HE TOLD ME TO TAKE OFF MY PANTS AND LIE DOWN. I did. I remember looking at the big clock on the wall above me. I did not know it then, but that first glance was the start of a six-hour relationship with those twelve numbers. At times I stared at it, winced at it, willed its hands to stop what seemed like their backward movement. Other times I looked away, thinking it might speed the process of transforming the skin stretched across the small of my back into a work of art. Had I known my new tattoo would require lying so still for so long, I might have chickened out. But I didn’t know, and neither did the artist, who said he could finish the job in two or three hours. That optimistic prognosis convinced me I could handle it, and so did the distant memory of my first tattoo: a little cow on my right bicep, conceived one morning a decade ago and completed in less than an hour that same afternoon. I recalled that it hurt quite a bit, but also that nearly all of the pain ceased the moment the inking was over.
I was enormously pleased with that tattoo and still am; it’s a measure of my independence and an emblem of my identity. That’s why I got a second one—eventually. It was not a decision I made easily. When I was in my twenties, I pulled all sorts of stunts (odd haircuts, odd piercings) to get attention. But as I got older and had a baby, I began to wonder if maybe enough wasn’t enough. And really, even if I did want attention, was another tattoo the way to go? I got my first one in Hollywood; lots of people had them there. But as soon as I moved to a succession of less self-consciously hip cities, my little cow might as well have been full-sized, real-life, and sitting on my head for all the commotion it caused. The snide questions ranged from “What’s going to happen when you’re a grandmother?” to “You’re going to cover it for my wedding, right?”
But by the time I was ready for a second tattoo, tattooing had become much more respectable. We’re not talking apple pie and motherhood, but tattoo artists are just about everywhere these days, from big cities to small towns, and people from all walks of life—not just the stereotypical bikers, punks, and sailors—proudly show their ink. There are politicos like Jacques Barzaghi, the campaign manager for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential bid, whose body is covered with tattoos depicting Zen Buddhist symbols and Tibetan mandalas, and George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, who has a Princeton Tiger tattooed on his tush. There are celebrities like Roseanne, Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg (who has Woodstock from the Peanuts comic strip inked over her heart), Nicolas Cage, Cher, Sean Connery, Heather Locklear, Madonna, and Johnny Depp (who had “Winona Forever” drawn on his arm when he was dating Winona Ryder and since their breakup has altered it to “Wino Forever”). Boxer Mike Tyson has a likeness of Mao Zedong on one bicep and tennis star Arthur Ashe on the other. Shaquille O’Neal has a Superman logo on his left arm and “ TWISM” (an acronym for “The World Is Mine”) on his right. Dennis Rodman is a walking tattoo museum. Even Nike CEO Phil Knight has gone under the tattoo gun.
Beyond the rich and famous, there is no concrete information on how many people are tattooed. Wayland, Massachusetts-based Candela Corporation, a manufacturer and distributor of laser equipment designed for tattoo removal, estimates that 20 million Americans have tattoos. Yet most tattoo professionals insist it’s impossible to get an accurate number. For one thing, despite its heightened visibility and popularity, tattooing is still, at heart, an underground art. To be really thorough you’d have to count homemade and jailhouse tattoos. Even if you wanted to count only tattoos applied by pros (who typically create a design, apply it as a stencil using a solution called green soap tincture, and then color it in), there would be two obstacles: Artists lose track of how many customers they have inked, and the community of artists is growing exponentially. Margo Bennett and David Lumbert, who publish the annual A.S.C. Tattoo Directory, say the number of artists they list has increased 200 percent in the past four years. The ’96 guide lists nearly 1,600 tattoo shops in the U.S.—80 of them in Texas—yet that’s only a fraction of what’s out there. “There are some artists we don’t even know about yet,” says Lumbert. “I’d guess there are six thousand shops in the country.”
Likewise, because the tattoo business is conducted primarily in cash, pinpointing earnings is also difficult. Top artists in big cities won’t talk about their annual incomes; they’ll admit only to charging hourly rates of $100 to $200. (Of course, the math is simple enough: An artist working twenty hours a week at $100 an hour is potentially grossing six figures a year.)
More intriguing than the growth of the industry is the question of why people get tattooed in the first place. Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. Among Micronesian tribes it was a sign of initiation into adulthood, while in Polynesian societies it served a decorative purpose. Texan tribes that practiced tattooing include the Bidai, Caddo, Coahuiltecan, Comanche, Karankawa, and Wichita. Today that clannish element remains, whether you’re talking about the teardrop tattoos of prison inmates or the unifying symbols on the arms of gang members. Individuals get tattooed to remember a special event or a loved one, to be anti-social, or just for the hell of it. “They’re popular because as children we grew accustomed to seeing temporary tattoos in Cracker Jacks,” Lumbert says, noting that even today, McDonald’s and other fast-food chains give away temporary tattoos to kids. “Plus, the industry has developed to where the art is realistic. It’s not what