I am 60 years old -- not a 40-is-the-new-60 type but a real, un-airbrushed 60.
I start with that for two reasons: one, because I never thought I would get this old, and two, because I must prove that I have enough life experience to write about tattoos.
When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was covered with tattoos. His were the first tattoos I can remember. Uncle Buddy's best tattoo was the hula girl on his shoulder that he could make "dance." I'd been a hula girl in my Bluebird summer program, but I sure didn't dance like that. The naughty part was Miss Hula had misplaced her coconut shells. Yeah, she was topless in 1959. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.
When I would ask my mother why Uncle Buddy had those magical tattoos, she always replied, "If there was trouble to find, my brother found it." Uncle Buddy had given a teacher a hot foot (if you have to ask what that is, stop reading now), wasn't much of a student and loved boats. It was a natural fit that he joined the Navy before he finished high school. The tattoos came from his ports of call.
Years later, he'd tell me that his tattoos reminded him of that exciting time during the war. My father had gone to war also but had enlisted in the Air Force. When I asked my mother why didn't daddy have any tattoos, she'd give me one of those I'm-only-saying-this-once stares and say, "Because your father was an officer."
When I was 27, I was going through a war of my own. I was getting divorced from my
high school sweetheart and decided that part of my new found freedom was doing exactly as I pleased. Janis Joplin had a tattoo, and so would I. There was only one tattoo parlor in the small town I lived in; however, the tattoo artist was a man named Lyle Tuttle, who had been famous in San Francisco for years. I imagined he must have given both my uncle and Janice their tattoos.
When I arrived for my appointment, Lyle's exact words were, "Don't get many customers like you."
"Well what kind of people do you usually get?" I asked.
"Sailors, rock stars, degenerates..."
Oh my, this was better than I hoped for. Maybe it was my Gucci bag or my Calvins that set me apart? Who cares? I got my tattoo.
It only hurts a little when the needle pricks the skin, and it leaves only traces of blood droplets. There is outlining and then filling in the colors. It took about two hours. Where is my tattoo? Sexy enough for a lover to enjoy, but nowhere the PTA could see. I wasn't a member of the PTA, but at 27 I didn't know what was around the corner, so I planned ahead. I could end up in the suburbs again. My first day of my tattooedness, I was told to keep the bandage on and to not shower. I couldn't wait to see it.
I stopped by my parents' house on the way home. My mother had bought me some new clothes. I think she figured that if I was going to be divorced, she'd step right back in and dress me again, and trust me, she was also plotting my next wedding.
Privacy in an Italian family is never a high priority on the list. It most likely is never on the list to begin with, so as I am trying on my new wardrobe, my mother bursts through the bathroom door. She sees the bandage and screams, "You've been stabbed, that lazy bastard husband stabbed you!" Oh dear.
"Mama, Randy didn't stab me. I got a tattoo," I said.
"Let me see it!" There was an audible gasp. I was glad I'd gone with a tasteful rose, and not my first choice, a bloody heart with a knife through it, reading, "Expect no mercy," a warning for the next soldier...
"Do me a favor, Denise," she sighed calmly as she gingerly replaced the bandage. "Don't ever show or tell your father."
"Ok, Mama, I promise... But really, Mama, don't you think it's pretty?"
"I think I'd rather you'd been stabbed."
It seems to me like it's been decades since that day. And it has. There's a tattoo parlor
on every corner in Los Angeles. Movie stars have tattoos of their kids instead of writing their children's birth dates in the family Bible. Tattoos are art, imagination, whimsy and freedom.
To me they are very personal. To each his own. I work with cookbook writers who are grandmothers and have tattoos. In my circle of friends, I know everyone from rappers to Lutherans with tattoos. For crying out loud, who's to know, maybe the Pope has a tattoo. If he does, I hope it's the thorny crown; I love that kind of visual...
Over the weekend, a friend of mine was pulled off a Delta flight because he has the word "bomb" tattooed on his knuckle. It comes from a childhood nickname. Granted, my friend is heavily tattooed, big and a tiny bit scary if you don't know him, but he's a teddy bear. He also carries a $1,200 Louis Vuitton bag. Do terrorists really spend $1,200 bucks on a bag? The word "bomb" made another passenger nervous. My friend has 140,000 flight miles with Delta and yet, the decision was made to remove him from that flight. To me, that's a customer service dilemma, not a security issue.
My question is, are we handling our freedom with the hard-won dignity we've fought for, or are we as bad as the maniacs we are afraid of? I think my Uncle Buddy would have some choice words on this.
Denise Vivaldo is the author of "Perfect Table Settings," (Robert Rose Publishing, 2010). When not pondering tattoos, Ms. Vivaldo likes to practice her napkin folds.