“Tattoos are like stories. They’re symbolic of the important moments in your life. Sitting down, talking about where you got each tattoo and what it symbolizes, is really beautiful.”
– Pamela Anderson, actress and animal rights activist who contracted hepatitis C in 2002 after sharing tattoo needles with the drummer from Mötley Crüe.
Pam is right: Tattoos are like stories. But the truth is tattoos aren’t always beautiful, and in their permanence they often symbolize people, places, and ugly moments we might rather forget. That’s why 11 percent of all people with tattoos have them removed, according to freshstartlaserclinic.com.
This statistic includes Ms. Anderson, who quietly had her famous barbed wire tattoo erased in 2014. It does not, however, include the many people who regret but can’t afford to remove the tribal art hovering over their buttcrack.
It doesn’t include the people whose hearts are forever encircled by the twirling cursive letters of a former lover’s name—RAUL, SASHA, DAVE, BARB—gone one and all, but still right there in the mirror every morning.
Finally, this statistic does not include me, owner of three unforgivably lame tattoos that are symbolic not of important moments in my life, but stupid ones. And since nobody knows just how many Saturday-afternoon laser sessions it’ll take to zap my tattoos away, or how much it’ll cost altogether to erase what’s supposed to be permanent, I’m stuck with ’em.
It’s 2001. I’m in my friend’s late ’80s Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera with sagging seats and windows that have been duct-taped shut. Lenny Kravitz is on the stereo and someone in the car may or may not be smoking marijuana. Having recently turned 18, I say aloud to anyone who might be listening, “I wonder what it feels like to get a tattoo.”
My buddy Paul, who sometimes calls himself Woody, is also recently 18. “Dude,” he says, “we should get tattoos tonight.”
And that’s how we wind up in a Dinkytown tattoo parlor just past midnight on a random Sunday in November. Woody gets some kind of Roman army tattoo, and I spring for a $75 tribal-inspired black sun that I find in the artist’s binder of pre-approved designs. “Give me the one like Tom Gugliotta’s!” I say. The guy carves it high on my left arm, and for another 15 bucks he customizes it with the French words for “sunrise.”
Why? Because I’m studying French and at 18 I think it’s poetic. And because when I call my mom at 2am to ask her to check the spelling of “lever du soleil” in my French dictionary, she doesn’t demand to know what the hell I’m doing. Because spontaneity leads to bad tattoos. That’s why.
It’s 2002 and I want another tattoo. The first one wasn’t painful, and I kind of love the doctor’s office smell of the antibacterial soap I’ve been using to clean it. One night I’m listening to music with my buddies—Audioslave, specifically, the early-aughts supergroup featuring the late Chris Cornell and members of Rage Against the Machine—and I notice an abstract-looking fireball on their self-titled album cover. “This,” I tell my friends. “We should all get this tattoo.” I’m really into Audioslave.
They agree I (not we) should get the tattoo, and that’s good enough for me. We pile into my friend’s minivan, a rusty Dodge with a cracked windshield and no seats in the back, and we cruise to the same campus tattoo shop I visited before. We listen to Audioslave in the car. Chris Cornell sings about highways while I lie on the floor, the minivan speeding down the highway. Audioslave speaks to my soul.
And that’s how a large fireball takes up residence on my right arm, only to be ridiculed by my siblings. As it heals I desperately wish the fireball would magically acquire significance or depth; that it would suddenly become cooler; that I wouldn’t have to explain or defend my love for a band with a fireball for a logo. But the fireball tattoo does none of these things. So, I decide it should be bigger, that it should have a more defined shape, that it should represent something. I return to the shop and ask the artist to expand the fireball until it occupies the entire upper half of my right arm. “Make it look like it’s a guitar on fire,” I tell him.
Why? Because I have a Gibson electric guitar in my basement that I like to play. Because Jimi Hendrix once lit a guitar on fire, and that was cool. Because worrying what other people think of your tattoos leads to bad tattoos. That’s why.
It’s 2004 and I’ve discovered an Irish amber ale brewed locally with potatoes. I’m really into the beer. The bottle cap has a four-leaf clover on it and a buddy says, “Hey, that would be a cool tattoo. You should get that.” Now, I’m a mature 21 years old and fully aware I have awful tattoos, so I decide, yes, I ought to have at least one cool tattoo. And I’m Irish, so I may as well say so with black ink on my left arm.
And that’s how I wind up at a South Minneapolis tattoo parlor face-to-face with an artist who’s had eyeballs tattooed onto his eyelids. He takes a used disposable razor and shaves the hair on my arm before poking it thousands of times with nine ink-filled needles, and that, in turn, is how some kind of bacteria or fungus infects the oversized, crooked, very hot-to-the-touch four-leaf clover below the tribal sun on my left arm. Days later, an urgent care doctor looks at the open sores on my arm and prescribes antibiotics for folliculitis, “a common skin condition in which hair follicles become inflamed.” Afterward, I promise myself I’ll never get another tattoo.
Why? Because I thought my arm was going to fall off, man. Because I’m starting to understand that the person you are at 25, when life is all rock shows and Baywatch at the beach, is nothing like the older, wiser, tireder person you might become at 35, 55, or, if you’re lucky, 85. Because tattoos should tell you something about the person who wears them, and I have no idea what mine say about me. That’s why.
P.S. What to do if you have bad tattoos
Rule number one is don’t wear short sleeves or short shorts. If people can see your bad tattoos, you’re gonna have to talk about your bad tattoos.
Rule number two is if you do wear short sleeves or short shorts, cover yourself whenever possible with sweatshirts, jackets, beach towels, ponchos, or other rain gear. Yeah, this might make the occasional 95-degree July day a little sweaty and uncomfortable, but sweaty and uncomfortable is exactly how you’ll feel when you have to explain what you were thinking when you were 20 and stupid.
Rule number three is don’t get more tattoos. And if some random afternoon you drink a beer-and-a-half and start blabbing to a friend about your bad tattoos—a friend who edits this magazine and asks you to write about your bad tattoos—you say yes. Because agreeing to write about your tattoos while slightly buzzed is better than deciding to get a new tattoo while slightly buzzed.