couple who was considering having their wedding rings tattooed on their ring fingers because the price of gold had risen so sharply. (Both are out of rehab now and doing fine, last I heard.)

The word may have its roots in the Tahitian word, tatu, which means, "to mark something". Tattoos are almost as old as mankind and it is believed that the first incident happened accidentally, with people falling or stepping into pigment-carrying, sharp instruments or materials, like charcoaled branches from left over fire-places or wooden spears and/or arrowheads hardened in fire. The first record of a tattoo dates back to 4,000 BC, when a man was found in Italy preserved in the permafrost of a glacier. Carbon dating and artifacts suggest the remains are more than 5,000 years old. His skin bore a cross on one knee and a series of lines above his kidneys. These markings indicate that the man might have been a shaman or otherwise holy member of his clan, as tattoos were reserved for priests or members of secret sects in many ancient cultures. Egyptian mummies as well as clay figurines bear tattoos that date back at least four thousand years. The fact that this cadaver is older than any Egyptian source may or may not shed a new light on where tattoos originated, but it is certain that the practice traveled from Egypt along the merchant routes into Greece, Persia, Central Asia and Arabia.

According to a third century account of the Scythian conflict with the Thracians, the Scythians tattooed symbols of defeat upon the Thracians as a way of "turning the stamp of violence and shame into beautiful ornaments." The Iberians who preceded the Celtic tribes wore tattoos. The Gauls, Teutonic tribes and the Picts did as well, and the Romans used them to "brand" their criminals and slaves. The Saxons brought more refined and artistic tattoos to the British Isles and it was customary for warriors and sailors to have their tribal symbols inked on their bodies. The custom continued in North America where merchant sailors wore tattoos as a talisman against drowning at sea. Native American Indians believed that war paint would protect them in battle and as far away as Burma there were those who believed that a tattoo over the heart can stop bullets. In the nineteenth century, Field Marshall Earl Roberts said, "every officer in the British army should be tattooed with his regimental crest. Not only does this encourage espirit de corps, it also assists in the identification of casualties."

But what about the tattoo industry today? In 1998, thirty five per cent of National Basketball Association players had tattoos. Now well over fifty percent of them bear tattoos and according to The Christian Science Monitor, the number of Americans with tattoos is as high as 15 per cent. In body contact sports, such as basketball and football, there a much higher percentage of tattooed players than in "cerebral" sports, such as baseball, golf or tennis. Still, how can you find the right one safely and happily? Much thought should go into your choice. Sometimes questions like, "what do I aspire to?’ and "what gives me strength?" can teach you things about yourself that you might not have even wanted to know in the first place. Perhaps a custom tattoo, something created just for you is your bag. Or maybe you will find a "flash design" hanging on the studio wall that you love. In general, a big, bold image looks better on skin than an overly detailed small piece.

Whichever way you go, make sure the artist you choose has had formal art training and has served a rigorous apprenticeship. Beware the "scratcher", who usually works from home or the back room of a bar and rarely bothers to sterilize his instruments or change needles between customers. The tattoo artist’s studio should be as clean as your doctor or dentist’s office. If it isn’t, run for your life or at least for the life of your new tattoo! Everything used to apply your tattoo should be disposed of afterwards. Vaseline and ointments should be applied with disposable spreaders, not a swipe of the tattooist’s fingers. You should also ask to see samples of the artist’s work before you decide that he or she will etch a permanent design on your skin. There is an expression within the industry worth remembering: "You get the tattoo you deserve." This translates into proceed at your own risk and look before you leap, even though he who hesitates is lost and usually counts his chickens before they hatch.

There are many different tattoo styles. Black and white "gray work" originated in the prison systems of America because of the difficulty of procuring colored ink. It is popular today because of its refined and highly detailed nature. Traditional pieces bear bold, black outlines and strong shading. The "Fineline" technique is characterized by delicate, highly detailed outlines. The success of the finished product depends greatly upon the artist’s use of negative space. An overly intricate fine line tattoo may dissolve into mush after a few years. "Tribal" tattoos contain bold, black, silhouetted designs. Much of this work is based on ancient motifs. The "Realistic" style usually depicts portraits or scenes from nature. "Oriental" tattoos are more concerned with approach rather than subject matter and utilize the entire body as canvas (like our demented fellow mentioned above in paragraph one.) Oriental designs usually incorporate swirling patterns and figures from eastern mythology.

Once you get your tattoo, it’s yours in more ways than one. It might help to think of it as a new puppy that requires all of your attention. It must be fed (with healing ointments) given water (kept clean) and walked (exposed to the air). Unlike a puppy however, YOU MUST NOT SCRATCH IT, NO MATTER HOW MUCH IT BEGS! The skin in the area will be a bit irritated and sensitive and the best advice is to leave the bandage on for exactly the amount of time specified by the tattooist. Do not peek. You have a lifetime to view your new acquisition and don’t forget what happened to the curious cat. Never soak your new tattoo. Consider it an open wound that requires care and common sense.

A tattoo is a personal statement that may have unexpected repercussions and getting rid of one can be more expensive than putting one on. (Just like getting divorced usually costs more than getting married!) If your spouse ran off with your neighbor, you may no longer want that lovely image upon your person and it may be time to consider removal options (if you are not planning to remove your neighbor, that is.) A cover-up may be a better solution, but it is demanding and exacting work and you will pay more for one than you would for the same tattoo applied to virgin skin. A tattoo can also be reworked or enhanced. (Consider the man who reworked the face of his ex wife into the image of a crazed demon that still bore an amazing resemblance to his former bride.) Laser can be used to remove almost any tattoo and it is a relatively painless procedure. Unfortunately, it is very expensive and must be done by a plastic surgeon. Dermabrasion and chemical peels have also been utilized, which can be compared to having the unwanted image sandpapered off your skin.

Whatever you do, think before you ink. The skin you save may be your own. Try those temporary tattoos and live with them for a while before you make up your mind. The few people I know who have tattoos (I admit there aren’t many), seem to regard them as "indiscretions of their youth." Who knows if they will ever rue the day they inked them? Are tattoos art form or graffiti? Well, who’s to say? Many things are relative and beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Either way, tattoos are powerful reminders of permanent decisions. If you decide to get one, I suggest that you do not bring your mother along. She will only try to talk you out of it, unless, of course, it’s Winston’s mom, Jenny Churchill!

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Copyright 2003