I have always been fascinated by tattoos. The first time I learned about them was when my father read me The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, way before I started reading on my own. Milady de Winter hid a lily tattoo (fleur-de-lis) on her shoulder, which was an indicator of the time she spent in jail. Although it was a marker of her criminal activity, I always thought lilies are among the most beautiful flowers on earth, therefore, I feel the French prison hierarchy should have chosen cacti as a brand instead.
(Whom do I talk to about retroactively changing that?)
My parents, however, do not have the same fascination with tattoos as I do. This is understandable considering that in Russia, tattoos have historically had and continue to have a direct association with criminal culture, which is also amazing, only in a completely different and rather horrifying kind of way. Done with makeshift tools, objects such as rusted needles, smuggled ink and no antiseptic, getting a tattoo frequently meant contracting horrible infections or disease like tetanus and syphilis, which many of the prisoners did.
So why go through the trouble?
Criminals use tattoos as a way to communicate with other inmates about their sexual orientation, criminal affiliations, past convictions, and general crimes – so, not entirely dissimilar in nature to the fleur-de-lis. But in this case, they go much deeper than that, since people unfamiliar with Russia’s prison tattoo culture can easily misread the meanings of the images. A multi-dome monastery, for example, does not mean regret, penance, or reform. It means a safecracker with multiple convictions; the number of domes indicates exactly how many. “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” doesn’t even begin to cover this.
That being said, I didn’t grow up in Russia; I grew up in New York, therefore, my understanding and appreciation of tattoos is very, VERY different from my parents. I remember the first time I saw a man covered in them. I didn’t really encounter anyone like that in Russia before, which – I suppose under the circumstances – is a good thing. He had a sleeve of vivid images cascading down his arm that I imaged became alive at night. If you’ve ever read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, you know exactly what I mean. They were colorful, well done, and extremely interesting. So much so, I wanted to get one.
When I told my grandfather about my decision, he was not exactly supportive. I don’t blame him; if I ever have a 7-year-old grandkid declaring that he or she wants a tattoo, I probably would say “no” as well. His upbringing taught him that tattoos were for the derelicts and rejects of society. They were not for the intelligent and classy lady he hoped to raise. But that’s the strange thing about tattoos, they are as diverse and multi-functional as the people that sport them. Some of the smartest, classiest and most accomplished people in the world have tattoos, and so do some of the worst people to walk this earth. Then my grandfather made the classic argument about what they will look like when I’m older, and by that I thought he meant when I was 20.
I have recently come across images of seniors showing off their tattoos, which for me immediately nullified the notion suggesting tattoos don’t go well with old people. I love these images! They are honest and awesome, and not at all dated or trashy, as some people may believe. I must admit that the first thought I had was if my body is indeed a temple, and temples have historically been amongst some of the most decorated and celebrated institutions around the globe, then decorating it seems natural. After all, we already do it with piercings, rings, and makeup. But tattoos are permanent – for now (a contradiction, I know) – so we should choose them wisely, if we opt to get them.
I think sporting a tattoo that is well thought out, creative and meaningful, can be liberating and down right beautiful. I’ve known women with gorgeous portraits of lost friends depicted across their backs, men with their children’s infant feet situated on their chests, and intricate patters with private symbolism shared by couples who’ve been together for many decades. When done right, tattoos are truly fascinating pieces of art worthy of decorating the body, or temple, or whatever.