My older son, 28 years old, got his first tattoo the other day (I say “first” because he’s already talking about the next tattoo.) Now I’m going to sound old, but it’s true – it seems like only months ago he was a chubby, cheerful toddler. Now he’s grown up and tatted up.
His tattoo, he tells me, is the Smith coat of arms. That seems right – it pretty much coats his right arm from approximately mid-bicep to the shoulder. He assures me it’s designed to be fully obscured by a short sleeve shirt in the event he’s in a non-tat friendly crowd someday and wants to keep his ink to himself.
It features in the center a shield with three extended arms – one holding a vertical sword and the other two together grasping what appears to be a torch. At the top of the design, like the crest on a helmet, is yet another arm holding a sword perpendicular to the sword below. It looks as though the bearer of that second sword is buried in the intricate scrollwork and curlicues that adorn the top of the shield, and may be trying to hack his or her way out.
There’s also a banner across the bottom with the Latin words, “Tenebras expellit et hostes,” which means, “He expels the darkness and the enemy.” My son didn’t even like high school Italian, and completely skipped Latin, but now he proudly displays some of that dead language on his very living arm. Go figure.
But I must say that overall it’s an impressive piece of artwork. That’s particularly true considering that it took five painstaking (and pain-giving) hours to etch the lines into my son’s skin, with the artist having to continually wipe away blood and excess ink in order to see where the next line of color should be laid in. Bob Jr. is thrilled with it.
I’m less thrilled, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the tattoo. I think it’s a generational thing. When I was a kid, people with tattoos fell into three general categories: carnival gypsies in movies (think Anthony Quinn with dark makeup and a bandanna on his head), crusty Navy veterans sporting a Popeye-style forearm anchor with the name of some rusty old tub emblazoned on a banner below, or criminals. My earliest memory of prison tats is of the LOVE and HATE tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s fingers in the film “Night of the Hunter.” The tats were simple and crude, yet effective, and we were terrified of Robert Mitchum in that role.
Then there were the “naughty” tattoos: the mermaid inside a scallop shell, with wide saucy hips, folded scaly tail, and large breasts jutting proudly from her chest amidst a cascade of wavy hair. The breasts could be confirmed to be anatomically correct, or not, depending on the placement of the locks of hair. Or the religious tattoos: a pulsing red heart encircled by a crown of thorns, and an inscription such as, “Dear Jesus” across the front. This design also came with an optional vertical dagger through the heart. In that iteration, this tattoo bore the inscription, “Born to Die.” Or sometimes, with roses substitued for the thorns, the heart said, “Mom.”
And then there were the super-religious tattoos where the person’s entire back was covered with an image of Jesus in the repose of death, as if the tattooee had lain on the shroud of Turin, and the image transferred to his back like a newspaper photo onto a piece of Silly Putty. People with this kind of giant mural tattoo seemed to also go for the “narrative” tattoos: pictures that twirl around their arms, torso, and/or legs, and depict the story of the Old Testament, World War I, or the entire Star Wars series – pick your epic tale.
And it was unheard of for women to get tattoos at all.
In part because of the unsavory reputation of tattoos we saw on the older generation, it seems that baby boomers as a whole never really jumped on the tattoo bandwagon. My son’s generation, however, is different. Girls and guys alike get all sorts of tattoos, large and small, to make a permanent fashion or other statement on the canvas of their own bodies. It’s hip and totally acceptable, and I have no problem with it – as long as you don’t try to stencil a picture onto me with a zillion stabs of an ink-covered needle.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if the trend will skip generations again. When my children and their friends start to have babies, will those kids growing up look at the “older” generation (our kids) and generally shun the idea simply because it’s too status quo?
I can hear them taunting their parents now:
“Tattoos? That’s so millennial. So yesterday. Get with it, Dad.”
Enjoy the tats, kids, but don’t count on passing on a tradition.