Mon | Jul 16, 2018

Michael Abrahams | Don’t be rude to the tattooed

Published:Monday | September 12, 2016 | 12:13 AMMichael Abrahams

I am not a fan of tattoos. Of the hundreds or thousands that I have seen socially or during examinations throughout my medical career, the percentage that have impressed me is lower than that of persons in Gordon House who are honest. In other words, negligible.
Tattoos have been around for a very long time. The oldest known example is a mummy found in glacial ice in the Alps, dated 3,250 BC, with 61 markings. But in recent times, their popularity has significantly increased. As a medical student, I rarely saw them. Nowadays, I encounter them daily at work. And they are present across all socio-economic strata, from well-educated upper-class professionals, to the barely literate and unemployed.
I have never considered getting a tattoo. Or, should I say, a real tattoo. As a child, I remember buying bubble gum with ‘play-play’ tattoos. You know, the pictures that you moisten and press firmly on your skin, leaving an image that you could wash off, if you chose to bathe, that is. Real tattoos, on the other hand, are permanent markings, and I am wary of using my body as a canvas to display something I may later regret.
Some tattoos are just plain tacky. I remember as an intern, suturing a genital tract laceration on a woman who had recently delivered. A colleague of mine entered the room, and gasped in horror when she saw the amazing artwork on the lady’s inner right thigh. It consisted of a crudely drawn object, shaped like a jumbo wax crayon, pointing to the port of departure of the delivered child, accompanied by the words “THIS WAY TO ... ”, as if directing pilgrims to the Promised Land.
I told the doctor that it was probably a drawing of a rocket ship, and there was no reason for alarm. But my colleague was not convinced, dismissing my intergalactic travel theory and responded rather tersely by saying, “Michael, don’t be naïve! You know what that is!” That doctor is now an ophthalmologist. I guess she was so traumatised by that incident that she chose to specialise in an area of the body as far from the vagina as possible.
At least that masterpiece was relatively hidden. The one that I rated the most and award the ‘WTH Trophy’ to was plastered across a woman’s back. In big, bold letters, it proudly declared: “RaYMONd Will F**k Me 4 Life.” As Donald Trump would say, it was “YUGE!” I could not help asking her where Raymond was, and she replied, “Him marry smaddy else.” I laughed hysterically for about a week. She had no shame at all, and actually consented to allowing me to take a photograph of the integumentary billboard.
Some of the tattoos I do like use characters from languages such as Chinese, Hebrew and Hindi with inspiring words like ‘love’, ‘peace’ and ‘faith’. But one must be careful when embarking on such ventures, and research the characters and their meanings carefully, or get someone who is familiar with the language to accompany you.
If you are not vigilant, the consequences could be catastrophic, or hilarious, depending on your sense of humour.
Andy Sakai, a tattoo artist of Japanese heritage, grew tired of seeing sacred Japanese words inked randomly on people’s skin, so he concocted a diabolical plan. Whenever clients presented themselves to him for a tattoo with Japanese characters, he would inscribe a profane word or phrase. So when a young college student visited him and requested a tattoo to proclaim his manliness, using the characters for ‘strength’ and ‘honour’ on his chest, he left with the symbol for ‘small penis’ instead.
He strutted around confidently for months until one morning, while jogging, a group of Asian students on campus started laughing and calling him ‘Shorty’. Hopefully, after college, he got a job with Microsoft. That tattoo would fit right in, huh?
If you desire phrases in your native language, ensure that your tattoo artist is literate and uses spellcheck. One woman loved her mother so much she wanted to post a permanent tribute to her. She requested “My mom is my angel.” Instead, what she was stuck with, literally and figuratively, was, “My mom is my angle.” Whether her mother reacted acutely or obtusely to the tattoo remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that the woman is walking around with an epic tattoo fail. From whichever angle you look at it, it is just not right.
Other tattoos that I have been fond of are those done by tattoo artists who are, well, real artists. Some are truly beautiful, depicting flowers, animals, cartoon characters, human faces, emblems and even scenery. The problem is that as we age, our skin tends to stretch and become flawed and wrinkled. So what is a dainty butterfly at age 18, may morph into Dumbo the Flying Elephant at age 65, after childbirth and weight gain annihilate the belly skin.
What I find unfortunate is that people are sometimes judged based on the presence or absence of tattoos on their skin.
Our minister of education, Ruel Reid, recently spoke of vetting teachers for tattoos, among other things. What some of us need to understand is that whether a person is tattooed or not is not a reflection of their intelligence, morals, values or value. Tastes vary, and if we are to coexist peacefully on this planet, we need to learn to live and let live and appreciate diversity.
Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.