Film and TV

Reality Bites: Tattoo Nightmares

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

People have wildly varying opinions about tattoos. Perhaps you consider "body art" as creative and liberating as any other form of self-expression, with deeply personal stories about every naked lady adorning your limbs. Or maybe you see "tats" as trashy permanent manifestations of lifelong self-esteem issues and silently chuckle at inexorably aging young woman with butterflies on the small of her back. More likely your opinion falls somewhere in the middle. Personally, I somehow managed to escape the 1990s with nary a "tribal" armband (which tribe, exactly, was never quite clear) or Pearl Jam stickman to be found.

Tattoos are hardly the symbols of rebellion they once were, of course. Once the sole province of Navy veterans, bikers, and convicts, they've been solidly mainstream for decades now. And therein lies the problem, for as was previously the case with everything from velour leisure suits to Zima, we tend to regret and/or reject the once fashionable. This presents a unique conundrum when the source of your regret is permanently etched into your dermis.

Enter the helpful folks of Spike's Tattoo Nightmares, who make what is undoubtedly a lucrative living obscuring all evidence of your drunken weekend in New Orleans.

Tommy, Jasmine, and "Big Gus" don't simply remove the offending ink -- that requires up to 10 laser treatments and would be pretty boring to watch -- no, the trio actually create a new work (or "cover") that both incorporates and masks the original tattoo.

But let's all be honest with ourselves: we're not watching this to pick up advanced inking techniques. No, we want to see these grotesqueries up close and hear the tragically ludicrous (or ludicrously tragic) tales of how they came to be. I watched two episodes, because this stuff fascinates me. First up was the guy who claimed the Old English "R" (formerly a "K") was ruining his love life because recent girlfriends couldn't get over it. I was going to point out that Johnny Depp probably got away with nailing 21 Jump Street groupies even with that "Winona Forever" tattoo. Then again, this guy doesn't look anything like Johnny Dep (more like a pervy Philip Rivers).

Then there's the guy with a Star of David that was covered with what looks like an Iron Cross (this is what happens when you run afoul of a white power gang in prison) under his son's name on his upper abdomen (the "reality" part of reality show comes when Jasmine has to feign interest in why it's troubling him). Here's the problem: he claims his current management position could cause headaches viz. firing people of other races. Allow me to retort: How the hell do your employees know you have a tattoo under your left nipple? Do you work in a Turkish bath house? Have a lot of shirts vs skins basketball games at lunch? How is this an issue?

Turns out he doesn't actually take his shirt off at work, he's just massively paranoid. In this economic climate, who could blame him?

Meanwhile, Big Gus has to deal with a woman with another regrettable romantic initial, this one located squarely between her shoulder blades. If that isn't bad enough, she wants it covered with ... lemme check my notes ... "a guardian angel holding a baby - representing my five-month old son - and then have, like, a sunset in the background." Gus's eyes roll so hard I'm afraid they're going to pop out and end up on stalks, leaving him looking like a goateed snail.

And I take it back, the "reality" aspect comes from dramatic reenactments of the tattoo-ees scandalous pasts. My favorite was the third girl who discovered her boyfriend's philandering when she saw her same tattoo on a stripper's back. I'm confident in saying I've never even inspired one woman to permanently deface her body with my initial, much less two. And that was the only one she knew about. Think of all the hapless women who may be walking around to this day sporting "A"s with crowns on them.

There are more: the guy trying to cover up his cover up, a Lovecraftian monstrosity on his thigh (come on; your thigh? Be a man and slap that thing on your forehead), the woman with three - count 'em, three - Irish-inspired good luck symbols stamping across the small of her back (a shamrock, a horseshoe, and honest-to-begorrah Lucky the Leprechaun), and finally a guy with the word "Scrambler" on his arm who inadvertently killed some kid when he was working ... ON THE SCRAMBLER at the carnival.

How did that guy not get his own episode? He accidentally caused the death of a child when he was a teenage carny, and he's been living with the guilt ever since. Now he's in his 50s (or maybe meth), and he's *just now* getting around to dealing with it? What a tragic life, filled with guilt and lost opportunity. Spike really dropped the ball in not exploiting the shit out of him.

Tattoo Nightmares is fairly entertaining, though it disappoints by not having some really terrible ink. Everything I saw was embarrassing on a personal level, sure, but hardly up there with the classics.

In honor of "Scrambler" Guy, play us out, Slobberbone.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar