In the Barbershop: Tattoo Tell-Alls

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Why you should care

Inches of ink tell tales.

Anthony Hamilton is an OZY essayist. This is part of an ongoing OZY video series of conversations in his Mountain View, California, barbershop.

I was three months shy of my 13th birthday, and a few buddies and I were visiting a friend’s house a couple of streets over from our block. We were just fooling around, calling each other out, kidding with each other, as guys do, about each other’s anatomy. Making fun of entire body parts: the size of our noses, our feet.

All the talk of bodies led our friend Ronnie, whose house were were visiting, to declare: “Hey, you guys … I know how to do tattoos.” “Of course you do,” one of my other friends replied, unbelieving. “And my father is an astronaut and this Friday he’s going to walk on the moon.” But no, while everyone laughed, Ronnie rolled up his shirt sleeve and showed off his work. It wasn’t great, but it sure was a tattoo.

“How in the hell did you do that?” I asked. He pointed at the pencil he was holding. “With this. I did it with an eraser,” he replied. “Get the hell out of here, what are you saying? I know you didn’t take that eraser and erase yo skin. Are you crazy?” I asked. But no sooner did I ask the question, then our other two friends jumped in line to have their skin erased. I watched carefully: I could tell it was hurting, but they never asked Ronnie to stop. No, they just took it like the dummies they were. One of the guys had his entire name done — all eight letters.

Tattoos hid my frailness and grew my passions, and with each one, the strength of my conviction matured.

I mocked them while they went through it, calling them every name in the book. And then it was my turn. And, yeah, you guessed it: I was no different. I sat down and had my nickname — Gnat — erased right into my wrist, hard, and there it stayed for some time. Turns out Ronnie really could do work. It would be years before I got a real tattoo, but even at that age, I knew I would get one.

I have 12 tattoos. To some people, tattoos are shameful, defiant, they devalue us. But not to me. My statements have always had a purpose. My tattoos have a way of making certain parts of my life stand still. With them, I am whole. They are my journey and my compass. My tattoos: The Serenity Prayer is engraved just above my right elbow. The others say: Born to inspire, I lived my desires, this pain was the preparation for my destiny; Triumphant even through adversity, Strongchild®; James Hall you are my royal flush; Doc; and last but not least, a photo of my loving brother “Fly” placed firmly over my heart.

I was addicted to the ink and to denouncing tradition as we know it. Tattoos hid my frailness and grew my passions, and with each one, the strength of my conviction matured. I was living for the guy in the mirror and loving what I saw. And the pain? The testing of my threshold was as exhilarating is it was exasperating. There were times when, right in the middle, I wanted to quit, to throw my hands up and say, “I can’t take it anymore.” But something about finishing mattered more to me than quitting.

With each tattoo, I was shaking the notion that I had to look like others to belong. I was replacing it with the notion that I belonged to myself. Because who gives anyone the right to say what you can and can’t have on your person? Who am I to tell you that you can’t have the symbol of love on your face; who am I to say what you can’t have on your thigh; and who am I to tell you what you must hide? You see this body? This canvas belongs to us, to me. My tattoos have helped me speak out against everyday logic. They’ve helped me to endorse emotional reasoning. They have made me the conductor and proprietor of my own life. Some call them a distraction, and my only answer is … I woke up like this.

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