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Tattoo U

by Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
posted August 19, 1998

I bought my dad a tattoo for his 50th birthday. . .and he actually went through with it. The painful body art was something that he had wanted for as long as I can remember. I have a feeling that in virtually every card store there's a 50th birthday card that reads something like "You're officially over the hill. So, are you buying the motorcycle or getting a tattoo?"

As much as going under the needle sounds like a symptom of someone in a full-fledged midlife crisis -- in Dad's case I think that part of him just never matured past 23. Sure, when he was 35 he got a haircut and a real job. But he never allowed the "carefree young man" to be stamped out. He surfs, he skis, he has an earring and he works five days a week as a high school vice principal.

I, on the other hand, am just about as "square" as they come. It's not that I'm rebelling against Dad; I just turned out this way. I would love to live on the edge and do things on the spur of the moment, but I simply don't have the ability to let go and be carefree. When my friends talk about all the wacky things they've done, the only way I can get involved is to talk about my father. I'm afraid that when I have kids of my own, the only good stories I'll be able to tell them will be a recounting of what my parents did when I was a teenager.

Dad just might be cooler than I am?

I dropped in on Dad at the tattoo parlor and watched as an overly pierced guy created a work of art using Dad's flesh as his canvas. The tattoo artist used a tool with 12 pulsing needles to create smooth wisps of color around the black lines he had drawn on earlier. When he stopped to get more ink, little pools of blood formed on dad's arm where the color had just been applied. The guy wiped the blood away and kept on injecting Dad's skin with the bright colors.

I felt pretty cool just sitting there in the off-limits back room as the buzz of the tattoo machine droned on.

After watching Dad's five-hour tattoo/torture session, I was floating on a cloud of pride. The creation that covers his shoulder and upper arm is truly a work of art. The design is a twist on the yin and yang symbol, with a gray dolphin on top and a dark blue shark on the bottom. Behind the sea creatures there's a wave and a beautiful purple and orange sunset. Although I take pride in the picture on Dad's arm, I'm truly proud of what the tattoo represents. A silly indulgence? The desperate flailings of a solidly middle-aged man? To me, it signifies youth and a reluctance to release it.

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