fine art for the nineties and, oh, what a lovely canvas
Of all the erotic things a woman can say to a man, there's hardly a phrase more electric than "Would you like to see my tattoo?" I stammered the first time I heard that question. It wasn't that I didn't know the answer. It's just that it's hard to be entirely cool when your imagination is awash in its own questions: A butterfly? A unicorn? A tiger, maybe? And was she on her stomach when the artist with the inky needle went to work? Or on her back, watching as a little rose bloomed in some secret place, a corsage that would last forever, that only lucky boys would see? And what kind of woman adorns herself with emblems that no thief can steal? All kinds of women, it turns out: lawyers, housewives, nurses, teachers. Back in the Sixties, when Janis Joplin showed the world her tattoos, skin art on women was pretty racy stuff. Now, tattooists say, half their customers are women, and if that's a surprise, it probably shouldn't be. Women have always been bolder and more adventuresome than men in their decorations. In fact, the oldest known tattoo was found on the mummy of an Egyptian priestess, who wore it as a badge of nobility, bravery and beauty 4000 years ago. Dermographics have come a long way since then, a long way, even, from 30 years ago, when sailors and bikers sat to have hearts and Harley eagles scratched on their arms and backs. These days, tattoo art can be high art. Color and technique have evolved to a level that has drawn serious artists away from canvas and paper and toward skin. "Your design or ours," say their ads. Anything that can be painted can be tattooed, from fierce Oriental designs to dreamy fantasy landscapes that seem to have been done with an airbrush. Over the past few years, tattooists have created a new adornment for women. They call it forever makeup: eyebrows that never need trimming, eyeliner that never runs, beauty marks that nature had no hand in--even the rosy blush around the cheekbones can be tattooed in, once and for all, instead of brushed on every morning. Still, no matter what, it's the secret tattoos that mark a woman for who she is, or who she wants to be. I'm thinking of a particular woman, a particular tattoo, when I say this. But I have always taken the little symbols that lie just below the bodice or just above the hemline to be clues to certain mysteries I will never unravel. We were on a plane together, just across the aisle from each other, on a puddle-jump flight from Aspen to Denver. She was wearing a cowgirl shirt and jeans, a ring on every finger and a smile that could have flown me over the mountains without an airplane. It was a warm spring afternoon and the sky was bubbling with the kind of thunderheads that promise a bumpy ride, maybe worse. Just before we took off, one of the huge white clouds began shedding rain from one of its edges. "Look," she said, grabbing my arm, pulling me toward the window on her side of the plane. "A rainbow, a triple rainbow. Do you know what that means?" I had no idea what it meant, except that she had grabbed my arm and was trying to pull me into her lap, or so it seemed. I looked out the little window and there it was--a beautiful three-tiered, full-spectrum arc of color floating vividly against the smudgy bottom of the thunderhead. "This is unbelievable," she said. "I don't know anybody who's ever seen a triple rainbow. This is pure magic." It looked like physics to me, but I didn't say that. In fact, I didn't say much during the 40 minutes it took us to cloud-hop over the mountains to Stapleton. Mostly, I just smiled and listened while she talked about the power of signs and omens, the wisdom of astrology and the magic of talismans, including every ring on her fingers and the birthstone that hung around her pretty neck. I was trying to keep the skepticism off my face, but she must have picked it up, anyway. Just before we went our separate ways in the airport, she (text concluded on page 161)Tattoo You(continued from page 82) hugged me, kissed me and said, "It's probably all bullshit, but I believe it, anyway. You have no idea what that rainbow meant."
Which was true. The rainbow was beautiful, maybe even spectacular, but it was nothing compared to her, as far as I was concerned.
I didn't see her again until the middle of that winter. She saw me first, coming off Ajax with my skis over my shoulder, light snow falling.
"Hey Gemini," she yelled. She didn't remember my name, but somehow, my birthday was burned into her memory. She was wearing a pink jumpsuit that melted the snowflakes the instant they hit it. "I knew I'd see you again," she said. "The triple rainbow."
"I remember," I said, not meaning the rainbow.
"When I got to Denver," she said, "I told my girlfriends about it and they couldn't believe it, either. I mean, that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and they all said I should get a ring or a necklace with a rainbow on it, but even if I had, it wouldn't have been a triple rainbow. So guess what? I got a tattoo."
Then she smiled and whispered something that made me believe in magic, astrology, talismans and every other mystical thing you can think of: "Do you want to see it?"