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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Rethinking ink: What we see when we see tattoos

Bobby Blair's dad was a beer drunk. That means he could work at his buzz all afternoon, and he sure enough did. He was the kind of man who liked to be left alone. He sat in a chair most of the day under the awning of their back porch and stared off into the woods behind their house.

Tom Blair had a thick head of black hair, pomaded and shaped into a rockabilly pompadour. His eyes were two cigarette burns, coal black, sad, desperate; like he was either going to hurt you or himself at any moment.

If Bobby needed to communicate something to his father he'd go it alone. "Stay here," he'd say. Then Bobby would disappear through the house until I could hear the back door bang. I worried I'd never see him again.

The Blairs never answered the front door. The only way into their lives was the back door, past Tom and straight into the kitchen. That approach was a shortcut from our house anyway. I threaded my way over there through the trunks of the sumac and pin oak trees. I stopped when I knew I was visible to Tom, sitting in his chair like a soused sentry. "Moore?" he'd call out. You could smell his cigarette smoke.

House entries were the times I got close enough to Tom to smell the tonic in his hair, to see his features. Yet it wasn't his mean, dark eyes that rattled me. Nor was it the sour mash of words that foamed up in his mouth and never fully took shape.

It was his tattoo. A woman in a strapless party dress, her cleavage cutting a long vertical smile.

I couldn't take my eyes off it. That is, I suppose, the greatest compliment you can pay a work of body art. Still, it weirded the crap out of me. At 10, it was the only tattoo I'd seen on a real person. Did he know her? Where did she come from? What does Mrs. Blair think of this?

Generally speaking, I grew up in a time when the scariest people had tattoos, not the hippest. Tattoos were mostly the grim declarations of World War II veterans, guys who ducked under the needle before going under fire. Man-boys with nothing to lose.

Something about the permanence of tattoos upset me. Like a jail sentence. It didn't help that the men I saw who wore them all seemed like variations of Tom Blair: style etched on the outside, turmoil etched within. Tom's party girl appeared to give him no pleasure whatsoever.

Time marched on. It was strange that my tattoo resolve was tested on the very same city block where so many World War II service men took their ink.

In the late 1970s, Hotel Street in Honolulu was a river from which leaped pimps, petty thieves, drug pushers, transsexuals, trisexuals, metasexuals, live intercourse shows and, on many corners, tattoo shops.

I was in the company of swimmers, all of whom had an eye on the ill-fated Moscow Olympics. Primo Beer is a good builder of courage, and so it was that we decided we would get tattoos of the flag and the Olympic rings on our pecs.

I don't know where Dennis is now, but if I ever see him again I'll thank him with all my heart. The big, barrel-chested middle-distance freestyler went first. He squirmed and squeaked like a toddler getting a vaccination. As his native flag of Canada was being pierced into his flesh I decided that nothing would taste so good as an In-N-Out Burger. I split.

These days, as the guy says, some of my best friends have tattoos. Some celebrate the triumph of a 50th birthday or 20th wedding anniversary with tattoos. Others wear the markings of Iron Man competitions. My younger friends don't seem to need any benchmark reasons, choosing one design or another just for the look or quiet personal meaning.

If someone had told me 20 years ago that my elementary-school-teacher wife would be having parent conferences with couples with tattoos, I wouldn't have believed it. I also wouldn't have believed it if they told me those same people would be drinking Pabst beer. The same beer Tom Blair drank!

Two of our three young-adult children have tattoos. I sense it's only a matter of time before the third makes the jump into the ink pool. Our youngest, the visual artist in the family, has a piece that he created from someone's old lung X-ray. It reads, "I don't have a body. I am a body."

This clinical, artistic statement helps me reconcile the tattoo. My children's. My friends'. Whether you're a Navy veteran staring out into the woods or a college sophomore with the whole world at your feet, it's what's on the inside that counts.

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