Despite my long-established record as a laissez-faire liberal, more than willing to let my fellow citizens engage in whatever idiotic behavior they choose as long as they don’t harm anyone else, I recently realized that I’ve become a bit of a crank. I entered adulthood during America’s most libertine episode, the Sixties, that free-spirited Age of Aquarius, but I’ve reached that point in life which might be called the Age of Crankiness, when one’s wisdom and experience have accumulated to such oracular proportions that it’s almost impossible not to be judgmental.
And judge I do. Even trivial, transient infractions of my sense of propriety elicit my umbrage. I seethe at vehicles kept idling for extended periods so the planet-killers behind the wheels don’t get overheated while they chat endlessly on their dumbphones; I fume at the weekend Hell’s Angel rumbling by with his deliberately disabled muffler; I shake my head in despair at the shabbily maintained rooming house down the block; I’m appalled by the number of grossly overweight Americans that I encounter everywhere, usually in places, like fast food joints and ice cream parlors, where they should never be; I’m stunned by the sartorial obtuseness of hats worn indoors, gym togs worn to dinner, shorts worn to funerals. Texting while driving? Take their licenses away. Donald Trump? Deliver us. I could go on.
My indignation is wide-ranging and all-purpose, as befits the Age of Crankiness, but comes with a twinge of guilt, a dollop of irony. Mine was the generation that suffered for our rebellions more than most, back when wearing your hair too long could get you beat up and refusal to serve in the military could get you sent to jail. I’ve become one of those retrograde authority figures whose judgment we disdained on our way to Woodstock. I should cut the world some slack.
But then, just when I’ve almost re-convinced myself that anyone’s personal choice is just as legitimate as anyone else’s, someone will walk by covered in tattoos. And I’m instantly transformed into my father.
Tattoos are a form of personal expression that eluded my generation, which tried most of them. Eager as we were to annoy our parents, something about the idea of enduring pain in order to disfigure our bodies seemed a bridge too far. We were, at bottom, students, who hoped one day to be employed.
Tattoos attract attention even as they repel, and thus perfectly express the in-your-Facebook narcissism that defines our time. They’re sometimes inconspicuous, on an ankle or the inside of an arm, like a well-hedged bet. But often they’re loud and aggressive as a dare. It’s become politically incorrect even to comment on them, like, well, skin color. (Indeed, the most loftily cerebral justification for tattoos must be that the white wearer is seeking overtly to identify with people of color.) Perfectly sweet young women who aspire to acceptance in Ivy League colleges sport full-arm blackwork sleeves that would make a stevedore blanch. Investment bankers flash tribal cuff custom. Poolside moms helicoptering their six-year-olds bend to reveal their tramp stamps.
It was not always thus. There was a time when tattoos, far from calling attention to oneself, were expressions of fidelity to others: one’s god or one’s mother or sweetheart or service branch (“Semper Fi”), their permanence and the pain of application bearing proof of the wearer’s sincerity. The first thing we learn about Queequeg, the steadfast, mostly silent shipmate of the narrator of Melville’s Moby-Dick, is that he was proudly tattooed head to foot in the manner of his tribe, an indelible uniform.
By the time my blithely libertine generation came of age, tattoos had become an extreme outlier dress code, the costume of movie villains and biker gangs. If we ever saw one in the flesh, it was on the arm of that weird uncle who was in the Navy during the war and drank a lot. What kind of person would willingly undergo the tedious hours and thousands of needle strokes needed to push the ink of even the simplest tattoo under the skin? Surely only masochists and zealots, and we were neither.
Today’s tattoos are more emblematic of affectation than allegiance. But what’s unnerving about the post-millennial infatuation with tattoos is the wearers’ seeming lack of imagination about the malleability of life, and specifically about the passage of time.
As personal expression or style statement, a tattoo is self-cancelling, an expression of permanence and certainty written on a tablet of water. It’s a futile attempt to lock the body into the present. What will that tribal ink look like on the flaccid arm of an 80-year-old? Presumably the hot young thing with the blackwork sleeve can’t imagine and couldn’t care less. That day will surely never come. Right?
Is it mere record-keeping? Here, the middle-aged matron might say, extending her varicose-veined but brightly illustrated right leg, is a snapshot in body ink of what I felt like when I was nineteen. Frankly, spare me. I’d rather see a Polaroid.
No, I’m afraid it’s arrogance, the lingering animal arrogance of youth that blinds us to the inevitability of change and age and mortality. Might I one day feel differently, want to dress differently, look differently, hold a different political opinion, love someone I‘d never imagined meeting until, unaccountably, I did? Nah, ink me up, I’m here to stay, just exactly as I am.
Life doesn’t work that way. We are transient creatures, built to change. Why kid ourselves? One day I may even become less cranky about tattoos.