My friend Dave has decided to get a tattoo of a Recognizer from Tron. It’ll be his first (and probably only) tattoo, and I wasn’t at all surprised that’s what he wanted when finally making the plunge into getting ink. But while it’s far from the first time I’ve encountered the idea of a pop culture tattoo, Dave’s Recognizer is the first instance of a pop culture tattoo that hasn’t made me cringe a little bit.
Don’t get me wrong, I love tattoos. It’s just that, oxymoronic as it may sound, I’m kind of traditional when it comes to them. I dig the old maritime culture of tattoo designs that are like badges of particular skills or experiences, and while I don’t have anything against the idea of getting ink just for fun or decorative adornment, I tend to look at tattoos today more as an opportunity to represent something meaningful and personal. So no matter how well done the tattoos themselves are, whenever I’ve seen photos of Marvel back pieces, Disney sleeves, or Nintendo chest pieces, my first reaction tends to be an assumption that they’ll one day be regretted. As much as I may love certain comics, movies, or games, I’ve found it hard to imagine someone would really want the Avengers, a collection of princesses, or a bunch of video game bosses on them forever.
That being said, I didn’t bat an eyelash when my friend James decided on a Fahrenheit 451 tattoo. Ray Bradbury is his favorite author, and Fahrenheit 451 his favorite Bradbury work, so the burning paper man illustration from one of the Fahrenheit 451 covers struck me as the perfect choice for James when it came to putting an image permanently on his body. But if it’s this easy for me to understand getting a tattoo that references a book, shouldn’t a tattoo referencing a comic, movie, or game be just as easy for me to understand? After all, they’re all pieces of entertainment, and I’m sure there are people who love the Hulk or Ariel or Mario just as much as James loves Bradbury. If I cringe at the idea of a pop culture tattoo but like the idea of a literary one, am I being a snob?
I don’t think so. Because I don’t think it really has anything to do with the content at all. It’s actually about the relationship to the content, and how likely that relationship is to change.
Get me talking about Doctor Who and it’s immediately apparent I’m a huge fan. It’s definitely my favorite show, has been for a number of years at this point, and I’d even go so far as to say the Doctor is one of the best television characters I’ve ever encountered. But no matter how much I love Doctor Who, I’d never consider getting a Who tattoo. Even though I’ll likely always love the episodes I do at this moment, the still-evolving state of the franchise means I can’t be sure I’ll always love the show as a whole. If I put a TARDIS on my arm today and next season goes in a direction I hate, I not only get disappointed by a show I love, I also get a permanent reminder of that disappointment. Comics and video games go through the same amount of (if not more) evolution as TV shows, and though non-franchise movies are less likely to be subjected to it, the popularity of the reboot is high enough that I’d be hard-pressed to be positive a movie I love won’t end up mangled in the future with a remake or sequel.
Books, on the other hand, are obviously much less fluid. Sure, a series of novels can go through as much evolution as a TV show, comic, movie franchise, or game franchise, but with fewer hands at the helm of a series of novels than tend to be involved in most other forms of entertainment, I find it easier to assume I’ll like the next book in a series than I do to assume I’ll like the next offering of something I’ve previously enjoyed in one of these other fields. Shift the focus to stand-alone novels, and I can say with certainty that whenever my feelings about a book have changed, they’ve only become more positive over time. If there was an obvious and simple visual to be pulled from my favorite book, I probably would’ve gotten a tattoo of it years ago because I can be so confident my love for it is a lifelong love.
So what was it about Dave’s Recognizer tattoo idea that kept me from cringing? Knowing that for him, the tattoo is about more than Tron. His love for the movie stems not just from the film itself, but also from the fact that his first experience with it was special because of who shared it with him. This kind of love for a piece of entertainment is the caveat I was overlooking in the past when considering pop culture tattoos, and it’s made me realize there may have been more meaning to some ink I’ve seen and assumed wasn’t very personal. From now on, I’ll look a little harder for the story behind these kind of tattoos. But if there isn’t one to be found, I won’t feel bad about reverting to a cringe.