There is an arm, sheathed in medieval battle gear and resting on what looks like a crown, and the hand at the end of that arm is clutching a red cross, all of which is encircled by a belt bearing a cryptic inscription. It's my family "badge," along the lines of a crest or coat of arms, and now it's a part of me. My first tattoo, compliments of my midlife crisis, and already I'm having second thoughts.
At issue, that mysterious slogan. BUAIDH NO BAS. I'm pretty sure the tattooer didn't misspell it, nor is it something now deemed politically incorrect, like old Celtic for "chick magnet," as one friend suggested. In truth, the words carry more of a "Braveheart" quality to them, the rough translation being "Victory or death."
But as a nonpracticing Scotsman, ethnic pride is new ground for me. Up until now I've been one of those "group hug" sorts of guys, softly reciting the words to "Imagine" while wondering, like Rodney King, why we all can't just get along. If you ask me, there's already way too much that divides us in this world, and, although it's a stretch, it could be argued that cultural delineation serves as the first step down the slippery slope to the concentration camps.
I've never really felt a strong connection to my ancestors. In fact, none whatsoever. That's because I live in Michigan, as have several generations of my family. For me, the "homeland" is nothing more than a small ranch in suburbia. Maybe I'd feel differently if King Edward's men were ransacking the village and dragging off the womenfolk, but there hasn't been much of that going on lately.
Then why did I mark myself in this manner? Good question. To me, being Scottish has meant little more than having a last name forever butchered by unwitting telemarketers. Besides, considering the procreation free-for-all that's taken place since the first MacDougalls washed up on the shores of Nova Scotia a couple of centuries ago, my pedigree is somewhat suspect.
Yet there it is, high on my left arm, a Gaelic rendering that identifies me as a son of Scotland. I'll admit, they sucked me in with all those shows where people are getting "inked." It looked almost … fun. So I'd actually been thinking about it for a while, trying to decide what I could get that would outlast the relevance of, say, barbed wire or a naked fairy with gossamer hair and freakishly large breasts riding a unicorn over a rainbow.
And there's the rub when it comes to tattoos, because it may not be so much about picking the right one as it is not picking the wrong one. I've always liked Southwestern imagery—gecko lizards and cattle skulls—but that now seems so '70s, like an old Eagles album cover. So, I thought, how about something with more timeless appeal? For instance, that flute-playing Kokopelli stick figurine, the one the Anasazi Indians were so fond of, bringer of joy, happiness and fertility. The thing is, to me he's just "cool," but in some circles the guy is looked upon as sacred. Suddenly I've opened the door to all those questions about the unauthorized use of Native American symbols. Would affixing his likeness to a wayward Scotsman be viewed as a step toward racial harmony or simply one more case of cultural insensitivity?
So I put aside the Southwestern thing. I thought about a tattoo of a Volkswagen, an old one, to acknowledge both my hippie past and love for the vintage vehicle. I could get one of a Beetle or, better yet, a microbus on some winding mountain road, an arm extended from the driver's window, hand flashing a peace sign, and maybe that rainbow in the distance ...
Yikes. It's easy to see how these things can quickly spiral out of control. And why it's probably best to keep alcohol out of the mix. One minute you're doodling pictures of swords on a bar napkin and the next you have the Battle of Helm's Deep splashed across your back.
In the end, my choice was more about originality than anything else, I guess. The last thing this world needs is another silver-haired suburbanite flashing his Harley-Davidson tat around the water cooler. But it doesn't mean I've forgotten the words of Rodney King—or John Lennon, for that matter. Quite the contrary: now I may have to get some of those words tattooed on the other arm just to even things out. Maybe on the side of that microbus, on that winding mountain road ...