My first tattoo should have come in the summer of 1990. One blistering LA day, I drove to The Troubadour in Hollywood to beg for a gig. The booking agent at this time is a woman named Chris Lammori, and Chris Lammori fucking hated me. But I wanted to play a gig at The Troubadour—even though super lame hair metal bands had dominated the lineup recently— so this minor relationship quirk was not about to get in my way.
Demo tape in hand, I shimmied into the promoter’s office, which was this tiny closet next to the bathroom. As I walk in, there are these two other guys sitting there, both of whom are definitely hair metal guys, dressed in their obligatory hair metal uniforms: leather vests, spandex pants, top hats, and scarves. And these guys are just covered, head to toe, with tattoos. They are fresh from the Hair Metal Guy Factory, or maybe three days off the bus from Peoria, still clutching their Local Guitar Hero Certificates of Authenticity.
These guys are looking at me like I’m the freak, because you know, I’m not a tatted-up hair metal guy. These guys are dressed for the occasion, and I’m just…just not. So this one guy—we’ll call him Lickee Nutz, because lame hair metal guys all had names like that back then—Lickee Nutz grabs a copy of Rock City News, opens it to the center page, and pushes it in my face.
Rock City News: The Wine Enthusiast of the Tattoo Set
Lickee Nutz then points to the hair metal guy dominating the center page of Rock City News and says, “Look at this guy!” It was a picture of Nacho Balsac, the lead singer of Tuff (I don’t know, maybe he had a different name). Tuff had just signed a major label deal, and since the band’s lameness was so intense it threatened to rip the very fabric of space-time, the rest of the hair metal community was kinda up in tatted arms about it. So, he points to Nacho Balsac and says, “Do you think he’s cuter than me?”
The question didn’t freak me out. I can recognize a cute guy just as much as the next middle-aged cis white male. I was more freaked out by the idea that this was something important. See, I’d never really made the connection that cute guys were crucial to a band’s success. But it was beginning to make sense. You wouldn’t have boy bands, you wouldn’t have teen idols, you wouldn’t have beautiful women coming to the shows without beautiful boys in the band. This was a depressing revelation, but table it for just a sec.
Cute Guys Have Tattoos (That You Can’t See)
So, I can read a room. The booking agent is looking at me like you should probably answer this question correctly. Lickee is looking at me like you better answer this question correctly. And his friend is looking at me like, yeah, don’t hurt my ugly friend’s feelings.
So, I said, “Seriously? You’re way cuter than that dude. Like, super cute.”
Lickee threw his hands up in the air, screamed, “See? I knew it!” then sulked back into his chair.
As I mentioned, Lickee and his drummer (I’m assuming he was the drummer, because he didn’t have much of a vocabulary), were head-to-toe tattoos. I mean, tattoos exploding northbound from their ball fros all the way up to their chest pubes and back down their arms. And I’m thinking, dammit, maybe I need to get some tattoos? Maybe the band needs to start thinking about being cute guys, and cute guys have tattoos?
Without being too forward, I checked out these future Burger King managers’ tattoos. There were a couple of skeletons on there. A full deck of cards with a royal flush showing forward. There’s a Harley-Davidson with a pinup model on the handlebars, a couple of knives, and I think a tattoo about mom. But it was something semi-derogatory about Mom. Like, I just remember having this sort of negative vibe about mom after looking at this tattoo.
And it hits me that these tattoos are all super generic. These are the kind of tattoos where you say, you know what? Let’s go down to the tattoo place and, like, get a tattoo today. And your idiot friend says, yeah, yeah, sure. That sounds good. Like, in the same way you would say, hey, let’s go shopping for Iceberg lettuce today. So, you go to the tattoo parlor, and you pick a tattoo from the gallery of tattoos displayed on the wall. So you’re like, yeah, I’ll take that one of the head of iceberg lettuce with a skull on it. And now you have a tattoo.
That’s when it dawned on me that the least cute-guy rock-band thing that you could possibly do was get a tattoo.
I left The Troubadour—with no gig planned for my band—firmly resolved that I would never get a tattoo. Because that wasn’t rock. That wasn’t rebellion. That was trying to fit in with Lickee and Nacho and everybody else. And from that day forward to now, I have never gotten a tattoo.
Until last Tuesday.
My First Tattoo Is A BFD
Okay, pretty much every human being over the age of 18 has a tattoo. Like, big fucking deal, right? I get that. For me, the major revelation was discovering what I want as a tattoo. I finally knew the symbol I wanted and the meaning behind that symbol that deserved permanence on my body. What I came to realize is that there were certain events, situations, and influences that were so important in my life that I wanted to make more than memories. I wanted to ritualize them: to make them a permanent part of the physical me.
And it all starts with Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.
Back in the fourth grade, my teacher told me I needed to pick out a book to read from the tiny library that was inside the classroom. So, I fished around until I found this book, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet: Standby for Mars! It was the first of a seven-book series written back in the early 1950s. And I absolutely fell in love with this book. Read it eight times. And then I read all the other books in the series, even though I had to scour used bookstores to find them.
It may have been the most influential book of my life. It sparked my interest in science fiction. From there, I went on to Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. It inspired my imagination and awoke me to the epiphany that I’m the weird kid. I would go to my friends say, “Oh, my God, you gotta read this book. It’s so cool. Tom Corbett is so cool. Space cadets are so cool.” And my friends would stare at me blankly and say, “dude, you’re are a geek.”
And I was like, wow, I guess I am.
So, my tattoo is the emblem of The Solar Guard from the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet books. I had a graphic designer give it a slightly more modern feel, but still kept the 50’s aesthetic with the huge Thunderbird-style rocket fins. I also added the name of Tom Corbett’s space ship, Polaris, along with a made-up registry number, AEL-110. That’s the first three initials of my kids’ names and the combined birth months of my parents.
The Day Of The New Tattoo
I gotta say, I was nervous to get this thing. Really nervous. Nervous because 1. I feared it would hurt like a son of a bitch and 2. I needed to know that the person who did my tattoo was the best artist ever in the history of the universe and couldn’t possibly never ever fuck up my tattoo. Tattoo Regret is a thing, a real thing, whereas tattoo removal is not a real thing – it’s just another scar.
So, the artist decision was extremely important. And then, finally, it struck me. I knew the exact right person to get this done. Enter Jessie, a 39-year-old tattoo artist whom I first met when she was 15 and tried to sneak into one of the band’s shows. Not only have I known this woman for 24 years, but she has also come full circle with me: the perfect conclusion to being a musician who never got a tattoo would be to have somebody who knew my music intimately do my tattoo.
As it turned out, the pain wasn’t all that bad. No panic attacks. No passing out on the floor. It was kind of like if you took a Dremel motor tool, and you put a sanding bit on the tip and then shove it into your arm at full blast. I mean, it’s uncomfortable and pretty annoying, but not really painful. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, dude, grow a pair. It’s a fucking tattoo. This isn’t like spending four days in a CIA interrogation room. This isn’t like having to re-watch the last season of Lost.
But the pain really is annoying. It’s kind of like a hey-would-you-please-stop-that? sort of pain. But the whole time I’m thinking about how pain is part of the ritual, not because pain must be part of your life, but because feelings are the glue by which memories stick in your mind.
Three hours later, the tattoo was done. It was an oozing, bloody, swollen, red mess, but it was my first tattoo. A modified emblem of The Solar Guard, like a patch on my uniform, directly on my left deltoid. Pretty freakin’ cool.
Ritual and Permanence
On the podcast, I set out to explain why we drink what we drink. In the end, it’s just an extension of the question of why do we do what we do? And just as important, do we memorialize what we do? Do we ritualize what we do? Or do we just kind of mindlessly do it?
Personally, I think there’s too much mindlessness going on these days, especially in our American culture. Our culture doesn’t place a lot of value on ritualizing things. We don’t have a lot of rituals and traditions that memorialize the reasons why we do what we do.
I’m now looking at tattoos that way. Perhaps a tattoo is a way to ritualize and memorialize things that are important to us: things that you’ve done, places you’ve seen, experiences you’ve had, traumas you’ve overcome, people you remember. We mark our bodies to memorialize and honor these things, to make them part of our physical identity. When you think about it, cultures have been doing this sort of thing for generations, marking themselves in memory of their past, and in celebration of their present.
I also think this is one of the fundamental attractions of wine. Wine is a ritual. If it’s not the ritual itself, it’s been part of the ritual for millennia. We ritualize the way we taste wine and the way we make wine. And I think that’s really the attraction of it. Drinking wine can be part of a daily ritual of remembrance. What happened today? Let’s absorb it, grok it, see what part of it should stick…and what part should the alcohol just push aside.