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By Laura Hudson
TIT FOR TAT
Like a lot of kids, Brandon Knutson loved Batman. One of his earliest memories as a child was the 1989 Batman movie, and from that moment on, he had a hero. Knutson collected Batman action figures, wore Batman costumes, and watched the Batman cartoon. “I loved what he stood for,” said Knutson. “He didn’t need superpowers… he was just in a position to take action, and he did.” When Knutson got older, rather than growing out of his childhood fascination, he decided to reaffirm it with a very permanent action: he got a Batman tattoo.
Knutson’s story is not unusual; once considered the domain of sailors, soldiers and rebels, tattoos are now more popular in mainstream culture than ever before. Despite lingering taboos, a 2003 Harris poll found that 16 percent of Americans, or approximately 40 million people, have tattoos. As a lifelong commitment, tattoos are unavoidably significant, and common sense holds that they should be chosen carefully, to reflect something permanent and lasting. Why then, some wonder, do so many people choose comic book characters for their tattoos?
The motivation behind a comic book tattoo can be simple aesthetics; people like images that are attractive or cool, and superheroes tend to be both. The two most popular types of comic book tattoos are icons, like the X-Men “X” or the Superman “S,” and full character images. The latter category includes female comic book characters adapted into pin-up girl tattoos, a style that has long been popular with men for reasons other than fandom.
Keith Ciaramello, owner and artist at the Baldwin, New York-based Kustom Kulture Ink Tattoos, recalls numerous men choosing images from Top Cow swimsuit issues. “Men like to get tattoos of women,” says Ciaramello, who sees a very natural aesthetic instinct at work. “It’s the same reason Renaissance sculptors weren’t sculpting chickens, they were sculpting the human form.”
More often than not, though, superhero tattoos are more than pretty pictures to the people who choose them. They are intended to tell us something about who that person is, even if the message is simply, “I’m a comic book fan.” As Alastair Cameron-Hodges, an artist at Mom’s Tattoo in Amherst, Mass. says, “It boils down to this: Some people really like the Red Sox, so they get a tattoo of their logo. Other people grew up reading comic books and look to them for inspiration.”
Dan Buczynski of Pittsburgh, Penn., a professional photographer, was inspired to tattoo a camera-toting Spider-Man on his right forearm. The character usually appears to hang upside-down, but when Buczynski raises his camera to shoot, Spidey seems to do the same. “It’s funny that Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, is a photographer,” says Buczynski, a lifelong fan of the web slinger who sees more than coincidence in their shared profession. “I’ve had an interest in photography since my teens, and…it might have spawned from my love of the character.”
Chris Kohler of San Jose, Calif. also attaches a very individual meaning to the tattoos he calls his “personal totems.” Kohler displays Captain America on his right shoulder, and Cap’s nemesis Red Skull on his left. “Having both characters on me created a sort of a moral balance,” says Kohler. He later added a tattoo of Dr. Doom, a more ambivalent character whom Kohler felt was neither good nor evil, but rather fell into a more complicated and human space between, as almost all of us do.
Most tattoos pay tribute to a particular hero, team, or series, but Jess Hampton of Regina, Saskatchewan cited an even more specific motivation for her Bat logo tattoo: a single story. “I’d been a Batman fan since I was about ten,” she says, “But The Killing Joke affected me very profoundly.” Rather than a public homage to Batman or comic books, her tattoo was a personal reminder of a work that had moved her
“The Killing Joke is one particular graphic novel that illustrates the emotions of comic characters and really pulls apart their layers,” says Hampton. “So many people assume comics are just action and don’t touch on anything like societal or cultural issues. The truth is, comics are infinitely deconstructable and are mirrors of society, of ourselves.”
If comics, like other forms of art, are a mirror held up to the world, then many fans who look into it see the face of a superhero looking back. Often, someone chooses a particular character not just to communicate that he is a fan, but because “that’s how he idealizes himself in his mind,” says Ciaramello. “It’s more of a personal statement than a fan gesture.”
For men who see themselves as bad boys, anti-heroes or even villains might be their characters of choice. Ciaramello sees this as part of an older trend; in the ‘60s, “Every guy who thought he was a little bit of a wild man” wanted a tattoo of Hot Stuff the Little Devil, and in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became the Tasmanian Devil. “I think that’s why Wolverine is so popular now as a tattoo,” says Ciaramello. “He represents the wild, berserker tough guy.”
Such “tough guys” play into the stereotypical belief that tattoos are rebellious and anti-establishment. But despite the iconoclastic reputation body art still carries in some circles, one of the most popular superhero tattoos is an icon that runs very counter to those notions.
The Superman symbol, a red “S” in a blue shield, is one of the most recognizable icons in our culture. One poster for the new Superman movie consists of a single image: an “S.” The poster doesn’t mention the name of the movie, because it doesn’t need to — the symbol tells us everything we need to know. Countless men and women choosing tattoos have felt the same way.
Athletes in particular seem drawn to the Superman logo; it also graces the triceps of Olympic long jumper Savante Stringfellow, NFL center Ryan Tucker, and perhaps the most famous of all Super-tattooed athletes: the 7′1″, 330-pound NBA center Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal sees Superman’s dual identities reflected in his own life, and the distinction he makes between the personas he calls Shaquille and Shaq.
“They are the same person, but it’s kind of like Clark Kent and Superman,” said O’Neal in a 2002 New Yorker interview. “During the day, I am Shaquille, and at night I am Shaq.”
Heroes and their alter egos appeal to a common sentiment: the feeling that who really we are is different from the person that the rest of the world sees. Tommy Strangie, a.k.a. Shelley Novak, a prominent
Miami drag queen, knows the feeling all too well. A fan of comic books since childhood, Strangie realized as a teenager that he was gay. “You live a double life, then, trying to figure out what’s going on. I could relate to the Clark/Superman thing.” He tattooed the symbol on his arm in the mid-80s, inspired both by the symbolic duality and a similar tattoo sported by then-superstar Jon Bon Jovi.
Strangie later moved to Miami Beach, where he created a very literal alter ego, a drag character called Shelley Novak. After his shows, he would often pull a Clark Kent, circulating among the audience out of costume and asking about the show. Audience members, who failed to recognize him, would offer up the unvarnished truth. “I was leading another double life,” he says.
Strangie, who is often approached by others with Superman tattoos, adds that, “Everyone has images that are conjured up by [the icon]. It means different things to different people.” Those people include basketball stars and drag queens, men and women, young and old, in America and all around the world. Symbols have the meaning we give them, and quite naturally when we look at our heroes, we tend to see ourselves — or else, our ideal selves.
For Arune Singh, who tattooed the Superman icon on his left shoulder the day before Christopher Reeve’s death, his tattoo is “a reminder to look for the best in people.” Singh, a writer at comicbookresources.com who also wants to pursue a career in law enforcement, also says that the tattoo reminds him “to embody the ideals of truth and justice.”
Candice P. of Fort Worth, Texas also sees her Superman tattoo as a very personal symbol that represents the ordinary heroism she hopes to demonstrate in her daily life. “I know I can’t fly [and] don’t have super-strength, but in my everyday life and job sometimes I help people and…even save the day.”
Bodybuilder Lee Priest, an ardent Superman fan with a tattoo to match, was inspired not only by Superman’s physical strength, but also his principles. As Priest’s mother explains on his official Web page, he discovered Superman at age six, and soon asked his mother to make him the first of many Superman suits. The costumes “gave him the courage he needed. He became a bit of a hero in his own right… He loved to right all wrongs and be friend to those who didn’t have any.”
For these three tattooed individuals, Superman is not only a hero, but a role model, and the distinction is important. A hero does the things we wish we could do, but a role model inspires us to do those things ourselves. For fans like these, their tattoos represent not only the hero they love, but the principles he represents, and ultimately, the kind of person they aspire to be.
The 2000 DC Comics mini-series “Realworlds: Superman” featured a man named Eddie Dial, a mild-mannered grocery store employee. After a long night of drinking, he awoke and discovered to his horror that a life-size Superman emblem had been tattooed across his chest by a local thug. Suddenly, everything changed — thanks to the tattoo Eddie was mocked, fired, arrested, and beaten within an inch of his life.
Then, something incredible happened. Eddie decided to claim the symbol as his own, and slowly remade himself into a muscleman strong enough to fight the bully who humiliated him. What had once been a mark of shame became a symbol of empowerment, and Eddie became a different man.
Although Eddie isn’t real, his metamorphosis is far from fictional. Throughout history, tattoos have had the power to confer identity, transforming their bearers into both slaves and warriors, outcasts and heroes. People believed that symbols inked on the skin had the power to tell a man who he was, and to inscribe his destiny.
Although life still marks us indelibly as we run its temporal gauntlet, the only tattoos we bear today are the ones we choose. In a world where people are often judged at first glance, tattoos can convey where we have been, what we love, and who we are without saying a word. Like Herman Melville’s Queequeg or Ray Bradbury’s Tattooed Man, we can make our skin a parchment, and use it to tell the tale of ourselves, however we wish to write it.
“I think about the reasons that people get tattoos,” says Jess Hampton, “And I guess none of them are wrong reasons. It’s perfectly fair to get a tattoo of something just because it looks cool. For me, though, it made a lot of sense to pay homage to a piece of writing that deeply affected me… I love all aspects of comics — the deep stuff and the silly surface stuff — and I think my tattoo, to me at least, represents both.”
Of course, the story a tattoo tells and the one that others hear are not always the same, but most people report very positive reactions. Often, they approached by fellow fans eager to talk about comics, or even share their own superhero tattoos. “I get all kind of compliments,” says Buczynski of his Spider-Man tattoo, “Ranging from little kids going ‘Spider-Man! Spider-Man!’ and pointing to my arm to adults of all ages saying how much they like it.”
There is, of course, the occasional ribbing: Bat logo tattoos seem to encourage the impromptu singing of the ‘70s Batman theme song, while Superman images may elicit “This is a job for…,” jokes from friends.
Kohler mentions that his parents were “not very thrilled” when he started getting comic book tattoos, “[But] I didn’t join a biker gang or become unemployable, so they live with it.” Such teasing and parental disapproval seem no deterrent to those eager to ink themselves with heroes — people like Brandon Knutson, whose Batman tattoo is a constant reminder that “you can do anything you feel strongly about, and that you can find the good in any horrible situation.”
Of course, some people choose them for less thoughtful or laudable reasons, but for every remorseful 30-something with a hastily-inked Vampirella pin-up he regrets, there is someone like Strangie, who 20 years later says his Superman tattoo is “even more powerful” to him than the day he got it.
A superhero tattoo might seem like nothing more than an act of ego or wishful thinking, but to dismiss it so easily overlooks something else that superheroes represent: that people can be more than what they appear to be, that seemingly ordinary joes can be capable of extraordinary things, and that symbols can both inspire and transform us. Perhaps it is because they can remind us of what we knew as children, when we dressed up in the costumes of heroes: that we have the power to imagine ourselves as the people we want to be.
When we choose them well, tattoos are the stories we tell about the parts of ourselves that matter, the parts of ourselves that will endure. For some, the stories of superheroes are the ones that tell it best.
-Alastair Cameron-Hodges of Mom’s Tattoo says, “Do your homework: Don’t assume that any tattoo artist can do the tattoo that you want. Check their portfolio to see what style they specialize in or enjoy most. If you want a superhero tattoo, try to find someone who is into comic books.” As with any tattoo, “ask questions, and try to get a feel for the situation.” Make sure that you–and the artist—feel confident about the tattoo before getting in the chair.
-Keith Ciaramello of Sketchkult.com warns that direct translation between comics and body art is difficult, and that “most comic imagery is not meant to be tattooed. You can’t crosshatch on a tattoo. You have to simplify these designs and shade them in more of an airbrushed style, rather than a pen and ink style, especially if you want your tattoo to have a long life and not turn mushy in 10 or 12 years.” He notes that icons, like the Superman S or the X-men X, work better as tattoos than full character images.
-John Montgomery of Bombshell Tattoos in Houston, Texas agrees: “straight-from-comic art is near impossible to replicate because of the hatching/crosshatching shading that many artists use. Too much detail in the linework can result in disaster months down the line when… [it can] blob together and become near-indistinguishable.” Rather than simply handing a tattoo artist a page from a comic book, work with an artist to design “a piece to fit the body part. A lot of pieces straight from the book aren’t really shaped to take the most advantage of the space provided, another reason it would be good to have an adept artist work with you.”
-19th century Maori warrior Netana Whakaari advises choosing images with lifelong meaning: “You may lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways. You may lose your house, your wife and other treasures. But of your [tattoo], you cannot be deprived except by death. It will be your ornament and companion until your last day.”