You know I hate to brag, but I have a shit-ton of tribal tattoos. You’re trying to think of a time when you’ve felt more jealous of a person than you do right at this moment, but you’re coming up blank. I know it.
The mid-90s were a magical time to be a young person. People had finally given up on trying to make John Stamos a pop star, the dot.com bubble had yet to burst, and a new era in tattoos began. An era when bored white people with no real ideas could spend hours on-end getting tattooed with a variety of black-stripety pointy-whatevers.
Someone would always ask, “Hey, what does your tattoo mean?” and then you would be able to completely appease their curiosity by simply responding with, “It’s tribal.” No further explanation required!
Occasionally, you would get some joker who would try to antagonize you by asking what tribe you belonged to, but you could just wave them off and move on with your day listening to Pavement (Letters to Cleo) on your Sony Discman (Circuit City no-name knockoff of Sony Discman), knowing that deep down inside, they were just jealous of how motherfuckin’ badass you looked with your black-stripety pointy-whatever tattoo. What tribe. Puh-lease – it’s called the tribe of lookin’ cool? Oooooooh.
I did always kind of enjoy the irony of someone asking me if my tattoos were tribal, and I would roll my eyes at them like, “Uh yeah? Duh! What did you think they were? Tattoos that actually mean something?”
I can tell you this much, though, my lower back tribal tattoos, in particular, did actually mean something.
In 1995 they meant “Maggie drinks free when she wears a bra top and JNCO jeans to the Goldfinger concert”.
In 1996 they meant “Maggie drinks free when she wears a bra top and 70s bellbottoms to the Superdrag and Nada Surf concert”.
In 1997 they meant “Maggie drinks free when she wears a bra top and bootcut jeans to the Our Lady Peace concert”.
In 1998 they meant “Maggie drinks free when she wears a bra top and lowrider corduroy pants to the G. Love and The Special Sauce concert”.
In 2018 they mean “Maggie drinks free really super late at night only on weeknights in select areas of central Pompano Beach with low-lighting”.
And, honestly, I’m trying to think of something that bores me more than tattoos that “mean something”, but nothing is coming to mind. It’s not necessarily that the concept itself always bores me, so long as your story is simple, no problem. It’s having to sit through long-playing version of “the meaning of your tattoo” story, which is approximately as interesting as that dream that you told me about that one time. You know, the one where you’re you – but you’re not you, and you were at my house – but it wasn’t really my house, and then these people showed up – but you didn’t know any of them, and then we all ate hummus – but it wasn’t really hummus! What an intriguing dream! Thanks for sharing it.
“This tattoo symbolizes my connection with the ocean because as a child I would often find myself staring into it and really grasping my place in the world…” DING DING DING!!! YOU’VE JUST WON THE PRIZE FOR ‘NOBODY CARES’!
You wanna know why I got tattoos? Because I thought (and still think) they look cool. I think they look bad-ass. I suspect this is why most young people get tattoos, but they couch it in “this tattoo means something” because it is supremely uncool to say that you did something cool just so you could look cool. The cool thing about tattoos is the air about them that says, “I don’t give a fuck. I’m a fly-by-night guy/gal. I plan nothing. I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride.”
I couldn’t freaking wait to turn 18 so I could get my first tattoo, and even after years of anticipating the big day, when it finally happened, I walked into the tattoo shop, had no idea of what I actually wanted, and just picked something from one of the posters on the wall. I like that kind of tattoo, the kind that’s done on a whim and not really thought through all that much. It feels right to me, like it pays respect to tradition. We’re talking about paying someone to draw something on your skin with a needle. You’re not getting a kidney transplant. You’re basically asking to become a human bathroom wall at a dive bar and handing a Sharpie to a well-paid stranger nearby. You’re not changing the world, you’re just decorating your part of it.
Anne and I used to wake up on any random Saturday afternoon in the mid-90s with a serious tattoo jones and drive to the tattoo shop with ZERO in mind as to what we were going to get, and then one hour later, bam, we’re both in tattoo chairs getting something permanently drawn onto us. It was the most fun. Theeeee most fun. Now that I’m older, when I look at those tattoos that were picked off the wall and done on a whim, it reminds me of how impulsive and fun Anne and I were when we were young. What a fantastic time. (Please note we are still impulsive and fun. It’s in our blood contract.)
Now when I get tattoos, as an old person, it’s a months and months long process of research and design and appointments have to made weeks in advance. And the Googling. My god, the Googling. I worry that the tattoo will look stupid, or that it’s played out, or blah blah blah, which is hilarious because all of my old tattoos look stupid and are played out – yet I wouldn’t change them for the world. I don’t know, there’s just more at stake when you’re old enough to know better.
And I definitely do not believe in cover-ups, not for me anyway. If you want to cover up that frog making the peace sign that you got on spring break, that’s fine. But you’re erasing a part of you that was the most fun, that didn’t give a fuck, and probably had a pretty awesome night when you got it.
I like remembering the mistakes of my youth, because that was usually when the most memorable stuff happened. Every truly great story begins with, “Remember that time we were sooo stupid?” I can’t think of any great stories that begin with, “Remember that time we were sooo smart?”
Nobody has an epic story of that time they took the S.A.T. and studied an appropriate amount of time beforehand, or a crazy story about how they waited to “really get to know” the guy who ran the Gravitron at the fair before going back to his trailer with him and the Hot Wisconsin Cheese lady to huff white-out until her boyfriend showed up from running the pirate ship ride and beat Gravitron guy with a turkey drumstick until his glass eye fell out RIGHT INTO YOUR HAND.
That last one is just ridiculous. As if carnies would have access to white-out.