The notion of a tattoo may mean different things to different people. It can serve as a reminder of a loved one who has since been lost, a persistent message to one’s self about how to approach life, memorializing one’s favorite subject, or done just for the hell of it. Nevertheless, a tattoo acts as an example of the requirements of culture in its pervasive method to spread a message in an unconventional, but striking manner through means of imitation and social learning. Tattoos have been mainstays in multiple cultures throughout human history, but only relatively recently have they begun to metastasize into popular culture today, changing the perceptions of many, including myself. The following parable describes the extent to which the idea of getting a tattoo had become a stepping-stone in understanding the influence of choice on culture.
The bell had rang and we were promptly instructed by Mrs. Guarino, the teacher for my creative writing class, to draw a simple image or a distinct quote that you would have tattooed on your body right this moment in class, if you were hypothetically able to. This notion was slightly odd, because this was a writing class, not an art class, but we did not question her and attempted to tackle this quandary. Most students sought inspiration through quotes from their favorite authors, but some tried to capture meaning from an image. I stared blankly at the page because, at the time, I never even contemplated getting a tattoo, let alone conjure a quote that somehow was so meaningful that it had to be inscribed forever on my body. Despite this, I finally sought a quote from a poem from my father’s favorite poet, Khalil Gibran. The quote read, all that spirits desire, spirits attain. Mrs. Guarino often encouraged the class to participate by reading their works to the class, and this exercise was no exception. She asked each person to read or describe his or her hypothetical tattoo and attach meaning onto it. In hindsight, this was simply a clever activity to incite introspective thought on symbolism and metaphor, which students could use in their writing. Much of the class, though, chose script or design because it looked cool or was something extremely similar to a celebrity’s. Nevertheless, they described the intention behind their hypothetical tattoo and we ultimately had to write a narrative trying to justify the tattoo to an authority figure, such as our parents.
I began to write, wholeheartedly, to my parents as to why I think this tattoo would be a good idea. My argument dealt with the increasing acceptance and popularity of the tattoo in the media, as well as in American culture. Merely a few years ago, I would rarely see anybody on the street donning a tattoo, and if they did have one, it was discreetly concealed from public view. Even amongst celebrities, rock stars and social deviants were essentially the social groups that had tattoos in the ‘70s and ’80s. But in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, tattoos began to transcend the media as a means of expression; NBA superstars whose uniforms bared significant skin began to cover themselves in ink, for example. Even boy band members, who were seen as decent people and role models by many, began to get tattoos. This pattern of behavior began to propagate across various Western cultures and social groups in the population through means of social learning and imitation, making what was once taboo acceptable.
By the end of my narrative, I had even convinced myself that a tattoo might not be such a bad idea. But, despite the notion that the pattern of getting a tattoo has become a pattern of behavior that has propagated in many a social group, it was not one my parents were particularly fond of. I presented my narrative to my parents that same night at the dinner table, and it donned on me that it was not just the notion of getting a tattoo that was being propagated by culture, it was the notion of the stability that, throughout generations, has had on make the choice to get a tattoo. My parents told me that, although they didn’t prefer it, it would be my choice to participate in this behavior and get a tattoo. Thus, it was not just the idea or the image of getting a tattoo that had led to its growing acceptance and stability throughout generations; tattoos were simply used as a medium by culture to allow its people the freedom to make a choice.