By Howard Lewis Russell
Your body art can say a lot more about you than you may realize

Jay Westerman, owner of Obscurities, relies on other artists to handle the tattooing duties — he only does piercings. But he’s seen enough to give advice about what works when you want some ink.

Been drooling at a lot of inked-up deltoids on the dance floor lately? Enviously considering (gasp!) getting some life-permanent ornamentation of your own? Forget about mom clucking her disapproval you’re actually in the mainstream now.

According to a recent Harris Poll, 40 percent of every American under the age of 40 now has at least one tattoo, and 16 percent of all Americans are tattooed fully half of those women. Remarkably, a whopping 83 percent of people who get tattooed never regret their decision.

Incredibly, there are more than 327 "tattooing, body piercing" establishments operating within a 10-mile radius of Dallas, and 20,000-plus tattoo parlors operate in the continental United States, with a new one opening every day.

Obviously, illustrated skin’s rather unsavory reputation of the recent past being exclusively the plumage of porn stars, dope peddlers, pirates, pimps, prostitutes, penitentiaries and everything puerile in between is ancient history.

But familiarity can breed ignorance, and if there’s anything you don’t want to screw up it’s ink soldered into your body for all time.

Virtually all body-ink patterns are symbolic of something, so "buyer beware" wearers should be careful of the choice they make. Whether as seemingly innocuous as a rainbow or obdurately sinister as a scorpion, tattoos if one knows how to read them reveal more personal information than the most confidential CIA dossier hides in top secret … and it’s exposed in plain sight. Consider:

Webs, dots and where you get them. A spider web tattoo may seem exotic, but it actually symbolizes a prison term; if tattooed on the elbow, it can mean that the person sporting it has killed someone. A black dot on either side of the index finger means one is a gang member; a third black dot flaunts he has murdered a rival gang member.

It’s witchcraft. The pentagram is used to protect those who play around with witchcraft. In inverted form, it is symbolic of evil incarnate.

Which brings us to a wicked little abstract glyph of trefoil design, influenced by the benevolent shapes of red clover and bird’s foot . . . yet internationally recognized as nothing less than the potential presence of deadly, toxic biohazard. Maybe not the message you want to send on the dance floor.

Indeed, among many gay men, this popular trifoliate-shaped tat represents a quintessential example for exercising prudence before the lights go out. According to one source who requested anonymity, "The biohazard’s ‘spoiled cream’ allusion is, perhaps, on a much deeper level, the ultimate ‘user beware’ symbol to scare off the weak a multi-layered skin ornament filled with ‘self-expression.’" (An amusing footnote is that biohazard tat is astoundingly popular among clueless straight men as well.)

As with all art forms, trends in tattoo designs naturally fluctuate to the rhythms of populace.

Jay Westerman, owner of Obscurities Piercing-Tattoo Studio on Cedar Springs and (according to the highest-rated of Dallas’ ink emporiums, receives a fraction of the requests for the biohazard that he did only a few years back. According to Westerman, his five most popular tattoos now (for walk-in customers, at least) are: stars, kanji, names, hearts and astrological signs. For pre-appointment customers, his top five requests are all traditional Japanese symbols: dragons, koi fish, Samurai swords, geishas and a myriad of ever-popular Asian-tinged tribal symbols.

The number one request among his lesbian clients is a variation on the Pride flag tattoo: hearts with Pride flags, triangles with Pride flags, and the state of Texas with Pride flags. For males, stud muffin pinups, such as Tom of Finland nudes, are perennially popular, trailed closely by any and all bears imaginable, from teddy to Yogi to grizzly to Pooh.

Westerman says the body part most frequently requested to be tattooed is the shoulders followed by the inguinal lines (the fleshy area near the crotch) and the lower back.

Prices range from a minimum of $65, to an hourly rate of $120. It’s the service one is paying for, Westerman says.

Bad ideas. To answer that burning curiosity: Westerman cautions that penile tattoos are a very, very bad idea.

"They don’t stay, and the texture of genital skin is too difficult to tattoo in the first place," he chuckles. "Just imagine trying to draw on uncooked chicken skin. Tattoos on the wrists, hands and soles of the feet don’t stay, either." Diabetics should exercise caution, but "HIV is not an issue as long as it’s not full-blown AIDS."

Westerman and his staff always prefer to err on the side of caution. "We imagine everyone has everything under the sun: HerpesgonnorrheallsyphillAIDS," Westerman calls it. "All universal precautions are taken regarding the sterilization of our equipment." (And don’t even think about requesting the new, glow-in-the-dark inks. Obscurities will not touch them.)

Asked what other body parts one should steer clear from inking, Westerman becomes emphatic: "All reputable tattoo artists will discourage below the knees and below the elbows. We call those job stoppers would you hire someone whose forearms and ankles looked like a crack house whore’s kitchen floor?" Additionally, Westerman will not tattoo anyone visibly intoxicated, narcotized or notably ill, and discourages name tattoos.

"Love don’t last," he says. But the tattoo sure will.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice – Body & Fitness print edition February 15, 2008

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