AVQ&A: mandatory pop-culture tattoos
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congress has passed a law requiring all people to get a pop-culture-related tattoo. What would you get and why? Me, I would get the typeface from Rubber Soul, my favorite album. —Andrew
Possibly the single pop-culture image that’s been most meaningful to me over the years is Sam Lowry from Brazil, in flight in his imaginary armor and with his imaginary wings. The problem would be finding a good visual reference that didn’t look too much like Led Zeppelin’s Flying Man icon, or a cheesy piece of airbrushed van-art. It might just have to be a stylized set of wings meant to evoke Sam Lowry. Which would conceptually resemble a million other people’s tattoos, but I’d know what it represented: the idea of Sam Lowry symbolically escaping a terrible, invasive, badly run bureaucracy. For instance, one so oppressive and intrusive that it would force everyone to get tattoos.
Of all the golden moments of pop culture’s rich history that I’d consider having indelibly inked onto my skin, there is one that stands tall above all would-be usurpers: the shark-vs.-zombie scene from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. The movie itself is a favorite of mine, and I am an absolute zombie fanatic in general. I’m also a huge fan of the sadly underappreciated sharksploitation genre. (Seriously, if you’ve yet to see Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, get thee to a Netflix queue and rectify that failing.) That makes it a triple, right there. Throw in the fact that the proper rendering of it would include the lovely, topless image of Italian actress Auretta Gay, which would tie it to the rich history of nudity in tattoos, and it’s a straight-up home run. Or it would be if my wife didn’t give me an unequivocal “no chance” when I broached the subject with her. Seems she doesn’t care to stare at a shark battling a zombie underwater every time I take my shirt off. Some people just have no appreciation for art. (By the way, this scene was filmed with an actual shark…)
I already have a) the suburb shaped like Jayne Mansfield’s head from The Broom Of The System b) William Burroughs face c) Gary Shandling’s face with the phrase “tears flow, I am the earth’s again” (from Faust) in German beneath it. But my next one, which everyone should also get, is a tattoo of Bruce Dickinson and Bruce Springsteen’s faces with a scroll that says “BRUCESOME TWOSOME” beneath it, because those are the only bands that matter.
Do we get tax breaks for already being branded? I’ve got four tattoos so far, and they’re all related to music. Here’s the inventory: Left wrist, inside: A cartoonized teardrop with legs, the latter making up the “LL” in the words circling it, “WE ALL TRY.” That’s a reference to the Frank Ocean song that really truly helped me contextualize my recent divorce (the teardrop dripping down from the ring hand, signifying loss, gangsta-style). Left bicep, outside: A Keith Haring-style bottle of booze and vinyl record holding hands and walking, the logo for a retired L.A. experimental music night dubbed “Calling All Kids,” which was named for the Arthur Russell song. Left wrist, inside: A pen-drawn character with the words “funny ha ha” coming out of his mouth in loopy cursive. It was inspired partly by cLOUDDEAD lyrics and custom-drawn for me by Yoni Wolf of WHY? and cLOUDDEAD. Right shoulder, outside: A super badass skull woodcut piece lifted from the cover of a dusty old classical record I picked up that happened to be Hector Berlioz’ 1830 opium-fueled opus, Symphonie Fantastique, an incredibly trippy piece that Leonard Bernstein acknowledged as the birth of psychedelia in music. (I lucked out on the justification behind that one.) So, yes, obviously my next tattoo is gonna be a “#HIPSTER” tramp stamp.
I’ve only seriously (read: not seriously) considered getting one tattoo, at the moment when, during my a trip to Graceland, I got my first glimpse of the King’s logo on the tail of his custom jet: the letters TCB and a lightning bolt, standing for “Taking care of business in a flash.” As John Peel famously pointed out, it doesn’t get more mass-cultural than Elvis Presley, and yet it seemed ever so slightly under the radar, or at least not as camped-to-death as a sequined jumpsuit. Nowadays, I’d lean toward the iconic version of Chris Marker’s cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, as seen in his 2004 documentary The Case Of The Grinning Cat.
Okay, I’ve always adored anything animated. But when I discovered Ren & Stimpy, it was a revolution. At once hilarious, surreal, gross… the whole thing just thrilled this nerdy fangirl. On a trip to Kings Island, I was lucky enough to find a bin of dolls on clearance that included not only Ren and Stimpy, but Muddy MudSkipper, Powdered Toast Man, and more. I whipped out my credit card in a flash. So if I were to get a tattoo, it would be of those two. Depending on discomfort, it might also include “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” Or maybe I’ll get a log with “Ren hearts Stimpy” carved in it. Maybe that indecision is why I remain inkless.
No question: Rocket From The Crypt’s titular spacecraft, in stark black silhouette. I don’t really need free admission to RFTC shows anymore (not that they’re still active), nor do I spin my Rocket records as frequently as I should. But there’s no other pop-culture symbol that better represents a chapter of my youth and would look less than ridiculous on my forearm or calf as an adult. Over the years, I’ve proudly sported Speedo and co.’s logo on keychain rings, party hats (acquired during a RFTC-sponsored bus ride to their show in Central Park) and assorted merchandise, and would feel like I’d both carried on tradition and certified my rock cred with it forever lifting off underneath my skin. Ew.
Like Kenny, I love Rocket From The Crypt. I also know approximately three dozen people with that same RFTC tattoo—many of them lured in by the free-show offer from years ago—so I’d probably pass on that one out of sheer contrariness. However, I’ve strongly considered getting the Hüsker Dü symbol on my right forearm. Surprisingly, I’ve never seen anyone with such ink before, although they surely must exist. But even if everyone and their grandmother had one, I wouldn’t care. Hüsker Dü, 25 years after I discovered their music, is one of the few bands that means more and more to me as the decades pass. Also, it would make a weird yet somehow logical complement to the tattoos that currently take up my left arm: a full sleeve of Michael Moorcock’s archetypal fantasy antihero, Elric. (The only connection is that both Hüsker Dü and Elric have always resonated with me in a way that collectively encompasses whatever the fuck kind of geek I think I am.) And a Hüsker Dü tattoo would serve another purpose: occupying some of the epidermal real estate that I have been tempted since high school to devote to a large portrait of Morrissey. And no one—least of all my Morrissey-loathing girlfriend—wants to see that.
This is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought to, even though I’ve never seriously considered getting a tattoo. At one point, I thought a tattoo of Elvis on one shoulder and James Brown on the other would be the thing to get. Because, well, come on. But maybe something that spoke more to an ideal than an individual person would be better. So why not Batman? I’d probably go with something timeless and simple, like a Bruce Timm Batman. You know, maybe I will get one of those.
I’m ashamed to admit this now, but for a while in college, I was considering getting The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” line “I am human and I need to be loved” line inked on me. That desire passed, and I remain untattooed, but I have adopted it as my A.V. Club bio to encourage commenters to be nice to me. Since we’d be living under a menacing-sounding regime that mandates tattooing, I’d probably need all the mercy I could get, so I’ll stick with that.
On my back, the text of the Deteriorata from the National Lampoon, in Lord Of The Rings-style lettering. On my torso, the face and upper body of Oliver Reed, as he looked when he appeared on a TV talk show drunk, and seemed on the verge of showing the audience the tattoo he had on his Little Oliver. Why? I feel that one’s choice of tattoo is like surrealism: if you can explain why it feels right to have it there, you must be doing it wrong.
My standard answer to the question of what tattoo I would get, if I got any tattoo, is a potato above my ankle. It’s a reference to a kids’ book called Wayside School Is Falling Down, one I really loved when I was 9 or 10, and it was the first piece of pop culture I ever encountered where someone was thinking about getting a tattoo. (They ended up getting the potato.) Googling it now, I realize a number of people have gotten one of these, so it’s not as obscure a reference as I’d feared. Maybe Congress would let me get away with it, instead of demanding something more obvious. But if they did, why not a giant portrait of Chewbacca across my back? Because who doesn’t like Chewbacca?
As a lad who loved punk rock, I schemed in my early teens to get the Operation Ivy guy because they stood for unity, and I was considered myself a big proponent of all that “up with the scene” positivity. I never went through with it. Ditto my desire, like Jason and Kenny, for the Rocket From The Crypt logo. These days, I have quotation marks on my inside forearms, but I’ve never felt compelled enough to emblazon pop culture on my person. I feel like it’d have to be cool enough to stand on its own, as a piece of art that just happens to have a pop-culture correlation. That doesn’t explain my most recent tattoo idea, though: guitar tablature for the opening chord of Jawbox’s “Savory,” which would look something like this:
Though I'd have to figure out a way to denote the alternate tuning. This, too, is a bad idea that won’t happen.
Let’s just say up front I didn’t get a tattoo of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album cover in college. That nearly happened, and while it wouldn’t have been a travesty, it still feels like one shared by too many people to truly make it special. At least, that’s how I felt in my 20s, when I thought conformity was akin to death. Now? I’d be game for getting a tattoo that signifies my love of a TV show shared by millions of people, even if those millions were reduced after the show’s finale. That’s right: I’m talking about getting a Dharma logo from Lost inked permanently on my person. I almost got one around my 30th birthday, which coincided with the introduction of this mythological element to the show. But again, it felt too obvious a choice, and I chickened out. Now? I’d get one to show my solidarity with the show, which has become something of a punching bag since it left the air. I have heard the arguments why people are disappointed, and the tattoo wouldn’t be designed to dismiss those concerns. Rather, it would be to affirm that I loved that imperfect show something fierce, and will continue to love it even more as the cultural consensus pushes it to the margins.
I don’t remember wanting a replica of Little Pete’s tattoo Petunia (I can’t believe I instantly remember her name—I guess she was in the credits every week) on my forearm when I watched Pete & Pete as a kid. There were many other symbols of Little Pete’s quasi-adulthood and autonomy that I wanted way more, like his friendship with the weird-but-still-grown-up Artie, ability to sell the family house or dig Shawshank Redemption-esque tunnels when displeased, or use vicious-sounding but Nickelodeon-safe profanity like “dillweed.” But now, I just kind of want to make Petunia dance—an excellent conversation-starter whether you’ve seen the show or not. On the show, Little Pete’s mom passed out every time she saw Petunia, probably thinking of the Dali painting Petunia would resemble when stretched to adult-skin size. But a younger sibling who’s slowly running out of inkless skin has probably desensitized my parents by now, and they are always saying how Pete & Pete was a tiny light in the Dark Ages of our childhood TV habits, so maybe I wouldn’t have to wear a long-sleeved flannel to the pool.
I’ve spent 72 hours considering this question off and on, which really only serves to remind me why I almost always tend to go with my gut on these questions. But after considering and dismissing everything from the Star Trek uniform insignia to the PiL logo to a green-inked rendering of Ollie Queen’s boxing-glove arrow, I keep coming back to the same answer: the words “obscurity knocks,” all in lower-case letters, in reference to the debut single by Trashcan Sinatras. I can just link to an explanation I’ve written elsewhere, but for those too lazy to click and read, suffice it to say that my love of the band’s music led me to interact with a bunch of likeminded individuals, including one in particular who had a direct impact on my career as a pop-culture-obsessed journalist. As such, if I’m going to emblazon myself with anything that isn’t a tribute to my wife or daughter, I feel like it’s got to be something TCS-related. Mind you, I kind of wish the band had a proper logo I could use instead, but the title of one of its most memorable songs will certainly suffice in a pinch. (Plus I kind of like the idea of giving immortality to “Obscurity.”)
I’ve never been a big fan of tattoos; I just think there are few places on a human body—male or female—where a tattoo looks good. It’s more an aesthetics thing to me than a “you’re gonna regret it for liiiife!” thing. But if I were to get a tattoo, I’d want to get something that represented pop-culture that not only has endured, but represents something I’ll enjoy looking at now and when I’m (knock wood) 95 years old. To me, that would be one of three iconic images from my all-time-favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon, 1952’s Chuck Jones classic “Rabbit Seasoning.” I’d either get the famous Daffy Duck catchphrase “Shoot Him Now!” (in tiny, tiny letters), the oh-so-funny but less-violent Daffy utterance “Pronoun trouble!” (also in tiny letters), or an image of Daffy with his beak on top of his head after one of the many times Bugs tricked Daffy into begging Elmer Fudd to “shoot me now!” Hm. Maybe “Shoot me now!” would be a better choice than any of those…
One of my tattoos is already culture-related, but if I were to get another one, it’d be the star from R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People album cover. Partly because R.E.M. remains my favorite band, partly because it’s one of my favorite albums they did, and partly because I just think it’s pretty cool. If all else fails, though, I’ll just go with The Last Unicorn.
I’ve never been inspired to get a tattoo, though I guess if I ever did get one, it’d probably be pop-culture-related. Though now that I’m a sappy dad, I think I’d be more likely to get something to remind me of my little dude’s childhood. So I’m gonna say pretty much unequivocally that I will never get a tattoo, but if you pointed a gun at me and forced me to, I’d probably get Nicholas, the star of the Richard Scarry book I Am A Bunny. I don’t think this will win me any points in biker bars. Here’s Nicholas:
I certainly can’t top Josh’s choice for pure adorability (nothing can), so I am going to go in an opposite direction. I am awfully fond of a satirical newspaper some of y’all know about called The Onion, so for a good decade and a half I’ve thought about getting an Onion dingbat tattooed somewhere embarrassing on my body. I’m a bit of a superstitious soul, however, so I feared that should I get that tattoo, I would lose my job almost immediately in a hilariously ironic twist. So if I am forced to get a tattoo and I can’t get TCB, I’m going to opt for a tattoo of Quasimoto, Madlib’s helium-voiced alien-anteater-looking alter ego, since that’s about the coolest thing I can imagine. And heaven knows, I could benefit from some coolness by association. Isn’t that what all pop-culture tattoos are ultimately about? That said, if I go to a few more Gatherings Of The Juggalos, I might just end up with the ICP Hatchet Man somewhere on me. That would be a sound decision I couldn’t possibly ever come to regret.