I of the Needle

Perhaps this is what's meant by "cultural diversity." There are guys with tattoos, guys with guns, guys dressed as Klingons. There are women, too, but they belong mainly to the tattoo group. It's June 6, and there are three conventions at the Civic Plaza in downtown Phoenix, and they don't have much in common. I have friends at two of them. I don't know any Trekkies, so I don't go there.

The gun show is about more than guns. I pay my $5 and go in with a friend who's a member of both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. But if the latter group wanted to take a stall at the show, it's unlikely that it'd be welcome. This is about ideology as much as firepower--the stacks of bumper stickers on display make that clear. "Work--It's the White Thing to Do," says one. "If I'd Known It Would Turn Out Like This, I'd Have Picked My Own Cotton," says another. I buy one that says, "PETA--People for the Eating of Tasty Animals." There are also books on sale, either firearms manuals or texts explaining that America is a police state on the verge of martial law. I get one of these, read it, and find it more plausible than I'd like.

The tattoo convention costs $15 for a day, $25 for the entire weekend. This is separate from the cost of getting a tattoo, and there's not much point in going if you don't plan to get one.

A 40ish lawyer gets a highway sign tattooed on his ankle. It's his second tattoo. The young woman with him has never been tattooed, and she wants one. But she frets about it. She's Hindu, and she's worried about what her mother would think. She's tempted when she talks to one of the artists, Deborah Valentine, who's here from Spokane, Washington. Valentine says she specializes in Sanskrit symbols and wants to go and work in India. The woman says she'd like a Hindu symbol, but she's nervous about the pain. Her companion tells her that, although it hurts, the pain is pleasurable. She's not convinced, but she goes ahead. She gets it on her ankle and seems pleased with it.

Unlike the gun show, the tattoo convention has no uniform style or ideology. There are punks and anarchists, and there are Nazis. The range of tattoos offered is astonishingly diverse. If you wanted a tattoo, you couldn't fail to find one you wanted here. There are artsy stalls offering sophisticated, elegant symbols. And there are stalls manned by aging bikers who'll draw a naked woman or picture of Elvis on you.

There's a raised stage, and the band playing on it reflects the latter category of body artist--it's grinding out covers of '50s rock 'n' roll songs in a way that evokes images of sideburns and big cars with their hoods raised and a guy with his head stuck in the engine.

When the band finishes, there'll be a tattoo contest. There's an admission fee, and some people feel so ripped off that they decide not to enter. Others go ahead, and much of the work is impressive. A guy has a portrait of the Dalai Lama on him, and the detail is so precise that it looks like a photograph. Someone else tries to milk the judges' sympathy by announcing a tattoo as "a picture of a friend who died."

There's a woman walking around, probably waiting to take part in the competition. She looks like she's in her late 20s. She's wearing thong underwear to display the tattoo on her huge ass. On each cheek, she has a cherry as big as a baby's head. Cellulite shows through the cherries. "By the time she's 50, those will be prunes," someone observes.

These days, if you were young and wanted to use your body to make a radical statement, you'd probably declare that you weren't going to get a tattoo. Everybody has them--or nearly everybody. Tattoos transcend social class, though the type of tattoo a person chooses probably reflects his or her class background. (Not always in a direct way, though--I've seen white kids from Scottsdale with low rider tattoos, which is as much of a class statement as they meant it to be, though the message conveyed is the opposite of the one they intended.)

It wasn't always that way. Until about a decade ago, tattoos were the sign of the ghetto, the trailer park or the lower ranks of the military. Women almost never got them. Comedy skits and satirical cartoons making fun of "white trash" stereotypes invariably depicted the caricatures with tattoos.

In the late '70s and early '80s, with the emergence of punk rock, tattoos found a new market. But the very reason that punks gravitated toward tattoos was that they were forbidden--getting tattooed was low-class, something that nice people didn't do. Tattoos had only a little more social acceptability than Mohawks and faces pierced with safety pins. The point was to make a visual statement, however naive or superficial, that you were separate, that you weren't part of the mainstream. The reality that this uniformity replaced one type of conformism with another is moot.