The girl in the red blouse has a tattoo. A little one—a rose, I think, high on her hip. It shows when her blouse rides up as she bends over to find a newspaper in the crumpled pile at the coffee shop. Maybe fifteen, sixteen years old, she looks to be, and well dressed. Or, at least, well dressed in the way that fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds dress when they dress well these days. Her jeans are a little too peg-legged for anything older generations would have approved, her tailless cavalry-style blouse too short, although the doubled rows of small brass buttons marching up its front are a nice touch.
She’s an all-American, middle-class high school girl, in other words, drinking coffee at the local Starbucks. And she has a tattoo. The teenaged boy working next door at the fancy-foods grocery store has a tattoo as well: a black and red cross, on the inside of his wrist. Green-aproned and white-shirted, he smiles as he wanders the aisles with a duster, making small adjustments to the individually wrapped figs, the calico-lidded jars of jam, the foil-glittering fromages—too expensive for the simple word “cheese” to do. A good kid, a happy kid, and somewhere along the way he had himself tattooed. Permanently altered. Marked for life.
Once you notice the permanent marking of the young, you become sensitized to it, like a grass allergy, and start to see it everywhere: on the street, in the schools, in church. Piercings—those belly pins and nose rings and tongue studs and open ear-lobe stretchers—are on the decline, my daughter’s high school friends, our neighborhood’s social arbiters, assure me. Déclassé, they would say, if they didn’t think it pretentious to use words like “déclassé.” (I haven’t met anyone since the death of my great-grandmother—she who could speak volumes with a sniff over a bone-china teacup—more socially conscious, more sharply observant of fine class distinctions, than teenage girls.)
Tattoos, the girls say, are perfectly acceptable. Desirable, even. They’re … they’re daring, without being, you know, slutty or riff-raffy or delinquent or something. The girls struggle to put it all into words, but what they’re after seems to be that a tattoo makes you feel as though you’ve taken charge of yourself, as though you’ve claimed yourself, as though your body were a canvas on which you could put the sigil, the sign, of the self-creating artist.
Of course, for an older generation such as mine, tattoos seem the province of motorcycle gangs or lifers up at the state penitentiary. A group of sailors on a drunken spree in the dives of Singapore, perhaps. Something like that. Certainly not properly brought-up young ladies—a phrase so dated that my daughter and her friends wouldn’t even understand it well enough to sneer at it. But surely there was a time when all-American, middle-class high school girls and boys didn’t think of getting tattoos. Literally, didn’t think of them: couldn’t consider that tattoos lay within the range of possible actions for themselves.
And now they do. Much has changed in the long years, of course. Perhaps the sheer amount of skin that women display these days cries out for decoration; the bosom has returned, in contemporary fashion, in a way unseen since the eighteenth century. But I think the tattoo is something more than this era’s bad fashion in jewelry. If nothing else, you can remove jewelry and undo the effects of bad fashion. There’s an impermanence about them which is part of their attraction, and whatever psychic damage the powder-blue tuxedos did to high school boys at proms in the 1970s—those ruffled shirts and, oh, those frizzy blond perms around the red faces of beefy, corn-fed American teenagers—the suit was at last returned to the rental shop and the overgrown perm cut back to the roots. All gone now, thank goodness, except for the embarrassment of photographs in the old yearbooks tucked far in the back of the closet shelves.
Tattoos, however, are permanent. Techniques exist, of course, for removing them, more or less, but the lure of a tattoo is precisely that it is so hard to change. Having one inscribed on the body is attractive in part simply because it seems an action with lasting consequences. You cannot easily take it off or undo it, which makes it different from so much of what these girls do—so much they agree to pretend is serious. Oh, they may act as though what Suzy said to Mary about what Maggie whispered about Jane has vital consequence, but somewhere down inside they know it is just a high school game, something they’ll soon leave behind. However silly getting a tattoo may be, it remains less silly, in temporal results, than some of the other things they play at.
The teenagers with whom I have been speaking about this, bribed with after-school cookies and Cokes on the kitchen table, are far too self-conscious—far too convinced of their own uniqueness—to see themselves as examples of general cultural trends. Much less to see their sometimes awkward understandings of their own developing bodies as instances of philosophical or theological abstractions.
And yet, there exist reasons for the ideas held by any culture’s young girls, just as there exist philosophical and theological influences on what they do. The body has become such a plastic thing, such a sculptable and malleable entity, in the contemporary imagination. Everything from the advertisements in Vogue to movies to the evening news encourages us to believe that exercise will shape the body in one way, plastic surgery in another, and nanites and biotechnology in yet new ways. Even the apparent growing approval of the rightness of medicalized suicide and euthanasia speaks to our odd view of the flesh, as, for that matter, do the fashionable presentations of sex. As modern philosophy began, so it has progressed, and Descartes’ mind-body distinction has come at last into its own: our bodies appear to us as external objects—privileged ones, in which we have high rights of ownership, certainly, but nonetheless outside the real self.
In other cultures, tattoos could have different meanings: the Virgin of Guadeloupe inscribed on a young man’s back in Mexico, the coming-of-age patterns dotted on an African tribesman’s face. But here in the United States, I think, we received the mainstreaming of tattoos mostly as an attempt to mock and unravel old cultural norms. There was supposed to be something ironic and countercultural about them: yet another way to be mildly outrageous, yet another way for teasing the bourgeoisie.
Curious, isn’t it, that a device intended to be daringly revolutionary should be so easily rolled into the trends it was supposed to be opposing? The tattoo may have been sold to middle-class America as a reassertion of the reality of the body, but it has clearly come, in the imagination, to be a brand: a mark, like the one we put on cattle, to demonstrate ownership.
As I gathered up and washed the plates, the girls ran upstairs to study, they said. To giggle and whisper, in fact. I thought of trying to tell them that they did not create their physical selves—that the body is not a canvas on which we paint, but a palimpsest on which time writes. Our overlapping scars and worry lines tell a history far clearer and more natural, more physical, than any needled ink could do. We live our bodies, and the passing years will make of us what we are. Cartesianism is a philosophy for the young. The old understand too well their bodies’ reality.
I didn’t, however, bother to call up the stairs and try to explain. In time, I trust, they will understand it. In time, I know, they will experience it. Best now simply to be the cruel parent—the backward, utterly clueless one—who refuses to allow a tattoo. Even a little rose, hidden on a hip.
(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)