November 23, 2016
Tattoos, so common now as to be clichéd talismans of adolescent angst or narcissistic souvenirs, I have avoided.
Condemned to one of those odd loci of non-abrogation of the Mosaical Law, tattoos were anathema to my childhood home even while pork, cream sauces, and lobster were ushered in to glad cries, when available. Then, meaning the 50’s, tattoos were a mark of the outsider: sailors, soldiers after the second war, the down, the out, and the grubby. Moreover, tattoos had a well-deserved horror to them as well, a meticulous line of numerals along the wrist revealing those who had emerged alive from the obscenity of Hitler’s death camps.
Tattoos were not for real people; you know what I mean … real people.
Thus the indescribable titillation, once I had heroically freed myself from darkest suburbia (only with the financial, emotional, and intellectual support of my bourgeois parents), in learning that some vaguely acquainted colleague, a few years older, had a tattoo, there, right on her ass, never to be seen or referenced. But there! My imagination tended to butterflies.
Then, the mid 60’s) I dissuaded myself from getting a tattoo of my own for several reasons. Not insignificantly, as a professional student, tats were déclassé.
Richard Gere, in An Officer and a Gentleman, demonstrates the point nicely. He is enrolled in pilot school, a first step to the gentleman thing, and the last thing he does before leaving the ranks of the enlisted is attempt to hide his ink (unsuccessfully) from the drill sergeant. An object lesson was provided me by my patients in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, moreover. These were mostly WWII vets and mostly in their late forties. They made a game of sneaking off the floor to smoke cigars and buy milkshakes in the commissary. All were well tattooed, and all said that they had gotten them while drunk, young and dumb. Other than their service tats, they wished they had never gotten them. As a very young medical student (twenty when I started), I tried to absorb worldly wisdom where I could; they seemed to have it.
Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man was made into a movie in 1969, emphatically freaking me out. Rod Steiger is not who I wanted in my dreams. I was still hung up on butterflies on intimate flesh.
Then came the deluge.
Tattoo came out in 1981 with Bruce Dern as an obsessive tattoo artist, kidnapping Maud Adams to receive, rather involuntarily, his magnum opus. Not the kind of image I wanted for my personal life as physician, husband, and father.
Subcutaneous ink became the rage, moving centripetally from arms to torsos to genitalia as if it were a pernicious rash. Actors, those you might think would abjure marring the tools of their trade, began to sport more and substantially more bizarre tats. Pugilists indulged, when not biting each other. The NBA, showing more skin than most sports teams, became a menagerie of mobile ink, moving pictures indeed.
Tats have become clichéd self-expression, a message, if an inchoate one, commemorating some act, thought or conviction. Simultaneously, tats, the poorly done variety, have become a sign of membership in criminal organizations of various ilks.
So ink has been, at one time or another: membership credential, souvenir, bookmark in a life story, curse, rape-substitute, curriculum vita, and de-humanizer of the despised.
I add one more.
Currently, three small blue marks mark my pristine (if one discounts an assortment of scars provided me by several surgeons, a motorcycle, a knife-wielding gentleman of my rather brief acquaintance, and various mishaps of my own manufacture) pelt. My new tats are not close together being port, starboard and amidships. There is no great art involved. They are each single dots.
In a week’s time, I start radiation therapy for a recurrent cancer in the hope that I may be cured of it and have to find something else from which to die.
It’s nice to finally join the club.
January 12, 2016
38 of 38 done today. No significant side effects. No great tribulation.
Now we wait, off meds, to see if the dreaded number, currently bumping along near zero, ticks up or embraces its zero-ness. My odds are about 45:55 for a cure, an actual cure.