I am a year-old man, paunchy around the edges, with an ever-expanding universe of liver spots, fading in self-esteem and I come from a postwar era when non-societally-mandated tattoos were found only on men who inhabited the fringes of acceptable behaviour.
Here, as a long haired, snot-nosed civilian puke with no apparent mojo and dressed in flared pants and platform shoes, I was served at the linen covered dinner table of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Mess by something stewards with lengthy military careers written in the lines of their faces—thirty years of heavy smoking and alcohol abuse.
These men represented the outermost ring of my existence—men who had served in Cyprus; men who had sweated months in a Ferret scout car in the Gaza Strip; men who had travelled the Pacific Rim on some long-forgotten navy tour, never getting deeper into these places than the fleshpots and hard-bitten waterfront dives of places like Manila, Mombasa, Gibraltar and Liverpool.
It was evident to my eyes, fresh from 5 years of architectural training, that these were executed by some of the least talented artists known to man. It was late October and this was to be the last voyage north with supplies for isolated Arctic communities.
The crew, save for two young French Canadians, were from Newfoundland and had made their living upon the sea for decades. Nearly all wore tattoos on their forearms, their knuckles or their shoulders. I shared a bottle of whiskey one night with one particularly rough fellow while the ship hove to and rode out a heavy storm off Cape Chidley, Labrador.
The cabin was filled with the smell of diesel, bunker oil, fried caplin, paint, vomit and body odour. The temperature was unbearably hot despite the dark icy waters and thrashing arctic storm outside. The ship rolled and pitched violently and the windowless cabin rose and fell forty feet for hours on end.
The steward sat at a table upon which he leaned his elbows and filled his and my glass after every shot. As we got drunker, his tragic and disturbing story started to leak out of his mouth like a confession. By the time we were near the bottom of that bottle of Jim Beam, he had admitted to me that he had just gotten out of prison where he had served 6 years for attempted murder having botched the shotgunning of his girlfriend in his home.
Before I staggered out of there, all I could see were his forearms and those blurry, crude and menacing tattoos.
Perhaps now you will understand why, in the s, when tattooing started making inroads into middle class society through frat boys and debutantes, I became alarmed at the practice.
I, like many of my generation whose young daughters were contemplating the idea, was appalled by the seemingly careless defacing of youthful dermis, all in the name of fashion.
The first waves of this new tattoo era which lapped the shores of suburbia were not well received by my generation, nor were they understood.
The tattoo world that grew in those early years was a clutter of meaningless butterflies, inscrutable Asian lettering, faux gangsta posturing written in Gothic letters, barbed wire, and hilariously bogus tribal designs. To see a twenty-something college freshman in a wife-beater t-shirt with an arm wrapped in a Polynesian tribal tattoo of which he knew nothing but all his buddies were getting them made me angry.
Worse were the thousands of suburban coed debutantes from Mississauga to Shaughnessy sporting cute little dragonflies, flowers, rainbows and bluebirds. I prayed the craze would go the way of disco before my daughters left home.
But it did not. What began to happen was that the plethora of tattooing going on led to better and better tattoo artists, better and safer parlours, and best of all, a greater generational understanding of the artistic and commemorative potential of permanently inking your body.
Tattoos are no longer something you and your buddies do when you are drunk in Manila. They have become choices. You make appointments with artists with great reputations.
You view their portfolios. Between the two of you, you come up with a design on paper and book successive appointments to begin and finish the execution.
Many have a relationship with their tattoo artist similar to the one that they have with their hairdresser. Their bodies, over a lifetime, become a minor art gallery, showing a form of art long reviled by traditional artists.
I have grown to embrace tattooing as a viable form of expression, as permanent as it is. I say this with the full knowledge that I would never do this to myself nor am I entirely happy that my daughter did it.
But I love her and am satisfied that she thought it through and chose to connect her tattoo with a part of her that is important—her family. True, the aviation tattoo art niche is decidedly illustrative in character, as opposed to painterly or expressive, but if you visit anyone of the websites for tattoo studios and parlours mentioned in this story, you will see works of exceptional creativity, expression, and complexity.
Over the past five years, three things have happened to change my mind. First, my daughter got her first tattoo—a simple line drawing of a Supermarine Spitfire in plan view on her lower back.
She would go on to add a Corsair, a Harvard and a Mosquito. Secondly, while researching the web nearly every day, I began to come across some outstanding airplane and aviation tattoos, beautifully crafted by talented artists.
Despite my dislike of tattooing as I had known it, I began to grudgingly appreciate the good stuff. Ryan, an avowed tattoo fan and an aviation historian of some repute he is an Associate Editor with the Warbird Information Exchange and the Warbird Resource Group had been seeing, long before me, the powerful growth in the niche art form of aviation-themed tattoos.
It was a revelation.Publisher of academic books and electronic media publishing for general interest and in a wide variety of fields.
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