In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« 2Blowhards Scores Again | Main | Fave Fairs »

June 05, 2006

The Tattoo for You?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

I'm a pretty cautious soul. Even so, when I was in my late teens the thought of getting a tattoo passed through my mind a time or two.

But the thought never stuck. It seems I had just enough maturity (or was displaying my normal caution) to realize that whatever tattoo I got might not seem so wonderful years later.

Tattoos weren't nearly as common in the 50s as they are today. Yes, Life magazine once had a feature showing people sporting Chinese dragons and other elaborate images over most of their skin. Yes, there were tattoo parlors near Seattle's waterfront that catered to seamen and others who fancied being tattooed. And yes, there was even a club/gang at my junior high school whose members had crude, do-it-yourself tattoos of a scimitar piercing skin on the left shoulder to signify membership (shockingly to us, even one girl had one).

On the other hand, the famous Marlboro cigarette Marlboro Man advertising campaign was launched in 1954. The original Man was, if I recall correctly, a cowboy with an anchor tattooed on the back of one hand. The concept was to connote a he-man with an interesting past. A side-effect was to add a dash of legitimacy to tattoos.

Marlboro ad.jpg
Marlboro Advertisement, 1950s.

Nevertheless, tattooing remained a lower-class practice until fairly recently. Nowadays I see tattoos on women known to be college graduates.

Given that natural caution of mine plus my fashion-be-damned take on current culture, I'm not about to dash off to a tattoo parlor. But I'm willing to do thought experiments.

If I were 20 years old and felt I just had to get a tattoo to be with-it, what would the subject be?

The safest bet, of course, would be a heart with the word "Mother" on it. The name of a girlfriend on a heart would be risky -- there's an old New Yorker* cartoon of a sailor with tattooed names of six or eight girl's names, each lined through, who was getting yet another name tattooed on his arm.

I suppose I might select a patriotic theme, perhaps and eagle and flag. But I'm at a loss as to what kind of decorative pattern to choose if I didn't want an image. And Chinese dragons are usually just too large; I'd want a small (less than two-inch) tattoo. Never having been a sailor or seaman rules out an anchor.

Another possibility would be the crest of my college fraternity; once a member, always one. And if I had been a Phi Gamma Delta, I already would have been tattooed upon initiation with the Greek letters on the inside of my elbow.

What about you? What subject(s) would you select if you decided to get tattooed? Oh, and where would the tattooing be? -- I'd have it done on an upper arm.



* An alert reader reminds me in Comments that the tattoo joke was actually a Norman Rockwell illustration -- a Saturday Evening Post cover, if I recall correctly. (Funny how often folks incorrectly credit/blame the New Yorker concerning cartoons.)

posted by Donald at June 5, 2006


The Chinese word tattoos look pretty cool but you have to make damn sure you know what you are getting. This report reveals some of the dangers.

Posted by: nathan on June 5, 2006 6:47 PM

Once I stumbled upon a tattoo magazine that was a real mind-blower. What stunned me most was the backs of pretty girls with real artwork on them: flowing goldfish with elegant fins, waterfalls, bamboo, flowers -- not just outlines and not just "Navy" blue with red accents, these were all colors and shaded, nuanced, elegantly done. Very Asian. QUITE amazing!

I suppose they would blur over time, but still...

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 5, 2006 8:14 PM

I believe that's a Norman Rockwell print, not a NY-er cartoon.


Posted by: The Holzbachian on June 5, 2006 8:29 PM

The worst tattoos of all have to be tramp stamps. God, I loathe those.

Posted by: Peter on June 5, 2006 8:53 PM

I have two, one on each inner forearm (I'm 25). Now, the first thing people always ask is -- but what if you have an interview or formal situation???? Folks, there are these odd sartorial frills called "long sleeves." One is of a skull design and the other a rose design. Below the skull reads TEMPVS FVGIT (I'm such a nerd, yes, the Latin "u"! It means "time flies"), and below the rose CARPE DIEM. That way it'll retain meaning when I've got one foot in the grave... and two for that matter!

Posted by: Agnostic on June 5, 2006 9:02 PM

Maybe ten years ago I saw a guy with the music pause and play icons tattooed on his upper arm. My first thought was, how could he cut such a contemptible technologic will-o-the-wisp into his body? Yet the pause and play icons have been around since at least the 70s and probably won't go away any time soon, so hats off to him for recognizing stable - and evocative - semiotics.

I wouldn't get a tattoo anwhere, but here's an idea if you're hedging your bets: At a café in the same neighborhood, I saw a young man with a symbol tattooed onto the back of his shaven head - the very spot where you're most likely to have hair even if you develop male-pattern baldness. Agnostic's sleeve concept may be a less painful bet-hedge.

Posted by: robert on June 6, 2006 5:23 AM

I almost got a tattoo during my early 20's. I was in the Army, and actually went into a parlor with my buddy a couple of times. He got a tat each time, but I chickened out. It wasn't so much getting the tattoo itself that made me nervous, but the thought of parting with my $110.

So ten years later, I have no tattoos, and I'm glad. Not because I'd mind having one, but because my tastes have changed and I remember the designs I was thinking of getting. Looking back, they were extremely cheesy.

Posted by: hugh on June 6, 2006 8:04 AM

I don't think I'd ever get a tattoo. Partly because tattoos just don't seem to age well on pasty thin caucasian skin, but mainly because I've almost never seen any tattoo artwork that I would want to be so intimately and permanently associated with.

The only tattoos I've ever seen I thought might look good on me were a set of traditional Marshall islands dolphin-motif tattoos on a guy I met once in Guam. There were three of them, about four inches long, very stylized, almost abstract but still obviously dolphins, arranged in parallel on the outside of the lower calf. He had had them done in the Marshalls by a traditional artist there. He said the artist was willing to do the dolphins for him, an outsider, because the images weren't particularly meaningful. The really important designs were reserved for high-status people in Marshallese society, especially the navigators.

Posted by: David Fleck on June 6, 2006 8:15 AM

I always wanted a rose---maybe on an ankle. But I didn't strike while the iron was hot, so to speak, and then got a little older and realized I was kind of scared--disease and all. And I never did it.

Posted by: annette on June 6, 2006 9:50 AM

I've always wanted a tattoo but never had the nerve -- and I even have the pattern, a Green Man, to go on the outside of my calf, by the knee. I told DH that if next year I get what is likely the last promotion of my career, I'll get the tattoo in celebration. Don't hold your breath.

Posted by: missgrundy on June 6, 2006 10:57 AM

When I was drafted in the '60s I had a notion to join the Navy. Part of the appeal was the fact that I would have an unquestioned right to an anchor tattoo on my forearm. Just like Popeye. Then I flunked my induction physical and I forgot the whole thing.

I don't mean this to be critical, but the tattoo ethos today seems to me to be a statement on behalf of immaturity, or at least, against maturity as a ruling principle. The decisions I make today in Tubby's Tat-Mart will -- must -- stand for all my life. My taste, my aesthetic, any ancillary policy statements I make are the product of a wised-up adult. To prove it I'll burn them into my skin.

I'm sure many, if not most, have some sort of doubts as to whether their future life will be subject to change and adjustments. For them, the tattoo is an act of laying down a marker, an artifact that measures their sincerity, their passion and draws an indelible line which they believe they will not be able to retreat behind in the future.

Posted by: Sluggo on June 6, 2006 11:14 AM

I like the fake tatoos you can get painted on you in black henna at the beach. They look real and just when you're sick of them (about 2 weeks) they wear off. I think you need a really even-tempered personality - consistent and very set in your ways- to risk a permanent tatoo. If you tend to morph alot - or you're moody - you'll be stuck with an outdated, or inappropriate, image.

Posted by: Dreamer on June 6, 2006 11:30 AM

Some tattoos can be quite beautiful, but I still can't comprehend why anyone would want them permanently on their bodies. Particularly the guys with the generic "tribal" armband or the gals with the aforementioned tramp stamps -- These things are almost-perfect indicators that the person you're dealing with is completely uninteresting.

Posted by: . on June 6, 2006 11:34 AM

My father got tattooed at age 15 when he ran away from his wretched farm life and joined the Navy in 1923. The designs (roses and florals on each forearm; a dagger and a lady in a humorous-looking one-piece bathing suit diving into a pool on legs) looked more thoroughly old-timey and quaint than low-class-sleazy. His tattoos were virtually invisible to me but I remember my mother being extremely embarrassed by them when he would wear short sleeves around their friends-- "You're intelligent and educated; why do you insist on looking like a convict", etc.

I recall Truman Capote remarking (extremely reluctantly; Carson had to ask repeatedly) on a Tonight Show appearance in the 70's that the one "characteristic" all the criminals he interviewed for IN COLD BLOOD had in common was tattoos. Although in my mind my father's tats were exceptions (understandably), when I see them on people today, ubiquitous as they are, I think: lower-class, uneducated, poverty.

Posted by: Flutist on June 6, 2006 11:57 AM

BTW, Donald---Fiji's tatoo their letters inside the elbow?? I never knew that. All chapters do that?

Posted by: annette on June 6, 2006 12:45 PM

Just looking at that last sentence, it occurred to me that I didn't mean to imply that tattoo-wearers are low-class, etc. I meant I'm a product of my era and my region (Bible belt) and also my mother's disdain for all things tattoo, probably. If I was in my 20's there's a real chance I might have one -- I'd like a cello, or a trombone, on the shoulder. That'd be different.

Posted by: Flutist on June 6, 2006 12:52 PM

I think tatoos are silly. Why not just buy a t-shirt with a design on it? That way you can change messages everyday. If you're a chick, change the hair or outfit. If you really want to be a rebel, get a proper education. That's pretty radical these days.

Artwork? Are you nuts? If you bought a painting or something it could be worth a bit in ten or twenty years. In ten or twenty years most people will be spending money to get rid of their ugly body "art". Its much easier to ditch a painting too.

Its all groupthink and herdism. People conform in their supposed non-conformity. Too bad groupthink and herdism these days is pointed at the sewer rather than something better.

If I did get a tatoo, I'd get a big one across my back that says "Tatoos are stupid". It would be temporary one, of course, hehehehe! Suckers!

Posted by: mnm on June 6, 2006 12:52 PM

Annette -- Fijis at the University of Washington in the late 50s were tattooed as described: I saw the tattoos. My assumption is that this is/was universal for the fraternity. But I could be wrong. I was a Theta Xi, so can claim no inside knowledge of Fijidom. Besides, the Fijis in that time/place seemed to be more secretive than most other houses.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 6, 2006 12:56 PM

I've got two. The first on my upper arm, the traditional location for men I guess, is this, without the lettering, of course. The symbol was done by David Lance Goines, a fantastic graphic artist out of Berkeley. I liked the design, then found out is was Ravenswood's logo, but still went with it. I got it in '95. At first it represented my wife, my son and me. Now that I have 3 kids, it's them. The family circle. I love it.

The other one is on my forearm, it's a gorgeous Ottoman design I saw in Time magazine, of all places, and the legend behind it had a lot of resonance with me at the time. It was a pivotal point in my life, so aside from its beauty, it's also a reminder.

The forearm one I cover up with long-sleeves when needed, although visible tattoos are becoming more accepted even in conservatives companies (like the one I work at). I love mine and plan to get more.

The attitude towards tattoos is certainly generational. Also, certain styles, such as the aforementioned tribal armband, can alert you of a potentially boring person a mile away. Quite useful markings.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 6, 2006 1:00 PM


For which formal situations do you believe those particular tattoos would make an intelligent person unfavorably impressed?

I've said to enough people to be effectively committed that if I win a major Scrabble championship, I'm getting a "J" tile with some kind of hot female demon (i.e., Lilith) posed around/beside it. This would probably end up on the back. I'm letting my game slide this year, though, so it's not too likely.

Posted by: J. Goard on June 6, 2006 3:23 PM

Tattoos can -- and should -- be interesting statements.
That is why I do *not* have one:
I have never found a symbol or image that represented anything particularly important to me personally.
[As opposed to, say, the statue of liberty -- important, but not a personally distinct symbol.]

I think huge tattoos are, on most occasions, a sign of shallowness -- in that the person allowed themselves to be used as a blank canvas for someone else's artistic statement, or worse, picked-from-a-catalog commercial illustration.
Talk about all they might, no one has convinced me that the elaborate works the will carry on them forever have unique and distinct meanings for them personally.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on June 6, 2006 3:46 PM

With the large pieces you refer to, Paul, the motivations are a bit more complicated, usually. Many have to do with body issues, self-mortification, the act of being tattooed, etc. It's not just the end result. For some, this may be seen as a psychological condition. To others, it's acting out how they feel.

My wife's cousin is a tattoo artist in Manhattan. She is practically covered in ink. She also has dealt with very bad excema her entire life, and began getting tattooed on the areas where that flared up the most. For her, tattoos were a way of regaining control over her own skin, in a way. She's also very suited to that lifestyle, so it worked out nicely for her.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 6, 2006 4:04 PM

I'm in the "would never get one" camp, but I have often whimsically entertained the idea of getting Captain America's shield tattooed on my upper shoulder--kind of like the Superman shield you see sometimes. I loves me my Captain America.

The best tattoo I've ever seen belonged to a friend in college. You know that thing you do where you take a pen and put two small dots on the bottom side of your index finger, so that when you make a kind-of fist you have a little face, with the dots as eyes and your thumb as the mouth? He had those dots tattooed.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on June 7, 2006 2:00 PM

If you are a pretty girl, you should not get a tattoo unless are a porn star/really want to look like one. If you must get one, the smaller the size and the smaller the number the better. This is a public service message on behalf of heterosexual males.

Posted by: Andy on June 7, 2006 2:24 PM

FIJIs at UW still have the same tattoo, though some members have one on their ankle instead. I am not sure if it is mandatory, but they are so darned secretive it is hard to find out such info.

Posted by: AP on June 7, 2006 3:24 PM

The tattoo question always fascinated me from a theoretical standpoint so I was quite surprised when I began to think carefully about getting one for me. The genesis for the notion was the loss (pregnancy loss/miscarriage) of our first child. Elisabeth died in the middle 90s and there was little in place for a lasting memorial, i.e. a funeral, grave and head stone just didn't seem to be possible. For me, not for my wife interestingly, I felt that I needed something lasting so I have a small tattoo on my left chest, rarely seen by anyone, with a baby block design and my first daughter's initials. It is for me, not the general public. Of all the interesting outcomes the most healing for me is the ongoing reminder to my two living children that they have/had a sister who is as real to them as my late mother . . . a person who has an ongoing impact, even though they have never met them.

I don't know that this is the best or only way to memorialize a loss but it is one that worked well for me.

Posted by: Barry on June 8, 2006 2:46 PM

Barry, I was very touched by your story -- and, strangely, "Tears in Heaven" is playing on XM right now, so it's a double-whammy. I think it's really important to your children to see their sister is not forgotten . . .

Posted by: missgrundy on June 8, 2006 2:55 PM

Tattoos are starting to seem sort of "10 years ago". Like mullett hairdos only more expensive to get rid of.

I have a hunch a lot of kids are tattooed with what is actually the Chinese symbol for "gullible white boy".

If you want to be a high school or college iconoclast, a true rebel, walking through campus wearing neatly pressed slacks with tasseled loafers will give you a wonderful feeling of swimming against the tide.

Posted by: Bill on June 8, 2006 5:50 PM

I have to say if you want a tattoo it has to have meaning, i got one right now plan on more one i have is to do with my belifs and how ive grown my next one is ogign to do with my ancestry and 3rd will be a memoriable tattoo. I figure if its not goign to have meaning to you dont get it. without meaning you will regret your decision but i guess i will fiund out 10 years form now if i regret mien but its been a year now still dont regret, for anyone thining of getting a tattoo look at artisst work dfont choose form it. get a custom one or dont get one, youll be glad you did in the end

Posted by: Shaun on June 20, 2006 11:19 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?