Monday, May 28, 2018

I Ink, Therefore I Am

Tattoos are a deliciously polarizing topic.

Some people LOVE them.  Some people HATE them.

Regardless of what you think, the reality is, tattoos have been around for over 5,000 years and are currently booming in popularity.  23% of Americans have at least one tattoo.  And as of this year, more than half (53%) of Americans under the age of 30 have a tattoo.  If this sounds exaggerated to you, then you should be aware that about 75% of people get tattoos placed where they can be hidden: an ankle or a shoulder, for example.

Tattoos work by placing ink into the dermis of the skin using a needle.

This process ranges from irritable to downright painful.  When you get a tattoo, the initial tattoo with look shiny and leak a little bit of serum, blood, and ink.  As it heals, it scabs and gets itchy.  Eventually it peels away leaving the permanent tattoo in place.

Tattoos can take hours.  And you don't get anesthetic.

The earliest evidence of tattooing is seen on Otzi the ice man, below.  Born sometime around 3,000 BC, Otzi has several tattoos... 61, in fact, including bands on his wrists and torso, and a small cross on his ankle.

Since then, tattoos have been prevalent in cultures throughout the world.  They have been used as coming-of-age rituals, ways to identify slaves, prisoners, or criminals, ways to honor one's achievements, ways to identify oneself as being a member of a certain tribe, and have even been thought to have spiritual properties.  (Which makes sense, when you consider that a) the pain of getting a tattoo means you get a massive relief of endorphins, which makes you feel better, and b) the needles may be doing double-duty as acupuncture.)

Here are just some of many examples of multicultural tattoos:

In Papua New Guinea, Koita women with a  V-shaped tattoo on the chest indicate that she had reached marriageable age.  Although children were tattooed as early as four or five, the distinctive "V" marking was a coming-of-age tattoo for women.

In Polynesia, Somoan Tongan warriors were tattooed form the waist to the knees with a series of geometrical patterns.  Tattoos artists were on par with tribal elders or holymen; it was a coveted position passed down among generations.

Maori ta moko is ink chiseled into the skin, leaving raised scars.  Elaborate linework tells a story; every person's moko is different, which different styles of lines carrying different meanings.  Note, for example, the ladder-like lines on the nose; this design is called ahu ahu mataroa and it represents athletic achievement or prowness.

In Kalinga, Phillipines, the Butbut tribe tattoos with thorns, soot and a bamboo hammer.  Tattoos were earned by protecting villages, killing enemies, or demonstrating feats of valor.

Let's be clear: although all the examples above are "tribal" in nature, it's not like tattoos were exclusive to the Philippines or to Africa.  Native Americans got tattoos; Japanese geisha got tattoos; Norse Vikings got tattoos.

4channers get memes.

Tattoos are growing increasingly more popular and socially acceptable, so I'd like to talk about some of the interesting meanings behind them, as well as tips and tricks I've learned in the course of my own adult life.  (I have 9 tattoos.)

What Tattoos Mean

  •  Swallow: Not a sex thing, like you might have been told at a college frat party.  The swallow is gotten by sailors to demonstrate experience: it represents having traveled over 5,000 nautical miles; having two swallows represented 10,000 nautical miles.
  • Anchor: Ships are usually a symbol of overcoming adversary.  ("A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.")  Anchors are more interesting.  You'll often see anchors with a phrase like "I Refuse to Sink."  This might seem confusing, until you know the history behind it.  Most anchor tattoos include a length of rope.  In extreme storms, sailors would be forced as a last-ditch effort to save themselves to cut the anchor, because if it caught on something, it could capsize the ship.  Therefore, the imagery of a cut anchor is a symbol of overcoming extreme adversary against seemingly insurmountable odds... or about doing something desperate or brave to save oneself.  I personally LOVE the cut anchor story and wish more people knew it.  Anchors WITHOUT a rope attached symbolize stability and may include the name of someone special.  (This is where the iconic "MOM" tattoos on sailors comes from.)  Traditionally, members of the US Navy get an anchor after crossing the Atlantic Ocean
  • A diamond with the lines extended: this is called the Greek symbol of Inguz and it means "Where there's a will, there's a way."
  • Feather: generally purity, probably because of the association with angel wings, or because of the associated with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the Underworld, who weighed the souls of the dead against a feather.
  • Semicolon: often used to denote a bout of depression or unsuccessful suicide attempt.  The semicolon is an indication of a stop and then a continuation.
  • Triangle, or triangle with an opening: the "delta" symbol means change; an unfinished delta symbol means "open to change."
  • Triangle with a line on the top making a smaller triangle: a glyph, representing exploration and a desire to explore.
  • Compass: self-explanatory love of travel or wanderlust.
  • Lotus: enlightenment or "rising above" adversary.  (The lotus blooms in muddy waters and harsh conditions.)
  • Koi: in Japanese mythology, the koi fish is actually considered a masculine symbol.  Like trout, koi swim upstream to mate, so the koi is a symbol of determination, motivation, and a drive to succeed.
  • Cobweb on the elbow: this is a prison tattoo typically commemorating long sentences.
  • Astrology symbol: you are willing to buy/sell crystals. 
  • Winnie the Pooh / Eeyore / Tweety Bird: Your bus is late and you shop at Wal-Mart.
  • Barbed wire on the arm: a symbol that you chew tobacco and are willing to share, provided that Marlene hasn't cleaned out your truck recently and tossed your precious chaw.
  • Tramp stamp: You love Disney.

 Getting a tattoo is a permanent decisions so here are some tips for those of you thinking about it:

DO: Consider the location of the tattoo itself.  Areas that stretch like your belly are going to warp the tattoo later in life.  Also consider how the location of the tattoo affects your career prospects.  A facial tattoo is one you should really, really think about before you get it.  Typically, you should know WHAT you want and WHERE you want it for several months, if not a year.

Unless it's an arc reactor and then you should obviously get it on your chest.
(Side note: I have an arc reactor tattoo!)

DO: Research your tattoo artist and work with them to make your tattoo.  Tattoo artists are not merely needle technicians; they can help you draw and finalize your tattoo design.  A good artist will usually want at least one consultation before plastering a tattoo on you.

DO: Be willing to shell out a lot of cash.  Including tip.  That's right: tattoo artists are meant to be tipped.  Fun story: I got a $60 tattoo when I was 19.  Ten years later, I shelled out about three or four hundred to fix it.  FIXING TATTOOS IS DIFFICULT AND PAINFUL.  Get it done right the first time, with the awareness that most tattoos will take a few hours and a few hundred dollars.

 See this shit?  EASILY a thousand bucks.  EASILY.

DO: Check placement and grammar.  Tattoo artists will place a temporary ink tattoo on your skin and then trace it with the needle.  If you don't like it, tell them.  They'll wipe it off and replace it.  If you're getting anything written, triple- and quadruple-check the grammar and spelling.

 Don't get a "MARGLE" tattoo.

DO: Be aware that you will likely feel woozy or dizzy afterwards.  Like giving blood, you'll want to drink some Gatorade and have a snack afterwards.  You'll also want to be careful not to let the tattoo stick to any clothes or sheets; the first day, there's a lot of leakage, and peeling away cloth from the skin is painful.  Plus, it totally ruins the cloth.

DON'T: Be drunk or intoxicated.  Duh.  A good artist will not do it if you are impaired; it is illegal.

DON'T: Get the name of a living person, unless it is your own name.  I'm serious.  I don't care how fucking in love you are; this is just ASKING for trouble.

DON'T:  Get a portrait.  They rarely come out well.  Also, remember, tattoos look best in the first year.  Over time, the ink can fade and "bleed."  Even an incredible portrait will slowly start to look shittier over time and possibly require touch-ups, so consider getting something representative of a person instead.

DON'T: Copy another person's tattoo.  Tattoos are personal.  It's okay to draw inspiration but generally considered rude to copy one you saw online.

BE AWARE THAT: Sleeves are done in multiple sessions and take a LOT of time and money.

BE AWARE THAT: Tattoo regret is a thing but it doesn't have to be.  I have some tattoos that are less meaningful to me now than they were than when I got them.  However, like scars, tattoos tell a story.  I got a dumb dragon tattoo on my leg when I was a teenager, and while I would never do that nowadays, that's who I was when I was nineteen.  If you're getting a tattoo, be aware that you, as a person, will change with time, and be capable of loving your past self.  This will prevent tattoo regret.

BE AWARE THAT: UV ink is super cool... and also completely untrustworthy.   According to the FDA, "many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint."  UV ink is reactive and carries a higher risk than regular inks.  (The second most common ink people react badly to, for the record, is red.)  UV ink is also more painful to get and can take longer and require multiple sessions to stick.  (One of my tattoos has UV ink and after 2 sessions it is only BARELY visible.)  A lot of tattoo artists refuse to do UV ink at all.

BE AWARE THAT: The most important thing is that you love your tattoo.  Don't let others discourage you from getting a tattoo you really want.  It's your body to love. 

This is the best goddamn tattoo I've ever seen.

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