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STYLE : Living Just for Today : Those who are haunted by the irreversible may be baffled by the tattoo trend.

February 13, 1992|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Griffin was leaning on a counter inside the Ventura Tattoo Parlor, bantering amiably with a woman who had come in to use the pay phone on the wall. Business was slow--most customers wouldn't start showing up until later in the afternoon--so Griffin had time to kill.

"Listen," the tattoo artist said to the woman, who was packed into a pair of too-tight jeans, motorcycle boots and a tank top and had hair that looked as if it hadn't been washed for weeks. "I'm going to call this guy I know right now and tell him to come over. Really. This guy would be interested in meeting a nice woman like you."

Griffin picked up the phone and made the call. Within minutes, a motorcycle pulled up onto the sidewalk. The driver, a husky, pasty-complexioned man who looked as if he'd been living too long on fast food and Jack Daniel's, strolled in wearing a bandanna and leather vest. He looked first at the woman, and then at me.

I cleared my throat nervously, twisting a nonexistent ring on my left finger. But the man glanced away with obvious disinterest.

"Hey," he said, nodding to the woman by the phone.

"Hey," she answered.

Somehow, there was familiarity in the moment. Even though I'd never been inside a tattoo parlor, this was pretty much how I'd imagined one would be: emotionally gritty and stark, with a kind of tough sexuality in the air that dared to bare its teeth at outsiders.

And I envisioned a tattoo parlor attracting people only like the man and woman standing before me, offering, for a few dollars, the promise of identity and belonging. For a little bit of pain, man, you can show your stuff. Make your mark.

But that image didn't last long. Carrie Gault changed it.

Gault is an 18-year-old student in Oxnard. She's also fresh-faced and pretty, with stunning blond hair that falls below her waist. When she walked into the tattoo parlor one recent day, she was wearing a floral skirt that came mid-calf and a crisp white blouse. An oversize purse was slung casually over her shoulder. Staring up at tattoo designs on the wall, she looked as out of place as Ivana Trump at Ascot.

"I don't care how much it hurts. I just really want to do this," Gault said. "I've been wanting to do it for at least three months. My friend's going to kill me, though. She wanted to come and get one too."

She then launched into a detailed description of the tattoos that many of her friends already have: One has a peace sign on her shoulder, one has a butterfly on her back, one has a "ring" on her finger, one has a rose on her hip, one has what looks like a chain around her ankle "except it doesn't dangle."

Gault hadn't decided whether to get a flower or an Indian girl--or whether to have it tattooed on her shoulder or her ankle--but she said she was certain that she wouldn't ever regret either choice. "Just because a girl has a tattoo doesn't mean she can't look pretty," she said. "You have to live for today."

I didn't learn until later that Gault had simply caught the wave that's already sweeping the country. In the last few months, tattoos on women have been showing up just about everywhere--from high school and college campuses, to the pages of high-fashion magazines such as Vogue and Mirabella, to Hollywood parties.

In Ventura County, generally viewed as fashionably tame compared to Los Angeles, the scene is no different. Massage therapists say the number of women who now have tattoos is startling, and several tattoo artists report that their businesses--once frequented mainly by men--now cater equally to women.

In the days that followed, I wrestled with what the trend could mean. A tattoo as a fashion statement made no sense at all to me since the very nature of fashion is that it changes constantly. Tattoos don't.

The idea of a woman wanting a permanent symbol on her body also disturbed me. What would having a rose on my shoulder or a moon on my ankle say about who I am? Even if I did come up with some picture or slogan that had some inner significance--something, perhaps, like "Freeway Jammed Ahead"--would it really be something I wanted to show to my grandchildren?

If I have learned anything about myself, it is that I am haunted only by things I have done that are irreversible: doors I have left locked behind me, bridges I have crossed and then burned.

But I suspect that the whole thing goes beyond that. Maybe, as one psychiatrist suggested, tattoos are simply a colorful symbol for society's growing attitude of "live for today," regardless of the consequences. What is touted as fashion may actually be an inability to look ahead.

For the sake of women like Carrie Gault, I hope that is not the case.

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