Thirteen ways of looking at ink

By SALLY CRAGIN  |  February 20, 2008

Iggy Pop never got a tattoo, and my brother would know since he spent most of the 1990s in extremely close proximity to him as his bass player. “Iggy was quite happy with his body as it is,” says Hal.

If you have writing in your tattoo and it’s on a part of your body that’s not readily visible, you’d need to use two mirrors to read it.

The first tattoos I ever saw were on the forearms of my aged great uncle Gillis. He’d been in the Air Force during World War II, and had some very smeared blue images of female forms. They were not attractive. They looked like mistakes. Gillis never talked about them.

Everyone else I know with a tattoo will tell you all about their tattoo. Which begs the question: do you get a tattoo in a visible place so you’re constantly answering their questions? As a writer, it’s my job to ask the questions, dammit!

When I lived in Los Angeles, I bought my tobacco and licorice papers at the one store in Santa Monica that had quality imported smoking supplies. One of the clerks was learning to be a tattoo artist. Like an idiot, I dated him. He lived in an SRO building in Culver City and practiced his craft on oranges. He’d just had a Daffy Duck put on and wanted a Porky Pig. When I stopped returning his calls, I had to remember when his shift was at the store, to avoid those awkward moments. That was much easier than quitting smoking.

During my years writing “Cellars by Starlight,” I watched with dismay as kids in bands would return from their trips out of the area with fresh tattoos. No one ever picked anything original, and I felt like a hypocrite when I said something pleasantly noncommittal when shown their flame or superhero or cute widdle butterfly. At least with Maori moko, the designs are deliberately abstract, and therefore open to interpretation. Each design is completely customized for the recipient and reflects a historical and genealogical influence. Those tattoos mean a lot to those people. They don’t mean, “I got drunk in New Orleans.”

Get a tattoo in Massachusetts and you can’t give blood for 12 months. (We’re unregulated — ditto New Hampshire and New York. Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont tattoo parlors, however, are regulated by the state.)

My grandfather Krikor Mirijanian survived the Armenian genocide but saw his family slaughtered. He tattooed a cross using a sewing needle and campfire ash on the inside of his left forearm, an act practiced by other diaspora Armenians. The purpose of this was covert and revolutionary. By showing your arm to other Armenians, you could identify yourself as a Christian, and therefore at risk. But you would keep your arm bent and close to your body otherwise. My grandfather’s tattoo is enough for me. I wear his tattoo in my heart.

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