Tattoos: Not Just for Bad Guys Anymore

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Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I guess I can blame my sheltered Midwest upbringing on the fact that I used to think tattoos were for a certain type of person. And it wasn’t generally a good thing to be known for your ink. Once I moved to New York, we had some of our old friends from the Midwest come to visit and I realized how much my thinking had changed from those childhood days.

Around a backyard fire pit one night, the seven-year-old son of our friend was telling a story about an encounter he’d had with a man at the park earlier that day. “He was a bad guy,” he said.

I had to ask, “How did you know that?”

His answer–“Because he had lots of tattoos!”–startled me. It hit me that once we’d moved to the east coast and met lots of new people, my beliefs about the inked had changed quite a bit. I  knew a lot of people with one or more tattoos. They were regular people, a lot like me.

Photo: Ashlie Rossel Used with Permission
Photo: Ashlie Rossel
Used with permission

I live in the mountains of Colorado now and not just my geography has changed. The tattoo culture in this country has changed. We now have many celebrities who are proud of their markings, respectable guys, like Ryan Gosling and David Beckham. Many of my co-workers have several tattoos. Recent polls show that 30% of people under 45 in the United States have at least one tattoo.

Last year, I was thrilled to hear my friend and New York Times bestselling author, Alison McGhee, was writing a children’s book about tattoos. It is time to have books on the library and family bookshelves that show the positive side of having a tattoo.

Whether you have one or not, I think you’ll like what you find in this new book, called Tell Me a Tattoo Story. Most tattoos tell a personal story. As an amputee, I know of many in my demographic who have a meaningful picture (or date) tattooed onto their sound limb. The most popular one is the phrase ‘One Foot in the Grave.’ It makes me laugh every time (although I’m not brave enough to get it done on my own leftover leg).

The story in the book is told by the father of a young boy, who asks his dad after dinner to tell him the story of his tattoos. Even though he’s heard the stories many times before, the son loves to be reminded of the things that matter to his dad. With gorgeous pictures (by the talented artist Eliza Wheeler) and easy, casual language, this loving father (not a bad guy, I’d like to point out), tells his son why he picked the pictures and dates that decorate his body. Each has a message and each reminds him of a person or time in his life that he never wants to forget.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I shared my copy of Tell Me a Tattoo Story with a co-worker who works with young children every day. She loved it and immediately ordered three online – one for herself and two as gifts. She read it to her charges and they loved it too. They ask Ashleigh to show them her tattoos on a regular basis, just like the story in the book.

As the mom to four teens and young adults, I understand the reservations people have about tattoos. So many are inked at the spur of the moment and in not the right frame of mind. I’ve talked to each of my children as they grew up about the importance of not making lifelong decisions when they are young and/or impaired. But stressing to them the other side of a good tattoo, as a way to commemorate a loved one or a special time in life, helps them see how important it is to wait for those cherished moments before walking into a tattoo parlor. Save your skin for the significant stuff.

Mother-Daughter anchor tattoos. Photo (and ink): Ashlie Rossell
Mother-Daughter anchor tattoos.
Photo (and ink): Ashlie Rossell

If you love to hear tattoo origin stories, head on over to Alison McGhee’s website. She put out the call for pictures of tattoos and the stories behind them and every few days she posts a new one.

Friend her on Facebook or keep up with her website. Every tattoo tale has been entertaining. Feel free to send her your own story too.

I know I would have loved sharing Tell Me a Tattoo Story with my kids as they were growing up, and using it as a jumping-off point to a discussion about how old they should be before they make this very essential, lifetime decision.

I guess I’ll have to wait and share it with my someday grandchildren. I only hope by then there will be several more children’s books about tattoos, and how powerful they can be. After all, they’re not just for bad guys anymore.

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