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The Body Billboard


My best friend Franklin and I were painting his room the other day. Franklin reached up to get a particularly tricky spot between the ceiling and the window pane and I noticed the word "Christina" in cursive script across his bare brown shoulder.

My first thought was "Ouch! That had to hurt." But my man said it wasn't so bad, so I had to believe him, even though, if it were me, I would front and tell everyone it wasn't so bad, too.

My next thought was "why?" So I asked him.

"Ah, yo, why did you do that, kid?"

"She said that she would like it so I said, 'What the hell!' "

"Oh, word." He gets plugged in the arm with a cross between a dental drill and a permanent magic marker for brownie points with his girlfriend. Now he has joined the swelling ranks of the tattooed by becoming a billboard for everlasting love.

Truth is, tattoos are everywhere these days. On arms, buttocks, necks and any other region of the body imaginable. The brave souls that get them range from the gang member in the barrio to the homemaker in the suburb. The myth that the typical tattoo wearer is a drunken sailor, sporting a red heart with "MOM" delicately positioned between the sinews on his overlarge forearm, has been permanently smashed.

In the black community, tattoos in the '80s were looked down upon by many as a "white thing." In 1993, this just isn't the case. Popular hip hop and R & B acts openly flaunt their marks in front of the MTV audience, and tattoos don't carry the same stigma, at least among the young.

But what mysterious forces drive these young people to redefine their bodies forever? The tattoo lives as long as you do. So if your lover's name or the name of your set is etched upon your skin, the world knows you're really in love or down, respectively.

But in this hedonistic era of short, passionate romances and long, lingering regrets, what love is permanent? Many erstwhile lovers have rued the day they decided to puncture their being with a crayon-scalpel to immortalize what turned out to be a fleeting affair.

Yvonna is nonchalant as she explains the musical notes etched on her caramel wrist. It covers up another tattoo, she explains -- the name of someone who will remain unnamed.

"I was so high, and he asked me to get it, so I did," Yvonna explains. "I regretted it right after I woke up. I'm right-handed, but I started wearing my watch on my right hand to cover it up. When we broke up, I covered it up permanently with this."

Why musical notes? "I like music, so what was I supposed to get? The words to my favorite song?"

Others choose to engrave upon themselves a statement not merely of their love but of their entire philosophy. Ali's reddish-yellow-tipped dredlocks fall slightly below his cheek and his brown eyes flash as he explains the significance of his tattoo. "I wanted something that meant something to me," he says.

From the end of his shoulder to the bend in his arm, Ali's tricep is a mural dedicated to Afrocentricity. In the middle is a large X with an outline of Africa over it. Each point of the X bears its own image: a man with dreds and a cold stare, an Eye of Horus drawn with skill that would make a Pharaoh proud, a raised fist, an Ankh.

"It's like a family crest," explains Ali. "It doesn't tell what I've done, but what I believe in."

Granted, not everyone has such serious motivations behind their tattoos. After all, what could annoy parents more, short of a sex-change operation? And is there a better conversation piece? "Ah, yeah, I got this three-headed yak with wings to represent this dream I had one time. Ya see, I was on the moon . . . "

Or perhaps they just like the idea of having something that most people don't -- a unique aspect of themselves that can be as open or as secret as their personality.

If I got one, I think I'd want it on the inside of my nostril.

Kevin Weston is an editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a newspaper by and about youth published by Pacific News Service.

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