Oceanside, California, is located on the border of Camp Pendleton, that really big Marine base. I was there. Not Camp Pendleton, Oceanside. It was 1969 and I was doing what I would later learn was called a ‘walkabout’. I was drifting with the wind, facing the draft, Vietnam, adulthood, and ultimately responsibility. Oceanside was the place where I first walked into an “Adult Book Store” Well, I was in one once in Kansas City – but it did not compare to the appetite of Marines off-base. Oceanside is also where I walked into my first Tattoo Parlor.
My father had been adamant as I was growing up – NO TATTOOS! In those days the only people who had tattoos were ex-military men; mostly survivors of World War Two. These were men who traveled overseas, faced death every day – and threw caution to the wind. Most of the tattoos I saw were on forearms – and generally were a reflection of which branch of military service the man had served. Note I said “man” – that was intentional for in those days no woman that I ever heard of had a tattoo. The “DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR” is popular – it is strong and forceful, adamant that surrender is not an option.
My father’s beef with tattoo remains a mystery to this day. He thought tattoos reflected low character – but he never explained why he thought that. One of his favorite people was his brother-in-law Frank LaJois. Uncle Frank came by one day when I was just a boy. He was talking with my father, they were laughing together actually, when I saw the tattoo on Uncle Frank’s forearm. He had served in the Navy. Ooohhh, I thought. My dad surely has not seen this or he would not be so friendly with Uncle Frank. Of course, that was the silly thought of a child. The point is that my father had impressed upon me his vehement distaste for tattoos.
So there I was in Oceanside, wandering around, taking in all of the wonders of a very different culture than I was accustomed to. And there was a tattoo parlor. I went in. Some young man, likely a Marine, was in a reclining chair – not like in your living room – more like in a dentist office or perhaps a barbershop. Another man was sitting on a stool beside the Marine. A tattoo was being administered. The walls were filled with the vast variety of tattoos available. I studied them for a while, wondering what message each of them would evoke. I mean, why else would one get a tattoo? There must be a message. Like announcing that you were once in the marines or the navy. But there were butterflies, plants, flowers, boats, automobiles, dragons, snakes, skulls with crossbones, lizards, musical instruments, Asian written symbols, and on and on.
Symbol was a word that caught my attention. The tattoo was a symbol. If I were to get a tattoo I would have to select a symbol of my life, or my thoughts, or my identity? I asked the tattoo guy when I might be able to get a tattoo. About forty-five minutes he replied without taking his eyes off his work at hand. “I’ll be back”, I said.
Something distracted me that day and I never returned to that tattoo parlor.
As one might imagine, the current explosion of tattoos on everyone old enough to spit on purpose boggles my mind. Boggles might be too strong a term – but I do marvel at the nonchalant manner people employ to make the decision to permanently mark their body. I am also taken back by some of the symbolism.
A cross is common, something to reflect religious affiliation seems reasonable. Nazi Swastikas are an example of someone making a strong statement about their belief system. Is that different than the cross? I imagine, without investigation, that most tattoos reflect the ideals of religion, spirituality, military service, ideology, philosophy, love, lost love, romance, or something else that is momentous in the person’s life.
My niece grew up in what I call a fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventist Church. When she was old enough to get a tattoo without permission, she did. I don’t know where she had it done but it is a work of art. Her tattoo is a green lizard on the top of her foot. It actually looks like a lizard is on her foot. I never asked her but I imagine that she had that tattoo for no other reason than she wanted a tattoo and that one appealed to her.
Another lady friend who is in her forties decided to get a tattoo – after all, everyone else is getting one. She is a person who has been blessed with gifts of music, natural rhythm, and a beautiful voice. She chose a bar of music and had it placed on the top of her foot. It is tastefully done and does reflect her life.
Another young friend of mine owns a tattoo parlor. He has solid tattoos down his arms, down to his wrist, and the tattoos stop in a sharp line just above where he might wear a wrist watch. Why the sharp demarcation I inquired. He smiled and even chuckled, “My grandmother does not like tattoos so I limit them to what I can cover with a long sleeve shirt.” Well, there you go, the voice of reason.
Another lady I know, she is about forty years old, has a large tattoo on her shoulder. It is well done. She told me that she regrets having it done on her shoulder. Why, I asked. She is older now and sometimes wants to go to dinner in a nice restaurant and wear a sleeveless summer dress. She is embarrassed in certain circumstances. OK – that makes sense too.
But back to me and my first tattoo. Every time I am about to hone in on a proper symbol my concept of faith or politics or love changes. I can say for sure it is a good thing that I never had my girlfriend’s names tattooed anywhere. I would by now have a stack of names crossed out. Consequently, I do not have my first tattoo.
I am waiting for the appropriate symbol to reveal itself.