Tramp Stamps

tattooed lady

Suppose you leave Montana to join the Marine Corps. After a couple of nights at the recruit depot in San Diego you get drunk and wake up with Semper Fi tattooed across your backside, and no orifice is sore. In my book you've done a noble thing. But patriotism aside, when it comes to art forms, tattooing rides drag, and body piercing is the runt maverick with a busted leg that’s left in the brush for the coyotes to finish off.

Religious folk quote Leviticus 28: 19. "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord." A superficial reading tells me it might be wrong to do your own inking but OK for someone else. Less facile thinkers say that the passage was meant to admonish ancient Hebrews to set themselves apart from the savage idolaters round about them. Not having a tattoo in those days would be like modern Israel not having a totalitarian government. Christians who have tattoos argue that, if salvation comes from grace, i.e., the free gift of Christ's getting nailed to a cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, then many works of Jewish law do not apply, like eating Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage or having a few saints and Harley logos indelibly impregnated in your skin. Liberal Jewish commentators don't buy the part about Jesus but don't see the need for sackcloth and ashes if someone sports a tattoo, while the very orthodox, who have no use for tattoos at all, will let a tattooed person at least get buried in consecrated ground, presuming, of course, that he's dead. Almost everyone has problems with the "cutting" part of Leviticus, which they agree is the modern equivalent of body piercing. Liberals are twitchy because secular psychology suggests a connection between self-loathing and mutilation.

Personally, I've never seen a pierced nipple I didn't like, and a spike through the tongue brings back nostalgic memories of cleft pallet jokes told in elementary school. Those, however, are not reasons to bring the lady home to Mom. My scruples are mostly aesthetic, and that's why I recommend, if you ever think about having a lover's name or the myth of Quetzalcoatl emblazoned anywhere on your body, remember what a moving man said to me while bobbling a box marked "Fragile" in arms sleeved in fading rainbows of color:

"I hope you don't judge a book by it's cover."

Who would ever do such a thing?! I am sure there are tattooed CEOs of international corporations. Their tattoos just don't show above the collars of their shirts. Put that moving man in a suit, keep him standing on one side, and he could have passed. For all I know, he had more integrity. What bothers me is how many tattooed people I've run across lately and how comparatively few seem to have considered that some...this is a hard word for me to say...that some "artists" are better than others. Tattoo aesthetics appear to be a matter of dumb luck, like picking any old inmate with a bottle of India ink and hoping the sewing needle didn't last prick "Born To Die" on a con with hepatitis.

An attractive, pious young lady of my acquaintance recently moved to the Midwest to do good works. Not long afterwards she emailed friends to half-apologize, half-brag about having a butterfly inked to her ankle. "Just a little one." To my mind it was television’s Miami Ink, not scripture or upbringing, that inspired the butterfly, but I mostly wondered about the phrase, "little one." If you belong to the 18th Street Gang, is just a little tack to commemorate your first drive-by better than a big one?

Then I had a fit of charity as I remembered a sweet young thing I recently saw in Target, a wonderful chain store in which I always feel vindicated as a cultural commentator and arbitrator of taste. Of the latter this girl had none. But my God, she was blessed in other ways! She was sashaying about in a very short pleated skirt, and unlike most shoppers, was built for it. You hardly noticed the sunburst coming up from the low-slung waistband, but when you did, it was like, "Morning has broken like the first morning." Before blackbird could speak like the first day, there came another shopper's stage whisper:

"Tramp stamp."

My mind came back to earth and down to the ankle butterfly, which was meant to commemorate the metamorphous of a new life. What it will commemorate all too soon is that everything new gets old. Skin wrinkles; colors fade; an in-your-face motto looses its rebellious punch by age 40. I once helped escort some loonies to a concert celebrating sobriety in a park across from the VA Hospital in West LA. Sitting on the grass near us were two middle-aged women who were French kissing. Wild guess: they were lesbians. What I'm sure is that they were wearing tank tops that showed lots of sagging cleavage and large swaths of color across chests and backs. One look to be tinted in snot-green, and the other was hued in battered-wife blue. At one time those washes of colors depicted....

....It's anyone guess, but black people! Please listen. Those ladies were white. So's the father on
OC Chopper. Last year or so he had the company logo tattooed across a shoulder because the older tattoo didn't stand out enough to his liking. Now he has two sort of purpley-reddish blotches, and I for one can't read what either says. That goes triple for anything inked to dark skin. I've watched Lakers and Clippers whose tattoos look like massive bruises and make you wonder what unspeakable things go on in the locker rooms.

Which brings me to Morgan Freeman. I never met Mr. Freeman, but his movie persona always struck me as a fatherly figure who spoke deeply and of deep wisdom, who knew trouble, had overcome it and could get you out of it. What a guy! Then I saw him being interviewed sporting an earring. What a... pirate? Maybe just a middle-aged man desperate to be young again and letting adolescent groupies decide how that is supposed to look. Which leaves out original thinker.

Understand that I don't equate earrings for men with body piercing (unless there are more than three per ear), but they are like shoulder pads for women. Looking like a football linebacker wasn't feminine in the Forties, and hey, it didn't get any better in the Eighties. The currency of grown men wanting pretty ears like Latina girls taking first communion is merely an indication of how we all in our degrees are slaves to fashion. We look into mirrors and hardly perceive what's reflected back. Some of us are crazy with self-esteem and can't see that the barn needs painting. Most are crazy like adolescents, anorexics and body builders. Too fat, too thin, too short, too tall. We don't want to look like our parents or the folks down the street. We want to glitter like celebrities made up for the screen and air brushed for the pages of magazines. Then people will notice us. They will respect us. We'll even like ourselves.

And so we wear clothing better suited for other body types, maybe something in camouflage so that we can pretend to be like Marines, a spike or two to prove we're just as tough, and if we can afford it, we'll get a plastic surgeon to cut away any signs of age, individuality and wisdom. A good plastic surgeon, mind you. A stroll down Rodeo Drive shows a range of skills just as vast in the tattoo parlors of Venice Beach.