Professionalism of local tattoo parlor defies common perceptions
On my eighteenth birthday, I was feeling rebellious. My traditional, drill-sergeant father immediately saw that defiant twinkle in my eye. "Where are you going?" my dad called as I dashed out of the house in an attempt to avoid the eye-contact that would advertise my guilt. "You better not come home with a tattoo!"
Consciously disobeying my father, I sincerely apologized to him several times in my head (even throwing in a couple of confessions of previous wrongdoing for good measure). Restored to my normal loving-daughter status, I strutted into the tattoo parlor on the worst side of town.
It was almost stereotypically crummy and sketchy — I think I could not have chosen a more decrepit place of business. Studying the owner as he prepared the needle, I was uncomfortably reminded of my uncle as he heated an iron rod to brand cows. Yet, once the deed was done, I somehow felt transformed. Even though my tattoo would be concealed on my lower back, I strutted out as if my body was a gold medal of sorts, a prize for my rebellious spirit.
Because of my previous experience, when I turned down Leigh Avenue near the Princeton Medical Center, I found myself looking for a similarly shady tattoo parlor. Instead, I found myself in a quaint residential area, and was even more surprised by the professionalism of Mitchell Perkins, the residing tattoo artist of Princeton Tattoo (formerly known as Lucky 13 Body Shop).
Having graduated from the Parson's School of Design at the New School for Social Research, Perkins' knowledge of tattoo history and interpretation is revelational.
"Tattoos are not allegorical [and they don't] tell stories," he said. "Don't think what you have tattooed on your arm relates the story of your life, where you've been. Tattoos are the projection of things we can't rationally have — the irrational."
Any previous assumptions I held about the tattoo industry were immediately dismissed after speaking with Perkins. His deep understanding of the nature of tattooing allowed him to speak of its implications; he emphatically declared that the magical appeal of tattoos is not to be mistaken for hocus-pocus or voodoo superstition.
"People speak to me as a huckster, a snake-oil salesman putting on a medicine show," he laughed.
These common misconceptions and stereotypes from customers frequently evoke chuckles in the average distinguished tattoo artist. Tattoos are past emblematic and closer to talismanic because of the irrational and bold nature of such permanence. According to Perkins, the book, "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury, which is organized into short stories based on the tattoo, perhaps best captures and represents the talismanic qualities of tattooing.
From 1962 - 1997, tattooing in New York City was illegal. Ironically, most underground practitioners liked it this way. They reveled in everything remotely "bad" or "cool" associated with tattooing. They loved that the rock and roll lifestyle, the nightlife, and the outlaw image evoked by tattoos could only exist under such prohibited circumstances.
In order to practice now, each artist must be licensed as a "tattoo machine operator." Tattooing has officially become legal, yet has in no way been crippled by regulation. Tattoos are as popular as ever, despite the various motivations people have for subjecting themselves to the needle.
"Tattoos function as a extra layer of skin, [of] armor," Perkins said. "Some people live behind their tattoos, some live through them, but tattoos transcend all social levels as our link to the irrational" — from your fifth grade teacher secretly sporting a red rose on her hip to the not-so-subtle punk-rocker tattooed in skulls.
Much as Christians in the days of the Roman Empire tattooed crucifixes on themselves as a mark of commitment to Christ and soldiers tattooed crosses on their bodies for protection during the crusades, people today often use tattoos as a symbol of allegiance. Loyalty to a university, for example, is an incredibly popular reason to get a school-related tattoo.
Perhaps the most famous case of this at Princeton is former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz '42. It has been widely rumored that Shultz sports a tiger tattoo. Some tales claim that the tattoo is on his head, craftily hidden beneath his hair, while others assert that the tiger is really on the bottom of his foot.
When Shultz came to campus to lecture three years ago, The Daily Princetonian (Nov. 15, 1999) did some digging and got a sly confirmation as to the true placement of the tattoo from Shultz's former roommate, Norman Cook '42.
Cook reported that the tattoo is "not a monstrously huge tattoo. I would call it 'ass-thetic.' "
Even without assurance of the position of the tattoo, the rumor was popular enough to elicit some gentle joshing from the University Band, which played a song during the 1988 Harvard homecoming football game while standing in a formation depicting Shutlz's left buttock and the alleged tiger.
So Shultz is supposed to have one. And – who knows? The innocent-looking student taking copious notes next to you in lecture may very well have their own tiger hidden on an unseen body part.