Tattoos now and then A reflection

Art by Avalon Reynolds, Autonomy Tattoo, Seaside, California.


By Paul Karrer

According to the Pew Research Center, 38% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are tattooed. My nurse daughter is in that age group, and she has a variety of tattoos. Currently, she has the inked outlines of a hollowed-out sleeve tattoo on her right arm. Which will be filled in at a later date, so I have been told. To me, the smallish tattoo behind her ear is …well,  a tiny monopoly house. She claims it is something else. I know not what. She also alleges she has ‘tats”  elsewhere, which I neither need nor want to see.

I just listened to a program on NPR in which the deceased are willing to give/donate/thrust upon relatives their once-alive tattoos after the tattooed goes to the great tattoo parlor in the sky. My first reaction was well……. Yuck!

My second reaction was, “How the heck does one do that?” I also recalled that a few, very sick Nazis kept the tattoos of deceased concentration camp victims. That puts a warble or two in my stomach, to be honest, and makes it difficult for me to separate the willful donating of tattoos versus the collecting of them from the unwilling. I know they are different but, again, the squirm factor is there.

So how does one get and preserve a tattoo from a deceased person? At the moment, Amsterdam is the place to do it. In a lab, pathologists will remove water and fat from the skin and substitute it with a type of plasticine. Four inches of saved tattoo costs about $400.  

Each generation has their own fad thingie they succumb to. My generation’s fads included long hair, flannel shirts and blue jeans of various sorts — bell bottoms being one example. I remember spending a very long time fraying the bottom of my jeans so they looked cool and not new. Hair can be cut (or lost). Jeans can be traded in for pleated pants, and flannel shirts can be exchanged for snazzy button-down prim and proper white-collared shirts.

But tattoos are forever. In my mind’s eye, I can see the current generation and many generations hence, in wheelchairs hiding or sharing with their enfeebled neighbors their faded, dulled, merged and expanded tattoos. They will have a lot of explaining to do. Hopefully their hearing aids and thick glasses will serve them well with the accompanying stories.

There is a part of me that feels these kids today haven’t really earned their tats. I mean, were they front line in-a-fox-hole marines? Nope.

Many of their tats are of favorite bands, food, a graduation date, or a zip code. (Really? A zip code?) Like they can’t remember where they live. What if they move?

I recall the mom of one of my students had tats of her current male companion. Her companionship changed, but the tats remained.

Confession: I have a tattoo. But I feel I have earned mine. It’s on my right ankle. Put there 44 years ago by famous Polynesian tattooist Petelo Petelo when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in South Pacific’s Samoa. It was an ordeal and a joining of a cultural tradition. My tattoo was hammered in my skin with a shark-toothed, hand-held, small rake-like contraption. Regular ink and lamp black (charcoal) were mixed together on a banana leaf, then pounded into me.

Villagers sang as it was being done. It took 45 minutes and toward the end I turned pale and was ready to barf. However, my gut held. I feel I earned my tattoo. It also happens to look 44 years old. It has dulled. The clear lines have faded, spread and merged. Kind of a big blur.

I wandered into a local tattoo shop recently and asked if it could be cleaned up and brought back to life. The tattooist was impressed with the age of my tattoo but she said, “I can’t fix it. Sorry.”

I asked, “If you could fix it, what would it cost?”

“I can’t, but if I could, it would be $700.”

Wow, I thought. It cost me two quarts of Vailima beer to get it done.

At any rate, apparently my tattoo will go with me when I go to the big tattoo parlor in the sky. I don’t think my daughter wants it.

Avalon Reynolds, Autonomy Tattoo, Seaside, California.


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About Paul Karrer

A retired elementary school teacher, Paul Karrer’s writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Monterey Herald. His podcast, “Teacher Tails,”  can be found at