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I’m not the sort of person who goes in for cultural fads. Planking? Nah. Harlem Shake? (I remember that mess…) No, thank you. If you ever hear about kids “cheesing,” let’s just say you won’t find me hunting around for a cat. This resistance to cheap thrillism and quick paths to fame are merely a few of the many measures which mark me as being a conservative – certainly in the realm of “how I conduct my own affairs.”
But these passing fads are just that – fads – and a thing that has really caught in my craw in the past couple of years is the exploding prevalence of tattoos. You can mark me down as being strongly opposed, despite the fact that I have generally libertarian attitudes about this and other questions of personal conduct.
I’ve heard a lot of reasons behind why people get tattoos – in the old days you could be sure that a guy who showed up with a Tattoo on his arm was probably in the Navy or the Marines and had probably even served abroad or even (gasp) seen live-fire action. Not so, today.
Today, people run over to the tattoo parlor (locations which have proliferated correspondingly in the past decade) to commemorate just about anything they’ve done or seen indelibly on their flesh. I have to confess: I can’t think of an image or a concept which is so interesting that I would like to see it written on me permanently. Yet, people pay big money for other people to repeatedly pierce their epidermis with coloration.
What are the reasons behind this? I can think of several right off the top of my head:
As a display of solidarity with a certain socioeconomic class;
Celebrating some major life event – a birth, death or wedding;
Cheap ingratiation with other tattooed people;
Substitutes for actual accomplishments.
It’s these last two that most concern me. Growing up, one of the stories that stuck out in my mind was Dr. Seuss’s story about the Star-bellied Sneetches. Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s fantastic Star-on/Star-off Machine has a direct corollary in the real world: the Tattoo Parlor. Except, the Star-off part is orders of magnitude more expensive and painful to use than the Star-on part. The larger lesson I derived from this tale is that a superficial characteristic of this nature is no great achievement, and is the sort of thing that ought to be viewed with skepticism.
I mentioned before however that I have a libertarian attitude about these things. I certainly wouldn’t want the state to make any determination about peoples’ employability or any other aspect of their lives on the basis of this characteristic. But the flip side of that coin of “liberty” is “personal responsibility.” Private actors and employers can and should have discretion as they choose to question people’s judgment when it comes to how they choose to adorn themselves in this fashion. This is a natural consequence of a genuinely free market.
I of course am an engineer, and given to certain conservative and practical habits of mind as a matter of course. I don’t measure my achievements by voluntary modifications I’ve made to my person. My CV is etched into the Earth itself – my imagination and skill having been brought to life in the form of projects in the real world which have consequences that most people simply take for granted. You can see my accomplishments from satellite photographs. Perhaps this is just a luxury that I and a few people like me have. I really can’t tell.
Be that as it may, my concern is that the proliferation of tattoo parlors (just like any other boom) will inevitably burst, as cultural fads and trends always seem to. What will the legacy of this particular fad end up as? Largely, I think, as a wasteland of scarified flesh. On that day, you might be wishing you’d invested in that tattoo-removal company as people inevitably run themselves through McBean’s Star-off Machines at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, and glad that you didn’t decide that a run through it yourself would make you star-worthy.