In last week’s column I made a mistake that must be corrected. I’d said when I was a kid the only people with tattoos were veterans. For the most part, that’s true, but a small number of The Inked Set were never in the service for all sorts of reasons, antisocial behavior not the least of them. They were our town hoods.
As I recall, they went extinct sometime in the mid-’70s, victims of changing times and social mores. But from the mid-’50s they were a local fixture, every bit as noticeable and accepted as hunters, gamblers, booze hounds and other colorful types.
They were few in number (especially compared to booze hounds), but were disproportionately visible. First, was their “uniform.” They sported cuffed, low-slung Levi’s, held up with an engineer belt (perhaps with a buckle sharpened in machine shop), black engineer boots, and a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes tucked in the sleeve. For thems rolling in moolah, la piece de resistance was a black leather jacket with at least 15 zippers, hanging from each one a lucky rabbit’s foot (lucky for the hood, not the rabbit).
Then of course was their crowning glory — the euphemistically-labeled duck’s tail haircut. In case you never saw this classic Coif of Cool, it consisted of a lot of hair, combed back on both sides, with a spit curl hanging over the forehead. The bottom of the back was combed over from each side and then given an upward flip, a la a duck’s tail. To less polite company it was never called a duck’s tail, but was instead known by the initials of its less refined name — D.A. The whole doo defied gravity as well as convention, being held together by a fistful of Wildroot, Alberto VO 5, or in extreme cases, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly.
Another part of their outfit was The Look. This consisted of their eyes at half-mast, the corner of one lip turned up in a slight but constant sneer. The Look was the visual equivalent of “Up yours … and your poodle’s too.”
So what about the tattoos, you ask? Well, even though they didn’t skimp when it came to rabbits’ feet, hair pomade and shivs, when it came to tattoos they were seriously challenged.
DIY skin art
The problem was tattoo shops — or more exactly, the lack thereof. Quite simply, there wasn’t one. Those bygone days were The Dark Ages of tattooing. Today, you want a tattoo, it’s no sweat. In fact, you can get any kind of fabulous inking you want without leaving the confines of My Home Town. Just strut into Studio 518 Tattoo at the bottom of Berkeley Hill, and Tim McCormick will hook you up to your heart’s content (with or without an arrow going through it and “Mom” scribed thereon).
But, alack and alas, back in The Good Old Days such convenience was not to be had here. In fact, I’ve no idea where the nearest tattoo shop even was. Montreal? Albany? NYC? Given the paucity of customers, a tattooist trying to make a living outside a major metropolitan area or big troop town was destined to a life of poverty, not to mention solitude.
Besides, as a group, hoods were not creatures of delayed gratification. If they wanted a tat, they weren’t about to plan and wait patiently for it. Uh-uh, they’d take it into their own hands — in this case, literally. Yep, they did their tattoos themselves. (The issue was moot anyway, since they were so young, no tattooist in his right mind would’ve done the work … and nor would a tattooist out of in his right mind, either.)
Their equipment was as basic as it gets – a sewing needle with thread wrapped around the eye, and a bottle of India ink. Their method was self-evident: First they poked a bunch of holes in their goombah’s dermis, then they dipped the eye in ink and swabbed it on the punctures. It was a tribute to basic rural handicraft, and the design was basic. It was also crappy.
The big question
I said “the design” because there was only one I ever saw. It was a dagger with the hooligan’s initials underneath. The daggers looked like daggers … sort of. Certainly, they were longer than they were wide and had a point at one end. Not a sharp point, maybe, but a point nonetheless. The initials looked like initials, but given the “artist’s” illegible scrawl with pen on paper, his work on skin with a sewing needle could generously be called “cryptic.” Of course, we already knew the kids’ names; otherwise, the D’s could be mistaken for O’s, the L’s for I’s, the M’s for N’s, or even W’s. They were less units of distinct lettering, than they were alphabetic Rorschach Tests.
No matter. The hoods were enamored with them and made sure they were on display at every opportunity, which, given those old Adirondack winters, meant for half the year it was an exclusively indoor sport. I knew those tats were hardly in the same category as the professional ones, for example, my fave, the dagger with “Death Before Dishonor” written around it. But, still, they were tattoos.
Besides, it didn’t matter what some dweeb like me thought. At an age when the biggest thrill for rest of us was finishing a Pig’s Dinner at the Altamont Dairy Bar, those guys had girlfriends. And their girlfriends were genuine, 100 percent hood girlfriends. Their makeup was too garish, their sweaters too tight, their fingernails too long … and blood-red besides. They were hormonal H-Bombs with attitudes that ran the gamut from aloof to downright poisonous. To them a tattoo – even a crappy homemade one – was forbidden fruit, and thus all the sweeter. Those couples were in their own world and the opinions of the rest of us on Planet Earth were not only unacknowledged, but unnoticed.
Whenever I mention those hoods today, people inevitably ask me two questions.
The first is, What ever happened to them?
What happened to them is pretty much what happened to the rest of us. They sowed their wild oats, then settled down and got real jobs, got married, raised families, and now their biggest thrill is going to their granddaughter’s basketball game or their grandson’s glee club concert.
The second question is, When they were young, did they have any idea what they’d think about their tattoos when they got older?
That question is a small part of a larger one, namely, When all of us were young, did we have any idea what we’d think about anything in the future?
I can’t answer for them or anyone else; I can only answer for myself.
And my answer is I had no idea — no idea at all.