Posted on November 28, 2018
by Steve Janowick

Everything seen through a child’s eyes and mind must first pass through his filters of innocence and naivete.  

He is small in a grand world.  Any stimuli entering his brain is magnified ten-fold.  His reality is shaped by the distortions of relativity.  Like a grown man standing in front of one of those carnival mirrors, the young boy’s perspective of his surroundings bends and melds to create and accommodate a livable, comfortable existence in his head.  And when an 8-year old in 1976 sees a man with a tattoo for the very first time, his vivid imagination shifts into overdrive.

It was on the hairy, leather-skinned forearm of an old biker walking out of a liquor store.  He could have been Charles Manson’s brother for all I knew. I was sitting on the curb waiting for my Mom to come out of the beauty parlor next door when he walked past me.  I remember being shocked then mesmerized. I was going to a Catholic school at the time, so I knew what that cross was. And I also knew he must have loved his mother because “Mom” was spelled out above it.  The ink was grayish/green and long faded. Already an ominous looking character with his sleeveless black vest and long, menacing, unkempt hair, the tattoo made this guy, in my eyes, the embodiment of mysterious, foreboding cool.  

This was still a time ago when only dudes living on the fringes got inked.  Like my biker buddy who wanted to pay homage to his mother while paying allegiance to his gang.  Or the scarred war veteran or hopeless convict who needed to exercise his demons. Or the grizzled steel-worker who lost a bet on a drunken bender. These were hardened men. Often desperate. A man who didn’t give a rat’s ass about living within the boundaries of society’s norms. Real anti-establishment types. Getting a tattoo, to him, was like a permanent, perpetual, middle-finger to the world.  A proud battle scar in his constant war against a hard life-fading and discoloring through time-just like his existence.  And the cats who provided these painful, rude, skin drawings? Most were just like their canvases. It was a safe bet that you didn’t want to screw with any man who got or gave a tattoo in the ’70s.     

But what was once an exclusive rite of passage for society’s underbelly dweller is now the self-expression of every suburban hipster, self-proclaimed bad-boy and ‘misunderstood artist’ type in the world.  From the female tramp stamp to the barb-wire around the bicep, the tattoo was suddenly ubiquitous post-millennium. And like everything in life that gets played out and used up, the mystique and intrigue get cheapened too, and that special lure disappears.  Sure, they look great now, and no one would argue that the folks drawing them are incredible artists-because they are! But their work certainly doesn’t evoke fear or mystery anymore. Moons and dragons and portraits of your girlfriend just aren’t that scary.  

Please don’t misunderstand, this is just an observation.  It certainly isn’t an indictment on the tattoo industry or the men who proudly display them.  I’d be a total hypocrite if it were. But when a saccharine-sweet, teen, pop sensation can go from singing “…Baby, Baby, Baby” to being sleeved up and scowling in a matter of a couple years-it’s time to face reality…

The days of correlating danger and street-cred with the tattoo are long gone.

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