I grew up in a household where the phrase, “Moses said not to write on your skin,” was pronounced anytime there was a pen mark on my hand. Forget about writing phone numbers on it, it wasn’t worth the reprimand. I honestly don’t know what Moses said exactly, but I do know that Jewish people don’t get tattoos. At least they didn’t.
When I was a kid I wasn’t sheltered from the horrors of the Holocaust. It was because of that catastrophic event that my parents were in America, and that they met and formed our family. It was a horrible tragedy, one we need to know about and talk about and discuss with others, lest they forget or, heaven forbid, don’t believe it. As a kid I didn’t understand this mindset, and thought that my parents, my father especially, watched too many documentaries, read too many books, paid too much attention to this awful thing. It made me nervous and frightened as a child. I had a plan to hide in a certain spot should Nazis come to round us up some night.
As part of my exposure to all of this horror, I was also taught about the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis did, numbering their prisoners and keeping track of their inventory of humanity. I learned of the number each prisoner was assigned and how it was tattooed on his or her arm. I met survivors who bared their arms to show their numbers. They had been brutalized and wanted the world to know that it was real. It happened.
One afternoon when I was about 10, I was on an errand with my mother. We were in a shop that had a large book area, and I occupied myself there as I waited for her. What I found both fascinated and horrified me. There was a book filled with images of items that had been created with the tattooed skin of Nazi prisoners. There was a wallet and there were lampshades and other items. I know many people consider these tales to be urban legends, but I know they are all too real.
These early experiences with tattoos, along with my father’s admonition that tattoos were an indication of a violent personality, steered me away from tattoos. I never really thought about getting one for myself. Okay, maybe for about five seconds after my divorce, but then I snapped out of it. It turns out that my father wasn’t completely wrong about tattoos and crime. Our county has a database of its criminals, and tattoos are photographed and recorded (not so different from those earlier record keepers). I have it on good authority that about 98% of the people in the database have some sort of tattoo somewhere. Some of the criminals have the most horrific tattoos, including Vikings on the forehead, skulls on the face, and obscenities around the mouth. You kiss your grandmother with that mouth? Ew.
Last summer the border agent at the bridge to Canada told me that we (son, mother, and I) didn’t look like trouble. I asked what trouble looked like, and without missing a beat he answered, “neck tattoos.” I’m quite sure he was serious. Now maybe that’s unfair to the vast majority of neck tattoo wearers, but it is a common perception, and one held by someone in authority (hey, he can keep you out of his country).
I am well aware that having a tattoo does not make one a criminal. There are people in my life whom I adore who have tattoos. I know times have changed, and I know lots of very loving, nonviolent people who have tattoos, but they just aren’t for me. Some of them are pretty, like my friend’s giant floral design up her leg and hip, some are quirky, like the little Martian scene on another friend’s back, and some are flat out gross, like the goose stepping Nazis on one of the prisoners. I’m not a huge fan of tattoos, but I try not to judge a book by its cover either. I don’t hate them but I don’t love them. I do appreciate the artistry that can go into them, and the sentiment behind many of them. As for me, though, I prefer to keep my skin unadorned.
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