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The Painted Generation

As the tattoo culture continues to grow, those who can't wait to have the next design inked on their body should keep in mind that what they might see as something beautiful today might not look the same years down the road.
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"It's a tattoo," the vivacious 19-year-old girl told her mother. Taken aback by the deep blue and pinkish red petals of a flower, wrapped in dark green leaves that looked more like lashing tongues climbing up her daughter's upper arm, the mother said, "Luckily, when you take a bath, it'll wash off because it's just too much." Surprised by her mother's ignorance, the young girl snapped, "Mom, it's permanent. I can't wash it off. I'll have it there for the rest of my life," the girl proudly replied drawing attention to each one of her words.

Is this the end of the conversation or will it be the beginning of an argument?

Plenty of people from older generations wonder why so many young and even some middle aged individuals, too, decide to paint their bodies with irremovable ink. Body painting is nothing new and it has been practiced throughout the world for different reasons. At the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim children, men, and women paint various parts of their bodies with elaborate designs. These designs, of course, can be removed since they are applied with henna. As well, women in southern Asia paint their hands (even forearms) and feet with henna for different cultural celebrations, including wedding ceremonies. Henna is supposed to bring good luck. These designs are not invasive; therefore, they cause no pain and will eventually disappear. Native Americans and African tribesmen have also used body painting throughout history, creating ornate designs for ceremonial purposes. The ingredients used are from natural components and applied with different devices, including the fingers, on the surface of the skin, allowing the symbolic references to be eventually removed. Of course, one must mention the special daily ritual of putting on make-up and removing it after.

In the Pacific islands of Polynesia, sailors were introduced to a type of body painting that was permanent and the ink needed to penetrate the skin. Those from my generation were accustomed to seeing sailors with their distinctive tattoos, which were visually limited to any part of the arm even though some sailors had them on their chest or other body parts. The trend was then picked up by those who belonged to a bike gang, had a criminal past, or women who practiced prostitution. Seeing someone with a tattoo back then immediately alerted the senses with a rush of adrenaline in case running was the only way to escape.

These days with social media outlets, it is evident that some people feel better communicating through means that are not necessarily the spoken word. Tattoos can easily serve this purpose since they can provide explicit or implicit messages through images or the written word respectively. The practice no longer limits itself to be understood by those within a given group. As a result, nowadays, in addition to having a decorative function or being a symbol of belonging to a particular segment of society, tattoos have become a way to communicate with the general public. Of course, some of the motives for having tattoos are endless, such as having found a new love, losing an old love, showing one cares for a cause, or simply doing it for the heck of it on a night out with friends. They can also serve as a reminder of a particular challenge that was achieved and their purpose is to provide strength and determination to move on. As well, tattoos now appear all over the body even in hard to reach places because they're no longer restricted to the arms or chest. For women, especially, it has become a way to wear skimpier clothes as they show off their ink to the world. Fashion designers are probably reaping the benefits of tattoos, as well, as they conceive attire that allows tattoos in different parts of the body to be displayed with ease. Recently, at Miami International, I saw a woman with a very colorful tattoo depicting a bird with a wide wing span, right above her derrière, so her outfit was fitted with a huge round opening to allow the full tattoo to be visible and appreciated, yes, by others.

This is a society that has always thrived on change because boredom easily sets in, so when that last tattoo doesn't become a conversation piece anymore, it's time for the next one. Perhaps that's where the problem lies. When people have a new message they want to send out, a new cause they want to support, or camouflage the name of their last love among other excuses, the need to be inked surpasses the concept of reason, creating a perplexing labyrinth of designs and colors on the person's body, which might lose their original allure since the designs cannot be easily identified or might give a freakish look to the bearer. Because of this and some other reasons, a few people eventually decide to have their tattoos removed. This is a painful and costly process, which can leave physical marks. Of course, the possible diseases or infections that people can contract when being tattooed won't even be mentioned here.

As the tattoo culture continues to grow, those who can't wait to have the next design inked on their body should keep in mind that what they might see as something beautiful today might not look the same years down the road. Added to this are the changing "fashion" tendencies, which continually require some type of transformative process of what we wear, how, when and where we wear it. When the trend wanes, the marks will still be there as a reminder of the days of the painted generation.

"Grandma, Grandma, what is that paint you got dripping down your neck?" asks a four-year old.