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.