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None of these tattoos are real

When I was 16, I cut class and went to meet a local tattoo artist at a nearby McDonald’s. My plan was to drop out of high school and get apprenticed under him, so I took along some of my best pen-and-ink drawings. The guy turned out to be this sunburnt dude with a bleached-yellow mullet in a teeshirt that promoted drunk surfing in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He spoke with a hillbilly accent and was the color of ham and eggs. I noticed a pastiche of bad tattoos on his left arm: wizards, skulls vomiting out other skulls, and the occasional lopsided guitar. He proudly pointed at them and told me he’d had lots of practice tattooing.

When I asked the guy what he was working on these days, he described an elaborate bower of roses winding up from his right knee and arching over his groin. Then he stood up, unzipped his pants, and said, “Here, you wanna see it?” I got the hell out of that McDonald’s, but not before shelving my tattooing dreams right then and there.

It was a pity because I’d already had lots of practice drawing badass shit on people. As a high school freshman, I brought a steel-gray magic marker to school every day and inscribed king cobras and cracked skulls on the punks and heavy metal kids. I hit the big time a year later, when I was asked to give someone a tattoo using a homemade gun made out of a spoon, a guitar string, and a needle, powered by an electric train track. (I ducked out because the gun was rickety and had a reputation of getting “a little too close” to the bloodstream.) In the meantime, I always gave myself Sharpie tattoos as preparation for the real thing.

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Me at 16 with my homemade tiger tattoo

So you would expect me at this point, decades later, to be covered head to toe with tattoos, right? Well, I’m one of the few people walking around without a single one. When asked why, I’ve always said there was nothing—no image or text—I could commit to wearing full time on my body. But the other day, I was surprised to find out the real reason why.

It all started when a coworker wanted to throw a punk-themed party at my workplace. I was brought in as a “consultant,” or a punk SME (subject matter expert), having spent 25 years in the scene. A few weeks later, the office’s main conference room was transformed into the grungy cavern of the now-defunct NYC nightclub CBGB. With trash on the floor and loud ’70s punk rock on the sound system, it looked and felt surprisingly authentic, not like a lame mockery of the counterculture.

For the party, I donned a tank top constructed out of two Plasmatics backpieces strung together with safety pins, along with an old Crass patch and the DIY jewelry I’d worn as a punk in high school. Of course, I had to add some tattoos in permanent marker. Here’s what it looked like.

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On my right arm, tattoos done by me: the international squatters symbol; skull with spiderweb, rope, booze bottle, and nails; a bloody razor blade with “City Baby” (GBH reference) on it; a kitchen knife with “Punks Not Dead” (Exploited reference); two snakes (one not pictured); and a sprig of dying roses

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On my left arm, tattoos done by friends: a psycho skull, lightning bolts, a snake, and a “DC Hardcore” symbol (not pictured)

I drew some spider webs, skulls, dangerous weapons, and the international squatters symbol, which resonated with my anarchist beliefs. I included references to some of my favorite punk bands and added “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) on the knuckles on my right hand. A friend later wrote “BIAS” on my left knuckles as a joke.

The fake tats didn’t make me feel like a poser, but they did make me unrecognizable to myself, like “Whoa, whose arm is that, and why are they cutting my tomato?” As I got used to having them, I began to feel confined, as if the tattoos defined me a little too much. They seemed to set people’s expectations and subconsciously set mine too. I understood why people get tattooed, because these permanent emblems can reinforce one’s identity. But in my case, they were restrictive, as if I could be nobody else except what these tattoos required me to be. I felt self-contradictory listening to anything but punk rock and surprisingly out of place when I went to see my friend’s ’60s mod band play that night.

I also noticed my behavior becoming more jaded, cynical, and a little more regressive (yes, even more than it already is!). It was hard to stay professional at work when my tats reminded me that what I really wanted to do was down PBRs and listen to seven-inches all day. Plus, no matter what I wore, my arms and knuckles gave the outfit a certain slant, which wasn’t always what I wanted.

The Sharpie tats lasted a few days, and they made me realize how much I need to be free and unfettered. Markings that defined me also constricted me; without them, I could continue to be mercurial, endlessly transforming myself, even while staying true to who I am. Ultimately, the whole experience made me realize that I don’t need to wear tangible reminders of my past or interests on myself. They are all in me, behind my eyes, under my skin, and in the bloodstream that continuously leads to my heart.


The final result, pictured with my buddy Dionne, the other punk SME and artist of the psycho skull above