With only three exceptions, I have paid a visit to the state fair every year since 1976. For some people, the state fair means the midway, or corny dogs, or pig races, or the auto show; for me, it means the freak show. Correction: it used to mean the freak show.
I don’t remember when the freak show disappeared. You might suspect it fell victim to heightened sensitivity to human disabilities (thank God I still have Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not Odditoriums to satisfy my morbid curiosity). I don’t doubt that such a change in attitude was a factor, but a bigger reason was the paucity of freaks. Thanks to medical advances, institutionalization, and legalized abortion, there just weren’t that many freaks available.
There is one exception to that rule, however. I refer to the tattooed lady.
What distinguished the tattooed lady from the other freaks in the show was that her freakiness was self-inflicted. Also, she was ahead of her time. Today Americans spend $1,650,500,000 on tattoos; tattooing is the nation’s sixth fastest growing industry.
Before going any further, I must admit that I don’t like tattoos. Does that make me intolerant? Well, I could reject any other genre of artwork, such as murals or landscapes, without being accused of narrow-mindedness or bigotry. Why not tattoo art?
The subject was never an issue till a couple of decades ago. I used to occasionally pay a visit to one of the many local topless bars – pardon me, gentleman’s clubs – so I could wallow in a state of beer-buzzed, middle-aged, semi-arousal.
By the late 1990s, tattoos were all the rage. It was almost impossible to see a dancer without a tramp stamp or some other symbol or picture, meaningful or meaningless (to me if not to her). I simply could not fathom why a young woman, with her skin at its peak of radiance and health, would do anything to detract from it. Flat-chested or full figure; statuesque or petite; blond, brunette, or redhead, healthy skin tone is a key component of neoteny and nubility.
One day in 1998, I made up my mind that if the club I was visiting couldn’t offer at least one dancer without a tattoo, I would swear off gentleman’s clubs. They couldn’t, so I did. Spending money on superficial turn-ons is a dubious activity; spending money on turn-offs makes even less sense. I went to such establishments to ogle female flesh; if I wanted to see art — representational, abstract, primitive, or whatever – I would go to a museum.
Well, as one grows older, the things one doesn’t like have a way of multiplying. According to a Fox News Poll, 13% of voters in 2007 had tattoos; by 2014 the number was 20%. It’s no surprise that among seniors, tattoos are rare, and men are far more likely to have them. Today, the reverse is true among young adults. 25% of all men under 25 have at least one tattoo; for women in that age group, the number is 47%.
One can’t help but wonder why. After all, goofy hair styles in garish colors can be transformed in a day. Even the most cringe-inducing piercings can be easily removed. Not so with tattoos.
Suppose you had the option of selecting items of apparel that you would wear forever. Go to your closet, pick out your favorite shirt, trousers, socks, shoes, and hat. Imagine that these items were made of some super substance that would never wear out, and you could wear them for the rest of your life. Assuming you could do that, would you? Of course not. But you can get tattooed sleeves you will wear forever. You can go beyond that to the rest of your torso and hence create a shirt you will wear forever. Same goes for leggings.
So what motivates people to get inked? (The average cost of tattooing is $150 per hour, and though I’ve never experienced it, I suspect the process is not pleasurable.) Well, according to Skin Deep: The Truth About Tattoos in America:
31% say it makes them feel sexy.
Ever hear of Victoria’s Secret?
29% say it makes them feel rebellious.
Maybe when you’re 14 years old, but consider the fact that meaningful subversion is best accomplished by those who fly under the radar – ghosting, in the current parlance.
5% say it makes them feel more intelligent.
Wouldn’t a library card have the same effect?
The increase in tats has created a sort of fraternity of the inked. I’ve seen sleeved strangers in public say “nice sleeves” or something to that effect. It’s like wearing a university or sports team T-shirt and encountering someone else wearing same while visiting the Great Wall of China. Of course, you’re going to say something.
But it is difficult to understand why people compliment each other for, essentially, being blank canvases. The tattoo artist did the work, the tattooee just sat (or lay) there. A blank canvas can’t express anything. It is mute. It is passive. When you see a heavily-tattooed person, the unspoken message is, “I really don’t have much to say for myself.”
Paradoxically, tattoos can speak loudly. The law firm I work for has a dress code for employees who appear in court. For the most part, it states the obvious, but it also goes into great detail about jewelry, hair styles, and accessories. Naturally, visible tattoos are taboo. But why?
One day I happened upon a documentary film wherein a famous trial attorney discussed the minutiae of his pre-trial preparation. He mentioned that he always swapped out his gaudy wedding ring for a plain gold band. Why? He didn’t want the jury getting distracted by some flashy trinket while he was trying to get his point across to the jury. He wanted them to listen to him, not look at the rock on his left ring finger and wonder how much it cost.
Next time you have jury duty, look at the attorneys. The clothing will be conservative if not downright bland. Jewelry, if any, will be minimal. You will see no neckties with psychedelic patterns or hula dancers. That’s because the stakes are high. A criminal trial could be a matter of life and death; a civil trial could involve millions of dollars. It’s essential for the jurors to pay attention and not have their heads turned by tattoos or any other potential distraction. Still, if you’re trying to get out of jury duty, a vivid display of tats during the jury selection process just might get you eliminated.
I suspect the elderly tattooed lady I saw at the state fair had never served on a jury. Wearing a bikini and tattooed from head to toe, she stood on a pedestal, objectified by mostly male gazers. I have no idea how old she was when she commenced her body art project, or how long it took her to acquire so many tattoos, but time had not been kind to her or them. Her sagging flesh had stretched and distorted the tats, and the color had faded with time. Now her body art looked as though it had been done by Salvador Dali working in pastels.
I don’t know what the tattooed lady did after the freak show went belly up. I’m sure she’s dead by now, and I suspect her arrival at the funeral home created a stir. If she had an open-casket funeral, did she wear her bikini?
Beyond aesthetics, the most disconcerting feature of tattoos is what you don’t see: the lack of foresight. No surprise that tattoo removal is also a growth industry – up 32% since 2011. A related statistic from the Center for Progressive Excellence is that 61% of HR personnel say that tattoos would deter them from hiring somebody. So those tats could end up costing a lot more than the fees of the tattoo artist.
Suppose you’ve got your eye on a young lovely who seemingly has it all…including tattoos. If you like tattoos, great; but if you don’t like them, can you just ignore them? After all, you’re going to be looking at them every day, possibly till death do you part. Do you really want to cuddle up long-term with a dickless Queequeg?
Ultimately, you have to seriously question the judgment of a young woman who would make a permanent commitment to something as trivial as body art. Of course, good judgment is only rarely associated with young women, which is why young women are kept on a short leash in traditional societies. When young women are given freedom, they often fuck it up. That doesn’t mean a tattoo-free woman can’t be fucked up, but one who is tattooed…well, no matter what the design, it might as well be a big red warning flag.
Come to think of it, didn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne write a novel on a similar theme?