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Picture who you are

January 28, 2008|Vicki Leon | Vicki Leon is the author, most recently, of "Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World."

It's easy to tell when an underground enthusiasm like tattooing goes mainstream. People start referring to those who partake in it as a "community." Then gift cards and conventions make their appearance. Further validation of tattooing comes from cable TV, where enthusiasts -- armchair and otherwise -- now watch and wince at reality shows (five at last count) that explore the illustrated life.

A 2007 Food and Drug Administration report, based on an earlier Harris poll, estimated that 45 million Americans (equally divided between genders) have at least one tattoo. Once restricted mainly to jarheads and jailhouse residents, ink art is now mass market.

There seem to be nearly as many reasons for getting a tattoo as there are adherents. Some are impulse buys -- an 18th birthday, a late-night dare or religious fervor. Some involve long-term planning -- a striking number of folks view their entire bodies as mural space.

Cupid can be blamed for the most popular tattoo subject, and the worst, given that many relationships dissolve before the ink is dry on "Devon (heart) Lindsey." But the range of subjects goes way beyond romance and "Mom." In fact, moms are getting their own tattoos -- Angelina Jolie has the longitude and latitude coordinates of her children's birthplaces on her arm. Video-gamers go for nostalgia, such as Pac-Man or "The Legend of Zelda." Science nerds lean toward transistor schematics or the double helix.

Some sociologists theorize that tattoos, especially ones hidden by clothing, let men and women play with fringe identities without giving up their middle-class status or jeopardizing their jobs. It's a way of saying "I'm unique!" while also gaining acceptance into a special club.

The most profoundly human reasons for body art, though, are ones that even the squeamish and untattooed can relate to. To honor a life-defining event, people endure pain for a permanent reminder. It could be the birth or adoption of a child, the death of a parent or a war buddy, a victory over cancer. Or it could be a more private victory, such as the young musician who celebrated his first year of sobriety by getting the "Serenity Prayer" tattooed across his ribs -- his reminder about getting through one day at a time.

The Greeks and Romans of old likely would have viewed most of the rationales for modern tattoos with astonishment and scorn. To them, a tattoo (called a stigma) was a mark of visual imprisonment or humiliation.

After the Athenians whipped the Samos islanders in 440 BC, they carved owls -- symbols of their city -- into the foreheads of the defeated. Athenians later got a taste of their own medicine when they lost a war to Syracuse and were saddled with horse tattoos.

After the Romans saw tribal Brits inking blue designs onto their skins, they adopted tattooing to identify members of their own military units. These were simple marks or numbers, often pricked into hands or faces. Tattoos routinely applied to municipal slaves had the same ugly utility.

Social mobility sometimes allowed slaves to become freed men, soldiers to become civilians. Ridding oneself of tattoos afterward, however, was a challenge. Nightmarish "solutions" ranged from caustic poultices to acid baths, from surgery to salt.

With the advent of lasers and other procedures, tattoo removal today is more attainable. A process, spearheaded in Southern California by Homeboy Industries, has helped hundreds of young men struggling to break away from gang life by reworking their jailhouse or gang insignias into neutral designs.

Despite the mainstream aura and better hygiene of today's illustrated community, I'm troubled by some of its members. Although the Greco-Roman notion of using stigmata to punish or humiliate is ancient history, some people today go to the opposite extreme, believing that a tattoo buys them instant outlaw chic. A $150-an-hour statement in pigment may be permanent, but sometimes it fails to be more than skin deep.

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