Tattoos as a personal statement

By Ned Bitters

And this week's inductee into the "Overrated Hall of Fame" is ... Tattoos as a personal statement.

I'm not some middle-aged crank who hates all tattoos. I like tattoos on some people. By "some people," I mean the real deal people. These people aren't driving mini-vans and banging on their Blackberrys and drinking discounted margaritas at Ruby Tuesday's every Friday at happy hour. These are the people who live life a little closer to the edge, some edge the rest of us only like to pretend to inhabit.

I used to like almost all tattoos, back in the day when they were a sign that the person sporting one was truly intriguing. The tattoo meant something. It meant that the person with the dyed patch of skin was anti-mainstream, or counter-culture, or capable of beating the shit out of me for no good reason, or just batshit crazy. In any case, it was cool. It made a statement of some kind. It still makes a statement when a person goes balls out inky and covers half her body in tattoos. That's in-your-face badass. I'm not sure what statement is being made by dyeing half of a body, but I'm sure as hell willing to listen, because it would probably be an interesting set of reasons.

But now the tattoo has become just another hot item that a certain type of person just has to have. You know the type of person I refer to. The follower. The one afraid not to be a part of whatever it is everyone is doing. The one to whom the thought of being different is a scarier thought than boarding a cross country flight with three glassy-eyed Arabs chanting "Allah Akbar." In a bit of delicious irony, the symbol that once signified true rebel is now so ubiquitous that it goes almost unnoticed on most people. The shock value is gone. How much of a statement can a tattoo make on some 38-year-old hausfrau who schlepps her 2.6 children from soccer practice to McDonald's to Chuck E Cheese to Applebee's to the mall?

If you are old enough, think back a couple of decades ago. A tattoo announced that the wearer was probably a maverick who made a conscious choice not to be part of mainstream America. They were the original punks. They were the true badasses of the motorcycle world. They were the people who worked in quirky little urban shops or seaside stores you visited only on vacation. Their dyed skin made a personal statement, which was usually, "I am not like you, Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia, and I hope never to be." And both parties were cool with that.

Today a tattoo also makes a statement, but not the statement the wearer intends. It says that you own an iPod and a Play Station and that you rearrange your schedule so that you're home to watch Dancing with the Stars or whatever other mind-numbing show you're afraid to miss for fear of being labeled out of it and pathetically unhip by your half-dead co-workers who dissect these shows over their microwaved Hot Pocket lunches before going home to do it all over again. It says that you did extensive research before you bought what Consumer Reports declared to be the safest mini-van. Or it says that you're another faceless binge-drinking B-student at State U who goes to spring break at whatever this spring's flavor of the month hot beach is. It says that you would have gone to toga parties in the 70s, Miami Vice parties in the 80s and pretended to cry when Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in the 90s. It screams to the world that you are unoriginal and terrified of not being hip.

Of course, everyone who gets a tattoo has to bore you with "The Saga of My Tattoo."

For a woman, this usually involves that one "crazy" friend named Tina, four Miller Lites, a shot of tequila and a semi-cute tattoo artist who was kind of sexy despite his hairy back and eggy smell. For a guy, this means 14 Budweisers, two hours at a strip club, four shots of Jagrmeister and that asshole tattoo artist who fucked up (insert most minute detail of tattoo that no one would notice if he didn't point it out to every ... single ... fucking ... person he meets). "See, Taz's left eye is supposed to be bloodshot, but the asshole made his right eye bloodshot!"

The inksters also love to tell you about the exquisite pain of the needle and how it brings on an endorphin-induced euphoria that's almost addictive. This tattoo-less bastard has even heard insinuations that I have remained ink-free due to a lack of balls, as if I'm afraid of pain. To them I say: Let me tell you about real pain. I still ride a mountain bike until my legs are a shredded inferno. (Ouch.) I have run marathons. (Fucking ouch.) I am a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan. (Someone please shoot me ... do it, do it.) I have done a face plant on a downtown sidewalk and broken the fall squarely with my chin after drinking eight beers and half a bottle of rum at a hockey game. (Okay, no pain that time, as I was numb by that point.) So don't tell me about pain and the rush that I'm missing. I prefer my pain to be self-inflicted and productive instead of having some coke-addled, frustrated artist jab me repeatedly with a goddamn Hep-C-shooting needle. (By the way, the drunken chin plant was productive. It made me stop drinking for a week. So there.)

I think tattoos on today's women bother me the most. (Not the spiky-haired rock club denizen chicks with 25 piercings and black fishnet stockings. Those girls are cool, and they'd never do anything as uncool as try to tell you about their tattoos.) But on most females, the tattoo does not make the statement that she is some freaky hip-throwin', cock-loving wonderfuck. Perhaps it used to, but not anymore. Have you seen some of the uptight sexless chicks who sport tattoos on their ankles, shoulders or lower backs? I work with a lot of women like this. They are smart. They are terrific at their jobs. They're friendly, funny and extremely personable. Some of them are quite attractive. I like them a lot. And I'd bet my untattooed left nut that they couldn't fuck their way out of a paper or plastic bag. If you're truly wild, honey, you don't need the tattoo above your ass. You just need to attack a cock the way a severe asthmatic takes to her inhaler.

Finally, tattoos might make the worst non-statement of all on black people. It's a redundancy, if anything. Why any black person gets a tattoo is beyond my feeble powers of understanding. Black people always were, are now, and forever will be cooler than white people. They can sport any fashion and make it look good. They can go 180 degrees against what's "hip" and still look smooth. A few weeks ago, I saw a black man walking down the street with orange suede shoes. Orange suede shoes. I don't know if he was a successful business owner or a crack addict who would sell his mom's kidney for a score. All I know is that he looked cool. You put those same shoes on George Clooney and Mr. Slick's coolness disappears faster than the theater lines for Solaris. I guarantee you that any semi-retarded cotton-chopping slave with sweat dripping off his balls still looked cooler than his julip-sipping, Colonel-Sanders-white-suit-wearing plantation owner. And it's not like you can see the damn tattoos on black skin anyway. I'm always disturbed when I see a black person with the richest, darkest, most blemish-free skin this side of Nigeria with some black stain on his arm (or her neck) that you can't even make out the design of. ("Yo, it says ‘Malcom,' yung!") No, it says your arm looks like it's smudged with axle grease.

So if you've gotten a tattoo in the last 15 years or so, please keep the epic tale of your tattoo to yourself. Everyone has ink and everyone has "The Story of My Ink." If you must announce to someone that you are burdened with unoriginality, tell it to your pet rock. I'm sure you have one of those, too.

Ned Bitters teaches high school and dreams of one day seeing one of his former students on stage at a strip club. You can contact him at