The Tattooed Wonder
It was time for the annual July 4th, family gathering at Aunt Betty’s lake house in the Berkshires. We had gone to see some of my wife’s family every year for swimming, boating, a barbeque, and fireworks. This year there would be a new addition.
One of the nieces, Erin, a lovely midwestern girl with a shock of strawberry blond hair and the look of a young Merely Streep, was bringing her boyfriend Ethan. I was given a prequel before the party.
“Oh, Ethan, the tattooed wonder” Aunt Betty said. “He is very intelligent, just graduated BU, won the philosophy prize, plays electric violin or something. But he’s got these tattoos and a big ring through his nose. Right in the center. I’m sure you will have a lot to talk about."
I wonder why.
I grew up in a different time and inherited the prejudice of my parent’s WW II thinking. Tattoos were drunk servicemen and ladies of the night. As they became more popular and lost their earlier associations, I freely admit to gazing at an occasional butterfly fluttering across the nape of a young woman’s neck or gracing a well-turned ankle. But my prejudice still lingered.
Ethan did not disappoint. We met and chatted amiably; me, doing my best not to recoil in imagined pain at his silver nose ring, he, discovering a middle aged relative who might understand something of his world.
I am not so small minded that I can’t have a nice afternoon with someone who’s personal style, esthetic or even ideas, I don’t particularly care for. I love conversation; a new person at a family gathering immediately draws my attention.
We talked music – his electric violin in a new wave band, my jazz piano in fancy restaurants- and philosophy – Plato or Aristotle- the philosophy version of what’s your sign- and our eagerness for the barbeque lunch. People started to strip off outerwear; jump into boats, swim in the lake, lay out on the dock.
Ethan took off his shirt and there was his reputation and moniker on full display- a medieval like cross covered his chest where another man might have had body hair.
I smiled, continued our conversation, and tried not to gap in shock. I had been forewarned. He turned around to answer another cousin, and I was not prepared for what I saw next.
Across his back was the most exquisite line drawing of Raphael’s immortal painting “The School of Athens.” Every color was true to the original, the proportions perfect: Plato pointing up to the heavens, Aristotle gesturing down to the earth, both walking from the ancient world through Greek columns, ushering in the Italian Renaissance.
Down below were all the great minds and artists of each culture, Renaissance artists, scientists, and philosophers, paired with their doppelgangers from Ancient Greece: Pythagoras scribbling in a book, Michelangelo, lost in thought, writing down an idea with a drafting pen, Euclid, bending to etch out a geometry proof for a cluster of students, Raphael the artist, peering out discreetly from one corner.
“That’s the School of Athens,” I said, somewhat agape.
“Yeah,” he said, “Raphael is my favorite painter.”
“I just saw it last summer in Rome” I said. “It’s fantastic, nothing like in the art books. We walked in the room and literally, gasped for breath.”
“Gosh,” he said. “You are so lucky. I really want to go see it. I have got to get there."
“You will,” I smiled.
We both heaved a sigh of relief- to talk to someone who you don’t have to explain the subject or your enthusiasm. We both knew how rare it was.
We talked about art and Athens.
“You have been there too?” he asked.
“Yeah, “I said. “The Parthenon is on another plane entirely.”
He knew what I meant.
It was getting hot; we both were beginning to sweat. He stretched his arms lazily. Erin, his beautiful midwestern girlfriend, called to us.
“Are you guys coming in the water?”
We both grinned. Even at his young age, he was used to having her move him along. My wife had all but given up.
He stretched again and I did a double take. There, on the inner part of his upper arm, was a phrase in Ancient Greek.
“Where you been my whole life, you tattooed fool," I laughed to myself.
I read it off.
“You can read that?” he said, excited and more than a little incredulous.
“Yeah, I can. That’s Hector saying goodbye to his wife on the gates of Troy. It’s the saddest part of the Iliad.”
“You are a jazz piano player. How do you know how to read Homer?”
“I taught myself. I got a royalty check a few years ago and took the family to Greece for a month. I taught the kids Greek to prepare for the trip and learned as we went along. We took them out of school, made them learn everything they could about the ancient culture and language before the trip.”
“That is so cool,” he said.
“The Iliad is my favorite story” I said, "next to the Odyssey.”
I’m used to people glazing over at this point. With most people, I never even get this far.
“I love those stories,” he said. “Growing up, Greek Myths were my favorite, I read them by the hour. I can’t believe you can read Greek. I’m jealous.”
“I’m not that good at it, but I can stumble through a little.”
We talked about the difference between ancient and modern Greek, and the alphabet, and the Romans and the Renaissance- all the stuff I carry around in my head, when I’m not playing jazz piano.
We could have talked all day.
Finally, I jumped in a boat, and he dove in the water, and we went through our afternoon, chit chatting with other people at the party. At the meal, we sat at opposite ends of the two picnic tables and occasionally caught each other’s eye. We had been somewhere together, and we knew it. We didn’t touch our common theme again the rest of the day. It was enough to know we each had a compatriot.
After the fireworks and hugs all around, I tapped him on the back.
“It was a pleasure talking to you," I said.
“Likewise,” he said.
The esthetic of tattoos still drives me a little bonkers, I must admit, particularly when they look like mythic deep-sea creatures, about to strangle their host.
But I recognize, there is a personal story behind each of them, even if it just a drunken revelry in a college town or a wild night in a port city. If you have the nerve, ask. That person just might be in love with your two favorite things in the world.