The Existential Anguish of the Tattoo
By Dan Brooks
Somewhere between the release of “Reality Bites” and the closing of MTV’s sports bureau, my generation got tattoos. We were not the first Americans to do so, but we were the first to do it en masse. Now, two decades later, we are becoming the first to carry them into middle age. It turns out tattoos are permanent, even when little else is.
Like many important signifiers of the 1990s, tattoos began as a gesture of rebellion and became so ubiquitous as to carry no stigma at all. There was a time when a visible tattoo disqualified you from most jobs, many families and several religions. To be tattooed was to declare that you would no longer rely on strangers’ good will, either because you were an adventurer — sailor, yakuza, heavy-metal musician — or because you had such poor judgment that you were likely to alienate people anyway.
Now the tattooed type has expanded to include hairdressers and graphic designers, accountants and yoga teachers and — perhaps most disturbingly — cool dads. I know a dozen people with full sleeves, and all but one of them have children. Their sleeves now read as an indictment of nonconformism rather than an assertion of it — which is weird, because the tattoos themselves haven’t changed.
I have two tattoos. The one people see is on my left bicep: a barn swallow, which we had around the house when I was growing up. I got it when I was 22 and obsessed with the metric shape of sentences. I believed that I could describe the swoop of a swallow in a sentence whose syntax paralleled the path of flight, itself reflected in the Bézier curve between the bird’s shoulder and head. After weeks of increasingly crazy rewrites of the sentence, I got the tattoo to exorcise a demon from my craft.
I also wanted poetry girls to look at my upper arm. I got my barn swallow at New York Adorned, and I like it. They do good work there, and my tattoo reminds me of a slightly different East Village, where I could walk down Second Avenue with plastic wrap on my arm, covering the fresh ink, and have a beer in Mars Bar. The bartender listened to my crazy syntax explanation and asked relevant questions, even though no sane person could actually be interested in that. Prosody as a visible line doesn’t mean much to me now, but the tattoo does. That once was, the tattoo says, and the memory remains, even as it becomes strange.
The tattoo that most people don’t see is a six-inch asterisk on my right shoulder blade. I got it my sophomore year of college, just after I turned 19. The tattoo guy asked me to bring in a pattern for him to trace, but all the asterisks I could find to print out had five points, and I wanted one with eight. Twenty minutes of brisk outlining and six hours of bloody fill work later, I had a recreation of the asterisk on Anthony Kiedis’s wrist, which I hadn’t realized was the central motif in the logo for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Over the next few years, the Chili Peppers went from a band I sort of liked to one that annoyed me immensely. They sound like Vinnie Barbarino arguing with a pinball machine. Occasionally someone will see my eight-pointed asterisk and ask if I am a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, and I claim to be the victim of a bad coincidence. Really, I saw Kiedis’s asterisk and thought I could get away with it.
Now I am 36, and if I had it all to do over again, I probably wouldn’t. Like leaving the dishes in the sink or throwing out all the cigarettes, getting a tattoo is a way for your past self to exert power over your present self. But the bad tattoo involves an element of guilt that raises it beyond a simple mistake.
Consider my high-school classmate who went to Acapulco to have her first experience with Mexican culture and people pouring liquor directly into her mouth as they blew whistles. She experienced a period of missing time and woke up with “Pink Floyd” tattooed on her ankle. “I don’t even like Pink Floyd,” she complained when she returned. It is a pleasing story, though it is missing one crucial element: agency. Blacking out and getting a tattoo you immediately regret is not the same as growing to loathe your own tattoo as you get older, because it does not carry the same terrifying implications about free will.
Getting a tattoo may be a way for your past self to dominate your present self, but getting sick of your tattoo is a way for your present self to betray your past. That’s what makes the ubiquity of tattoos among Americans my age so unsettling: When we all got them together, they became a symbol of youth, which is a substantially less fun symbol to have around when you are old.
Students of Jean-Paul Sartre will recognize here the problem of existential anguish, which he explains in “Being and Nothingness” through the metaphor of vertigo. The sense of vertigo you feel when walking along a narrow mountain path, Sartre writes, is not the fear that you will fall off but rather the fear that you will suddenly decide to jump. Free will is terrifying because it necessarily entails the freedom to change radically in the future.
The freedom to do anything we want later becomes the freedom to thwart our present desires. I decide to quit smoking now, but later, when someone offers me a Lucky Strike, I exercise my free will to decide that what I really want to do is quit smoking tomorrow. Halfway to the filter, I realize that actually I wanted to quit all along, and the question of who is in charge becomes depressingly complicated.
The tattoo tries to make an end run around this problem by indelibly marking the one part of the self that remains tangible and consistent: the body. It is what behavioral economists call a precommitment device, ensuring that our present values remain in force in the future. You take a cab to the bar when you are sober, so that you will not be tempted to drive home when you are drunk. You wish to stop texting your ex-girlfriend late at night, so in the clear light of morning you delete her number from your phone.
“Asterisks are cool,” Past Dan says. “I will tattoo an asterisk on my body, so that people will see I am an exception to something and I will remain cool forever.” The problem with this is that tattoos are symbols, and their meanings change with context. “Oh, right,” Present Dan says when he catches his asterisk in the mirror during yoga. “I used to be a jerk.”
The tattoo starts as an assertion of your freedom — in, say, 1998 — and lives on as an abridgment of it. When I was 19, I could do whatever I wanted, and the thing I wanted to do was mark my body permanently so that I couldn’t change what I wanted in the future.
In this light, we can read my generation’s mania for tattoos in two ways. We might take it as an expression of ignorance. According to this reading, I and my fellow college students got tattoos because we could not conceive of a time when we wouldn’t want to have drawings of barbed wire on our biceps, which is exactly the kind of hubris that characterizes youth. That’s a plausible explanation, but it’s also cynical. And cynicism is exactly what a tattoo denies: It asserts that some values, be they Pink Floyd or three dolphins that represent infinity, are eternal and unchanging. Perhaps my asterisk is not a dumb expression of my youthful fatuousness, but a wise precaution I took against unreliable middle age.
Surely, my generation understands the transience of youth. We grew up watching nostalgic television shows about our parents’ childhoods, and so we know that the age of free love and nonmaterialism lasted approximately as long as their adolescence. Ask any 60-year-old what defined the baby boomers, and he’ll say their values; ask a 30-year-old what defined them, and she’ll say the way they abandoned those values as they aged.
Seen this way, our tattoos can read as an assertion of rebellion against what our parents did. Unlike them, we will carry the aesthetics of our youth into middle age, our hearts literally on our sleeves. If the boomers have taught us anything, it’s that the trappings of youth will embarrass you as you get older. We grasped that lesson only partly, and we have implemented it in the most ironic way imaginable.
The problem with thinking of our tattoos as a declaration of the permanence of our values is that they haven’t been permanent for very long. The women in my yoga class with koi fish on their arms may be mothers, but they are still youngish, hip mothers. Their tattoos may look pixelated, but they are not yet wrinkled. The indignity has not set in, but it will.
How will our tattoos look to the generation that cares for us? What will the orderly think when he rolls me over to prevent bedsores and sees my faded, asymmetrical asterisk? He probably won’t associate it with the Chili Peppers, thank God. That music will have been supplanted by whatever clicks and whistles enter his brain through his aural implants. And perhaps our children will embrace some body modification stranger than ours, making tattoos as anodyne as pierced ears.
Or maybe that generation will be entirely too sophisticated for such expressions of the will. Perhaps they will see the flames and skulls on our withered forearms and remember us as the generation that couldn’t imagine getting old, that was foolish enough to make the enthusiasms of its youth a permanent mark.
Maybe that will be poignant. Our untattooed newsmen often point out that mine is the first generation of Americans who can expect to live less comfortably than our parents. Fewer of us will own houses, and more of us will spend middle age working off the debt we accumulated in college. Perhaps our tattoos insist that the prime of our lives came early. The important stuff happened when we were young, when regret seemed impossible, and now we are working off the bill.
In theory, I could get my asterisk removed. It’s the kind of costly elective procedure my insurance does not cover, but the money I spent to have it put there as a college student is roughly equivalent to the money I might spend to have it taken off as an adult. There is something unwholesome, though, about asserting my present self over my past in that way. It would imply that I failed to learn the lesson of my bad tattoo, even as I obliterated what should have taught it to me.
For a few thousand dollars, you can erase your ill-advised Chinese characters or the peace sign you don’t remember getting, just as you can set the ankle you broke when you got drunk and tried to break into your own apartment. Lasers offer us the power to enforce one self over another in 2014, the same way tattoo needles did in 1998. Doubtless, many of my generation will exercise their option.
The rest of us will keep our fading, spreading tattoos, and let them remind us that our past and present selves are not always in accord. You are not the same person you were when you got that dolphin. Yet here you are in the same body, dealing with the memories the other guy left behind.