Ethics & Public Policy Center

You Have the Right to Bare Arms, but Why Ink Them?

Published in The Wall Street Journal on June 7, 2019


Warmer weather comes, and women put on summer dresses. Arms and shoulders may be bared. People will wear shorts, bathing suits. And we will become aware, again, of the tattoos—of the immense acreage of human flesh committed to artists’ ink.

The tattoos may be discreet and coy and subtle, winking from the deltoid, or from halfway up the calf; they may be exotic and cryptic and hieroglyphic, or they may have nothing more interesting to offer than the cliché of a skull. They may be sweepingly narrative, covering the chest, shoulders and back with constellations and galaxies, or with epic scenes only a little less ambitious than an 18th-century canvas by Jacques-Louis David: Someday I expect to see his “Oath of the Horatii” inked across a guy’s chest, armpit to armpit.

Beyond such now-commonplace pageants lie the mad, all-body inscriptions—every square inch of flesh inked with something or other, like the blackboard of a schizophrenic genius. Do some of these announce mental illness? Gang loyalty? One can’t know, but in any case, they amount to a species of self-obliteration.

The phenomenon is startling to one whose eyes were trained, in an earlier time, to expect human flesh to be uninscribed—nature’s blank page. A man of my generation would think of tattoos in terms of a sailor who got drunk in port and came away with “MOTHER—SHANGHAI 1937” on his bicep; or else of a survivor of Auschwitz with a number inked on his forearm by a Nazi.

Mine is a bourgeois prejudice: I think of tattoos as disfigurements. At one time, the tattoo was regarded as a no-class thing: The Right Sort did not wear them. Now, that is mostly, though not entirely, changed. I know plenty of people who defend them, sometimes in surprisingly eloquent and metaphysical terms. Tattoos, they say, are an expression of the committed character: the body articulate—skin in the game.

Those, I suppose, are the extremes: self-obliteration and self-expression. A problem is that tattoos, by their very nature, involve an aspect of arrested development: The body is permanently stamped and burdened with an impulse of the moment.

Stipulate that tattoos are an ancient art adapted to 21st-century culture, which exaggerates and manages to falsify so much. They are intended to be at least decorative and at most significant—personal statements of some kind. Or perhaps a moment’s lark. Some people develop the habit of getting tattoos. It gets to be compulsive, even an addiction.

Anyway, one’s own flesh is the papyrus upon which personal truths or decorations or great historical scenes may be inscribed. But flesh, being human and mortal, will not last as long as papyrus—as long, say, as the 2,100-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls. A life proceeds through its brief, allotted time with evolutions and surprises. One learns and changes. It is hard to see the sense in permanently committing one’s flesh to be the billboard of the long-ago whim of a 19-year-old sitting down in a tattoo parlor with a girlfriend whose name he will not quite remember in a few years.

Moments pass. Tattoos remain and will become an embarrassment, an item of chagrin—and in any case will turn, over time, into a sadly shriveled and withered and blotching thing.

The one tattooed is not the artist, so the case for self-expression may be weakened. The artist would be the man with the needle. You are merely the flinching canvas on which he indites an aurora borealis, or “Have a nice day” in Japanese.

For a time when I was young, I wore a beard. The great thing about a beard is that you can shave it off. At one time, in the 1970s, I wore a loud and particularly hideous orange necktie with floral patterns; it was about 8 inches wide. I am colorblind, but that’s no excuse. In its next life the tie might have become a tablecloth in a vegetarian restaurant in a shopping mall.

In the 1970s, no one particularly noticed the tie, for it was an era of surpassingly awful taste, when men wore leisure suits and Nehru jackets, or shirts with collars that had the wingspan of a condor and bore hideous designs, like patterned wallpaper from 1924. I owned a pair of bell-bottomed leather trousers of which I was proud.

But like my beard, those decorative items could be removed. Taking them off was a rebirth. One will do stupid things, and it’s a good idea to make sure they are reversible. By simply shaving or undressing, one might reset the self—might cancel what one now recognizes as errors of youth—and so, unencumbered and refreshed, might embark on new experiments.

If I had worn a conspicuous tattoo instead of an orange necktie, then I might have the tattoo still, an inarticulate blotch that left me to mutter: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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