What Do Your Tattoos Mean?
BODY ART 4-1-1
Some tattoos mean specific things, others do not. A heart, for example, conveys love. Cobwebs on the elbow do not mean that you murdered someone, as I was told by an super-aggressive Midwest district attorney who was trying to base a murder rap on that fact, a few years ago. The accused was not even at the scene of the crime, but the attorney was building his case on the assumption that, if you’ve got a cobweb tattoo, you’re guilty as charged! Thankfully, the jury didn’t agree.
Some of the most interesting tattoos are associated with the maritime. This colorful band of brothers (and sisters) has been the source of many superstitions, folklore, modern-day customs and, as you might guess, tattoos. Earring, for example. They are not tattoos, but they are responsible for a common fashion statement that is currently en vogue. Namely, earrings on men. Nowadays, we see them poked through, hanging from and clipped on earlobes of gentlemen in all areas of everyday life, from music to sports, from cab drivers to cartoonists. Actually, research tells us that men in the maritime, sailors, those who live and work on shipboard, began, centuries ago, wearing earrings, gold ones, as a way of carrying something with them, permanently, that was of enough value to pay for their burial at sea or away from home, in some foreign port.
Swallows on the chest, one above each breast, is another sailor’s tattoo. Most people that I ask, those who like the design and have it tattooed permanently onto their skin, are consistently amazed that it means something. What I tell them is that swallows are at chest level, so, should the wearer falls into the ocean, the swallow tattoos are placed above the water line, and will, therefore, keep the unlucky victim from sinking down into the watery abyss.
Pigs and roosters, also popular maritime tattoos, are usually inked on the feet. The theory behind that is simple: roosters and pigs don’t like water and will help prevent the wearer from a life-threatening submersion. Whether any of these symbols actually work is another matter.
Several other tattoo designs have led to speculation as to their meaning. A teardrop at the corner of the eye, tattoo designs down the left side of the body and not the right. Some are the result of tradition, custom and regional or family codes, some exist simply because the wearer likes it that way.
I remember back when I got my first visible tattoo, a grinning Bob Roberts’ skull with a dagger through the forehead and hearts for eyes. Other than that, my left arm was absolutely bare, beneath my sleeve line, so it was a big deal to go out in public with this yellow-toothed, hearts-for-eyes skull tattoo. I was sure that people coming toward me on the sidewalk were crossing the street to get away from “dangerous” me. At first, I was timid. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing. I ran a respectable business and was certain my customers, when they saw my tattoo, would run screaming from my office. But then, after a day or two, I got the hang of it. When a women at a local plant nursery caught sight of my uncovered arm, she stepped back, surprised, and said, “Oh, you scared me!” I happily replied, “Cool. Thank you.”
There are infinite reasons why people get tattoos: peer pressure, fashion, love, hate… you name it. But some people get tattoos because they want to make a statement. A statement about themselves, to expand on their current perception and, perhaps, glorify or broadcast something about themselves that unmarked skin does not. After a week or so of wearing the Bob Roberts’ tattoo, I felt empowered. I noticed a bit of a swagger to my step. I felt safer in bad neighborhoods. If someone looked at me in a threatening manner, I simply tugged up my sleeve, gave them a peek at my tattoo, and walked confidently on my way. It had given me an edge.
I think the roof fell in on that one about a month later. I was shopping, you know, pushing my grocery cart up the aisle of Von’s Market in north Pasadena. It was standing in front of the breakfast cereal department. Just then, a women with a cute, little six year old—his chubby legs sticking out from his perch on the front of the basket—caught sight of my skull and hearts. Without the slightest hesitation, the little guy stick out his arm, pointed a finger and proclaimed loudly, “Look, mom. Tats!”
My right arm has a more indigenous design, a band wrapping around my elbow and long, Mo’o teeth spiking down toward my wrist. The Mo’o, in case you don’t know, is a magical beast originating in the Polynesian tradition. The black spikes or “teeth” protruding down my arm are to ward off danger from those who would do me harm (that’s what the tattooist, Keone Nunes, told me anyway).
So, I’m pushing my market basket, this time at the Von’s in Altadena. As I head toward the exit, a huge, muscular local steps in front of my path and stops me cold. Oh, oh, I thought. I’m in deep caca. What does this guy want? He looks me up and down and focuses on my right arm, the spikes. Then, after a pregnant pause and my heart pumping at twice the usual speed, he speaks. “Man,” he says, “you must really know how to play backgammon!”
Just like anything, I guess… it’s all in the eye of the beholder.