There was a time when I was going to get a blue star tattooed on my ear lobe.
I was 17, and my running mate and I had gone ashore in Valetta, Malta, to get tattooed.
We caught the first liberty launch over that morning to visit the most famous tattoo artist in the Mediterranean, the “fat man behind the Green Door.”
To make a long story short, he went first, and I backed out.
It’s probably a good thing, because I would have ended up cutting off that ear lobe to mix in proper society.
Back in the early 1960s, hardly anyone had tattoos but sailors, prisoners, the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), and maybe some cargo cult members in New Guinea or the Maori in New Zealand.
It’s certainly not true today.
Over the years, I’ve watched tattoos go mainstream; in fact, I read the other day that 36% of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 have tattoos.
I suppose some were motivated to be “different.”
Now, you almost stand out more if you don’t have one.
A recent trend is ambigram or “flipped” tattoos.
Once the tattoo has been flipped or inverted, it means something entirely different.
For example, “Love” becomes ‘Hate” or vice versa.
It seems to me that one would have to be a contortionist to get the full personal benefit of such art work.
Although I’d bet that Neanderthal man was tattooing himself, the popular history of tattoo art goes back to the British naval officer, Captain James Cook, who managed to get himself killed by Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in 1779.
His sailors supposedly saw some tattooed Hawaiians and brought the practice back to England where it became popular among seafarers.
Apparently, they mixed gunpowder and urine to make their early designs, a volatile mixture.
Some of the earliest motivations for tattoos were as religious talismans, to mark some significant event, perhaps a voyage around the world; to placate superstition; or to just belong to a peer group.
I’ve certainly seen some interesting tattoos over the years.
For example, I had a buddy who had a dotted line around his neck with the words “Cut Here.”
I even knew a guy who had a fly tattooed on his tongue. I bet that hurt.
Most sailor and Marine tattoos, however, were much more traditional: a compass rose (North Star); Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful); anchors (never drift); swallows (always find your way home); “Hold Fast” on eight knuckles (one hand for you, one for the ship); snakes coiled around forearms; eagle on chests; pig on the knee (safety at sea); cock (rooster) on the right foot (never lose a fight); twin propellers (on the buttocks of engineers), dice (chance, fate); dragons (Western Pacific sailor), etc.
And there was always some poor guy who had his ex-girlfriend’s name in a prominent place.
In that regard, one of my favorite tattoo morals was “When You Left Me Behind, You Set Me Free.”
I noticed, too, that the ethos of tattoos changed markedly depending on the world situation.
For example, during the Vietnam war, they got noticeably darker in tone.
I was a Navy chaplain during the latter part of my military career, and in the early 1970s I was assigned to the First Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
Every Sunday morning, I would make my rounds through the recruit squad bays, encouraging church attendance, which was completely voluntary.
Most of the young Marines who were about to graduate were on the way to Vietnam and had already been on liberty in San Diego.
Many were already sporting tattoos reflecting youthful bravado: “Death Before Dishonor;” “Born to Lose;” “True till Death;” “By Any Means Necessary;” “My Life, Your Freedom,” etc.
Some already had the old standby that you used to see on Magsaysay Street when you were on R&R in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines: “Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out.”
Every once in a while, you would see a philosopher: “Non sibi sed patrine” (Not for Self but Country), or a particularly well-read private: “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” (Dylan Thomas).
Psychologically, I’ve always felt there was a synergistic relationship between tattoos and epitaphs.
You write your own early, whether you realize it or not.
Hardly anyone “dies” anymore.
We have these euphemisms for death: we step on a rainbow; we go to a better place; we are promoted to glory; we cross the bar; we join the invisible choir; we get our wings; we climb the golden stair case.
As Shakespeare put it: “We shuffle off this mortal coil.”
You have to admit, all of these expressions beat just “dying,” and as a person who has delivered hundreds of death notices, I’m certainly not being derisive.
I’ve never been to New Guinea; however, I’ve been to Samoa, and seen Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave at Vailima, which is not exactly “Treasure Island.” I’ve always thought his epitaph was pretty neat. It has those great concluding lines:
“...Here he lies where he long’d to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter, home from the hill.”
When I got home from that cruise, I told someone I wanted those words for my epitaph. But after I thought about it, I changed my mind.
I didn’t want some literary person wandering through the cemetery, seeing my tombstone, and accusing me of plagiarism.
Oddly enough, the word, “tattoo, is a loanword from the Samoan word, “tatu,” meaning “to strike.”
There was also a persistent rumor in 19th century London that Stevenson was the notorious murderer, Jack the Ripper, just because he wrote “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” – a case of art imitates life, I suppose.
Or was it life imitates art?
In 2016, the Navy liberalized its tattoo policy, now allowing tats below the knees and on the hands, as well as up to one inch by one inch on the neck, including behind the ear.
As for me, only my wife and my doctor know.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com