In the days I’m urged to call the punk rock shambles of my misspent youth, I would sometimes descend into a paralyzing — if undisciplined and fuzzy — philosophical inquiry concerning a matter of commitment and authenticity many in my tribe considered of grave importance: to get a tattoo or to remain un-illustrated. This was a big deal. It seemed very few people had tattoos in those days, and in many areas tattoo parlors were illegal. Anyone inked earned an automatic and irrevocable outsider status, outranking those of us who expressed our punk rock sympathies largely through clothing and hairstyle.
The thing is, I don’t recall any of the original punk rockers having tattoos. Safety pin in earlobe or cheek? Yes. “Gimme a fix” carved into chest with pocket knife? Yes. Tattoo? Well, who could afford one? No matter, it eventually became part of an emerging punk uniform, like the leather jacket, little connected to punk’s original spirit, which held the very idea of uniform anathema. I suppose we owed the leather to Sid Vicious and The Ramones and The Clash, an expensive accessory for those of us without recording contracts but nonetheless following in their footsteps. In the same way, I suppose, one or two early practitioners got themselves inked and so inspired a minor rush on the tat parlors by skinny kids in oddball getups. As for me, I gravitated toward the neo-rockabilly sub-sect, which, once The Stray Cats started waving their colorful arms around, almost demanded a tattoo as a prerequisite for membership. So, leaning hard on this flimsy argument, I began to seriously consider going under the electric needle.
One of my closest friends from those Philadelphia days o’ yore had a great deal of experience in all things tattoo. Both his forearms were covered, and he’d recently had a touch-up that charged his skin with vibrant reds and greens. One thick summer evening he took me up to a tattoo parlor north of Vine Street, and we perused the samples. I recall being particularly intrigued by the cartoon rockabilly cats with wild eyes, panting tongue, and pompadour. But the original appeal of those designs quickly wore off as I realized I’d be pegged (and rightly so) as a Brian Setzer wannabe.
So, what else? Snakes left me cold. Skulls shouted Hells Angels or, worse, Grateful Dead. The idea that these things were permanent, that one grows old with one’s tattoos, nettled me. I could see that anything too serious or macho would look ridiculous on a sixty-five-year-old arm. If you’re going to get one, I told myself, pick a design that will give you a chuckle in your old age.
This thought in mind, I turned the page in the sample book and discovered an ideal candidate: Underdog —the 1960s cartoon superhero ironically voiced by uber wimp Wally Cox. Horizontal in the sky over Capital City, fists breaking the air before him, cape and ears fluttering as he neared sonic boom, the Underdog design beckoned from the page. My favorite cartoon as a kid, its tongue-in-cheek attitude fit my older wiseacre persona to a T.
Over the following weeks, I gave the matter of the Underdog tattoo much thought. I discussed it with quite a few of my friends, many more of whom than I would have thought already had a tattoo or were soon to be inked. One, a fresh-faced young woman, staff photographer for a renowned postmodernist architect, decided to replace her asp arm bracelet with an asp tattoo that, presumably, would forever encircle her right bicep in the same way. Good lord! If she was getting a tattoo, who wasn’t getting one?
Tattoos preoccupied my brain, illustrated my dreams. I saw them everywhere. They decorated the arms and legs of so many passersby I encountered in the narrow streets and alleyways of Philly. Looking back, the late 1980s seem to have been a watershed in the history of the tattoo. In a flash it went from badge of the hardcore outsider to frivolous adornment available to anyone willing to shell out the cash and sit for the needle. Which is why, having discovered myself woefully out of step with a trend gone viral, I decided to leave my skin clean.
Now, almost thirty years later, I’m no longer amazed to see tattoos on grannies and pageant queens, police officers and dentists, nursing home administrators and civil servants — you name it. And those are the people with visible tattoos. Lord knows how many among us have tats on body parts normally shrouded in clothing? Yes, there’s been an epidemic of tattooing, a mainstreaming of ink. I’m not sure we’ve reached the point at which the lack of ink represents an expression of nonconformity, but I think we’re getting close. And even my old Underdog idea, the one that charmed a youthful and ironic me in 1987, turns out to have lacked originality: a Google image search tells me I’d hardly have been the only member of my tribe.
But who knows? Never say never. Perhaps in my dotage I’ll finally claim my Underdog marker, if only to have the last laugh on that evaporating punker, the one they used to call Eddie Ray, the one who once prowled Centre City and nightly claimed his stool at Dirty Frank’s, 13th and Pine.