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Saturday, Sept. 20, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Tattoos ain't what they used to be


My older son now has what I do not.

No, I do not mean hair. Nor a future. Nor a draft card.

I mean he has what I have never had.

A tattoo.

Actually, he has multiple tattoos. He is, in fact, his own mobile picture show, an art museum with legs.

It came about like this: When he mentioned he wanted a tattoo, I screamed, "Absolutely not!" And then his mother added, "Never in a babillion years!"

So the next thing we knew, he had four -- a fashion statement that popped our parental values and stuck a sharp needle into both of our cultures.

To my wife, only one sort of person would ever get a tattoo: a crook.

"So what will you do next, Mr. Hoodlum? Slice off your pinkies? Go out and buy a Diet member?"

Like many Japanese, she had been raised on rice, miso and yakuza films. To her, tattoos were the telltale marks of a gangster. She had also heard enough stories of real life yakuza to know that in this case fiction followed fact. In Japan, yakuza have long been the tattoo artist's lifeblood, their No. 1 canvas.

As for me, I come from a backwater section of the States where we really don't have culture. We have pig farms.

To pig farmers, tattoos usually signify time spent in the navy -- often in lieu of a high school education.

For example, Les, the welder at Ronnie's Diner and Auto Parts, had a tattoo of an anchor. He also had a pack of Marlboros rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve and a smile missing three front teeth -- a gap through which he would grin, "I yam what I yam."

Outside of ex-Popeye types like Les, the only tattoos belonged to carny rats and circus ladies, of which there were not too many in Pigville.

Taken together, both my wife and I thus viewed tattoos as spilled ink, which, like all liquids, sought its lowest level, to be absorbed mostly by mobsters or motorcycle freaks.

And now our son, who voiced the contrary notion that tattoos were cool -- even beautiful.

He wisely selected image over word, perhaps wary that Harajuku tattoo artists would mix up "L's " and "R's " and give a new meaning to an expression like, say, "Rock on!"

Or that some near homonym would wrench the works even worse, as it did for the poor Japanese fellow who had his chest branded with "Flea Spirit!"

For tattoos don't wash off. And they have a lifetime warranty.

Which was my chief argument against them.

"Yeah, you like those designs now. But how about in the future? How about 20 or 30 years down the road? Your tastes are going to change, but your body art is not."

"Precisely," he said. "So one day I'll tap about with a cane, gum all my food, mumble illogical nonsense and vote Republican. But the tattoos will stay the same. They'll be more faithful to my youth and dreams than even my memories. That alone makes them worthwhile."

His first tattoo was a sleek combination of lines and circles placed on his shoulder. His only concern was that someday a rock singer would take the same pattern for a name, and he would go through life with an arm formerly known as Prince.

The tattoo artist offered him a second mark free, in a sort of "all you can ink" buffet. My son then chose a different design and placed this one in the exact center of his back.

Nice design. Nice location. And sometimes -- if he stands before the mirror and twists around really fast -- he can almost see it.

So he has to be satisfied with the comments of others.

My own critique?

Well, it looks sort of . . . cool. Even beautiful.

So much so that I feel I should abandon my rusty ghosts of tattoos past and concede that modern body art can be fun and attractive.

I am considering having a playing card tattooed inside my wrist, so that I will always have an ace up my sleeve.

Or perhaps have the word "Nothing" printed atop my bald spot. Then when people ask, "What's on your mind?" I can just lower my head and show them.

Yet, persuading my wife to join such artful shenanigans has been impossible.

"Wouldn't you like a cute tattoo of a butterfly? Or a heart? Or perhaps a rose?"

"No, when I want a picture, I'll go buy one. And when I want to write graffiti, I'll use a wall, not my stomach."

"But times have changed. Why, these days even Barbie has a tattoo."

She is stunned. "You've been peeking at Barbie?"

"No, no, I saw it on the Net."

She is more stunned. "You've been peeking at Barbie on the Net?"

So I run a finger through my collar and inform her of a news blurb from Mattel stating that in late 2001 one model of Barbie had gotten a tattoo.

Typically the only thing liberal about Barbie is her bustline. But now she has joined young adults like our son and embraced the delicate and graceful art of skin illustration.

"What kind of tattoo does she have?"

"Umm . . . that of a ferocious dragon."

Silence . . . then: "Does she still have her pinkies?"

So some notions, I guess, are like tattoos. They cannot be easily erased.

"I know you would never have the guts to get a tattoo," my wife says, "no matter what you say."

I ask how she knows this and she leans close.

"Because it's written on your face."

That, I suppose, is better than "Nothing."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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