The Power of Our Tattoos

Today is as good a time as any to let you in on a little secret: I don’t have a single tattoo. When we’re out together, this is one of the only ways the photographers can tell the difference between Angelina Jolie and me. It’s so convenient for us all, especially Brad, bless his heart!

The fact that I’ve chosen to remain untattooed confirms a Pew Research Center study that found only 10% of Americans over 41 are tattooed, while among 18-25-year-olds, the figure is 33.3%, and in the 25-40 year-old set — which includes the 36-year-old Ms. Jolie —  it’s an eye-popping 40%.

And they’re keeping the country’s estimated 15,000 tattoo parlors busy: it’s a $2.3 billion a year business, according to a 2010 report. No Obama bailout for them.


Despite their lack of popularity among the over-41 set, tattoos have enjoyed a long, checkered (as well as polka-dotted, striped, snaked, astrologically signed, etc.) history.














Perfectly preserved Egyptian mummies have been unearthed adorned with them; prehistoric remains in Russia, preserved by millennia of snow and ice, have been excavated with them; Polynesian Islanders in the South Pacific, one of whose languages is at the etymological root of the English word “tattoo” (Tahitian “tatu”), have decorated their faces and bodies with designs since antiquity. Tattooing has been practiced all over the world in every historical era.

To get away from them today, you’d probably have to spend some quality time in North Korea, which, because it’s an oxymoron, you cannot do. In addition, even Mrs. Clinton’s feckless and negligent State Department warns against going there.

Pirates and criminals proudly displayed their outcast status with them, while bikers, athletes, military men, artists, and now minors, college students, and 20- and 30-somethings are mainstreaming the world of dermatologically permanent personal adornments.


Some believe that as clothing has become more unisex, informal, and dreary – the ubiquitous gender-neutral khakis and jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts — skin has become, to borrow a phrase from the Kennedy administration, the New Frontier.

Like many trends, once they begin, they spread quickly. Movies and television show us men and women with tattoos, sometimes even as adorable as Pauley Perrette as forensics specialist Abby Sciuto in NCIS, whose signature spiderweb neck tattoos are applied for each filming. Off-screen, they’re gone.



Religiously themed tattoos express a conversion or a commitment of faith that the bearer wishes to make public. Memorial tattoos (the name of a loved one who has died) and love tattoos carry the message of a powerful affection. Reptilian and mammalian tattoos can give the bearer the sense that he or she partakes of the animal’s power and fearsomeness. Group identification tattoos can represent a bonding among members of groups as large as the United States Marines or the United States Navy to those as small as a college fraternity, a family, or a couple.

As Robert A. Hall, United States Marine veteran of Vietnam, former five-term Massachusetts Republican state senator, and author, most recently, of Advice For My Granddaughter: For When I’m Gonenoted, “One Marine emblem on your arm is different from having the entire war of 1812 tattooed all over your body.”


The rise of tattoos among sports figures has had a tremendous influence on the prevalence of tattoos among the young.

One doesn’t have to be a 24/7 ESPN fan to be fascinated by the appearance of the tattooed athletes at least since a tattooed and multi-colored-haired Dennis Rodman leapt into the national consciousness as a player for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.



Because my generation can be a little tattoo-averse, I made my way to a local mall to interview two dozen younger window shoppers – some clearly tattooed, others not visibly so.

A tousle-haired, tattooed 17-year-old lad told me that in addition to the 16 piercings on his face, ears, and elsewhere not visible to his interlocutor, he chose as his first tattoo an angel and his late father’s name. He plans to add as many tattoos as his finances will permit (small tattoos can cost as much as $250).

I asked if he was concerned about the possibility that numerous tattoos might pose a problem attracting women in his future.  “I’m Connor,” he said, with the tenderly evanescent confidence of a 17-year-old male, “Women can take me or leave me.”

The girls and women I interviewed – of varying ages and census categories, the youngest 12 and the oldest 42 – all said they wouldn’t go out with anyone with visible tattoos, and would prefer a male with none at all. Even two women who were themselves heavily tattooed said they wouldn’t go out with a man with even one. “I’d find them repellant,” Jamie said. When asked about her own, she replied, “Mine? Oh! Mine are beautiful.”


If you’re young and buff now, you may think your choice of tattoos is perfect for the way you look tonight. Not to be a killjoy or anything, but you’re not always going to look exactly as you do now. Think of your tattoo not only while you’re a grandson, but when you’re a grandfather, too.

Gravity is an iron law of life, not one of my personal favorites — although it can be helpful when walking, driving, or vacuuming the carpet. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with. When you combine gravity with just a little extra weight, you’d be amazed by what can result. Be sure to think about the future before choosing your tattoos in the present. Needless to say, this is the way of all flesh — women’s as well as men’s:

Second tip: if you decide to get a tattoo, make sure your tattoo parlor employs people who can spell, by which I mean who can spell correctly. If they can’t, this is what can result, at great expense to you:

Third, a tattoo is an excruciatingly painful and a very costly thing to remove. Why would you want to? Maybe because the one with the name of the current love of your life might not be a major turn-on to the next love of your life. Removing tattoos can begin at $49 per square inch, per treatment, making some at least $2,500 to eradicate. And these efforts are often not entirely successful, leaving you with a permanent blob in place of your tattoo. A professional attempt to make even a tiny musical note behind your ear disappear, for example, can cost you upwards of $600, as well as many agonizing, time-consuming sessions — with no guarantee of total success:

When you choose a tattoo, bear in mind the motto of Davy Crockett (King of the Wild Frontier:) “First make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Better still, first make sure you’re right, then try a temporary one first.


There are times, hours — even entire days — when many of us feel as did the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) when he wrote his profound sonnet on the spiritual burden of living in the realm of worldly goods:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

When the world of tattooed others is, in Wordworth’s immortal phrase, “too much with” you, think of the ebullient, 49-year-old Groucho Marx, in the 1939 movie At The Circus, one of the high points of which is this spirited ditty.  It may help:

–Belladonna Rogers