article by Pat Fish, appeared in Outlaw Biker TATTOO REVIEW #13, 1991


Anyone who gets a tattoo, no matter how tiny, soon discovers that in their derma-graphic they have purchased a passport to adventure. Now the time honored cliche come-on "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours!" can get them into lots of trouble or fun.

People who choose to become tattooed are a bit different. They are willing to undergo a process that the uninitiated perceive as fraught with danger and excruciating pain. They have sought out a rite of passage that will forever mark a moment in their life.

If our western perspective of time is linear, then the "First Tattoo" is a big red "X" on anyone's personal time line. Before it they were still virginal, at worst sporting a wild hairdo or multiple ear piercings that could be easily discarded the minute they needed to grow up and fly right ... into adulthood.

But with a tattoo .... ah, the sweet dangerous savor of irrevocability And your mother is gonna kill you when she sees it! Why? Because making that kind of choice, however foolishly, impulsively or ill-advisedly, is still making an adult choice. And the mother who sees her precious baby come home with a grinning skull emblazoned on his arm has got to feel a twinge of her own mortality, as she mourns her own obviously waning influence and lack of control over her offspring's actions.

Shortly after beginning to tattoo I attended the National Tattoo Association's 1985 convention in Seattle. There I got my first taste of the "Secret Society" nature of tattooing. Old acquaintances renewed their connections by stripping off layers of clothes to show the tattoo art they had acquired since their last meetings.

And these were not just the type of people who could have appeared in underwear advertisements, either! Old flabby people, muscle-builders, potbellied beer drinkers, young bikini girls with machine guns, your Momma! .... all with clothing pulled aside to reveal their tinted hides.

When I describe these conventions to friends I love to dwell on the incongruities: the three hundred pound biker covered with death and destruction art standing next to the ninety pound Japanese lady whose skin, barely punctuated by a G-string, is a symphony of butterflies and flowers.

Then, after the convention, riding home on the train, I get another initiation. As I'd walk from the observation car to the bar there'd be moments when I'd make eye contact with someone in a seat and realize that I knew, and they knew I knew, that underneath their clothing camouflage they were someone special.

Now, after six years and many tattoos, I tend to be more conscious of being concealed rather than being revealed. I proudly display the brightly colored Celtic pattern and flames on my right forearm almost all the time. It is good for business, since potential customers for my tattoo studio come up to me in public to discuss it or ask to (Yow!) touch it. And, if I'm in a mood to be annoyed by this invasion of my privacy, I can wear long sleeves and go incognito. But don'tcha know that if I'm covered up I love the moment when I push back my  sleeves and watch someone's eyes bug?

It's also a fun moment when I am tattooing some young stud's bicep and I let him know, in hushed and confidential tones, that he will now have an expanded access to women. I explain that in order to show off his tattoo all he has to do is pull up his sleeve. But girls, just imagine where they get tattooed! Yep! They'll be pulling off their clothes to show him their private art collections engraved on their secret parts.

I think that if some bozo voyeur comes up and wants to touch or ogle a tattooed person he deserves (and will probably get!) the bum's rush. But even the most jaded collector will usually be curious about another tattoo. You bet I'll cross the street to inquire after a bit of color. And one of the best things about conventions is going out touristing and getting the visual impression that a huge percentage of people in the streets are heavily tattooed. The camaraderie is obvious and if there's enough to show off, well, there you are once again in the midst of that spontaneous disrobing in public! I consider it one of the perks of my profession that I have at my beck and call many clients who are willing to shed clothing and show off my work on them at a snap of my fingers. Yowzah! What a thrill!

When someone wants their first tattoo to be infintesimally small I don't argue, even though I might wish for a better use of the canvass. All it takes to make a girl into a tattooed woman is one miniscule rosebud. Instantly she has the spice of having a secret. Even if she swears "Only my significant other will ever see it" we all know how that'll go.

My own preference is for designs that are large enough to have kinetics, that move with the body or around natural body forms. Yet those designs should be intricate enough to fascinate one with their detail even at close range. In our society, no less than in primitive ones, those who wear tattoos are different and special people. By virtue of having done a very intimate and private act, we've earned our way into an international community of enthusiasts and artists who can be counted on to be linked by a shared understanding of both the pain and pleasure involved in this very special art.