On Tattoos

When I was a college-puke studying on my parents’ nickel at an avant-garde learning establishment nestled among the bucolic foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just east of Los Angeles the go-to phrase among the hipsters wanting to establish their culturally au courant credentials was “c’mon, this is the eighties!” Their point being that we’d reached a point in human evolution in which ancient traditions and eternal truths that didn’t suit their enlightened fancy were now obviously obsolete. Perhaps even bogus. Certainly irrelevant. So, for instance, if one suggested that young women (they weren’t categorized at that time as “females,” but were definitely no longer “ladies”) should maybe think twice about accommodating the advances of so many frat boys, one would be admonished, “This is the eighties, man! Women are empowered! They can choose!” Which, of course, made frat boys everywhere quite happy. Or, if one took offense at the in-the-classroom first-person graphic account of a sociology professor’s homosexual encounters in public restrooms, one might hear, “Oh, please, this is the eighties! Don’t be such a bigot!”—the anointed weren’t using the term “homophobe” yet.1

Yes, the good old Ten Commandments, New Testament, Christian doctrine, Natural Law, etc. had apparently reached their sell-by date. And the rallying cry of the anointed continued into the nineties and reached a feverous crescendo upon Y2K with “c’mon, dude, this is the twenty-first century!” The catch-phrase seemed to taper off somewhere in the early double-aughts, but the reproach behind the words never ceased. In fact, it got worse and while it even acquired its own sardonic moniker, “political correctness,” it never actually grew out of fashion—just ask the politically-correct host of the cable show Politically Incorrect who, no doubt, laughed the left cheek of his hiney off every time Comedy Central’s direct deposit hit his bank account. No, the beast continued to grow The_Blob_posterlike that unstoppable blob on the silver screen in 1958 and we’ve had no Steve McQueen to stop it. It’s gotten to the point where you can no longer buck the trend without being consigned to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “hate group” gulag2.

By now you’re probably thinking “what does any of this have to do with tattoos?” Thanks for sticking with me this far. I’ll now start to get to the point. I received via pony express this week my alma mater’s alumni rag, which among other school accomplishments boasts that 43% of the incoming freshman class had a high school GPA of 4.0—or higher (sic)—and that the college now produces more Fulbright Fellowships and Rhodes Scholars than all of the Ivy League combined times infinity. All of which I found quite incongruous as I read through the bios of the new faculty—in particular, that of an assistant professor of Asian (no longer hyphenated) American studies. Now, this academic is apparently no slouch. He’s a Berkeley, UCLA and USC grad with two MAs and a PhD on a tenure-track at a college that costs $57K per year. Kinda puts the BA that I barely received from his current employer in its proper place (sorry, Dad). And, judging from the prof’s photo, he looks like a swell thirty-something fella—despite the stretched earlobes with the tribal plugs. I can see throwing back a couple Irish American sake bombs with this guy. But he has got to be laughing off the triple-pierced cheek to his posterior’s port-side each time he cashes the dean’s check. In addition to sporting the silly-putty ears and a couple tattoo sleeves, the professor teaches classes on “Filipina/o American Experiences, Asian American and Queer Zines and Tattoos, Piercing and Body Adornment.” Here’s to the mighty PhD!

So, finally, here’s my gripe. If humankind has evolved to the point where old customs, traditions and moralities are anathema, then what’s with all the tattoos? And piercings? And earlobe plugs? And other forms of self-mutilation? All proudly displayed by the type of people, like the good professor, who would no doubt rebuff anyone questioning the propriety of teaching college students about “queer zines” with, “c’mon, this is 2013?” Cannibalism_on_Tanna_FrazerThe deliberate disfiguring of one’s body is not only an old custom, it’s a primitive one. And the pagan mores that went along with bodily disfigurement, including human sacrifice and cannibalism, are not exactly simpatico with today’s enlightened sensibilities. Just take a look at the anthropophagic and other tendencies of the various tattooed and otherwise disfigured folk among peoples like the Caribs, Aztecs, Fores, Maori and Fijians—whose 19th Century chief Ratu Udre Udre holds the Guinness World Record for “most prolific cannibal.” And let’s not forget Korowai manthe Korowai of Papua, Indonesia who allegedly still dine on one another from time to time.

So, if the Judeo-Christian tenets of western civilization are now passé, why are even older pagan customs so appropriate? Why the emulation of the most primitive cultures? I’m mean, c’mon, this is 2013!

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1. Said professor died tragically several years later of an unspecified “cancer” during the peak of the AIDS scourge. May he rest in peace.
2. With absolute apologies to the prisoners of the actual gulags. But, I have no doubt that today’s cultural totalitarians would not necessarily be opposed to shipping us non-conformists off to re-education camps—perhaps in Alaska.