Barry Newman
Barry Newman

The Dubious Art of Tattooing

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New York’s East Village is best known for its unconventional and antiestablishment street life which has, for the last half century or so, attracted the ongoing attention of both native New Yorkers and tourists. A wide variety of bars, coffee shops and restaurants satisfy whatever hunger and thirst strollers might be stricken with, and innovative music shops and hard rock venues share street space with funky clothing outlets and stoner accessories. And, oh yes, you can hardly walk three feet without bumping into a tattoo parlor, its storefront decorated with samples of the designs that are typically offered to customers looking to brighten – or darken – their lives. And it never fails; each time I walked past one of those establishments I would shake my head in bewilderment. Even without the religious aspect that makes harming the human body a forbidden practice, the attraction of tattooing remains something of a mystery to me. It has been, admittedly, quite a while since I was ventured in that neighborhood, but I clearly remembering wondering why anyone would want to become a walking display of Gothic Horror.

Well, as Yogi Berra once said, it was, for me, déjà vu all over again. While strolling through Tel Aviv last week, I was struck by the sight of three business establishments within a span of four blocks offering tattooing and body piercing services. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not naive or blind to what’s going on, and am well aware that seemingly intelligent young men and women see no problem with maligning their bodies with what can only be described as grotesque and nightmarish imagery. That, though, does not mean that I find tattooing in any way acceptable. And camouflaging this poisonous endeavor by referring to it as “body art” does not by any means make it more tolerable.

Not that I am kinder toward less-offensive illustrations such as flowers, clowns or ball juggling seals. On the contrary, the offense caused to the human body is not dependent on the nature of the image. As someone who strives to live by the principles and dictum as reflected in the Torah, my disdain for this “art form” is obvious, and I would not complain if both tattooing and piercing were to be viewed, in Israel anyway, as socially degenerate activities and deemed illegal. With a baleful sigh, however, I concede that such legislation is not likely to be included in any agenda any time soon and accept the reality that there exists a wide variety of mediums through which human beings have the freedom to express themselves. Tattooing, for better or worse, is one of them.

But while getting etched was not too long ago regarded as an oddity or something undertaken by self-defined bohemians, it appears, now, that this way of making a statement is far more ubiquitous than it has been in the past. No matter the color of the collar one wears at work, an illustration of one sort another will more likely than not be found somewhere on the skin, and usually exposed for public view. Indeed, why go through the bother of getting tattooed if you’re not going to display it with pride…or defiance. But even though the needles remain within the secular segment of the population, that it is a growing phenomenon is cause for more than a little concern.

I’ll agree, for the sake of argument, that the Generation Z Israelis are becoming increasingly ready and eager to offer their arms, torsos, backs, thighs, and whatnot as an artist’s canvas. Why this is so is not entirely clear, although it’s fair to say that as the world is becoming smaller Israel is no less influenced by cultural norms that are practiced elsewhere. What I will not accept, though, is that this a natural evolution of how young Jews choose to express their feelings and attitudes. Rather, I’m convinced that the waiting rooms of tattoo parlors are filled with an atmosphere of rebellion; other than the consumption of ham, it would be difficult to identify an activity that is so clearly anti-Jewish as the garish displays etched onto the human body.

This rebellion, when you think about it, is somewhat baffling. The laws associated with kashruth, Shabbat and the holidays can be viewed, myopically, as archaic remnants of the past and no longer relevant or valid for the current century. The prohibition against maligning one’s body with tattoos, however, is, if nothing else, a warning of the dangers and risks associated with this particular activity, and is as sound today as it was when it was first transmitted to Moses.

Tattooing, after all, does not come without risks. In addition to intentionally being exposed to disease or infection by the use of potentially unhygienic needles, woodcut machinery, tubes and grips, there have been cases of severe allergic reactions to the ink used in the craft. In addition, serious “buyer’s remorse” is always a possibility; tattoos cannot be easily removed or hidden away in a closet or drawer. In other words, a cheerful looking daffodil inked on a forearm may wind up having some very ugly consequences.

Granted, I’m no expert on the subject and readily admit that tattoos have rarely entered my narrow, little world. Groucho Marx, I remember, sang the praises of “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady” in At the Circus (written, by the way, by the fine team of Jewish songwriters Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen) and I recall that Herman Melville’s noble savage Queequog was described in Moby Dick as being covered with tattoos from head to foot. Basically, though, I’ve always equated tattoos with beer guzzling bikers, soulless mercenaries, and professional wrestlers. Not exactly what you’d call the intelligent elite.

[Note: And, no, I most certainly did not forget about the identifying numbers that were tattooed onto the arms of those interred in the Auschwitz concentration camp. But that, obviously, is not part of this discussion and should not be entered into the debate.]

Those stereotypes and misconceptions, however, have long passed and I now readily admit that tattooing is a risky but unfortunately accepted medium throughout the entire spectrum of society. With the exception, however, of Jewish youth. For this group, needles should be reserved for vaccinations and acupuncture. And if referring to the prohibition of tattooing as a biblical transgression is a turn off, well, how about calling it a cultural idiosyncrasy of the Jewish people. Sounds, um, more with it, no?

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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