Whitt at work. Yes, it hurts.
Whitt at work. Yes, it hurts.
Julie Bifano

The Mark

Saturday, January 20 -- I am strolling aimlessly through the Grand Ballroom of the Radisson Astrodome hotel. The occasion is the 25th (and final) Anniversary Reunion Tattoo Convention. A fat man's fleshy back is covered with photo-intricate dot-matrix stippling in the image of his children. My fellow strollers have cut strategic holes in their shirts/pants/leggings/skirts, the better to display their panthers/mandalas/Yosemite Sams/tribal bands. A small boy wails, whether from being personally branded or just from watching, it is unclear.

We are all of us, presumably, relieved to see the sign hanging over one vendor's booth: "Tattoos: They're not just for sailors and whores anymore."

The first and lasting impression, of course, is of a whole bunch of people with tattoos, all in one place. It's not that much different from any decent bar, with the following differences:

" You have to go out to the lobby to drink

" There is a sense, at certain moments, of a Grand Ballroom Gettysburg of walking wounded, all unwashed limbs and bloody bandages

" If you close your eyes, with the rustling of bodies and the insect buzz of the tattoo guns, you can imagine that you're strolling at dusk through a field of crickets

It was noted, by informed persons, that this year's convention, the 25th anniversary of the very first national tattoo convention, which also was held in Houston, was a bit anemic in terms of both draw and turnout.

Last year's star attraction was Enigma, the puzzle-tattooed man from the Jim Rose Sideshow, with an X-Files appearance on his résumé. This year it was two 19-year-old twin girls who run their own tattoo parlor in Tyler.

But then tattooing's not so hip right now. Ten years ago the Re/Search publication of Modern Primitives was still fresh in the popular imagination, with its graphic celebration of the ink and piercing crafts introducing a naive generation, myself included, to the mutilating arts. Today, with frat boys, alterna-youths and dilettantes having long crowded in on territory once reserved for the sailors and the whores, the once bright public fascination has faded like ink in the sun.

The last time I got a tattoo, a decade back, a weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon, paid for the work, and paid me to write about it.

At that time, I roughly copied a design stolen from some bio of novelist Harry Crews, whom I admired, and had a little Gustav Klimt-type death figure robed in shining colored squares tattooed on my shoulder beneath a banner of words from an e.e. cummings poem called Buffalo Bills:

How do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death?

The "blueeyed" is hard to read in cummings's gimmicky syntax. It's even harder to read on my arm. Near the end of the session, the artist -- a highly recommended woman in Portland -- jerked back from me and whispered, "Oh, shit!"

She'd left out a middle "e" on blueeyed.

How do you like your blueyed boy Mister Death?

Explaining has become a small chore.

I remember a psychological grace period of about eight seconds in which I had to decide whether to be forever disappointed with this scar, or embrace that after all, and since there wasn't a single goddamned thing I could do about it, it was reasonably, defensibly… okay?… or at least amusing, if only to myself, to be a writer with a permanent typo on my arm.

I chose the latter and have been stuck with this job ever since.

It seemed to me that tattooing was, at its essence, about permanence. One makes a decision and then one lives with it. It reminds me, in this sense, of jumping off a tall building. You get to think about it on the way down, but it's already done. You can't change it.

Of course tattoos now can be removed with lasers or covered with larger designs, but a tattoo removed/ hidden does not count. To participate properly in the spirit of the thing, a tattoo -- however faded, however juvenile, however pretentious, however outdated, however embarrassing, however misspelled -- must, if one's integrity is to be preserved, remain, if only as a reminder of a time and a mind-set that viewed the injection of that particular pile of pigment as the best idea in the whole wide beautiful world.

Or when, possibly, you just didn't give a damn.

Ten years later, I have again, out of the clear blue sky, been offered to have the work paid for if I'll write a story about a tattoo convention. Why not.

Going in, I'm not yet certain what I'll get, but I have certain guidelines. It will have to be smallish, largely out of sight, and in the course of a normal, clothed day, unobvious. It must, for my own satisfaction, be something that is likely to amuse my easily amused self to no end. And I must, frankly, if I am to be happy with it, really not give a damn if anyone else ever sees or compliments it at all. (Back in Portland, I had tried to convince myself, if only for the sake of a story line, that a certain sort of tattoo might attract a certain sort of woman. Good Christ, has that worked out poorly.)

And I'm sure as shit not giving one of these spelling bee champs another shot at immortality.

The sole interaction amongst convention attendees, it seems, consists of people showing each other their tattoos. This extroverted/prideful ritual has always confused me, an introverted/ shame-filled sort, mostly because of the hypocrisy of it. Because the fact of the matter is that -- all talk of art aside -- nobody with tattoos really gives a damn about anyone else's tattoos. They are not impressed. Yes, they/we will look at yours politely and nod and say something generic, but they/we are inevitably steering the looking toward their/ our tattoo.

A convention, of course, is the perfect place for this sort of self-adoration, because the only act more aggrandizing than showing one's tattoo is actually getting it done where others can watch.

Mine is not going to be much in the way of spectator sports. I consider paying the Tyler twins to do me, but when they show up they're so tiny and so young and look so thoroughly capable in their youth of misspelling even a tattoo with no words -- their banner calls them "Twinz" -- that I chicken out and look elsewhere until I meet Whitt the Wizard, who has piercings that hurt to look at and a wife with piercings that hurt to look at, and though they run a shop called Tye Dye Tattoos, the name of which runs contrary to certain personal anti-hippie aesthetics, they are friendly and competent-seeming and getting a little on in years and I trust them.

It's not much that I want, anyhow. Just a thick circle with a solid dot in the middle on the driver's side of my lower spine next to a thick square with a solid dot in the middle on the passenger side. It's almost embarrassing asking this guy, clearly so skilled in applying flaming skulls and barbwired roses, to give me plain old geometric shapes, but I am not a flaming skull and barbwired roses kind of guy, and Whitt gets paid either way.

It's a hobo symbol, one of a brief dictionary of such that transients used to mark in chalk on fence posts or outhouse doors to warn or inform hobos yet to come. Mine means, according to the book I took it from, An ill-tempered man lives here.

"Aw, but you seem like such a nice young man," says the Wizard's wife.

Whitt punches it in between back spasms, and there it is forever.

Forever: That's another thing the tattooed share. A tenuous grasp of the concept of permanence, accompanied by a woeful incognizance of the affiliated idea of consequence. The act of getting tattooed ignores these ideas, or mocks them outright, or simply says to hell with them altogether.

You'd think people with typos and panthers and the names of old girlfriends gouged into their flesh would know better than to come back for more, to take another chance at inscribing some drawing/picture/words/symbol/ logo, which today seems clever/ hip/obscure/meaningful/pretty, upon flesh that inevitably will grow sallow/ saggy, in ink that must eventually turn fuzzy/indecipherable, upon one's irredeemable body, forever and ever, amen.

But you could see them all over the room, the lessons unlearned. The Radisson was full of people showing good work, sure, but showing plenty of bad work, too, and getting more.

And what the hell. It's just a tattoo. If you choose to care too much about it, you are bound to whatever bad taste inspired it, marked with whatever ill-trained craftsmanship executed it.

It is better, methinks, to not care at all, for within that delusion lies something happily mistakable for freedom.

And who knows, speaking of delusion. Maybe some chick'll dig it.


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