Why get a tattoo? It's the classic question, asked of myself and probably all modders at some time in their modified life by the non-tatted crowd. It's also the question one should ask oneself before taking the plunge and acquiring that first piece of inked art. What significance does this permanent decoration hold for me at this point in my life? How will I reflect on the decision to get it in the future? What will my children think of it? Will it still delight me, will it still excite me, when I'm 64?
After answering all those questions and probably more, we finally find ourselves mentally prepared to enter into a world of beauty, exhilaration, and unfortunately stigma. And if we've been honest with ourselves in answering those questions, it will have been a decision that provides a lifetime of aesthetic and spiritual pleasure, no matter what else is lacking in life. I know that my next tattoo goal (I call it a goal because as a college student I don't have the funds to get it just yet!) will involve the concept of ambition. It's not that I have a lack of ambition, but it's a quality that I believe will help me live a successful and contented life, no matter what. When I'm down in the dumps, have failed, been embarrassed, lost hope, I can look to my tat and know that as long as my ambition still stands strong, there will be better days.
But what if you decided to acquire a tattoo that ends up representing a time in your life that you would rather forget? What if every time you caught a glimpse of the design you would cringe knowing that it reflects a negative aspect of your life? I can think of two examples of such inked adornments, one of which involves a friend of a friend. The kid came to my school a plainskin, no visible mods at all. He unfortunately ended up leaving school before the end of his second semester, suffering from severe bouts of depression as a result of a relationship gone sour. I think there were other elements that contributed to his early departure, but the relationship situation seemed to have been the straw that broke the camel's back.
After he left school some friends of mine remained in contact with him, but I had kinda forgotten he existed. That is until one day when he randomly happened to come up in a casual discussion about tattoos. I came to find out that he had acquired about 5 new tats since leaving school, one of which was an inscription of the date he left. I can't recall exactly what the others were, but I believe one was related to the girl he was so grieved to have lost.
I was just shocked. It was beyond me that someone would want to have such negative, depressing images permanently inscribed upon his body. I conveyed this feeling to my friends, and they understandably defended their boy, pointing out that perhaps he was using them as a reminder to "do better next time." Somehow I doubt that this was his reason for, or would be the result of, getting the tats. I just couldn't understand it.
So, back to the question at hand. What is one to do upon growing up, changing, maturing, to find that the design that seemed so perfect only years before has become a disturbing reminder of shitty days past? Well, since the symbol would be inscribed in your skin, there would be 3 options available to you. 1) Accept that the past has past, and move on, transforming the tattoo into a reminder that you have begun to take the right steps in life. 2) Hate the piece, and let it fester on your body and in your mind as a constant reminder that you fucked up. 3) Get that shit removed.
Now, on to the second example of regrettable tats. Imagine living in a relatively dangerous environment, fending for yourself, trying desperately to survive with dignity in a world where no one seems to care about you. For many young people, gangs seem like the perfect alternative to a family that has far more to be concerned about than spending quality time with and properly raising their rebellious teen.
Everyone finds their niche in the teen years, may it be as the prepster, the sports star, or in this case, the badass. But, as I have personally experienced, teen cliques and categories tend to have about as short lifespans as the fashions they temporally coincide with. Unfortunately for gangsters, getting a gang tattoo removed is a helluva lot harder than pawning the varsity jacket you dropped $200 on.
Now, before I go any further, I want to highlight that the stigma attached to tattoos isn't a cut and dry concept. If you're a professional with a small, common tattoo, even if it's visible, you're probably fine. No discrimination there. Maybe some sideways glances from older coworkers, but no penalties. Okay, so let's say you're a professional, but with a screaming skull tattoo on your neck. Extremely visible, slightly offensive design. No you're in iffy territory. Most places probably wouldn't hire you unless you actively addressed and fought for your place at that company. And co-workers? Some might be intrigued, but others would likely shun you. Working in a creative field? Especially if your seniors are relatively young, most any tattoo will fly. Girl with a small, pretty, feminine design? No real social stigma there. Guy with a tribal or a cross? Totally normal. Old war vet or navy man with vintage wrinkly inklies? Totally fine; I mean, they went through a helluva lot more shit in their lives than most people can even fathom, so we let them be even when they make an uproar in Applebees about the potatoes being too heavily seasoned. Yes sir, right away...
My point is, under the right circumstances, a tattoo can be either shocking and deemed totally inappropriate, or the subject of people's interest and admiration. Unfortunately, yet understandably, gang tattoos are in a category all their own. Well, maybe prison tattoos can be counted in the same group, but the association is essentially the same. No one wants to hire, date, or attempt to better an ex-gang member, because to these people, gangster once=gangster for life. When your body is inscribed with the symbol of a violent, immoral, drug slinging clan of youngsters, the choice to get out of that lifestyle makes not a bit of difference to society. They still see the outside, the public body, not the private decision and incredibly mature state of mind it takes to remove oneself from such an all-encompassing lifestyle. One should be elated to have escaped such a life, but with this transformation comes a whole new set of incredibly distressing and frustrating obstacles to overcome.
That's where programs like Clean Slate come in. Along with providing low cost or free gang tattoo removal, such programs offer counseling and job services to ex-gang members looking to start fresh. Numerous similar programs exist throughout the United States, many of which provide the tattoo removal in exchange for a certain number of community service hours - an appropriate form of compensation for individuals looking to turn their lives around. I personally think this concept is awesome, especially because the normal price for tattoo removal can run anywhere from $250-$850 per session, and professional tattoos typically take about 6-10 sessions to be as gone as they're gonna get. Try financing that with no job, and no possibility of getting a job. It's quite the paradoxical predicament.
Some motherfathers think such programs are a waste of our country's money (see the quote in the 5th paragraph from the bottom), but others recognize them as a brilliant way to help those who want to help themselves, and in turn make for safer streets.
Anyway, the next time you're thinking about adorning your body, think more about the implications and underlying associations the design will hold for you than the design itself. The tat you want may look purdy, but so did the Care Bears lunch box you used to tote around. Some things just don't stand the test of time - hopefully my quest to maintain ambition isn't one of them.