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Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.

“On her back is the battle of Waterloo
Beside it ‘The wreck of the Hesperus’ too
and proudly above waves the red white and blue …!

From “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen

My grandfather had a tattoo on each forearm, a device featuring an anchor on the right and an eagle on the left. It was hard to make out the images, as the ink – applied in his Navy days on a Yangtze River gunboat – had bled over the decades. The margins were no longer sharp.

Decades ago, sailors, and only sailors, were expected to have tattoos. Hardly anybody else sported “body art.” That would be hardly anybody in the Western world. Back then, exceptions were to be found only in the pages of National Geographic.

Certainly no woman outside a carnival sideshow, like the fictional Lydia, would display sub-dermal inking. The first woman I saw with a tattoo was a young matron whose biceps was the size, color and consistency of a loaf of white bread. It was encircled with a bluish representation of barbed wire.

I might have thought, like the 15th century scholar Ludovicus Vives, “In the body itself what is beauty save a little skin, well colored?” But I was put off by the barbed wire – and the very idea. To me, any tattooed female was apt to be one of doubtful virtue and demonstrably poor judgment. They recalled the words of the Bard:

“Oh, she is fallen
Into a sea of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again.”

But now, women and men alike flock to the tattoo artist’s needle, not for a dagger-pierced heart with the legend “Death before dishonor!” but for elaborate works of vision and allegory.

I saw a young mom rooting on her son in a high-school football game. She was waving pompoms at the end of arms covered from wrist to shoulder with women’s faces, flowers and, incongruously, classic automobiles. Today, that’s what brings “Lydia” to mind …

“There’s Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon
And Lady Godiva – but with her pajamas on . . .”

Mind you, this sort of thing isn’t cheap – tattoo artists can charge upwards of $150 an hour. Yet, if you see one tattoo on an individual, you’re likely to find several when he (or she) turns around. I’ve seen young men who, judging by their dress and demeanor, might be able to gain a minimum-wage job. Still, their arms were “sleeved out” at the expenditure of months of take-home pay, either in completed works or in outline, awaiting coloring.

This sort of thing used to be bizarre, outlandish, like Melville’s Queequeg, “whose very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this image duplicated today on somebody’s limbs, with that quote included. This is because there’s a sub-set of body art culture that combines pictures with literary extracts.

But what of the practicalities? Suppose that in your youth you fancy an Andy Warhol soup can, but as you mature you find you would prefer something from the French impressionists? It’s not like you can take a tattoo off your personal “wall” and hang something else. What if your forearms sport a quote from Marx, but one from Hayak would better suit your conservative employer? It could become the intellectual equivalent of marrying Brianna and having her discover Candi across your pectorals.

Then there are the realities of aging. That barbed-wire biceps circlet may rust and sag. That race horse sprinting across you abdomen may become spavined and swaybacked. The once-lovely faces on your epidermis may become as wrinkled as your own.

The best of this “art” isn’t particularly attractive, even on the relatively young, though I’d agree with Melville that “a man can be honest in any sort of skin.” I’m hoping that young people eventually will deem body art a boring affectation of the older generation.

Meanwhile, we can only bear with it, avert our eyes and think of Lydia, with

“Basin Street known as the birthplace of jazz
And on a clear day you can see Alcatraz!”


Got the holiday blues? This is a YouTube clip of Groucho Marx (not Karl) singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” in the film “At the Circus.” It’s guaranteed to cheer you.

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