I was at a doctor's office in a small town recently and overheard one patient in the waiting room talking to another.
"There are four tattoo parlors on Main Street and not one dress shop. Is it me, or has the world run off the track?"
"No, there's still a dress shop on Main Street," his friend said. "It's in the back of one of the tattoo parlors."
There was a time when people would buy clothes to cover up their tattoos. Now they buy clothes to show them off. The thong peeking above the low-rise jeans worn by a woman on a barstool doesn't begin to cover her butterfly tattoo. The guy in the sleeveless T-shirt sitting next to her has a green snake coiled around his arm.
There was a time when you could live your whole life, except for an outing to the circus, and never meet a woman with a tattoo. Now all it takes is a trip to the grocery store. Like so many things, tattoos have moved overnight from the realm of renegades, delinquents and outlaws to the world of PTAs, debutantes and church picnics. I know husbands and wives who have given each other tats as birthday presents: "Honey, I love you so much I'm paying to have a guy stick needles into you all afternoon. I hope it doesn't get infected."
I'm not against tattoos. I'm just wondering why they have suddenly taken over the world. Has "You can't trust anyone without tats" become the new "You can't trust anyone over 30"? Maybe, but I've seen plenty of older people show up with brand-new body art. Now it's something you do to feel younger.
When your child comes home during his first break as a college freshman, you can almost bet the farm that he or she will be sporting new body art. If you're lucky, the new tattoo won't be the first thing you see when your kid walks through the door.
A tattoo used to mean you were in a motorcycle gang. Now it means you can afford to go to college. Heck, kids might be majoring in it. Surely today's tattoo artists make more money than the history, philosophy, fine arts and English majors.
The good news is that high-paying jobs in the tattoo industry can't be outsourced to China. Tattooing has to be done right here at home by highly trained and board-certified artists. No, wait, I'm sorry; I was misinformed. Tattoos can be done by almost anyone. Not that there's any danger in it. What's the worst that can happen? You might have to walk around with a tattoo of "Mom" misspelled on your bicep for a few months until you can get it expensively lasered off.
It's hard to watch a basketball or football game without asking yourself, when did all this happen? Instead of watching the ball, I am looking at the arms of the players, inked from wrist to shoulder, and trying to figure out what the pictures are. Some tattoos seem to have inspirational words mixed in among the symbols and figures, but things move so fast you can't read them. Obviously, this is high art with deep meaning, something the tattooed have thought long and hard about, unlike say, whether or not to have children with their current crush. Some things are permanent; some are not.
Here's the thing that really bothers me about tattoos. Now that the elders have them, what will teens have to do to freak out their parents? Coming home with your name tattooed in Gothic typeface around your neck isn't likely to raise the hackles of someone who has done the same thing. Maybe they'll rebel by getting crew cuts and wearing Perry Como sweaters and taking dates to the hop. Their parents will wring their hands, wondering what they did wrong.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.