Sex talk
Speaking of Tattoos

Simon Sheppard,

Back in the old days, "tattoo" likely meant a sailor's drunkenly acquired heart-on-bicep, inscribed with his girlfriend's name. How tattoo times have changed! Now everybody and his sober brother has tattoos – discreet little decorations, big and bold Maori tribal designs, or back-spanning Asian fantasies worthy of a Yakuza gangster. And nowadays simply everything gets tattooed, from ass to face to feet.

Tattoos used to seem strictly working class and vaguely, sleazily threatening. Now they're hip. And they're sexy – in a whole variety of ways. So what are the messages tattoos send out, and why are they alluring to so many gay guys?

If the tattoo in question is, say, a Superman symbol hovering promisingly over somebody's cock, or a lightning bolt pointing to a buttcrack, its message seems clear. Some bold guys even get their dicks decorated. "One man I know has a snake tattooed on his shaft," says a man who himself has a big yin-yang emblazoned at the base of his spine. "It uncoils itself when he gets excited."

But as Jim Gladstone, editor of the book Skin and Ink, points out, perhaps the real attraction isn't in the subject matter, but in the very flesh-centric act of tattooing.

"Next to one's own body," he points out, "a tattoo is the most 'ownable' possession a man can have, so it's interesting how alluring they are to other guys; perhaps we're always seeking those things we can't really have."

Then, too, there's the time-honored tradition of tattooing as a marker of masculinity. Sure, many women, from goth girls to Cher, have been inked. Even so, getting tattooed remains a guy's rite of passage – a suffering for art, an act of SM lite.

No matter how widespread the practice has become, there's still a certain aura surrounding a guy with thoroughly inked-up flesh. "Seeing tattoos on a guy makes me think that he's an adventurous sort, one conscious of his bod," says a gay man. "In other words, the kind of man I'd want to fuck me."

There's often an element of exhibitionism involved, of course – really shy guys rarely get prominent tattoos. But more than that, there's permanence. The here-and-now commitment of it – and damn the consequences down the road – can be a big part of tattooing's appeal. (Though one may wonder what well-decorated young fellows are going to feel like 30 or 40 years from now, when those daring designs have sagged so much they look like ugly abstract art.)

A tattoo, no matter how elaborate or nasty, is rarely the sort of thing that, just by itself, gets a guy's cock hard; after all is said and done, tats are probably not as fetishized as high-top sneakers or leather chaps. But if a design's prominent, it draws attention to the skin, and skin is what we touch when we're having sex. (Well, that and mucus membrane.) And if a tattoo's in a more private space, like the lower belly or the cheek of an illustrated ass, it can provide a boner-enhancing bonus of striptease delight: "Bet you didn't know I had that hidden away!" And yet, as editor Gladstone points out, there's a paradox: "Tattoos beg to be touched, yet they're ultimately untouchable, because the ink is beneath the skin, not really on the surface."

But maybe, when it comes to illustrated skin, things are simpler than that. "I think tattoos are sexy," says a fellow with elaborate Celtic curlicues, "and since I got tattooed, I feel sexier."

And really, who wouldn't want to fuck a butt adorned with a picture of Mickey Mouse?

Simon Sheppard is the author of Kinkorama: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Perversion

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