I love having art on my body, and do not regret my choices, but tattoo culture is itself an often regrettable phenomena that is full of authoritarianism and toxic masculinity.
Of all of the reasons I was ever given as a kid or young adult to not get tattooed, none of those have since informed any misgivings. I am not disappointed in younger Joshua’s subject choices, placement or the metamorphosis of image as my aging body takes on new dimensions. Nor have they ever stood in my way, as I had been warned that they might.
In fact the only time I was ever concerned about the tattoos on my forearms is when I took a job at a fairly conservative office supply store in a small town. After a few weeks of wearing long sleeves to work in the sweltering summer temperatures, I was asked by the owner of the company why I was doing that. When I explained the tattoos and my attempt at decorum I was informed that tats weren’t a big deal so long as I didn’t have anything too egregious marking me, which was judged to be the case.
There is nothing I really regret about my tattoos at all except that they could be construed to mark me as part of a tribe whose inclusion into I wish to avoid. The culture of tattooing is often full of macho scoundrels who ironically lick authorities boots, and my ink might seem to some as tribal markings that identify me as one of their own.
I have seen this up close and personal. In my years working in head shops there was always a tattoo place next door. I was lucky enough to be in Iowa City’s Hall Mall during the height of its glory when both The Hemp Cat and Electric Head Tattoo & Body Piercing were both in their prime. We became like one big family of freaks, even though there was always an ideological division between us. Where we pipesellers were anti-authoritarian leftists and anarchists, the girls and boys slinging ink across the hall had far more conservative proclivities. Some of them had been in the military, but all of them made money working on cops, soldiers and other blue collar conservatives, which lent their empathy to those perspectives far more so than ours.
For years I interacted in this environment and at one point even ended up doing some basic apprentice work with my friend Davey. I learned how to do basic set-ups and sterilization and did some secretarial and janitorial work, while also practicing a bit with the equipment and lending my art skills to a few of the clients designs. One of the regulars of this shop was a local cop, whom I initially believed to be an alright guy. A few months after we met he saw me riding my bike on the sidewalk downtown (illegal) early in the morning when there was nobody else around. Instead of talking to me, as friends and acquaintances are wont to do, dude just straight up ripped me off my bike and went into full meathead cop mode.
When I returned this tale to my tattoo friends, they all seemed to take the pigs side. A picture started to form. Eventually I left that world behind but as social media emerged I was able to reconnect with my tattoo peeps and get a new view into their ideology. Suffice it to say that it was disheartening. These folks clearly had a basic conservative and authoritarian tendencies. And I wondered which came first, the ideologies or the lifestyle?
Probably both. But looking back on how Electric Head came to its demise, I am forced to consider that tattoo culture itself is toxic. There were two owners of that shop, which was worth millions at one point.
One of those owners once dated a childhood actress who killed herself via an overdose. Some say this is what drove him to the edge, but while he was on it he became a serial rapist who drugged young women and then had his way with them. He was also a cruel and vicious boss. Although he was a great tattoo artist, he used his greatness to crush those who admired and depended most on him. He died a few years ago and I was disappointed to see the revisionism of his terrible life.
The other owner was a body piercer who was just fucking nuts. He had been in Vietnam and had some major disabilities. His drug and alcohol usage was epic. Yet while he was fun to party with, there was a darkside. This first became evident when, while attending a convention, a former football player who was a friend and assistant overdosed on the goodies he provided and died. This is where Electric Head started to fall apart and where my hole-poking pal quickly lost what little of his mind that was left. Just a few short years after the party ended he was arrested for dropping trou and a sinking a deuce in the cosmetics aisle of a CVS drugstore.
Yet while these two and many of the others I knew were all scofflaws and criminals, to some degree all of them still supported or apologized for authoritarians. This supports something I have said before, which is that the idea that criminals are anti-police is patently false.
In the years since I was involved with tattooing it has become increasingly the case that cops are getting tatted up. The image of the muscle-bound meathead cop dripping with testosterone and violence is often one that is fully sleeved. Outside of the police the image of the heavily tattooed also often coincides with toxic masculinity, authoritarianism and conservativism. These are not my people.
This is the reason I regret getting tattooed – because I never want anyone to see my ink and think I am one of those people. Tattoos have become the status symbols of almost all the ideas I regard as objectionable. I find myself far more impressed these days with those who have the courage to show their vulnerabilities than those who would make their body a billboard for cheap cliches of strength.