I've been surprised by a few things in my life. For example, even though I was more or less in favor of it for reasons of health and hygiene, I was nonetheless surprised at how swiftly and irrevocably the ban against smoking tobacco was put into effect, and further surprised by how universally accepted that ban has been.
Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but that whole anti-smoking campaign seemed to come out of nowhere. It was as if, on Monday, we were all smoking in our homes, offices and classrooms, mindlessly chugging away on those deadly cancer sticks, and then, by Friday, we weren't allowed to do it indoors anymore. Now I'm told it's against the law to smoke on public beaches. We've come a long way very quickly.
Another thing that surprised me was the success of bottled water. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that beverage companies could convince price-conscious consumers to voluntarily pay for something they could otherwise get for free, particularly after scientific tests have shown that municipal water is, in fact, freer of bacteria than so-called "mountain spring" water. It just proves how effective an advertising campaign can be, and -- someone needs to say this -- how stunningly gullible we are.
But perhaps the biggest surprise has been the ubiquity of tattoos. If you had asked me in 1980 what the chances were of a good portion of the American population -- men and women, boys and girls, young and old -- walking around in 2012 covered in tattoos, I would have answered "Zero."
I've never seen an attractive tattoo. Not one. Not "USMC" (Untied States Marine Corps), not a heart with an arrow piercing it above the name of a sweetheart; not a flower, not a butterfly, not a bird, not a horned demon, not a Chinese character purporting to translate as "Peace," or "Harmony." Every tattoo I've ever seen manages to detract from the person's appearance. In truth, body art makes me think of graffiti.
I knew a woman who tattooed the date of her son's birth on her forearm. When I asked why she did it, she said it was because she loved her son and wanted to "commemorate" his birth. Because I love my daughter, but didn't feel obliged to engrave the date of her birth on my body, I facetiously asked the woman if she was afraid she'd forget his birthday if she didn't write it down. It was a dumb joke. She wasn't amused.
There are three explanations for the popularity of tattoos: Aesthetics, Imitation, and Exhibitionism. Aesthetics makes perfect sense. A woman may think a large, red and blue flower on her shoulder adds to her overall attractiveness, makes her seem more feminine. And a man may genuinely believe that a skull wearing a top hat makes him appear more masculine or menacing. There's no accounting for personal taste.
And imitation may simply reflect the influence of peer pressure, something we're all aware of and, if we're honest with ourselves, something we've all succumbed to. When the high school student body president gets a tattoo on his/her arm, 200 classmates are going to want to get tattoos on their arms. So maybe that's the explanation. Tattoos are viral.
As for exhibitionism, we can only pray that's not the answer. We can only pray that a "Hey, look at me!" mentality hasn't enveloped us. "Hey, look at my sign, my symbol, my message!" We used to have personalized T-shirts. Now we have personalized skin. My prediction for the future? A company will pay us good money to have "Drink Coke" printed on our necks.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com