Tattoos: A current trend is forever

July 22, 1992|By Tom Maurstad | Tom Maurstad,Dallas Morning News

Webster's defines a fad as "a custom, style, etc., that many people are interested in for a short time." Disposability isn't just a part of a trend's function, it is the essence of a trend's appeal -- the irresistible lure of something that is here today and gone later this afternoon.

So, what to make of a fad that leaves its mark permanently -- a passing fashion, the essence of which is that in mortal terms it lasts forever? Watch MTV, read fashion magazines, drop by a downtown club and you can't miss this trend's blazing, twisting, zTC fire-breathing results: Tattoos -- tats, ink -- are all the rage in a movement that has as its champions the familiar coupling of rock stars and fashion models.

In the alternative rock scene, tattoos have become "de rigeur"; for that matter, one needn't limit the trend to the music scene: Tattoos have become an ubiquitous emblem of alternative culture. Nothing new there -- the historical essence of tattoos is that they are dangerous and outside the mainstream, the archetypal associations ranging from pirates, convicts and bikers to circus freaks and godless savages. It is this outsider tradition that one taps into when putting needle and ink to skin: Tattoos are an irrevocable expression of one's "otherness."

But, of course, in alienating one group, you embrace another. Talk to anyone with tattoos about tattoos and quickly the presumption underpinning his-her world view comes clear: People are divided into two groups -- those who have tattoos and those who don't have the guts.

The machismo of tattoos is inescapable.

"I'm bad, I'm wild, I've got a full sleeve of tattoos and there's no telling what I might do." And while any number of tattooed individuals would bristle at such an adolescent sentiment, the message of any person's tattoo, at the very least, is, "I'm a person who would do something like get a tattoo."

As to the particular message of any tattoo, the pat answer is that this snake coiled around a heart dripping blood or that laughing skull is a private totem, some essential expression of a person's self, and that a person's tattoos are an autobiographical text. Then again, tattoos are a lot like names, something given to you by someone who doesn't know you.

"A lot of people just say, 'Give me something,' and they don't care what they get just so long as it's killer," says Fred Smith, a tattooist who himself is well-inked, including the face of Albert Einstein staring out quizzically from his right elbow. "A guy will tell you sort of what he wants, and when he tells you, it's almost as if you know what he wants better than he does because you're a tattooist and you do this all the time and you know what's going on. It's a weird thing."

So maybe, like a name, a tattoo is something you grow into, or change. One question that looms as more and more people join in, is how many will someday wish that they could just erase what one night a long time ago seemed like a good idea.

Where once the otherness of tattoos was a given, what does one infer from tattoos now that everyone from Cher to Drew Barrymore has them?

"There are so many people getting tattoos now," says Mr. Smith, "and so many of them are, you know, idiots. They think they've got some deep reason for getting it, but they really don't -- idiots. A lot of times they go in drunk and just yell, 'Yeah, give me a Yosemite Sam over here and a Tasmanian Devil right over here.' "

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