A fear of ink

I live in a land where just about everyone under fifty has a tattoo or three or twenty three. This will come as no shock to anyone who knows that I live in North America or, in particular, Long Beach, California. I don’t have any tattoos, which will also come as no shock to anyone who knows me even a little bit.

Although I like to think that I don’t really want any tattoos, sometimes I can’t help wanting to be the kind of person who would get tattoos, who could get tattoos. In fact, for awhile I’ve had a secret desire to be tattooed, which is a bit like saying I have a secret desire to breathe air—in other words, to do something so common that it hardly need be kept secret. Somehow, though, despite their pervasiveness, tattoos still have this mystique of coolness, and I’m generally in awe of anyone who is decisive enough to have one, or several (including many of my more intrepid friends, like fellow GW’ers Bryan, Scotty, LisaT, Brooke, Farrell, et al., whose tattoos I enjoy and admire).

Alas, I am not that intrepid or decisive.

For the longest time, I tried to pretend that there was nothing remotely cool about having tattoos, often claiming, “No tattoos are the new tattoos.” I figured that someday you’d see tattoo-removal parlors on every corner, as ubiquitous as Starbucks. I wanted to believe that I didn’t follow trends, but then I had to face facts: I’m a sucker for a good trend, which actually makes it more difficult to embrace the idea of tattoos, since tattoos don’t go away, unlike trends. Besides, most of the people I know who have tattoos aren’t very trendy.

Of course, being kind of a poser, I find the permanence of tattoos a bit troubling. Basically, it’s impossible for me to know that next week I won’t completely lose interest in something that, today, I find totally and completely enthralling. Because of this, it’s hard to settle on any tattoo designs that will still be cool a month from now, much less 15 years from now.

Sometimes I wonder what my body would look like if I had been born the type of person who gets tattoos. Consider the fact that, 15 years ago, my life didn’t revolve so much around school or literature or music (things I really like today) but around skateboarding. In fact, if I were the type of person who gets tattoos, it’s likely that I would’ve used up all the space on my body getting tattoos of my favorite skateboarding companies, including the following logos:


It’s also quite possible that I’d have gotten, around age 16, a tattoo that reads:


(Incidentally, now I sort of think it is a crime, so I’d feel pretty gosh-darn silly endorsing that viewpoint today.)

If I had gotten started on my tattoos really early—say, 25 years ago—then I probably wouldn’t have had room for any skateboarding company logos, since I’d already have my childhood soccer team’s name (“The Spitfire”) and my number (16) tattooed on my back. I might also have childhood crush Jenae Westbrook’s name tattooed somewhere. And maybe I’d even have my favorite video game, Dig Dug, represented as well:


As long as we’re at it, I probably would’ve had to get inked with my favorite comic book characters, like Daredevil, Wolverine, and Jughead:


Since my favorite video games and comic book characters are completely different now, I’d be slightly mortified to be sporting any of the above tattoos. (By the way, I’d probably also have a Duran Duran “Reflex!” tattoo, though I’m OK with that.)

Beyond my concerns about permanence, I’m also unsettled by the whole issue of symmetry. How can you get a tattoo of Walt Whitman on one arm and not get a similarly sized tattoo of Ben Franklin on the other?

Moreover, how do people get one whole sleeve of tattoos but not two? (Until I start wearing shirts with one missing sleeve, my imaginary tattoos would have to maintain some sort of symmetrical balance.)

I’m also pretty sure I have some deep subconscious fear of tattoos. Believe it or not, I used to have semi-regular dreams in which I would get some ill-advised tattoo, and then I’d wake up, startled, thinking for the briefest moment that I had truly Gone Through With It this time. The worst of these nightmares ended with me having a flaming skull tattooed on each cheek on my face, which at the very least fulfilled my symmetry requirement. In my dreams, I’ve also been relieved to wake up after having a giant blue panther tattooed on my chest and… well, that’s the only other tattoo dream I can remember. So, OK, two dreams—but they were both pretty damned traumatic.

It seems to me that once you get a tattoo, you cross some sort of line: you become a tattooed guy (or gal). I don’t know what that means, except that it seems like a major identity shift. I don’t know if I could comfortably identify myself as a tattooed guy.

And whereas everyone has tattoos, thereby seeming to render them not particularly cool (or at least no big deal), I still suspect the main reason I can’t bring myself to get even the teeniest, tiniest hidden tattoo is that, deep down, I still really can’t imagine being cool enough to have one.

Except, apparently, in my dreams.

29 responses to “A fear of ink”

  1. Scotty says:

    “It seems to me that once you get a tattoo, you cross some sort of line: you become a tattooed guy (or gal). I don’t know what that means, except that it seems like a major identity shift. I don’t know if I could comfortably identify myself as a tattooed guy.”

    This is the only thing about being tattooed that still troubles me. The fact is, I don’t consider my self a “tattooed guy,” and I find it jarring and even embarrassing when a stranger asks me questions about my “tats” or my “work.” Since tattoos are such a visible commitment, I’m sure that this must sound kind of strange. Honestly, I don’t know how to bridge this particular intellectual gap myself.

    Jeremy, for the record, I’d think it absolutely awesome if you had a giant Dig Dug tattoo covering your back with your high score and initials, a “go skate or go home” tattoo on one bicep, a “skate or die” on your other, a Hosoi, on one forearm, and a Roscopp on the other. But what in the center of your chest? Hmm? I don’t think you’re going to do much better than a giant panther. Maybe an “I heart Eddy Caravan?” Let me know, I’ll come along on the appointment.

  2. um, that dig dug would be a pretty freaking awesome tattoo. i’d vote for a more modest sized one, though, on an upper shoulder, thought scotty’s obviously the one with a flare for the flamboyant ink so i see where his full back is coming from.

    i like the ways in which tattoos change — and their meanings change — over time. certainly the superman tattoo (cliche in some ways, still pretty meaningful to me) takes on different meanings over time. i don’t read comics any more, and it doesn’t mean to me what it did at 6 or 16, but it marked something to me about my psychological development, my relationship to my body (of course i had been reading too much foucault when i got it), and now it means other things altogether. of course skating doesn’t mean to you now what it did then, but it’s still part of who you were, or the journey, or whatever. i like the spraypainted, smudged stencil idea for the skater slogan, too. i think i big skate tat on your chest would be kind of rad.

    this was a fun read — nice graphics too. i like it when your turn to write comes around.

    this post reminded me of this one. how literally should we take your desire for (not having) a tattoo, jeremy? i don’t want to get any of the lurkers pissed off that i’m misreading you.

  3. Dave says:

    I also have trouble mentally committing to something permanent on my body. But I’ve wanted a tattoo (or maybe a few) for a while, and I think I’ve settled on something good. Come out to the East Coast this summer, Jeremy, and we’ll go get inked together.

  4. Dave says:

    Also, do you really think skateboarding is a crime? Fuck that shit, man, you’re getting old.

  5. Scotty says:

    I love imagining that Dave B twinkle in the eye, half smirk, and dry delivery: “Fuck that shit, man, you’re getting old.”

  6. Miller says:

    As a teen I was obsessed with the idea of getting ink. When I turned 18 I made an appointment, brought a couple of friends along for support, met with the artist, sat in the chair, then proceeded to run like hell when he busted out the needle. I viewed this as a slight hiccup, so I made another appointment, only to repeat the same process. I don’t have a fear of needles, nor pain, nor being “that tattooed gal,” but I do think it has to do with commitment. For some reason I don’t trust that I’ll always be madly in love with that tattoo, along with the whole permanence thing (which is always scary for me), even though I can see Bryan’s point about how the meaning evolves over time. To this day I’m one of my only friends who isn’t tattooed.

    Jeremy, I love the tone of self-deprication that runs throughout many of your posts. You’re able to expose your weaknesses (or what you view as weaknesses, I guess) while still appearing confident. It makes for a delightful read.

  7. ssw says:

    a little graffiti and some roughed up rails around public places–things could be much worse for youth to be dabbling in. where’s the crime? not that far back, skateboarding and snowboarding were perceived as fairly radical and super cool, weren’t they? I always thought so. It *seems* like a low barrier to entry, but when you really *try* these sports, it’s much harder than it looks and if you can look actually do cool on these boards, you probably really are cool.
    dave, i’m jealous–you told me we were getting tattoed together.

  8. Matt Coats says:

    My first tattoo was the result of a drunken, winter boredom in SLC. My buddy (with whom I was utterly crushed) chose the tattoo for me. My second was chosen by a lesbo friend who was going to get matching ink but backed out at the last minute because her girlfriend disapproved. (funny, we’re still friends but the girlfriend is long gone.)

    Now I’m getting ready to finally get tattoos of my own choosing.

    I’m hoping to come up with various images to represent anything from my past that has left it’s mark on me. I guess I think of tattoos as scars.

    In the end, after the peak freakiness of the tattoo dies down, you forget it’s even there and resign yourself to it’s existence the way someone accepts a white line of old stitches on their left hand or the birthmark on their right thigh. Forgotten until a friend or lover points and says, “How long have you had THIS??”

    Go for it, Jeremy!

  9. matt writes:

    I’m hoping to come up with various images to represent anything from my past that has left it’s mark on me. I guess I think of tattoos as scars.

    For a while I thought about this, Matt. But then I decided against anything with religious significance. (The sun on my ankle surrounding an all-seeing eye — my first one — is as close as I want to get.) So you’re free to use the hypocephalus if it speaks to you.

  10. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I don’t know how I missed reading Pandora’s amazing tattoo post–I’m glad you pointed that out, Bryan, though I feel a but sheepish now (it’s a bit late, Pandora, but great post.)

    And, Dave, as much as I’d like to go get tattoos with you, I don’t think I can do it. I would LOVE to tag along as you and Steph get them, though, and maybe I’ll be inspired to get my Dig Dug tattoo (or my Eddie Caravan tattoo!) 25 years too late… and I am thinking of coming out to NY next month. We’ll see.

    And, for the record, I don’t really think skateboarding’s a crime in itself, but the things we used to do always seemed pretty criminal to me, even back then. We destroyed quite a bit of public and private property. If I owned a nice, pretty red curb, I wouldn’t want a bunch of kids messing it up. (Sigh, I guess I am getting old… but I’ve always sort of felt this way, so maybe I was born old. Oooh, maybe that can be the title of my next post: “I was born old.” Only this time I won’t forget to give a nod to my predecessors.)

  11. brooke says:

    Jeremy, I’m like a walking talking version of your ruminations. Except with laser treatment and outstanding cover up work, I’ve been able to roughly achieve a solid, stable collection of tattoos that only vaguely allude to my past or my self perception, and present what I want to those who insist on staring at them.

    But if you saw me about 10 years ago, you would see someone who really regretted their tattoo decisions. I have been through the process of getting a (really really big) tattoo that I patently hated (almost from day one). Instead of waking up and saying “man, I’m glad I didn’t get that tattoo!” I woke up with the terrible sinking feeling of actually having tattoo regret. Not fun.

    I share Scott’s sentiments about being tattooed. Nothing makes you feel like a bigger piece of stank white trash than when some toothless meth-ed out Tenderloin junkie is all “Hey nice tat, dood! Where’d ya get that done?” My identity is only partially linked to my ink, and less so as time moves forward. They have become a part of me, like a scar or the white patch on my knee. My tattoos don’t define me, although it isn’t uncommon for strangers to define me by my tattoos, at least to the cops after I rob them ;)

    There are a lot of reasons why I love tattoos, the art, the expression, the tradition, the skill, the medium, the pain. But I think my main attraction to them is their permanence. My tattoos remind me of who I was in the past, what I’ve been through; and most importantly that all of my decisions, however big or small, are permanent.

  12. although, brooke, i’ve taken to answering the question “is that tattoo permanent?” with the answer: “well, they’re *all* sort of temporary, aren’t they? better get them while you still have a body to mark!”

  13. Scotty says:

    “Nothing makes you feel like a bigger piece of stank white trash than when some toothless meth-ed out Tenderloin junkie is all “Hey nice tat, dood! Where’d ya get that done?”’

    Brooke, this is darn funny.

    The best tattoo question I ever got was from a guy who was covered in prison tattoos, and working behind the counter in an oil change place. He simply asked, “You get those in a shop?” Such a benign sounding question but it spoke volumes about how much of a wuss I really am. Even though I have “tough-guy” tattoos, I still got them done by a guy wearing latex gloves while using a proper machine, and not by a fellow inmate using a guitar string hooked up to a walkman engine.

  14. LP says:

    Scotty, there is still time.

  15. Scotty says:

    There’s nothin’ but time in the big house.

  16. Dave says:

    Scotty, you should move to Canada before you do your time.

  17. Tim Wager says:

    a guitar string hooked up to a walkman engine

    Try doing *that* with an ipod.

  18. Scotty says:

    Okay, now we’re *definitely* moving to Canada. Instead of the California bear I always dreamed of, I’ll get a maple leaf.

  19. stephanie wells says:

    whoops, that was me, not him

  20. cynthia says:

    ditto to not gtting tatooed, i would hate to see my skin in 10 yers, I must be getting old too.

  21. ruben mancillas says:

    i should of course be more grateful that my editor bailed me out with my last minute lack of internet access…but “kind of a poser?”

    and a shout out to the Toronto Chamber of Commerce for allowing me to post this hate filled screed

  22. #22 has my vote for favorite comment of the year so far.

  23. lane says:

    hey! he hadn’t commented for a while, that’s all.

  24. lane says:

    it was a follow up to



  25. LP says:

    re: 19. You two can just comment together as one. You can call yourselves “Scoph.”

  26. Mike says:

    While I’m glad I never got that “Mortal Combat” tattoo, the only regret I have about my too-many-to-count tattoos is that I have newer and possibly better ideas of what I’d like to have in place of some old ink. That’s not to say I don’t like what’s already there. It’s like having a great piece of art hanging on your living room wall that you can’t remove. You really enjoy it, but you can’t change it.
    Anytime I see anyone my age with a Bones Brigade, Black Flag, Corrosion of Conformity logo or whatever tattooed on them, I get a smile on my face. Perhaps they regret it, perhaps they don’t and it represents a milestone in their life. Regardless, our life spans aren’t that long, and marking up our skin isn’t really that important in the scheme of things (whatever that might be), so why not? And if you still like Dig Dug, then getting a “Pooka” tattooed on you is no better tribute.

  27. Jeremy says:

    Mike, one of the most impressive things about you is that you actually have an arcade-sized Dig Dug right there in your living room…