Comes Naturally #81 (March 12, 1999):
Decorating the Temple of God

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March 12, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


Six years ago, my partner Helen decided to get a tattoo. I was amazed at how quickly and matter-of-factly she went through the process -- making the decision to get the tattoo, knowing what she wanted and where on her body she wanted it, finding a tattooist she liked, and then actually and irrevocably having it done. She went about making this permanent change in her body as simply as if she were deciding what to wear to a party. I was impressed with the clarity of her vision and with her certainty that she would be happy forever with the consequences of acting on how she felt at this particular moment in time.

Helen wanted a black band around her ankle comprised of alternating mermaids (representing her -- and, I like to think, the female principle) and dolphins (representing me and the male principle). James, the tattooist she found, liked the idea, did some research, and found attractive, eminently tattooable Micronesian symbols for both dolphin and mermaid, each about an inch long. The band would be about a half inch wide. Perfect.

I went with Helen the day she had the tattoo done, to give her moral support (Would it hurt? How much? Was she really going to go through with this?), but also just to witness and be part of her experience. I knew many people who had tattoos, some quite elaborate, but I had never watched anyone being tattooed. James showed Helen how he had drawn the figures out on paper, sized so an even number of them would fit around her ankle. They were simple, elegant, beautiful. Helen was delighted, and so was I. It was a go.

The tattooing turned out to be not nearly as painful as Helen had anticipated, even though tattooing on the ankle (on bone) is more painful than on some other parts of the body. Once the sensation became a known quantity and Helen had a moment to breathe and relax, her experience was hardly an ordeal. There were, to be sure, a couple of twingey moments, but for the most part she talked and joked with me easily to the background buzzing of the tattoo gun as James put the ink into her skin. The whole thing took about a half hour. When we walked out of the store (full of people twenty or so years younger than we were), Helen was positively exhilarated. Something significant had been done, however casually. Helen had permanently altered and decorated her body, embraced the mantle (and stigma) of becoming a Tattooed Lady, and forfeited forever the privilege of being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

* * * * *

What is it that makes the idea of a tattoo so intriguing to some people, and so offensive to others? There are lots of associations and meanings assigned to tattoos and those who have them, of course, with generally disreputable origins ranging from sailors of olde to prisoners to skinheads. But I think the bottom line has something to do with how we think of our bodies and our relationship to them.

There is something fundamentally empowering (some would say arrogantly so) about claiming absolute ownership of our bodies, about inhabiting our bodies without apology, about affirming the right to do with our bodies as we please, free of the judgment of others and the restrictions of a culture that is profoundly suspicious of the body, its desires, and its pleasures. The idea that our bodies are properly available to us to use however we choose -- to offer us pleasure, well-being, and identity (and babies only when we want them) -- is still a controversial one in this culture. "Keep your laws off my body," that classic slogan and bumper sticker, speaks to a wide spectrum of contemporary issues ranging from abortion to gay rights and, not coincidentally, to public attitudes about tattooing and other forms of body modification.

"Your body is like a house [you] live in," says Fakir Musafar, one of the prime spokespeople for body modification, in a brilliant interview published by ReSearch magazine. "It's your house, and you can do with it as you please. If you want it pink, you paint it pink. People like Australian aborigines know something that people here don't know, and that's the reason they can poke holes in the body, they can tattoo it, they can decorate it. It's all just a joyous, loving expression of decorating your house -- an expression of the life force that lives in the house."

Living joyously in our bodies is a radical, almost seditious, act in this culture and in these times of Culture War. Anyone too exuberant in his (or, especially, her) celebration of the joy of physical existence, with all its erotic and sexual overtones, is going to draw the attention, and all too often the scorn, of people around them who see pleasure (especially sexual pleasure) as irresponsible at best and sinful at worst. We may all have reverence for the body -- the temple of God -- at some level. But we differ radically in how we choose to interact with that sacred edifice. To revel in the sacred -- partake of it passionately every chance we get, bathe in it, drink it, become it -- is quite a different philosophy of life from observing the sacred with awe from a respectful distance, permanently separated from it by the presumption of Original Sin. "Thou art God," said Valentine Michael Smith, the central character in Robert Heinlein's popular novel "Stranger in a Strange Land," simultaneously speaking liberation to the people at one end of the cultural spectrum, and ultimate blasphemy to the people at the other.

* * * * *

Once Helen got her tattoo, I immediately wanted one of my own. Unlike Helen, however, I didn't have a particular pattern or an idea that leapt out at me as what I wanted to emblazon on my skin for all time. I was pretty sure that I wanted some kind of band around my upper arm, and that it should be my upper left arm. I went to any number of tattoo parlors and looked through countless books of designs, sacred symbols, and photographs of actual tattoos, until they all started to blur. There were occasional designs that I liked, but nothing that seemed just right and, after a while, the idea that I would find inspiration for how I wanted to decorate my unique body in somebody's book of tattoo designs seemed wrong anyway. I began to wonder if I liked the idea of having a tattoo more than the reality of putting a specific pattern onto my skin. Maybe I was nothing more than a tattoo faddist -- wanting a tattoo just because everyone had one and it was the currently cool thing to do. The idea of being some kind of fashion lemming disgusted me, but there I was, coveting a tattoo even though there was no specific tattoo that I wanted at all. I was reassured by my gut determination never to get a tattoo that only appealed to me in some fleeting, superficial way. If a hundred vague possibilities didn't feel on the mark (so to speak), I would just have to wait. If I never got a tattoo in this lifetime, that would have to be ok, too.

Wait I did, for six years. Occasionally I would envy Helen's tattoo, or see an exceptionally beautiful pattern on someone that would prompt me to think again about getting one of my own, but mostly the impetus just seemed to have passed. Then, last December, there was a benefit to raise legal defense money for a friend who had been unjustly arrested in Southern California. It was a wonderful gathering of the San Francisco area sex activist tribe, an evening filled with wit, intelligence, and enthusiasm. Readings and performance art alternated with a free-wheeling auction of eclectic, donated goods and services.

Late in the evening, an hour and a half of tattoo time came up for bidding. the time was being offered by Idexa, a woman I had met casually a few years earlier, who I very much liked and respected. High on the spirit of the evening (it didn't hurt that I had just read a short story that had been received exceptionally well by everyone), I was in the mood for adventure. Here was someone, I reasoned to myself, who would be patient enough to help me get clear about what I wanted for my tattoo. The idea that the tattoo would always be associated with the politics of the benefit appealed to me as well.

A few minutes and $200 later, I had persevered in the bidding, despite the resistance of someone who wanted time with Idexa almost as much as I did. When I walked up and explained my ongoing uncertainty to Idexa she was, as I had hoped, completely sympathetic. "Bring whatever ideas you have and we'll work together to come up with a design," she told me -- exactly what I wanted to hear. We set a time to meet and my commitment was complete. To back out now would be a real failure of courage. One way or another, this was going to happen.

Unfortunately, my ideas about the tattoo were as unformed as ever. All I could think of were two little figures I have always doodled in idle moments -- a dancing figure consisting of two crossed lines with a small oval head, and a sort of doubled s-shape, joined at the ends and parted in the middle. Maybe Idexa could design something attractive using these forms. Maybe, too, I could incorporate into the design the dolphin and mermaid from Helen's tattoo.

I walked into Black and Blue Tattoo in San Francisco, where Idexa works, with nothing more than these half-baked ideas. Idexa welcomed me with a big smile. She looked at my clumsy sketches, and showed me photographs of other tattoos she had done. She listened and watched me carefully as I explained what I liked or didn't like about them. I particularly liked one of her tattoos that had a chaotic, playfully dancing figure, breaking free of the otherwise repetitive band. I was also struck by a generally black tattoo that came to life with a few brilliant red highlights. In general, I liked (for my body) tattoos that were light and graceful, rather than ones that were heavy and stern.

I wanted the pattern of the tattoo to be meaningful to me but, even more, I wanted it simply to be beautiful. I encouraged Idexa to use her imagination and not be overly bound by my visual illiteracy. She said she would work up a few possibilities and show them to me a few weeks later.

I went home feeling hopeful, but uneasy. I still didn't have anything that felt right, certainly not right enough to be on my body for the next thirty or forty years. Then one night it occurred to me that, rather than going straight around my arm, the tattoo could wrap around it diagonally, winding inward as it came down toward my elbow, and outward as it moved up my shoulder. I realized that it could even continue up and around the curve of my shoulder, all the way to the back of my collar bone, following the natural lines of my arm and shoulder. Now that, I realized, could really be beautiful -- interesting, graceful, elegant. For the first time, I began to get seriously excited. Finally I had something that felt right.

When I saw Idexa again, she agreed immediately about the diagonal band. She showed me her designs, and I loved what she had done. My two doodles were blended into one figure that could be repeat in an appealing way. At one point, the figures leapt out of the basic pattern as they had in her other tattoo, dancing together with pure joy. The dolphin and mermaid could stand together, across the basic pattern of the band. All in all, it was nothing less than excellent.

* * * * *

I arranged with Idexa to do the tattoo on Valentine's Day, which is also the anniversary of when Helen and I met. I was reasonably sure that whatever pain there might be would be manageable (my pain threshold is pretty high), and I was right. In fact, I kind of liked the sensation of the tattoo needle being drawn through my skin. I found myself focusing my attention on the prickly feeling, rather than away from it, wanting to increase what I was feeling, to make real that this was actually happening. I was altering my body, permanently, to make it more what I wanted it to be, what it could be. "Why settle for nature when you can have art?" I have often asked myself and others. Decorating my body was the ultimate expression of that sentiment.

For an hour and a half, Idexa and her tattoo gun meticulously traced over the pattern she had stenciled onto my arm. Helen and I watched and laughed and anticipated what it would look like in the end. Fakir Musafar speaks of body modification as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, and I know several people who have gotten piercings or tattoos as a way of reclaiming their bodies from child traumas involving physical or sexual abuse. That was hardly my motivation, and I hadn't really thought my tattoo in ritual terms, but there was a definite sense of transition that came from knowing I was making an unmistakable, permanent change in my body's appearance. Ownership of my body is hardly a new issue for me. For most of my adult life, I have adamantly affirmed my life my right to do whatever I want with my body, sexually and otherwise. But putting a tattoo on my body has been a way of taking control of my body in a different way, one that has had more symbolic and psychological significance than I would have predicted.

There was one serendipitious significance to this tattoo as well. I realized, in yet another middle-of-the-night musing, that I was about to be a Jew choosing to have his arm tattooed by a German. The realization was quite a shock, but a distinctly pleasant one. The idea that Idexa and I would be taking a symbol of ultimate brutality and dehumanization and transforming it into one of beauty, choice, and human potential -- a testament to the ability of the human spirit to triumph over the horrors of history -- was, and is, utterly delightful to me.

Aside from obvious aesthetics, the real significance of the tattoo process for me has been to realize and affirm how much is possible once we overthrow the kind of cultural conservatism that would limit us to a tiny fraction of our full potential for life and personal expression.

I think Fakir Musafar says it well. "A whole part of life," he notes, "seems to be missing for people in modern cultures. Whole groups of people, socially, are alienated. They cannot get close or in touch with anything, including themselves. Why? What's going on here? For a long time Western culture has dictated: don't fuck with the body; it's the temple of God. But finally people are starting to see things in a different way. People need these rituals so desperately. That's why piercing and tattooing have blossomed. We've got this great oppressive force that's trying to homogenize everything. Whatever would tend to crush the individual expression of life -- that is evil."

I've never been a person who spends a lot of time or energy perfecting his appearance. I don't have expensive clothes, and the clothes I do own are pretty basic when it comes to style. I've never done anything very imaginative or dramatic with my hair. The only holes I've put in my body are two rather discrete ones in my ear. So getting this tattoo has been a new kind of statement for me, a new kind of love and appreciation of my body.

Now when I look in the mirror, I see my body differently than I did before. I see a deliberate, as well as an implicit, expression of who I am. "I did that," I say to myself with a smile, much as I might about something I've written that I'm particularly pleased with. Two weeks into the experience, it's still a shock to see that the person looking back at me from the mirror is a guy with a tattoo, and quite a lovely tattoo at that. But day by day I'm getting used to the idea, used to seeing him as me. It definitely feels like a step up.

The only real loose end I feel at this point is what to do about the dodecahedron -- the wonderful mathematical figure that has always been so beautiful to me -- that just couldn't be worked into this tattoo.

Of course, there is my other arm...

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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