An open letter to boomers with tats

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Dear punk-rock heroes,

As I sat in a tattoo parlor on Monday afternoon watching my cousin get more ink, I was so comfortable and happy it could have been a friend’s living room. We listened to great music on Spotify (The Flying Burrito Brothers, Metallica, KISS, Bob Marley: musical shifts that were joyously jarring). The air conditioner was kicking, and everyone there was good company. The venue was Spiral Tattoo in Ann Arbor. I could go on about how wonderful this place is, and how my favorite tattoo artist Jared Leathers is meticulous and brilliant, wears his hair in dreads, and has a smile that makes you feel like you’ve known him your entire life. But this is about something else: those who went before us. And I’ve been thinking about them a lot since Monday.

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The artist at work and Chris smiling through the pain.

I was still residing in Arkansas when I got my nose pierced 20 years ago. People would stare at me at the grocery store like I had grown a third nostril. My presentation to the world was immediately changed. Tons of people have nose rings now. No one notices mine anymore. I’ve lived both sides of nose ring stigma. But a nose ring can be removed at any time. It’s not the same sort of commitment.

Tattoos have been around for as long as we’ve had written history. I don’t know exactly when tattoos changed from being reserved for prisoners, sailors, and bikers to becoming mainstream. I intend to learn more about that, though, as it seems fascinating.

A few people (mostly my mom) have mentioned to me that my tattoos will look terrible when I get old. I remind those people that my skin will sag regardless of the markings. And tattooed baby boomers are the reason I have absolutely no concern about how my tattoos will look in 20 years.

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I can’t grow a beard, but you get my point.

When I see you tattooed folks who are older than me, I instantly feel that you have a lot of stories to tell. I know that you probably endured scorn when you first started inking up, especially if you are female. I don’t have to know you to know that I respect you on some level. I don’t have to know you to know that your now-faded tattoos changed the way you were perceived by society. And the respect comes from knowing that you did it anyway.

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This is my badass friend Jeanne. She got her first tattoo in 1971. She’s about 60% covered now.

The tattoos that are time-worn tell me that you cared more about following your bliss than how others perceived you. Those are the tattoos that allow us to display ink today without real persecution. Sure, some people will tell us they don’t like our tattoos, even though we probably didn’t ask their opinion. And if we get covered in tattoos, we will most likely still be judged by a portion of society. Sleeves might limit our job choices, but nothing like they would have 40 years ago. And if we are discriminated against for our ink, it won’t be blatant and supported by the majority. Tattoos may be somewhat fringe, but they are no longer subversive.

Sometimes we pay a price for self-expression and authenticity. But sometimes someone else already paid that price for us. Thank you for that, my tattooed heroes.

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