This essay by James Blume ’19 was part of a portfolio of work that earned a 2018 NCTE Achievement Award for Superior Writing.
The Illustrated Generation
To the great disdain of my parents and utter delight of his high school girlfriend, my brother came home for his first Thanksgiving with a tattoo. It was an all black silhouette of a rabbit leaping off his chest. The Black Rabbit of Inlé he called it, the Grim Reaper of the bunny world from Richard Adam’s 1972 Watership Down. Now my parents are fairly liberal in their parenting, but my mom is still Chinese and my dad is still Catholic. Tattoos have always been the ultimate taboo of my household.
My brother and I were raised to believe that tattoos are for deadbeats: motorcycle gangs, baristas, musicians and such. My mom would point out the old men and women with shriveled and faded tattoos on their arms or necks and have them serve as examples to us.
“This is what happens. They get them when they’re young and think they look cool, but when they age, they end up wrinkled and faded. No tattoo looks good when you’re old.”
And I would believe my mom. I’d see the chewed up barbwire tattoos on the flops of their necks and think to myself how sad it was. At night, my father would read me stories from an old Sci-fi book The Illustrated Man. The whole anthology centered around a wandering man cursed with living tattoos. When looked upon, each tattoo would come alive into a story of tragedy: children feeding their parents to lions, a man burning up in a shooting star, a husband trying to replace himself with an android. Despite the differences, all these stories carried the same set narrative. Tattoos are a curse that we carry on our skins.
So as one can imagine, my brother coming home from college with a tattoo caused quite the stir in my family. There were quiet talks that never grew into tears or yelling, but carried subtle condemnation. At night from my bedroom, I’d overhear whispers, my dad telling my mom, “He’ll never be employable now with that thing on him,” and, “We pay thousands of dollars for him to go to college just so he can disfigure himself like some hipster barista.” By the end of the break, they made him promise that this tattoo would be his last and my brother agreed. So as we drove him back upstate, everything seemed to return to its natural peace and order.
My brother has seven tattoos now. Each time I see him, it seems he has something else on his body. On his ankle, he has a deer skull he affectionately calls “Butch.” On his right arm, he has a self-drawn sketch of the blueprints of a Soviet tower that was never built. On the soft spot under his ribs, he has a shaded skull with a Cyclops visor across where its face would be. Every tattoo had a meaning to it. It didn’t matter if it was a drunken mistake or long thought out drawing. The tattoo, to my brother, carried a story.
For a while, I wonderedhe point of tattoos. Is it for you or society? Is an ink drawing on your arm any better than a photo or a memory? Are my parents right and it will simply fade with age?
More and more, people I know have gone down the forbidden road. In this modern world, where nothing holds permanence, the tattoo remains, not as a symbol of rebellion as my parents’ generation sees it, but as a living memory. Even as youth slips away like soft sentiment in the rain, the tattoo stays there as a reminder of what we once we had. Perhaps my parents are right and my brother and my whole generation will regret our choices today. I don’t think we will.
As the Illustrated Man sits and watches the sky with the narrator, he does not see the tattoos as a curse, but rather exclaims, “Why, they’re beautiful!”