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Tattoo fever won't last


A YOUNG woman walked into a Charles Street bar recently with a tattoo flashing from her calf. I couldn't tell if was a dragon or a triggerfish, though surely a cold-blooded creature of some sort, rendered in that spiky, heavy-metal style favored by graffiti artists.

A few years ago I would have been surprised. I would have felt sorry for her. No longer.

Tattoos are rife among the young, even women. The author of an article circulated by the venerable Pacific News Service in California described tattoos as "fashion statements for the mainstream." They are popular with entertainers and sports stars, and no longer signs of "social deviance."

I always have regarded tattoos not only as unsightly but as objects of inevitable regret. They can be striking, even artful. But this occurs only when the tattooist is deft at dramatic illustration, and the body being decorated is well-formed. Most tattooists fall short -- most bodies, too.

Tattoos are indelible mistakes, literally. (Procedures for removing them, such as skin abrasion, plastic and laser surgeries, leave scars.) My father had four tattoos, two on each arm. He grew ashamed of them; he always wore long-sleeved shirts.

The men of my father's generation, though not the women, were widely tattooed. My generation was not. As a cohort we found them unattractive. Growing up, I never met anybody who got a tattoo when he was sober, not even in the Army. And those who did were always aware there would be consequences.

As a teen-ager, I went to a tattoo parlor with two friends one night, but I fell asleep before it was my turn. When I awoke my friends were full of dubious eagerness to show off their new decorations. One had chosen a blood-red heart, spanned by the word MOTHER. But he had it put where his mother would never see it.

Tattooing enthusiasts legitimize this "folk art" by emphasizing its antiquity. And indeed, it goes way back.

Tattooed Egyptian mummies have been found. It was practiced in ancient times throughout Asia (except in China) and Polynesia. Tattoo is a Tahitian word. It was also popular among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and rampant in Europe until the church, on becoming suzerain of the entire continent, banned it. But the practice was rediscovered in the 18th century by Captain Cook's sailors in the South Pacific. In 19th century England, it found favor among the gentry, including a few women and some royals. It flourished in the United States after the electric needle was invented here in 1891.

All the traditional themes from the tattooist's work book are still available: anchors (my father, a sailor, had a naval tattoo) and crosses and flags unfurling, daggers and bleeding hearts. Not long ago in Hampden, I spied on a young man's forearm that all-time favorite self-pitying, and possibly self-fulfilling, epithet: "Born to Lose."

But innovations have been evident among the current generation, among them exotic Japanese ideograms, wrist or ankle bracelets in the blackest ink and startling creatures from video games, such as that adorning a shapely limb of the young woman who ambled into the Brewer's Art that evening.

It is apparent that the taste for tattooing comes and goes like a flu virus, skips a generation, maybe two, then infects another. It raged through my father's and rolled quietly through mine. Where they were reckless, we were complacent. I'm not sure which is the deeper flaw, though I suspect the latter is.

What brings this peculiar virus on may not be entirely mysterious. Uncertainty and social instability, factors such as depressions and wars (both of which my father had to confront as a young man) may have something to do with it, may encourage rash, live-for-the-moment gestures that violate social convention.

It is apparent that tattooing has returned with a vengeance, and even the ladies are infected.

It is because of the cyclical nature of this peculiar, if ancient, fashion that I no longer feel sorry for people who have tattooed their flesh. Why? It's not that I think they will not come to regret it some day; that day surely will come.

Rather, it is because, as they grow older, they will always have the comfort and consolation of their many tattooed contemporaries, someone to share their chagrin when they look down at the fading designs and blue faces distorted on their slack and less-than-glowing skin and ask questions of themselves. Among them: "Why did I do that? And who was Mary Ellen?"

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun.

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