I’ve got a bad tattoo, bad because it represents the flawed execution of an ill-conceived idea. The idea was bad for the usual reasons: I was young, rash, insecure; my aesthetic sense was half-formed at best. How bad is the execution? On a scale of one to ten, with one being “Stabbed in the Chest with a Bic” and ten “The Tattoo Equivalent of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam,” I’d say mine clocks in at about a four (“Drunken Hackery”)—which is obviously better than two (“Rusty Sewing Needle in Juvie”) and three (“Right-Handed Artist Experiments with Left Hand”), but still, it’s not a body feature I’m proud to show off. The tattoo is inked to the meat of my left shoulder, where most of the time it’s hidden from public view, but roll my sleeve all the way up, and you’ll see a hazy blue apparition that once read Wallflower Child, the title of a song I wrote. It’s been twenty-three years since I went under the gun; the color has faded past mute, and the letters have melted to illegibility. Take a greasy White Castle box and let it bake on your dashboard for six months—that’s a fair approximation of the tattoo I’ve got.
As far as I know, there’s no easy way to un-get it. A quick Internet search tells me that removal treatments not only don’t work but are also usually more expensive and painful than the original tattoo, so a better option is to cover up the old image with a new one. But that seems like throwing good money after bad. Besides, now that the fog of my youth has lifted and I’m a forty-five-year-old English professor and father of two, I can’t think of a single image so meaningful that I’d voluntarily wear it for the second half of my life. Palimpsest would be the most logical (and literal) choice, but nobody other than my colleagues in the English department would get the joke. Plus, the risk of misspelling seems awfully high. Palinfest? Ballincest?
Since I can’t think of one image I’d want, maybe I should take the advice of Ilona, a Professional Tattoo Artist, who, in a blog post entitled “7 Steps to Successful Tattoo,” lists Step #1 as KNOW WHAT YOU DO NOT WANT!
Shoot, Ilona, that’s easy. I do not want a scorpion. I do not want a lion. I do not want a red devil or a grim reaper. No Mexican skulls. No Celtic knots. Definitely no barbed wire. No great white sharks or Japanese carp. No Chinese characters or Native American tribal bands—nothing whose meaning I’d have to look up. I do not want a Yosemite Sam. I do not want green eggs and ham. I do not want an anchor, although I’ve got to admit that the anchor (like the nautical star and the classic “MOM”-in-a-heart) holds an old school, salty dog appeal—but it wouldn’t really count unless I got it done in Singapore (and, better yet, during a stint with the merchant marine) or in Shanghai (and then only if I’d actually been shanghaied). I do not want an American flag or a bald eagle or Lady Liberty. I do not want the Nike swoosh or the Apple apple. No barcodes and no QR codes, even though I feel just as homogenized and commoditized by this hegemonic superstructure as everyone else.
I can see how in the face of so much capitalistic conformity, a new tattoo might be one way to stake out my fierce individuality. I could go with Unique or Enigma or some other word that captures me in all my complex me-ness. Ambivalent, maybe. But I do not want to think that I’m so simple a creature that my identity can be reduced to a single word. I do not want an outward manifestation of my internal belief system. I do not want to broadcast what I most value via a medium that’s been cheapened by its very ubiquity.
Turns out, I know exactly what I do not want. I do not want a tattoo. That’s the whole point.
My, ahem, work , as a Professional Tattoo Artist like Ilona might call it, was not, in fact, done by a Professional Tattoo Artist but rather by a buddy of mine, John Speck, a guitar player/skateboarder who dabbled in tattooing the way my wife now experiments with homemade ricotta. This was in Detroit, in 1991, late on a Sunday morning. Speck and I were nursing hangovers in the basement of a house on Eight Mile Road that he shared with the guys in his band, The Generals. As I sat fidgeting in a folding chair, he was assembling the tattoo gun. The night before, my band, Watershed, had driven up to Michigan from Columbus, Ohio, to do a show with The Generals. My band-mates and I had recently dropped out of Ohio State, where I’d been a senior Political Science major and honor student, and climbed into a beat-up van, trying to carve out a future that wouldn’t be lived in an office cubicle. We’d played shows in Louisville and Indy, Toledo and Milwaukee. Now, we were in Detroit, where houses had bars on the windows and guitarists kept tattoo guns in their backpacks. With its crumbling buildings and vacant lots, Detroit might as well have been Beirut or Bosnia. And to me, a twenty-two-year-old son of the suburbs, it was the coolest place on the planet.
As we loaded the gear out of the bar, I tried to read the tattoos on Speck’s forearm, but there were so many, it was hard to separate one from the next. He was only nineteen, and he already had a full sleeve. Ninety percent coverage, easy. I’d never seen such high tattoo density. I thought tattoos were still the exclusive domain of bikers and longshoremen, juvenile delinquents and mechanics. Back in Columbus, I knew only one guy with a tattoo; he was, in fact, a juvenile delinquent mechanic who rode a motorcycle, and he would have made a hell of a longshoreman had he not lived more than a hundred miles from the nearest shore. None of my fellow Poli Sci majors had been tattooed. Neither had most of the musicians Watershed had played with since we dropped out of college. To me, Speck was an enigma. But it wasn’t just Speck. Everyone in Detroit seemed tatted-up, which obviously speaks to my suburban college-boy perspective, but that’s precisely the point. In 1991, tattoos weren’t yet mainstream—except in Detroit, where, along with nipple piercings, chain wallets, platform creeper shoes, and all the other rocking accoutrements that ten years later would be found on sixteen-year-old mall rats from Poughkeepsie to Peoria, they were just a regular part of the day-to-day.
By the time we got to The Generals’ house for the after show party, I’d decided to ask Speck to give me one. Right then. I knew I was being reckless, but I didn’t care. Dropping out of school had been reckless, too, but I was happier than I’d ever been. My buddies and me, driving around the country, chasing a life different from the accounting and insurance adjusting jobs our classmates were headed for. . . . We wanted nothing more than to make this time of our lives permanent.
“I can’t tattoo you tonight,” Speck said. “You’re too drunk. You’ll bleed like a stuck pig.”
Bloody or not, I wanted to do it immediately, while I was too hammered to sweat the pain, before I could second-guess myself.
Speck shook his head.
“But wait,” I said, and I tried to sell him on my idea: Wallflower Child, a song I’d written shortly after quitting school. I told him how this tune—about a shy kid who was finally coming into bloom—marked the perfect transition between my old self (school-bound and straitlaced) and the new version of me that was taking shape night by night in dive bars and dank basements.
“Rad,” he said, “but sleep on it.” He pointed to his full sleeve. “This is forever.”
When I woke up, I was still drunk and still dead set on the tattoo. As my favorite Springsteen song said, “No retreat, no surrender.”
No Retreat, No Surrender might have made for a great design, but I was sold on Wallflower Child. Down in the basement, Speck took out a sheet of wax paper and worked up a quick sketch.
“Fuck yeah,” I said. “Do it.”
The gun buzzing like a hornet, Speck dug into my shoulder. I glanced down at the first streaks of blue W and held tight to the seat of the chair. I wasn’t girding up against the pain so much as the perpetuity. As gung-ho as I was, I knew I might one day regret having to wear Wallflower Child for the rest of my life. Maybe I should have given Speck’s mock-up more than five seconds’ consideration. Hell, maybe I should have waited a few weeks until Watershed’s next gig in Detroit, which would have given me time to take recommendations from actual tattoo artists. I could have paged through samples, seen photographic evidence of the artists’ experience and skill. What was another week or three, compared to the permanence of a lifetime?
As Speck went about the business of laying the ink and wiping the blood, I told myself that the design didn’t matter. Neither did the quality of the work. What mattered was the message, the words and what they represented: I was growing into the life my band-mates and I had dreamed for ourselves. And that, I knew, I’d never regret.
Epiphanies are all well and good, but they’re fleeting. When I stand at the bathroom mirror now, I don’t see the freakin’ epiphany. I don’t see “revelation” or “insight” or some other lofty abstraction. I see the tangible botched results. That’s what lasts.
Maybe the best-case scenario would have been if Speck, unbeknownst to me, had used some sort of magic ink that disappeared after five years. That way, I could have congratulated myself for having the guts to commit to permanence without having to live with the visual manifestation of that commitment. But obviously the only reason the rite of getting a tattoo holds any significance is because we know it will last forever. If tattoos weren’t for life, they wouldn’t matter. What gives a tattoo meaning is having to live down your decision to get it.
As bad as my tattoo is, I don’t regret it, per se. I’m not sorry I chose Wallflower Child, and I’m actually kind of glad I asked Speck (an amateur, sure, but also a good friend and fellow lifer musician) to do it. It’s just that I’m getting tired of looking at the dang thing. Most days, I guess, I don’t really see it, any more than I see the little dipper of freckles on my chest or the scar that runs parallel to my left eyebrow or that copy of Rush’s Caress of Steel that’s been stuck in a CD binder, untouched for so long that the art has transferred from the disc to the plastic sleeve. Own anything long enough, and it becomes invisible. I’m only consciously aware of the tattoo when I’m at the pool or the beach, under the gaze of shirtless others, wondering what a smudgy, illegible Wallflower Child looks like to them and what they think it says about me—just as I’m only aware of Caress of Steel when somebody else flips through my CD collection.
I now teach college near Myrtle Beach, not far from the sand. At the beach and on campus, I see a heck of a lot of skin, and I can report that a goodly portion of South Carolina’s epidermal real estate has been claimed by tattoos—on everyone from sorority girls to administrative assistants to marine biologists. Many of them surely cling to the fundamental tenet of body modification, that the body is the canvas. And I say more power to ’em. People should be free to decorate their bodies however they see fit. I’m starting to think, however, that the body isn’t the canvas; the body is the art, and it’s already a masterpiece. Nailing a tattoo on top of something that’s perfect to begin with seems as silly as Sharpie-ing a smiley face over Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.”
But, of course, even a silly act can be meaningful. Down in that Detroit basement, getting tattooed by a young guitarist, I thought Wallflower Child—the actual words—held the significance. Now that the tattoo is essentially unreadable, I understand that the words themselves don’t really matter. If Speck had given me an X or a squiggly line, the tattoo would still mean what it means, because the significance of a tattoo isn’t contained in the design. It isn’t about the art, after all. Tattoos have always been more process than product. What a tattoo represents first and foremost is the decision to do it. The guts to go through with it. A tattoo is nothing more or less than a souvenir that marks the occasion of getting the tattoo.
So, yeah. I’ve got a bad tattoo, a botch job. And the only option is to wear it with something like pride.