Tattoos: A Walking, Talking Book


Stopped at a traffic light, I glanced over and noticed a young man sitting at the bus stop, leaning forward, clutching a bottle of Coca Cola. He was wearing a tank top and his body was full of tattoos.  He caught me staring.

“I bet you’ve got a whole story there, you’re like a whole book,” I yelled.  “Your tattoos. I bet each one is like a chapter.”

He smiled, looking down at his chest and arms.

“Yeah. You can take me home and read the whole thing,” he hollered back.

He thought I was flirting? Yuck! Get a job and a car! I was just admiring the artwork, reminded of an old African tradition I had learned about at a museum when I was a kid.

Whether or not he knew the cultural history of body art, he was a walking display of sorts.  I was appreciating the reminder that Africans, who from what I was taught, had been the mothers of civilization, had adorned their bodies in tattoos and framed their hair in elaborate styles. They used body art to express beauty and strength, and, yes, to tell stories.  It’s too bad that body art has become synonymous with social defiance in America – but by who’s definition?

The young man at the bus stop was apparently in his early 20s. I thought about the young men I’ve seen beaten down by family members for getting tattooed. Nobody will hire you with tattoos, they are told. And the young ladies are told that when you get older and their bodies fill out, those tattoos will look horrible. Is this an undeclared cultural war of sorts? When was it declared, and how long will it last? Body art has a history, I was reminded, a history rooted in African lands. Dissertations and books have been written about it. Websites explain it. I’m guessing that the young man at the bus stop has his reasons for getting them, cultural reasons and personal ones.

As the light turned green and I was on my way, inspired by an unwitting cultural reminder sitting there at the bus stop.


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