The other morning I went for a haircut. While the barber was cutting my hair, he and a pal of his were talking excitedly about tattoos, a topic I know nothing about. My barber and his friend were discussing the stigma attached to having tattoos. They were saying you get put in a box, classified as odd and possibly dangerous. Or worse. Something about it was suspicious, tattooing images and symbols on your body, turning yourself into a walking hieroglyph.
They discussed the permanence of tattoos (they can be removed but at great pain and cost.) Why, I asked, would they want something on their body forever. They didn’t tattoo their faces, they replied, and they preferred artfully executed tattoos. So the esthetic value comes into play, but in a unique way. You become part of the artwork, and its presence and influence are constant.
The topic turned to tattoos as memorials of great moments in our lives. My friends in the barbershop explained that some used tattoos to celebrate their crimes and conquests, a fact not surprising, given that there’s a dark side to everything. What I got from overhearing the exchange between the two millennials was not dark at all. They were clear about this. Tattooing was about meaning, about important experiences they wanted to remember.
My barber’s lanky friend was standing up, looking light and energetic on his feet, when he started talking about tattoos in terms of his soul, and kept using soul talk to explain himself. He paused and looked at me with great earnestness, put his hands on his chest, and said, “Some things you want to hold fast, like an anchor. Things that touch your soul, if you know what I mean.” I knew exactly what he meant. Our moments are not the same; there are some that stand out, some with an aura of eternity. A tattoo was a memory engraved on living skin, a message full of meaning, but also an arrow pointing toward the future.
As usual, my barber cut my hair to perfection, and I left. I left with a new curiosity about the art of tattooing. Before I left, I mentioned that I did my own tattooing in a way by making paintings. Like tattooing, I paint my soul on canvas, which is the ‘skin’ of my artistic body. And, as any artist knows, it can be painful, and in a sense can “draw blood”.
The conversation I overheard about tattooing while having my hair cut got me thinking. The need to capture the meaning of our lives is something that makes us human. But there’s a problem nowadays. As technology swamps us with endless information, the old familiar meanings are going out of style.
God, truth, family, man, woman, duty, love, —these master memes of meaning are riddled with issues. Isn’t God dead?; truth, fake news?; family, in shreds?; man, a noun writers eschew?; woman, revolting against ‘man’?; duty, oppression?; love, an illusion? In our chaotic information age, meaning is everywhere up for grabs. With the old highways of meaning in ruin, we have to be inventive about finding meaning in our lives. It’s asking a lot for us to do it on our own--without a guide, without landmarks. For many confused souls, life is lived in a trance without meaning, a voyage in a sea of unknowns.
My barber’s lanky friend who kept pacing about in high spirits talked about how tattooing for him was about caring for his soul. I understood what he was driving at. I thought of Socrates on death row who said that philosophy was to care for the soul. While awaiting his execution in prison, a goddess appeared to him, and said: “Socrates, make music!” Socrates thought doing philosophy was the greatest music, but the goddess prevailed upon him. So the philosopher made up a song he sang and danced in prison, making sure he honored the goddess request. He was ready for his departure to the next world.
So, my conclusion: I did well at the barber shop that morning. Besides a good haircut (which lightened my head), I was reminded of something easy to forget. There are many ways to care for the soul: we can sing, dance, philosophize--and we can tattoo. The list goes on. The challenge of our times is to find a way that works for us, a way to find meaning and a way to care for our souls.
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