Elvis on My Elbow, Dylan on My Calf: Tattoos

Some time ago, I decided to get a tattoo.

There was a time when a statement like that might have inspired anything from a raised eyebrow to a rueful shake of the head to an incredulous gasp, but I confess I have no idea when that time would be. Most likely it wasn’t even within my lifetime. Tattoos are so ubiquitous today as to be something a little worse than banal — they’re predictable. In the suburbs, it’s tramp stamps and tasteful ankle and shoulder decorations; in Chicago, where I live, half-sleeves are apparently the minimum in order to get hired in any restaurant, bar or Apple retail store. Any overtones of rebellion or non-conformity that tattoos might have had are long gone. For a substantial portion of my age group, getting inked is simply an ordinary aspect of becoming an adult, about as out-there as getting a passport.

Back in the ’80s, George Carlin complained that wearing an earring had been drained of all its revolutionary impact: “It was supposed to piss off the squares. The squares are wearing them now!” Likewise, whereas getting tattooed once (literally) branded you as belonging to a group situated a marked distance from mainstream society, today it means almost the opposite, a necessary signifier of a certain urbane, would-be sophistication. It’s strange to think that something as radical as painting your own skin would become common enough to carry a faint whiff of conformity.

This has always presented something of a dilemma for me. I am a non-conformist of the quiet type, meaning I don’t have the balls to chuck my nine-to-five job and become a freegan with a vegetable-oil-powered van, but I do take a quiet pleasure in steering clear of the most egregious fads. Tattooing has reached the point of cultural saturation where my contrariness reflex normally kicks in. I ought to hate the whole idea of it. The proliferation of tattoos today, hundreds and hundreds of them everywhere I go, bothers me. I don’t want to be like these people (even though I probably already am, in more ways than I care to admit) … but then, I don’t want to be like any people.

The dilemma, as I was starting to say above, is that for all my noises about being a nonconformist, I like tattoos. As with any art form, there are bad ones, tasteless ones, and a whole lot of banal ones. But there are also some very good ones, and the best of them are amazing. Growing up, I saw only a bare minimum of designs: the ubiquitous barbed wire around the bicep, Taz (never get a tattoo of something you’d see on a truck’s mudflap), various military or cop insignias and an assortment of cobras, skulls, hearts and other routine designs, each posted on the wall with its own price and number, like the dishes on a Chinese menu. Today, of course, one sees the virtual equivalent of the Sistine Chapel on people’s backs and arms, with bold colors, subtle shading and a wealth of intricate detail. I was a pretty keen artist growing up, and I know a little of what goes into developing a natural sense of line, an eye for color and balance. When I think of my struggles to master Cónte crayons or watercolors, and then see what some artists can do with a motorized needle on human flesh, I can’t help but be impressed.

That being said, the real reason I’ve hesitated so long to get inked has nothing to with conformity or the lack thereof. The reason was much simpler: I couldn’t think of what to get.

To me, a pretty picture — even a beautiful, gorgeous, utterly kickass picture — is not enough. I feel that if you’re going to the trouble of getting your skin permanently marked, it ought to be with something you believe in, something that communicates something about you beyond “I like getting tattoos.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with liking that, really.) This was the question that confronted me, or with which I confronted myself: what is so important to me that I can confidently wear it on my body for the rest of my life?

Put that way, the problem is almost paralyzing. At least it felt so in my twenties. I first flirted with getting a tattoo when my first serious relationship ended, and it struck me as a way to mark an important life change in a suitably permanent way. Unable to answer the above question, however, I never went through with it. In the intervening years, when the thought of a tattoo resurfaced, I would make an inventory of all the things that were important to me that might lend themselves to ink on skin. The list wasn’t impressive. I don’t have children, or religion, or even many hobbies outside of writing and reading. That left my cat, and a few pop culture obsessions: Apple, Doctor Who, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The right idea wasn’t there. I dithered, and more time went by.

At age 38, I finally got married, and the process of proposing to someone and actually marrying them changed the way I look at myself, as well as the way I make decisions. Our courtship was of that “whirlwind” variety you sometimes hear about; Cece and I were married within just under a year of meeting each other. At some point in that year, I realized I had reached a point where I was a lot more certain about what I wanted in life, and that the fear of being wrong was not sufficient justification for a life of cautious inaction. There is a clarifying power in facing down big decisions, a certain strengthening of the emotional muscles.

When I reconsidered the tattoo question, it was with a stronger resolve and a more balanced perspective. If I wanted to do it, I should get off my mental ass and find a way to make it happen, and not worry about the possibility that I might, at some distant point down the line, wish I hadn’t. How many worthwhile things in life, after all, don’t come with at least some prospect of regret?

So I considered some new ideas, and finally settled on one. It wasn’t a flash-of-inspiration kind of thing, where I saw it and thought, “That’s it!”. It was simply the last idea left standing after all the other ones got knocked down. Here it is:

Bob Dylan fans will recognize this from the promo film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the film Dont Look Back.

As a tattoo, it fulfills several requirements:

• It commemorates something very important to me (the art of Bob Dylan)
• It says something about me and how I want to live (“Get born” is a good reminder to always move forward, to keep growing and changing)
• It communicates my love of words, while still conveying more visual interest than simple script

Is it perfect? Does it say everything about me in a single iconic punch? No. But I am damn pleased with it. And I have a feeling that the idea for the next one is going to come a lot more easily — and that there is going to be a next one.