I got my first tattoo at a place called the Jade Dragon in Chicago. It’s a pretty famous tattoo parlor; there’s pictures all over the walls of various celebrities who have gotten work done there and there are billboards for the place all over town.
At the time, much like now, I was bald and had a goatee. In between my tattoo and the tattoo the friend I was with got, we ducked into a bar next door so that she could have a quick drink. It was her first tattoo too, and hers was a lot bigger than mine was, and she wanted a touch of liquid courage.
A guy at the bar, also bald and bearded, wearing a denim vest over a black T-shirt, made eye contact with me, did some sort of fist-pump gesture, and yelled “Skinhead! RAAH!” at us. We got the hell out of there– I told my friend to steal the fucking glass her drink was in if she needed to– and went back next door to get her tattoo done.
You get a T-shirt if you spend more than a certain amount on your tattoo, and the place is overpriced as hell so just about everyone qualifies for a free shirt. It’s got the logo of the place on it and a bunch of symbols all over the place. I figured they were just random flash tattoos. The shirt looked cool. I wore it as often as I wore any of my other shirts, I suppose.
Fast forward about a year. I’m chatting with this girl online and we get to talking about tattoos. I mention that I’ve got one and tell her it’s from the Jade when she asks where I got it.
“Ugh,” she says. “Don’t go there. The place is run by neo-Nazis.”
I flash back to that guy in the bar next door. And I do some research, and I discover that I’ve been wearing a shirt covered in white power symbols for a year. Luckily for me, a shirt covered in obscure white power symbols, as I’ve been wearing them on the South Side of Chicago and that could have ended up going very, very poorly for me.
The shirt is thrown away on the spot.
I am on an L train heading somewhere; hell if I remember where any longer. There’s a mom with several kids in the back of the train. The kids are being loud– not ridiculously so, but they’re clearly excited to be on the train and I get the feeling that they’re not from Chicago and this might be their first time. The train is maybe a third full; a few dozen people, perhaps. Some jackass starts yelling at the lady about how loud her kids are being and how she needs to keep them under control and it gets very creepy and threatening very quickly. The rest of the train car goes dead silent.
I unleash my teacher voice on the poor stupid bastard and redirect his attention from them to me. I am still bald and bearded and I’m wearing a black trenchcoat. I basically order him to shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down and not say another word until either the family or him is off the train and then stare at him until he complies.
No one else on the train says a word. One person– a white guy, maybe in his mid-fifties– nods approvingly at me. I get off the train a stop early at the same place the family does in case he decides to try and follow them. The mom thanks me. The guy gives us the finger through the train window. I blow him a kiss.
My wife and son and I go to hang out with some of our friends a few days after America decides to elect a fascist. One of our friends is wearing a safety pin on her shirt. I am not wearing one on mine. I think about that family on that L train, and wonder about that safety pin. Were they supposed to look around for someone wearing a safety pin, to appeal to that person for help? If it’s winter, does the safety pin move to the outer clothing, or does it stay on the shirt, where you can’t see it under the coat? And if the person wearing the safety pin stands up and makes herself visible, or speaks up and makes his voice heard, is the safety pin really making any difference? Who is it there for? Is it a reminder to ourselves? A signal to other people that we are virtuous? Both? Neither? If it’s not combined with action, does it really mean anything at all?
My friend has five children. Those kids need to know to stand up, and she’s teaching them how. And she walks the walk and talks the talk. She will stand up. The pin represents something real, on her. I wonder how many others that’s true for. How many people are just trying to make themselves feel better? And do I have any right to criticize anyone else for making a small gesture that makes the world seem a little less bleak than it has recently?
I probably do not.
There is an American flag on the wall in my office. America decides to elect a fascist and I find that I can’t stand to look at it any longer. I order a rainbow flag from Amazon and hang it over the American flag, without taking it down.
I still believe in the things that America is supposed to represent, but I’m not sure the Stars and Stripes represents those things any longer. The rainbow flag is better. It expresses my ideals more concisely.
It’s on the wall in my office. No one but me and my family is ever really going to see it. I leave it there anyway, because I need the reminder. So, for that matter, does my son, once he’s old enough to understand what it means.
I find myself looking forward to the day when I can take it down.