Britney Forever

Some tattoos really are indelible. About 10 years ago I saw the band Nine Inch Nails, and there in the crowd, wandering around in his own microclimate of goth turbidity, was a young man with an enormous NIN tattoo, the size and shape of a license plate, hanging around his neck from a chain of green tattooed links. I’ll never forget it and, of course, neither will he. Decades after Nine Inch Nails goes out of business, he’ll be explaining Trent Reznor’s messianic appeal, a notion that will seem increasingly improbable if not downright stupid. Grandpa, why is the “N” backward?

Last year in a coffee shop in Silver Lake, I met a young man with tattoos of the Starship Enterprise--NCC-1701, the original ship designed for the TV show by Walter “Matt” Jefferies--up and down his forearms. It doesn’t take much time plugging around the Web to find galleries of what are called geek tats--subcutaneous tributes to Macintosh computers and JavaScript computer code and pop ephemera such as “Star Wars,” “Zelda,” even “ALF.” NBC gave “ALF” only four years, and yet some young woman is destined to carry a tribute to the talking carpet to her mortal sunset.

Tattoos, once flaming-skull emblems of solemn outrider rebellion, have acquired the reek of trendy conformity. Call them me-toos. Estimates vary, but it appears that about 20% of Americans have at least one tattoo, and more than a third of people 18 to 29 have one or more. It’s hard to imagine a less counterculture setting than the indoor shopping center of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, the location of the Hart & Huntington Tattoo Co., the home of A&E;'s new reality program “Inked.”

What’s striking about “Inked"--and its rival series, the Learning Channel’s “Miami Ink"--is the perfect vacuum of foresight people bring to the business of permanent body art. One guy comes into the Miami shop to have the Italian phrase “per sempre"--“forever"--tattooed on his arm, though his appreciation for the eternal is so incomplete he hasn’t bothered to check the spelling, and he winds up with “pre sempre.” Why not tattoo “Duh”?

The classic example of what’s called “tattoo rue,” or tattoo regret, is the woman who comes into the Hart & Huntington parlor to have her ex-boyfriend’s name, Robert, covered up with a larger, darker tattoo. Now, who knows, Robert may have been a god who walks as man and her kismet-bound soul mate, but nothing--except a failure of imagination--could have led her to tattoo his name in eight-inch Gothic letters across her sacrum.


Hollywood’s recent romantic history is written in ink and erased by laser. Tattoo lore has it that Paris Hilton had Nick Carter’s name removed from her bum. Tom and Roseanne, Pamela and Tommy Lee, Angelina and Billy Bob, Johnny Depp, ink-stained wretches all. It’s too easy to laugh off these partner markings as the actions of willful and unwise celebrities. They may be tragic gestures of romantic futility, but we all own a bit of that tragedy.

According to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, laser tattoo removal procedures were up 27% between 2001 and 2003. Nobody really knows how much of that work involves obliterating these inky troths, but it’s a lot. “The majority of my patients are young women who are engaged,” says Dr. Patricia Yun of the Laser Skin Care Center in Long Beach (Long Beach is the Florence of skin frescos). “They are trying to get rid of the tattoos before they get married.”

Names aren’t the worst of it. Yun treated a woman in her 30s who came back from a drunken vacation in Florida with a green lawn mower tattooed on her pubic region, for reasons she couldn’t explain and I, frankly, can’t fathom. Another physician in the practice, Dr. Bryna Kane, remembers a golf-minded woman executive with “19th hole” tattooed on her privates. You can see how that might be awkward.

Although it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to ban tattoo parlors from judgment-free zones such as Cancun and Ibiza, generally tattoo artists would rather not give people stupid tattoos. Many parlors have standing rules against relationship tattoos and will refuse to tat faces and hands. That doesn’t keep some from prostituting their skin. In June a Utah woman auctioned off her face for $10,000. The words “"--an online gambling website--were tattooed on her forehead only after the tattoo artist and his staff spent seven hours trying to talk her out of it.

Tattoos are big medicine. They fix people’s skin in the temporality of the present--or 10 years ago, if they have a Guns N’ Roses tattoo. The trouble is most young people have no idea how long forever is, or even how to spell it. Inevitably, people change (failing to change is its own pathology). Passions wane, interests come and go, fashion and pop culture grind on because they are defined by novelty. I worry the tattoo craze is part of something bigger, a sort of fatalism that keeps people from imagining the future because, somehow, they expect not to see it.