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Wash and Wear Ritual

Feature Story
Robert T. Nanninga
Journalism 101
May 11, 1995


She had given it a great deal of thought, knowing that sooner or later she would take the needle into her arm. Well meaning friends told her that once she crossed this threshold she would never be the same. The initial sting would be with her always, and the buzz would linger in her subconscious, Tracy was about to alter her world forever.

Trusting that the needle was clean, she offered up her arm to a stranger known only as Steve, with a wince this 25-year-old barber closed her eyes as the ink sought her skin.

Far from a slight woman, Tracy, like the other Vikings camped beneath her family tree, lived her life large and in charge. Yet before the Tattoo artist had barely started, this voluptuous blond was screaming and cussing like the all the sailors who preceded her in this ancient ritual.

Nobody knows exactly how far the art of tattooing goes back in the history of the human drama. Many believe the Egyptians where the first to tattoo, but since the cultures of Polynesia and Micronesia have no written history, the truth will never be known. The one thing that is for certain is the fact that Homo Sapiens from all over planet Earth have been decorating themselves with body art since before the beginning of recorded history.

America is no different. The land of the free and home of the brave has also been a home to Native Americans who had a very distinct style, long before the White Man came to these shores, war paint was being worn under the skin as well. Face designs were not uncommon, and signified tribal affiliations and rank. Not to be overlooked is the carnival sideshow, who can forget the song dedicated to Lydia the Queen of Tattoos.

Where the tribes of Borneo were marking the rituals of their daily lives with ancient symbols, young men in this country would go under the gun before heading off to war. Until recently tattoos were reserved for waterfronts and tenderloin districts, being considered foolish and degenerate by polite society. Anchors and ships, panthers and an eagle spread across the chest or back were early favorites. Asked why they got a tattoo most young men would chalk it up as something you did with your service buddies, a right of passage. For most of these soldiers this was one of the few expressions of freedom allowed them. Dave a retired Marine in Gumby suspenders said he had his inked in Oceanside before shipping off to Vietnam,"it seemed to be the thing to do at the time...all my friends were getting them." Dave has three pieces of art, all of which he would like to have removed. On his left forearm he has a cobra. His right forearm sports a cross and an combat helmet, and his right shoulder is covered with the face of a devil and the mantra "Born to Raise Hell."

Today tattoos continue to be a rebellious form of self-expression, from high energy flash to complete body murals. Jason, who is quite striking even with out his body art, has dyed his hair jet black, has multiple piercings in both ears, as well as his nose and nipple. Eager to discuss his dermagraphics, Jason said he gets his tattoos just to have them. The twenty-three-year-old psychology major has pledged that "my corpse will lay covered with tattoos." Jason first tattoo was an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, that was followed by a skeleton key on his right shin, a scarab, a second ankh and an Egyptian protection symbol on his left shin. Jason is most proud of the Celtic knot he shares with four friends. This was done as a bonding ritual as he prepared to leave the east coast. All four men have the identical tattoo on their right wrist.

Tracy who has progressed in her fascination with tattooing is now a tattoo artist herself. "I wanted my first tattoo in high school, but decided to wait until I knew what I was going to do with my life...I mean what if i wanted to marry a senator or the president." Tracys first tattoo was a armband consisting of cultural icons such as a peace sign, a cross and the yin/yang symbol. A book on the history of tattooing prompted her next piece. "My Gecko is my only piece of flash...I got it out of Modern Primitive...the book that inspired me to become a body piercer. I liked the design and it went well with my band."

Following the Gecko was two dancing women, one with swords another with scarves. Done in the Japanese tradition, they graced her shoulder blades, and represented both sides of her personality, strong and sensual. The flower on the back of her neck was inked by a British artist at a local tattoo convention, and the Japanese tribal shell design on her lower back was a birthday gift from her boyfriend. Not content with always being the canvas, Tracy decided to expand her piercing business to include tattooing. "I consider myself an artist...and when I had the chance to intern with a professional tattoo artist I jumped at it."

Larson, a 25-year-old driller had Tracy touch up a tribal design on his lower back. Unhappy with the original work, he came to Tracys' in-home tattoo parlor to have her add some shading, some color and a skull to an existing crystal ball. "A few more and I'm done... besides a band of chain on my leg and I want to get a cross surrounded by roses to honor my deceased parents."

After consulting with a woman about a naval piercing the subject turned back to the ancient art of body graphics. "Tattoo's make you think about your own mortality. Subconsciously when people look at their tattoo they have to come to terms with what forever means to them. I mean if you are going to get a tattoo, make sure you can live with your choice. Because forever is a long time."

Jessica, a college freshman, marked her eighteenth birthday with a peace sign and morning glory on her abdomen. "I got this in a special place that only certain people will see...and I won't be discriminated at job interviews." Unlike most people who get tattoos Jessica had her mom go with her for moral support, "I had the money, I had the time, and I didn't want to go to class... so I did it."

Tracy believes tattooing empowers one with a new sense of self, "I personally think it's a badge of courage, in some tribes it's part of ritual, and in today's society it's a way for people to prove their worth, that they are different, and have gone past the Mall Society."

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