Live free, or D’OH!

In Jack London’s day a tattoo was a sign of rebellion. Today, it's about as rebellious as wearing an Arnold Palmer golf shirt.

Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.

— Jack London

Well, that may have been true in your day, Jack — you were swashbuckling your way around the world a century ago when the only tattooed humans you were likely to encounter were pirates, felons or circus freaks.

Nowadays, everybody has tattoos.  You see them on file clerks and bank managers, doctors and dental hygienists, soldiers and solicitors.  The guy who stacks lettuce in my local supermarket has multi-coloured swirls of ink that start at his wrists, undulate up his arms, disappear into his short sleeved shirt and end up God knows where.

Back in Jack London’s day a tattoo was a sign of rebellion. Today, sporting a tattoo is about as rebellious as wearing an Arnold Palmer golf shirt.

I don’t go as far back as Jack London, but I did get myself tattooed back in the ‘60s. My rebel credentials were pretty decent: I was a Canadian kid, working on an oil tanker that was dry-docked in New York.

Simpler times. My tattoo was administered by an ancient guy with an equally ancient tattoo gun that hung down from the ceiling — it actually sparked as he worked. When it was over he slapped some rubbing alcohol on my bleeding arm, asked for five bucks and gave me the rest of the bottle to take with me. (“Don’t drink it, kid — it’ll blind ya”.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was responding to a primeval human initiative.

We’ve pretty much always re-decorated the temples of our bodies. Remember Otzi the Iceman — the mummified corpse spat out by a melting alpine glacier about 20 years ago? He had tattoos on his back, behind the right knee and around both ankles. Experts reckon that Otzi froze to death while hiking through the mountains more than five thousand years ago.

Otzi’s tats were simple things — x’s, dots, squiggly lines. To tell the truth, mine isn’t much more complicated. It’s a stylized anchor with a ribbon entwined around it, maybe three inches long top to bottom. Pretty tame stuff compared to the psychedelic landscapes and Technicolor panoramas kids are adorning themselves with these days.

But when things get more complex they also become more error prone.

There are no spelling mistakes in my tattoo because there are no words. Not like Marie Huckle of Nova Scotia who had the words “SEE YOU AT THE CROSSROADS” tattooed on her side.

She thought.

What she actually got was one letter shy.  Marie’s tattoo reads SEE YOU AT THE COSSROADS.

Loses a certain something, don’t you think?  Marie thought so too. She sued and was awarded a $9,000 settlement.

This may provide some hope to the California woman who had BEAUTIFUL TRADGEDY emblazoned on her chest.

Or the guy who paid to have a slogan in letters six inches high across his back telling the world I’M AWSOME.

Or the Chicago dude who wanted to salute his origins with a tattoo reading CHI-TOWN across his throat. Alas, he drew a tattooist who was something less than a spelling genius. His tattoo reads: CHI-TONW.

The odd thing is, that last tattoo is so bad it’s become a tattoo trend.  People in the Windy City are actually paying to have the misspelled tattoo inked on their bodies.

Maybe that’s what you have to do to pass for a rebel now that tattoos have become as common as freckles.

Or you could be a real outlaw like Michael J. Fox.

When Esquire magazine asked him to describe his tattoos, the Canadian actor said: “My tattoo is that I don’t have a tattoo.”


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