I dig pain

Living life as a tattooed reporter

Photo By Tom Angel

I happen to be the only member of the CN&R’s editorial staff who has tattoos, so I guess that’s supposed to make me an expert on them. But like most people who have tattoos, I never thought much about why I started getting them—I just thought they would be cool to have. Once I started thinking about it, I realized the appeal is wrapped in dozens of psychological and sociological layers and so is pretty hard to figure out, much less explain.

The basic drive, I think, comes from the tension generated by two universal but conflicting human urges: to express one’s individuality while still maintaining a sense of group identity, whatever that group may be.

Even with that established, explaining the tattoo phenomenon is tricky, because society attaches meaning to things we often don’t often think about. Class, for instance—you don’t see a lot of rich people getting tattoos.

Why? Is it because the rich don’t feel as pressing a need for group identity as, say, a kid from an L.A. barrio? Or maybe it’s because the modern image of the tattoo has come from the members of traditionally lower classes—soldiers, sailors, criminals and the like—and so is already thought of as a low-class thing to do. Is it a sign that a person thinks less of himself when he chooses to permanently disfigure his skin? Or is it a form of rebellion that instills pride—a kind of psychic armor against the identity-crushing demands of the modern world?

I started with tattoos at about age 15, just drawing on myself and then inking it in later. Since no reputable shop will ink a minor, I had to wrap the tip of a needle or a guitar string with thread and dip it into a bottle cap full of India ink. You have to stab the skin a couple hundred times to get the image to stay, and I guess you run the risk of getting tetanus. It’s how they do it in prison. Once I was over 18, I started having them done professionally.

It isn’t easy to tell people why you got a certain tattoo or, for that matter, why you would get a tattoo at all. It is, after all, a form of self-mutilation that betrays a level of masochism that most people don’t feel comfortable discussing, especially with the nosy strangers who inevitably ask why you have, say, a fork tattooed on your arm.

The fork on my arm is actually the easiest to explain—it’s for a band I played guitar in. People understand that because they understand that tattoos are, at their basic level, an expression of affiliation.

But people also get tattoos of things they are only loosely affiliated with or things that symbolize concepts with which they more or less agree. Trying to explain those is twice as hard, especially to someone you think is not going to appreciate the sentiment.

I had the embarrassing experience recently of trying to tell our local district attorney why I have a blue circle—the logo of an old L.A. punk band called The Germs—on my arm. I got it as an affirmation of my roots in that scene and as a way of letting all the other freaks and weirdoes out there know that I’m one too.

Try explaining that to the D.A. in front of your peers and competitors. I think I mumbled some lame thing to him about how I liked this band. He just gave me a weird look and said, “Oh. Well, remind me to show you the tongue tattoo I got for the Rolling Stones.” I’m pretty sure he was kidding.—Josh Indar