By Dan Brooks
Somewhere between the release of “Reality Bites” and the closing of MTV’s sports bureau, my generation got tattoos. We were not the first Americans to do so, but we were the first to do it en masse. Now, two decades later, we are becoming the first to carry them into middle age. It turns out tattoos are permanent, even when little else is.
Like many important signifiers of the 1990s, tattoos began as a gesture of rebellion and became so ubiquitous as to carry no stigma at all. There was a time when a visible tattoo disqualified you from most jobs, many families and several religions. To be tattooed was to declare that you would no longer rely on strangers’ good will, either because you were an adventurer — sailor, yakuza, heavy-metal musician — or because you had such poor judgment that you were likely to alienate people anyway.
Now the tattooed type has expanded to include hairdressers and graphic designers, accountants and yoga teachers and — perhaps most disturbingly — cool dads. I know a dozen people with full sleeves, and all but one of them have children. Their sleeves now read as an indictment of nonconformism rather than an assertion of it — which is weird, because the tattoos themselves haven’t changed.
I have two tattoos. The one people see is on my left bicep: a barn swallow, which we had around the house when I was growing up. I got it when I was 22 and obsessed with the metric shape of sentences. I believed that I could describe the swoop of a swallow in a sentence whose syntax paralleled the path of flight, itself reflected in the Bézier curve between the bird’s shoulder and head. After weeks of increasingly crazy rewrites of the sentence, I got the tattoo to exorcise a demon from my craft.
I also wanted poetry girls to look at my upper arm. I got my barn swallow at New York Adorned, and I like it. They do good work there, and my tattoo reminds me of a slightly different East Village, where I could walk down Second Avenue with plastic wrap on my arm, covering the fresh ink, and have a beer in Mars Bar. The bartender listened to my crazy syntax explanation and asked relevant questions, even though no sane person could actually be interested in that. Prosody as a visible line doesn’t mean much to me now, but the tattoo does. That once was, the tattoo says, and the memory remains, even as it becomes strange.
The tattoo that most people don’t see is a six-inch asterisk on my right shoulder blade. I got it my sophomore year of college, just after I turned 19. The tattoo guy asked me to bring in a pattern for him to trace, but all the asterisks I could find to print out had five points, and I wanted one with eight. Twenty minutes of brisk outlining and six hours of bloody fill work later, I had a recreation of the asterisk on Anthony Kiedis’s wrist, which I hadn’t realized was the central motif in the logo for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Over the next few years, the Chili Peppers went from a band I sort of liked to one that annoyed me immensely. They sound like Vinnie Barbarino arguing with a pinball machine. Occasionally someone will see my eight-pointed asterisk and ask if I am a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, and I claim to be the victim of a bad coincidence. Really, I saw Kiedis’s asterisk and thought I could get away with it.