Why Do We Really Get Tattoos?

A theory.

David Beckham and Twany Beckham.

(Left) David Beckham of the L.A. Galaxy. (Right) Twany Beckham #10 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the champsionship game of the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Photographs by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images; Jeff Gross/Getty Images.

It is the first morning of our vacation. I wake up bright and early and trot down to the ocean where I make a shocking and bone-chilling discovery: I am the only personage on the beach whose epidermis is unadorned with tattoos. Everyone is inked up except moi. According to the FDA, more than 45 million Americans are now tatted up. This past weekend, they all hit the Florida beaches and pointed jeering tattooed fingers at yours truly. To these folks I am a combo of loser and nemesis, a rebellious nonparticipant in their sick and twisted cult.

I see myself rather differently. From my untattooed point of view, I am the last heroic holdout. I’m like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, that movie where he plays the one remaining normal person on Earth, and everyone else has gone all ghoulish and ghastly.

The trend for tattoos is not exactly breaking news. But in the last few months, it seems to me that tats have gone from fad to raging unstoppable pandemic. David Beckham, for example, used to have a bit here and a bit there, but now the majority of his upper body is inked. Those of us who follow the annual March Madness NCAA basketball tournament—my husband is a devotee—will have noted this year’s staggering proliferation of tats.

But the new extreme inking is by no means confined to the sporting set. Everywhere I look in Florida, I clock old geezers with hammocks and the word “Margaritaville” emblazoned across their burly sun-blasted torsos. Chicks, too: Today I saw a superannuated South Beach swinger boasting a tarantula on her right shoulder. Every time she hoisted her sippy cup to her lips the spider jiggled. And it’s no longer just a class thingy: I even saw tats at the legendarily WASP-y Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach. OK, so they were on the leg of the car-park valet, but just you wait. Next year, the old broads in the canasta salon will be sporting radical ink. Mark my words.

In the past there was one reason, and one reason only, to ink up: A tattoo confirmed your status as a scary outsider rebel carny outlaw sociopath. “Don’t mess with me because I am insane,” was the intended message. And it worked. Remember Robert Mitchum in Night of The Hunter? When he cuts Shelley Winters’ throat we are hardly surprised: We knew trouble was on the horizon as soon as we saw the words LOVE and HATE inked across his knuckles. Tattoos meant mayhem.

Cut to today: Having a tattoo has lost its original meaning. Having a tattoo now has no meaning. Having a tattoo means that you have a tattoo.

While there is no longer any compelling reason to get a tattoo, there are several reasons not to:

Tempus fugit. Sitting around for hours while some dude enlivens your back with lotus blossoms, ghouls, and moonbeams is a colossal waste of time. You could be learning to tap dance or play the accordion.

Money fugit, too. Most tat artists charge about $150 per hour. A full sleeve can take 40 hours. Bingo! $6,000, plus another $6,000 for laser removal when you hit late middle age and it’s gone all crepey and is no longer recognizable as a dragon but looks more like a squashed squirrel. You went from being the girl with the dragon tattoo to the old hag with the squashed-squirrel tattoo, and it only cost you $12K and hours of agony.

Wilkommen, bienvenue Hep C. There seems to be no limit to the horrid medical conditions which are associated with tats. Aside from all the usual blood-born suspects, new research suggests that certain inks do horrid things to your lymph nodes.

Pain. Even the hardened psychopathic death row inmates on Lock-Upbecause I am not wasting time in tat parlors, I am able to watch endless episodes of this incredible MSNBC docu-series about life in America’s prisons—admit that it hurts. Among the tattoo-related highlights on this must-see show: two blokes who tattoo the whites of each other’s eyes and, even more shockingly, some dude who proudly flaunts the word FRESNO across his throat in gothic script.

Given tattooing’s many compelling downsides—given that it wastes time and money, given that it hurts, and given that it is potentially injurious to your health—one cannot help but marvel at this new tsunami of ink. Could there be dark forces at work?

Here is my theory: Tattooing is no longer just tattooing. It’s a culturally sanctioned form of delicate cutting. Participants, i.e. everyone on Earth apart from me, are seeking an antidote to the numbed feelings and detachment that result from their idiotically screen-centered lives. If you look at Facebook, play video games and online Scrabble, and/or scour Slate 24 hours a day, you will eventually reach a freaky plateau of desensitized unreality. You will crave the enlivening, awakening, back-to-reality release which comes from the jabbing pain of a tattoo needle. Before you know it you will be begging some dude with a pierced tongue and a shaky hand to emblazon your chest with rutting unicorns and a lunar landscape.

The reason that I have not fallen down the rabbit hole and paid thousands of dollars to have the word SCRANTON writ large across my botty, is because I do not lead a screen-centered life. I barely know how to turn on my computer, and I carry my phone only when I am expecting bad news.

Simon Doonan in an Ed Hardy Love Kills tattoo t-shirt.
The author in an Ed Hardy T-shirt

Photo by Jonathan Skow.

Though I have many reasons for remaining untatted, the principal one is the irrevocable nature of the whole enterprise. A pal refers to them as “permanent bell-bottoms.” This brilliant observation inspired me to seek out an impermanent solution. Et voila! I bought an Ed Hardy T-shirt, thereby combining sun-protection with an on-trend presentation of tats.

At the end of the day I can take it off and throw it in the laundry basket. Try doing that with your hide, Mr. Beckham.

A word of caution: Many people have an irrational horror of Ed Hardy. Though Ed Hardy designs are authentic—Ed was a real person, a California artist who is credited with integrating the Asian aesthetic into Western tats in the last century—they are most often associated with inebriated, herpes-riddled reality-show contestants who loll about in hot tubs. To wear an Ed Hardy T-shirt will, as a result, expose you to the disdain of fashion insiders: “Been nice knowing you,” said designer Prabal Gurung when I ran into him in a restaurant while wearing my Ed Hardy. “You’re kidding, right?” said designer Joseph Altuzarra, upon spying my new garment.

Those of you who are intrigued by my insta-tat solution and are prepared to brave the slings and arrows of disdain—maybe, like me you rather enjoy the delicate cut of a disdainful arrow!—might wish to check out the vivacious selection at I highly recommend the kids Ts. They are cheaper and fit better. A boys’ size large is a men’s small.

Death before dishonor!