Tue February 1, 2011

When Skin Deep Is Plenty Deep

Beauty is only skin deep – or so the saying goes. But KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel says there comes a point when skin deep is plenty deep.

When I was in medical training in the last century we had a rule of thumb that said you ought to question the mental health of anybody with more than two tattoos.  In those days skin art in the mentally healthy was mostly limited to men who had been in the Navy:  anchors, flags, eagles, hearts, girls’ names, hula dancers, that sort of thing.  My standard question to these men, in the midst of a physical exam, was, “How drunk were you when you got this?”  The answer was usually, “Plenty drunk.”

Need I say that times have changed?  At one extreme are skulls and cross bones designs, as well as the whole of some heavy metal album covers.  At the other are butterflies, flowers and pastel ribbons. There was even a front-page story, complete with color picture, in the Greeley Tribune last month about a 73 year-old grandmother and the big honking new tattoo on her upper arm.  It seems everybody is having images deposited into their epidermis.

I don’t know why the mania for body art.  Maybe it’s just fashion.  But fashion is, of course, one of the most fickle of human endeavors.  As my grandmother used to say about clothing style, people wear things until they tire of them.  Then they take off those garments, throw them in a barrel, and find something new to wear.  When the barrel is full they dump it out and start picking apparel from the top of the pile again.

Trouble is, tattoos are indelible.  You can’t just throw them in the passé fashion barrel when you’re tired of them.  And people do tire of their tattoos.  There’s a huge business these days in removing body art, not an easy process.  Pigment that is injected deep into the skin actually binds to the tissue.  You can’t just pull it back out.

Intense laser light that bleaches the pigment is the usual method of tattoo removal.  But the procedure is imperfect.  Often some ink remains unbleached, leaving behind a faint image.  Worse yet, the high energy of the laser may cause permanent redness, depigmentation or scarring where the tattoo used to be.

When my kids were minors I told them they could pierce any body part they wanted (and I might even prefer not to know what part that was), reasoning that a piercing would heal over with, at worst, a small scar.  But my wife and I forbade skin art for the above-cited reasons.  And, thank goodness, they listened.

They could, of course, have avoided the need for parental permission required at a tattoo parlor by doing their own.  As a teenager my wife’s cousin did his own tattoo.  This middle-age man still bears a crude initial on the back of his hand, placed there forever with a penknife and ballpoint pen.  Of course, based on location, size, message, and maybe infectious complications, it could have been way worse.

I’ve got to admit, I have a tattoo myself.  When I was in high school I always carried a sharpened pencil because, nerd that I was, doing math problems was important to me.  But I wasn’t nerd enough to carry the pencil in a pocket protector in my shirt.  I packed my writing implements discreetly in the pocket of my pants.

So, I’m in the school cafeteria.  I reach into my pants to grab change and pay for my meal, feel a sharp pain, and withdraw my hand from the pocket with a pencil stuck into the pad of my index finger.  I still bear a little gray graphite dot in that fingertip.  That’s my tattoo.  Which leaves me leeway to get two more before my mental health is called into question.

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