Once upon a time, machismo was expressed through a display of tattoos. You would see tattoos whenever there was a plumber in the house, carpenters were finishing the basement, or the ’63 Dodge Dart station wagon was getting a tune up. They were cool to feast your eyes on, a storybook of sorts, but I was never a fan. I figured since I began shaving at 15, I had all the machismo I needed.
Now, in my late 60s, I haven’t had any sort of epiphany. The act of altering your arm, legs, face, chest, and certain unmentionable body parts still holds no lure. If I wanted to excel at my pathetic stick figure art, I would use a canvas fashioned from hemp, flax, or cotton. I would use the same material if I ever walked away from it all and became a humble sailmaker on a windswept Greek island.
The rest of society has a different view. Nowadays, you see tats on the bodies of people from across the demographic spectrum. They can be pharmacists and politicians. Beefy football linemen and Chinese Ping-Pong wizards. Young moms and dads with advanced degrees. And the studious, middle-aged librarian I spotted recently.
In the face of the tattoo explosion, there remain holdouts. Father David Mustian, who pastors St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church in suburban Denver, is one of them. “You could say it’s art, but not all art is inherently good,” he asserts. “There’s nothing more beautiful than how God made you and me. There’s no need to disfigure it.”
One of his parishioners, Steve Kelly, reports he works as a parking enforcement officer on the campus of the University of Colorado’s sprawling flagship campus in Boulder. Drawing from his years in law enforcement, he has learned that there’s an unspoken ‘loyalty’ that lies at the core of the tight brotherhood. “Often, a way to show loyalty is through their tattoos,” he says. “You count on that loyalty when you work. You brand yourself.” It’s tied closely to the concept of the ‘thin blue line,’ he continues, which represents the role of police as the dam that keeps society from plunging into complete anarchy.
“But your primary loyalty is to God,” Father David chimes in with feeling. “I don’t want any other seal on me other than what I receive with a seal of Chrismation. You don’t want to do anything that leaves yourself vulnerable.”
Over breakfast one morning, my server, Samantha was gliding effortlessly up and down the packed dining room, balancing orders of pancakes, eggs, and oatmeal. When I asked her about her tats, she put down the tray and proudly showed them off. “Most of them are meaningful for me. My dot is my rainbow baby. And my son is obsessed with the dinosaur,” she said, pointing to her right elbow. “And I have a Care Bear on my back.” She also sports a palm tree on her foot, along with an ‘Om’ symbol, which, in Hinduism, represents the first sound of the universe. “I get one every time I go to Vegas.” She used to have one that spelled her old boyfriend’s name, “but I covered it up.” All told, she’s spent between $1,500 and $1,700 on her body art.
For Graham Simpson, the desire to get tats has never captured his imagination. At the same time, he doesn’t judge those who choose to get them. “A lot of people my age have them,” says Simpson, a high-school senior. “My mom would kill me if I got a tattoo. It’s dangerous because of how permanent it is.” In place of tats, Graham adds he’s making his own fashion statement by wearing button-down shirts. “Someone said I look like a community college professor. I’m the outlier.”
No offense, but you can keep your dinosaurs and munchkins and fire-breathing dragons. But kudos to my good friend, Carol Southard of Laurel, Md. Carol, a 60-year-old mother of three with a math degree and the sunniest of dispositions, who comes closest to my more conservative outlook. Her tat clearly expresses her Christian roots in the form of a cross with the words `Father, Son, Spirit’ below.
Carol explains that before she got the tat, she checked with the teaching of the Catholic Church. “Which is simple: the tat must not be immodest or disfiguring, and also must not be anti-religious. I knew I wanted a cross, but it took a while to decide what it would look like. I added the words about a year later.”
Like Simpson, I think I’ll just stick with what Mosaic law has to say, specifically Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.”
One day, I’ll wax poetic about wearing makeup, eating pork, or pridefully attempting to haul six bags of groceries at one time using muscles that are no longer in existence.