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Al Martinez

'Women feel freer about this sort of thing. . . . They just do it.' : A Bird on the Hand, a Rose on the Rump

May 23, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Julie can't make up her mind, which is not unusual for a person 19 years old.

"Maybe higher," she says to a bored Martin Robson.

She is an attractive woman with short, dark hair and a complexion to rival Snow White's. Tight jeans and a brief halter call attention to the little extra God gave her in all the right places.

"Higher would be nice," Martin replies in a soft British accent.

"What do you think?" Julie asks one of two young friends waiting for her. They are also in the springtime of their years, coming to glorious fruition.

"I think a little lower," Margie says.

"More to the right," Jackie insists.

Martin has seated himself during the discussion, vaguely listening to the music in the background, considering the view of Sunset Boulevard out a dusty window.

"I tell you what," he finally says, ever so politely, "I want you to tell me where you want it, Julie, not your friends. You're the one who must live with it."

"OK," Julie decides firmly, "put it right where the transfer is."

And that's how a pretty young woman with a sweet face and large dark eyes had a heart with a rose through it tattooed on her left shoulder.

I could not believe I was witnessing what was going The only tattoo parlors I had ever visited before were run by men with no necks who wore ribbed undershirts that displayed the hair on their backs. They sweated like pigs, growled like dogs and smoked cigars.

The customers were generally outlaw bikers raised by coyotes, or sailors who were too drunk to know what was going on. They did not get hearts and roses tattooed on them. They got skulls and naked women and Born to Lose imprinted on their arms.

But that was yesterday and that was on the waterfront. This is today and this is West Hollywood.

About half of the people who come into Ravens Tattoo Works are women, Martin explained during a break. The day was hot and there was no air conditioning in the tiny shop. Hundreds of bright dragons and flowers and fish and birds and demons filled the walls.

"Women feel freer about this sort of thing," he said. "They don't have to clear it with anyone. They just do it."

Martin is nothing at all like the tattoo artists I have known. He is not foul-mouthed and does not spit when he talks. He is able to articulate a full sentence without once doubling a negative or dangling a participle.

Tall, handsome, long-haired and 29, he holds a bachelor's degree in graphic design from England's Bristol University and does tattooing as a venture into an art form he considers unusual and exciting. "It has flavor to it," he adds. "Life."

The women who get themselves tattooed for about $50 up do so both as an expression of their newly acquired freedom and for the sheer hell of it. They are neither hookers nor feminists. They are young students like Julie or middle-aged housewives who have just come from shopping at Ralphs.

They have butterflies tattooed on the upper part of their breasts, or birds on their behinds. One of them had a red snake emblazoned on an inner thigh. It had emerald-green eyes.

"You never know," Martin said with a smile and a slight shrug. A stereo played soft rock. Martin moved slightly to the beat.

I asked Julie why she was getting a tattoo. "It's hard core," she replied in that peculiar idiom of the young.

We tried to define what she meant by hard core.I did not expect a dissertation on neographic body expression or a treatise on female emancipation. Just a complete sentence would have done it.

But Julie was not equipped to explore her motivation. "I dunno," she finally said. I believe she genuinely did not know. A quick mind does not necessarily accompany a good body.

I turned to Jackie, who also had a small tattoo, and asked the same question.

"They're nice," she replied. "I like mine."

I suppose that's an upward step on the evolutionary scale of teen-age self-expression. Let it go at that. There was no need to question Margie about tattoos. We had achieved all we could in terms of defining why they were there. They were just there, that's all. The way a McDonald's is just there, or a Taco Bell.

Julie's primary concern was, after all, not the dynamics of reason that had brought her to Ravens Tattoo Works but how, once inside, she could determine exactly what she wanted. Should the heart be red or pink? Should the rose go through the heart or around it? How big the heart? How small the rose?

They were still trying to figure it out when I left.

It doesn't really matter to me that Julie was being tattooed. We will, I am relatively certain, never meet again. We inhabit different worlds, Julie's a world of radical chic and heavy metal, mine a place of muted reeds on cognac-colored nights.

But I am amazed sometimes by the circuitous route women have taken in order to acquire at long last all those freedoms they have felt deprived of. If a tattooed rose on the shoulder or a bird on the butt is a milestone on the road to the ERA, one wonders exactly what to expect next.

And, of course, where to expect it.

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