In the days I’m urged to call the punk rock shambles of my misspent youth, I would sometimes descend into a paralyzing–if undisciplined and fuzzy–philosophical inquiry concerning a matter of commitment and authenticity many in my tribe considered of grave importance: to get a tattoo or to remain un-illustrated. This was a big deal. It seemed very few people had tattoos in those days, and in many areas tattoo parlors were illegal. Anyone inked earned an automatic and irrevocable outsider status outranking those of us who expressed our punk rock sympathies largely through clothing and hairstyle.
The thing is, I don’t recall any of the original punk rockers having tattoos. Safety pin in earlobe or cheek? Yes. “Gimme a fix” carved into chest with pocket knife? Yes. Tattoo? Well, who could afford it? No matter, it eventually became part of the emerging punk uniform, like the leather jacket little connected to punk’s original spirit, which held the very idea of uniform anathema. But, thanks to Sid Vicious and The Clash, the leather jacket became an expensive necessity for those of us following in their footsteps. In the same way, I suppose, one or two early practitioners got themselves inked and so inspired a minor rush on the tat parlors by skinny kids in oddball getups. As for me, I gravitated toward the neo-rockabilly sub-sect (see “Rockabilly Boogie“), which, once The Stray Cats started waving their colorful arms around, almost demanded a tattoo as a prerequisite for membership. So, leaning hard on such flimsy arguments, I began to seriously consider going under the electric needle.
One of my closest friends from those Philadelphia days o’ yore had a great deal of experience in all things tattoo. Both his forearms were covered, and he’d recently had a touch-up that charged his skin with vibrant reds and greens. One thick summer evening, he took me up to a tattoo parlor north of Vine Street and we perused the samples. I recall being particularly intrigued by the cartoon rockabilly cats with wild eyes, panting tongue, and pompadour. But the original appeal of those designs quickly wore off as I realized I’d be pegged (perhaps rightly so!) for a Brian Setzer or Lee Rocker wannabe. So, what else?
I was nettled by the idea that these things were permanent, that one grows old with one’s tattoo. Certainly, anything too serious or too macho would look ridiculous on a 65-year-old arm. If you’re going to get one, I told myself, pick a design that can still give you a chuckle in your old age. It was with this thought in mind that I found what, for me, was ideal: Underdog (the 60s cartoon character ironically voiced by uber wimp Wally Cox) flying over the city, cape and ears fluttering in the breeze. Underdog was my favorite cartoon as a kid, and it’s tongue-in-cheek attitude fit my young adult persona perfectly. I would have thought the design would be archived somewhere on the internet (like everything else), but the image to the right is the closest drawing I could find to that long-lost sample.
Over the following weeks, I gave the matter a lot of thought. I learned, to my surprise, that many more of my acquaintances than I’d imagined had already either gotten a tattoo or were soon to get one. Indeed, another of my friends, a fresh-faced young woman who was staff photographer for a world-renowned postmodernist architect, decided to replace the asp arm bracelet she always wore with an asp tattoo that encircled her right bicep in the same way. And so it was, with tattoo on the brain, I started noticing more and more of them on the arms and legs of passersby in the narrow Philadelphia streets. It was the late 80s–seemingly a watershed moment in the history of the tattoo. In a flash, it seemed to me, tattoo went from mark of the true outsider to adornment for anyone willing to shell out the cash and sit for the needle. So, finding myself (fortunately, I think) out of step with an emerging trend, I decided to leave my skin clean.
Twenty-five years later, I’m no longer amazed to see tattoos on grannies and pageant queens, police officers, dentists, nursing home administrators, you name it. And those are the people with visible tattoos–who knows how many moving among us have tats on body parts normally shrouded in clothing? There’s been an explosion of tattooing. We haven’t quite reached the point at which having un-inked skin is an expression of non-conformity, but I think we’re getting close. And even my Underdog idea, it seems, would have lacked for originality. Looking for my long-lost Underdog design, I found the following image (not the only one) of someone else who thought Underdog a paragon of irony in ink.
Who knows? Perhaps in my dotage I’ll finally claim my Underdog marker, if only to have the last laugh on that evaporating punker, the one with my very own name, the one who once prowled Centre City and claimed his stool at Dirty Frank’s, 13th and Pine.
[Aside: I'm happy to have reached my 100th post here on Maximum Fiction. Looking forward the next 100!]