Friday, August 20, 2010

Tattoo U.

Tattoos mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To my friend Caolin, they mean self-expression and freedom. To ancient Egyptian women, they meant protection during childbirth. To my brother, they mean the girl he was considering dating might have hepatitis.

Here in SoCal, tattoos are considered a part of the culture, just like wine and boob jobs. Hit any beach at any hour of the day and you will see men, women, children, and maybe even pets covered in tattoos. Names, places, faces, and terrible mistakes are all commemorated, with varying degrees of artistry, on the skin of the beautiful.

Smithsonian Magazine ran an article several years ago about the varied and lengthy history of tattoos. In Western cultures, they were generally used to stigmatize criminals and slaves (the word “stigma” actually comes from the Roman practice of inking social undesirables and inductees into Gladiator schools). In Eastern cultures, including Japanese and Polynesian/Maori, tattoos were status symbols and warrior marks. Jewish tradition explicitly forbids tattoos on the Chosen, though, ironically, many modern Christians try to express their devotion to Old Testament values by getting Hebrew letters and words needled into their necks.

When I was younger, and grunge was cool for the first time, I was pretty sure I wanted tattoos galore. The only thing that stopped me was my own indecisiveness about what symbols to get where. I quickly realized that very indecisiveness would mean a lifetime of regret were I ever to follow through on that idiotic idea.

Then I moved to San Diego. And was even more convinced of the complete idiocy of getting myself tattooed. In my not-particularly-discriminating dating experience in this land of plenty, men have refused to date me because I don’t have tattoos, they have put me on a pedestal because I don’t have tattoos, and a few have even apologized in advance for their White Supremacist tattoos. “I was really angry when I was younger and now I can’t afford to have them removed.” Okey doke. No date for you, because you’re both racist and poor. Talk about your double negatives.

At one point, I was with a gentleman who was a few years younger than me and had done a great job of hiding his Napoleon Syndrome. We had moved beyond dating to an intimate relationship (I always have to clarify between the two, since out here, “dating” usually means “having sex with,” whereas in my prudish, outdated vocabulary, it means “going out in public with to determine whether I want to have sex with my date). Several months into our relationship, he began talking about marriage and the future. He also daily began making pointed jokes about nipple pumps (what the hell ARE those, anyway—no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know) and bondage and how much he loved Suicide Girls. He began to question how I spent my money, how I was training my dog, and what I was doing at every moment of the day. He was particularly interested in my online meanderings for reasons I could not grasp. He would say things like, “You don’t have to know what you want. I’ll guide you.”

It was such ridiculous behavior, and so far from his usual self, I used to laugh at him. He would laugh with me, and then return to normalcy for a while, until the next comment would come out at random, something like, “A lot of women get hymen reconstruction surgery before they get married to show their husbands how much they love them. Isn’t that romantic?”

One evening, after too many Maker’s Manhattans and a lengthy romp, he was feeling particularly relaxed and expressive. Holding me to his chest, he rambled on about our glorious future together and how wonderful it would be to be married. “You’ll belong to me completely,” he said, with a too-intense look in his green eyes.

“I don’t really think that’s what marriage is about in this day and age,” I said, realizing at that moment just how strongly he believed the opposite, despite having patiently bided his time before revealing his true thoughts to me. “To me, marriage is about having an equal partner in life.”

“It can be about whatever you want it to be about,” he said, with the patronizing tone of a father to a misguided child. “Hey—let’s get you a tattoo.” He tried to make it sound like a spur-of-the-moment idea, but it was a little too nonchalant.

“Why the hell would I get a tattoo, especially at this point in my life?”

“For me. To prove you’re mine. We’ll put it somewhere no one else will ever see it. I’ll be the only one who even knows about it.”

Needless to say, my interest in that relationship died a quick, ugly death following that little exchange. Possession is the worst thing anyone could ever offer me. But the little bastard wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Fine, no tattoos, no nipple pumps, I’ll never bring any of it up again, I promise!”

The next time he stopped by, I was ready. I had posted a fictitious ad on Craigslist Casual Encounters asking for regular Thursday night NSA fun, since he always stayed home on Thursday nights. He arrived, and I went into the kitchen, leaving my computer open to the page verifying my posting—I figured I’d make the most of his jealous interest in what I might be doing online when he wasn’t around.

Five minutes later, I came out of the kitchen to a blissfully empty apartment.

After that odd relationship, I discovered it is not terribly uncommon in certain sexual communities to “mark” a submissive or slave with a tattoo chosen by his or her “master.” According to an article from Associated Content, “There is nothing like the thrill of knowing that your submissive is carrying some form of mark somewhere on his or her body to proudly show your ownership.” I even found a “Life List” on from someone whose handle is “slave2jlb” that includes items such as “Get my GED,” “Learn to swallow all of it,” “Save more money,” and “Get a submissive’s tattoo.” (On a blog called “A Submissive’s Musings,” one woman has a similar list, which includes the seemingly dichotomous “Bottle-feed a lamb,” and “Learn to tolerate the wooden pony better.”) 10 other people on 43things also listed getting a submissive’s tattoo as a life goal.

Well, hey nonny nonny. Have I found the man for you!

The concept of the ownership or submissive’s tattoo clearly dates back to earlier Western traditions of similarly marking slaves and criminals. I regard myself as neither (though my employer may beg to differ on one or both counts), and would be royally pissed off if my significant other regarded me as either one. I’d feel a little like a member of a numbered Auschwitz herd. Being ordered around by a Nazi guard is not my idea of a loving relationship.

I now look around me at SoCal’s innumerable tattooed crowds, knowing they are slaves to fashion, if not to something darker.


  1. I got marked once by a significant other, but she was a timber wolf, so it washed right off after we broke up.

  2. Hawt. A timber wold golden shower. New one on me, man.