"I'm going to watch you and write about it," I said to my friend Jeff as we headed to the Tattoo Arts Festival at the Holiday Inn on Chamblee-Dunwoody Road last Saturday.
"No, I'm going to watch you," he replied.
"But you told me you were going to get one!" I protested.
"Well, I want one," he muttered. "But I'm Jewish, and we can't be buried in consecrated ground if we have a tattoo. I know it sounds dumb ... Hey, I even got a temporary one -- a henna one -- but, you know ... I'm Jewish ..."
"Jesus!" I interrupted. "A grave is a small sacrifice to make to get a picture of your mother tattooed on your back."
"Besides," he whined, "I don't want to scream in public. And, anyway, you told me you were going to get one."
It's true. I was going to. And 10 minutes after wandering around the festival, I changed my mind again. I am, like many gay men, regularly taken by the urge to get inked. I even have the image in mind, the ouroboros, the alchemical symbol of a snake swallowing its tail. I even found a way to deal with the concern that the image will resemble a melanoma in five years. I decided to have it inked on my ankle. But I still can't get past the feeling that a tattoo is declasse. My mother drummed that into me as often as we drove past a trailer park. "Only gypsies and people with tattoos live in trailer parks," she said.
Jeff's excuse of a religious proscription weirdly reinforced another prejudice I developed in my 20s. I briefly made extra money by photographing crime scenes in rural Georgia. I often looked through the lens at murder victims and saw, nearly as striking as their wounds, livid tattoos. Ink and death became associated in my imagination. First you get illustrated. Then you sink into the despair of the lower class. Then you struggle against an abusive and jealous lover. Then, in a fight over your brief affair with a day laborer, you suffer a fatal wound to the flesh you insulted by tattooing it. The fading red heart upon your forearm invites death, the flesh's own karma. Oh no!
And yet I want one, dammit.
Why tattooing has become so popular with gay men is mysterious. Yes, I understand that it's also fashionable outside gay culture, but mainly among the young. Among gay men, the urge seems less bounded by age. The most obvious explanation is its association with hyper-masculinity. The gay artist Tom of Finland began drawing stereotypical icons like sailors and bikers, macro-phallic and well built, in the '50s. One of his first images, initially rejected for publication because it seemed so salacious, was of a man being tattooed.
The image is surprisingly erotic: One man inks a snake on another's chest. The client, sporting a giant erection, has his hand on the tattoo artist's thigh and is leering. One can't help thinking that the scene, with the stinging needle, symbolizes penetration between males. My friend Jake says his addiction to tattooing -- he has dragons and snakes all over his body -- is indeed connected to the ecstasy of penetration. A similar motivation seems to undergird piercing. I once was invited to a ritual in which a friend had his penis pierced. A circle of "brothers" listened to him wax joyfully about penetration, the ecstatic pain of St. Sebastian, opening to the universe, whatever. Then the gruesome act. Then the jewelry.
If you strip tattooing of its jouissance, its erotic conflation of pain and pleasure, you are left with a broader kind of bonding. A few years ago, I wrote a column about getting a temporary tattoo, a tribal armband, at the Gay Pride market. I was astonished at the effect it had on people. I am not typically very approachable, but suddenly strangers were grabbing my arm and telling me how cool I looked. I had joined the tribe, if only temporarily.
I am thinking that the very thing that, socioeconomic status aside, made tattooing so grotesque to my mother -- its conferral of an outsider's status -- is exactly what makes it attractive now. Gay men, as a tribe of proud outsiders, mark themselves as different. A corporate lawyer tells me how he sits through board meetings in a starched white shirt that rubs against his pierced nipples and hides a kanji tattoo. "It reminds me that everything may change, I may be all over the place, but the sexual facts of my life don't change," he says. "Tattoos fade, but they are always there."
People go on and on about the meaning of their tattoos -- even the most banal images. But their real significance is the act of self-branding, self-wounding itself, the joining with others, the revelation of the self. At the festival, Jeff and I were mystified to see a number of tattoos that were self-portraits.
"Oh, I get it," Jeff said. "If you don't have a mirror, you can look at your arm."
Indeed, every tattoo is a self-portrait and a mirror held to the world.
Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is www.soulworks.net.
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