My Inadvertent Tattoo

I’ve never wanted a tattoo nor even thought about the possibility. Other people’s tattoos are their own affair, and don’t bother me one way or another. Some are handsome and some tattoos should have been given a second or third or even fourth thought before being permanently applied. Thus it surprised all of my family and friends when I elected to sport a major tattoo back in the 1990s. Here’s why I did it:

As a result of major medical procedures earlier in life, I have large ugly scars across my chest. This made me self-conscious in places like swimming pools or locker rooms. Mentioning this to a friend in Dallas who is a professional artist, I was startled to hear him suggest an obvious answer: cover the scars with a tattoo. “But of what?” I asked him. We were sitting at a restaurant table, and he whipped out a pen and began drawing on a napkin. “Flames!” he said, passing the drawing to me. It showed huge flames seemingly erupting across my upper chest.

The idea began to appeal to me, so when I spent a year in Boston as a Visiting Professor at BC, another artist friend took the original napkin and suggested changes. He even drew his version of the flames on my chest with a magic marker so I could see what it would look like. I approved and we took a photo of it. Since in those days Massachusetts did not allow tattooing salons, when I went to Las Vegas that next February I decided to have it done there. A friend steered me to “Ray’s Desert Ink” (a word-play on the now-defunct Desert Inn Casino), located in the same Vegas strip mall for the last 23 years. [And—trust me—that’s what you want in a tattoo artist: someone who has been doing it in the same spot for a long time and obviously knows how to handle a hot needle.] Ray himself greeted me in the rather large showroom of his establishment, and when I showed him the Polaroid taken in Boston (remember Polaroids?), he was impressed. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” he said enthusiastically, and then added, “But it has to be in color! Let me draw it on your chest for you.” He did that; it did look better in color; so after three artists’ working of the design, the flames tattoo was finally inked onto my chest. This took four hours, but, as Ray assured me, you do get used to it once the initial screaming dies down.

Alone that night in my casino hotel I stood before the full length mirror and marveled at how I now looked and the permanence of it all. “I’ll die with this tattoo on my chest!” I remember remarking to myself. That’s true, but I’ll be a more interesting corpse because of it.

The tattoo worked too. No one has ever noticed the chest scars since then (nor can you see them in the photo above). And my tattoo was been the talk of the hospital in November of last year. Reactions from others has been generally favorable (or at least they so pretended). My son Clayton, who was then in his late 20s, was astounded. “Dad, you told me I should never get a tattoo!” he protested. I replied that when he was in his 50s and I was dead, he could have as many tattoos as he liked.

The most interesting comment was from the woman who runs my life, Barbara Shipek. At an earlier age she had actually been a biker chick. “Doug,” she said with a shake of her head, “for most people getting a tattoo is a zen-like experience. You got one for a practical reason. That is so like you!”

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


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