By Ernest Hebert
Friday, April 08, 2016
When I was a teenager growing up in Keene, N.H., during the late 1950s I had a number of secret desires; they were secret because the desires I had in mind were frowned upon by the religion I was brought up in. One of those desires was to get a tattoo. I did not act on this desire for a couple reasons. The first was peer pressure.
In those days tattoos were not popular with young people in the mainstream, or even among the counter-culture youth that would follow in the 1960s and ‘70s. Tattoos were associated with drunken sailors and peculiar people. (Extraneous thought: Are there non-peculiar people?) The first hint that tattoos would some day be popular was a peculiar film about a man with a haunted epidermis, The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger, 1969, based on fiction by Ray Bradbury.
In the old world, your identity came with the conditions of your birth. You were destined to be a duke, a baker, a peasant, a mother, a slave and so forth. But that is not the American way. For most people in these not-always-United States, identity is not something you’re born with. It’s something you are expected to forge for yourself.
There’s a line in The Illustrated Man that speaks to the idea that was haunting me in my younger years. “Each person who tries to see beyond his own time must face questions for which there are no absolute answers.” In other words, I was a young guy who didn’t know who he was, nor who he would become; I was seeking an identity in some haunted future.
Which explains the second reason I didn’t get a tattoo. Since I didn’t know who I was, nor even what I believed, I didn’t know what I wanted to get a tattoo of. I only knew that I didn’t want it to be frivolous. The message was clear: wait.
Flash ahead to the late 1990s. By then I’d become a writer, a teacher at a fine university, a husband, a father and a wood whittler. I knew who I was and what I was about, but I still didn’t know just how this identity should be symbolized by a tattoo. Finally, on a flight to the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, it hit me as I was coming awake from a restless sleep just what the symbol was. A couple weeks later I visited a tattoo shop in Tunapuna, Trinidad, and a skilled young man tattooed the symbol on my skin.
That was 18 years ago and in that time the popularity of tattoos has steadily increased. Today, tattoos are common and the lingo that categorizes them has a respectable name, “body art,” but the tattoo is still far from universally accepted. It’s mainly young people who get tattoos, for reasons they often keep to themselves.
There are two kinds of tattoos, ones designed strictly for show, and the more discrete ones that represent a personal statement and that are there more for the wearer than for viewers. Such tattoos are often hidden from sight. You look at them to remind yourself who you are and what you value. If I’m right, tattoos are almost always about identity.
Of course getting a tattoo is risky. Suppose the person you honor in a tattoo betrays you? Or the idea you promote seems juvenile to a more mature you. Suppose you change in a way that mocks the person you used to be that you celebrated with body art? Now you are stuck with a reminder on your skin that is expensive and painful to remove. My advice is go ahead anyway. Risk is part of the allure of the tattoo. Risk signifies the value of the endeavor.
It never occurred to me to want to write this essay until something that I consider profound happened at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester almost a year ago. I was visiting a class taught by Professor Kristina Wright. There were, I recall, 23 students and all of them were seniors. They had read excerpts from one of my books and I talked a little and answered questions. The students struck me as mature and serious-minded. Eventually, a young woman asked me what the tattoo on the side of my right hand was all about.
I told them them the story. Then I looked around the room, and I didn’t see any tattoos, but asked anyway, “Do any of you have tattoos?” Big surprise. About 20 hands went up. I asked the students to tell me the stories behind their tattoos. The common theme that went through the stories was another surprise: family. These young people honored a grandparent who had passed away, a sibling who coped with a disability, a relative who had fought in a war.
One student had a tattoo that only she saw. It was under her breast over her heart, the last three ekg lines of her dying mother. That was the profound moment for me. It made me understand these young people better; they gave me what my children gave me and what my Dartmouth students gave me — faith in the future. Body art, like any art, can be stupid, offensive and ugly, but it can also be wise, beautiful and redemptive.
Here is what I told that class about my own tattoo. Over the years I’ve made line drawings, digital paintings, wooden spoons, furniture, poems, novels, essays, and stick sculptures. I split firewood or just find a stick whose shape I like. I notch an end, tie a string around the notch, and hang it on a wall. I have made hundreds of these minimalist sculptures. Making such simple stuff defines me. The tattoo is a representation of a stick with a string around it. It signifies my identity as a maker.
Whether I am carving or typing, I make stuff with my hands, so I knew the tattoo had to go on my dominant, right hand. My plan was to hide the tattoo by placing it on the palm, but the tattoo artist in Trinidad refused — he didn’t say why — so the tattoo ended up in plain sight on the back of my hand.