My neighbor got a tattoo. After examining the bluish-green lizard on his teenage bicep, I said with my usual tact and sensitivity, "Hope you like it 30 years from now." My neighbor looked a bit glum. Buyer's remorse, perhaps. "So do I," he said. The thought had obviously occurred to him. For now he says he does like it. Kind of. Except it's a little dark, bluer than he wanted, not as green. "Maybe it'll lighten up over time," he told me.
Or maybe it won't. The essence of tattoos is indelibility. That's the basis of their appeal. They are a way of saying, "Unlike the rest of you wimps out there I've got the guts to transform my body forever. This proves conclusively what a daring person I am."
But does it? At heart, getting tattooed is a profoundly conservative act. With them we announce, "I am so sure I will always be who I am today that I'm going to decorate my body with indelible ink."
In tribal cultures, tattoos are a symbol of eternal belonging to one's tribe. In our fragmented society, where belonging is based more on common interests, tattoos reflect those interests. But interests change. And when they do, we are left with a tattoo that tells the world who we used to be.
My friend Gilah, the mother of two grown children, has a colorful Gila monster tattooed on the back of her neck. One wrist sports the logo of her beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. Gilah likes displaying that tattoo, but wishes the Gila monster would disappear. She calls getting it one of her greatest regrets. For one thing, Gilah's come to like birds and fish better than reptiles. "Given the chance to undo this one, I would," Gilah tells me, " – in a heartbeat." Doing so, however, would cost lots of money, several visits to a laser-wielding dermatologist, and considerable discomfort.
Aesthetically speaking, I like Gilah's Gila monster. Some tattoos are attractive, artistic even. But that's beside the point. I can't think of a work of art this side of the Mona Lisa that I'd want displayed on a wall of my home for the rest of my life, let alone on my skin.
Those who get tattooed don't see it that way. Far from being a conservative act, they consider it bold. A tattoo tells the world that you don't think in timid terms. Perhaps your parents did, but you don't. Want some proof? Check out my tats. This isn't my father's skin you're looking at, pal.
But separating from one's parents isn't that simple. Parent-child tattoo dynamics are complicated. By getting a star tattooed on his arm in his mid-20s, author Nicholas Weinstock ("Secret Love of Sons") thought he was laying claim to his own body, much as astronauts claimed the moon by placing a flag in its surface. His mother didn't see it that way. "What were you thinking?" she asked when Weinstock showed her his tattoo. On reflection, he wasn't sure. Nor had he thought through the implications. Once he did, Weinstock came to realize that by tattooing himself he'd also tattooed her.
What the interest-based tattooed tribe overlooks is that the wheel turns. Just as they identify themselves as not-their-parents through body art, their kids will identify themselves as not-their-parents by pristine skin. In a few short years tattoos will be the visual equivalent of "hubba hubba" and "23 skidoo." Within a generation or two, nothing will say "hopelessly out of it" more clearly than indelible body art. (Stock tip: invest now in tattoo-removal technology.)
When the children of today's tattooed generation become parents themselves, body art will be pathetically passé. Something my folks got done. Old-fogey stuff. Like a grey Elvis pompadour or a balding man's ponytail. With tattoos, as with so many attempts to display our boldness, what we get is not always what we sought.
• Ralph Keyes's book "Retrotalk" will be published this year.