Tattoos, Harleys, skydiving, vintage cars, smoking, Johnny Cash — there are some things that still have an edge.
But tattoos say it in blood. It’s permanence by definition. Once done, there’s no waffling; there’s no mealy-mouthed justification; there’s no whining. It just is.
And you better like it.
“The days of walking into a tattoo place and picking something off the wall is long gone,” said tattoo veteran Stephen Crome, 58, owner of Laguna Tattoo. “A lot of times they’ll bring in their own designs or ideas. It’s more symbolic now.”
Words or phrases are trendy, Crome said.
Song lyrics, bible quotes, poetry.
“The trends in tattooing have changed over the years,” he said. “In the ‘90s, it was tribal and Japanese characters. Before that, dragons and koi fish. Now, the popularity is with writing.”
So we are forced to read tattoos now. Standing in line at the grocery store, we read someone’s neckline.
We read about those who have departed or the loved ones: wives, children, mistresses. There may be a little picture that makes you wonder how it will distort with age.
A lot of times there are single words that presumably evoke the essence of the person. Trust. Respect. Dignity.
I’ve seen “Suffer,” which stuck with me for a while, actually. It made me empathize with a person I didn’t even know.
Thousands of words, millions of emotions, made to order by one determined individual.
“It’s a way to express how you feel,” said Crome, who is heavily tattooed and sometimes finds himself in the awkward position of having to advise young people.
“We would never say, ‘that’s a terrible idea,’” he said. “It’s such a personal decision. We will advise them about what will work best for their ideas.”
He does draw the line at racism or anything grossly inappropriate. He doesn’t do faces, particularly on young people. He gives more leeway to older guys who have been around the block, are already tattooed and know what they’re doing.
“We try to be responsible with the type of tattoos,” he said.
If an 18-year-old comes in wanting the name of his girlfriend across his hand, Crome will suggest he rethink it.
But as long as there has been skin and love, people have wanted to proclaim their desires. The known tattoo history goes back to the 5th century. And it’s a history as rich and varied as there are cultures.
The common thread has always been self expression mixed with cultural values, rites of passage or myths of magic.
And what is our tattoo culture now? Well, it’s both complicated and simple. Although they’re still frowned upon by some generations, the new fact is about 40% of Americans under 40 have tattoos, more than any other demographic.
The rise of reality TV shows about tattooing has changed the landscape, according to Crome, and not always in a good way.
“They make it sound like every single person has some deep-rooted story, and it’s just not the case,” he said.
Most of the time, it’s just about the cool tattoo.
The only big changes he sees right now is the rise of the tattoo artist.
“I am just amazed at some of the things I’m seeing out of nowhere,” he said, citing as an example a Russian artist named Den Yakovlev, who has become famous for picture-quality tattoos.
There are two local tattoo conventions that get a lot of attention, Musink at the Orange County Fairgrounds in March and the big Ink-N-Iron Festival, held in June at the Queen Mary.
For Crome, who has seen it all, he remains nonplussed about the drama and just enjoys seeing the advancements.
In the old days, it was sailors getting anchors on their arms. Now, it’s wide open. No limits. Men and women. Big, colorful tattoos everywhere.
And by everywhere we mean everywhere.
You have to admit it is something to behold. It’s not for everyone.
But then neither is skydiving.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.