Cartoons are wonderful. Mother Culture feeds us various characters involved in outrageous situations.
When I was growing up in rural Indiana, I would rush home daily after school to watch everything from Mickey Mouse and GI Joe, to the Smurfs and ThunderCats. Saturday mornings were heaven. I would sit mesmerized by the flickering TV screen watching the anvils drop on the coyote and the moose pull a lion out of a hat. None, however, made as big of an impression on my little mind as the Pink Panther.
From his suave strut to his lazy looks, the Pink Panther oozes swank. He consistently tries to stay afloat in the pool of drama his creators toss him into for the requisite five to seven minutes. Spawn of the movies and named for a diamond, the unspeaking panther has served as a constant source of identification for me.
I can't remember the first time I saw inked skin on another human being, but I can remember always wanting to morph into Pink's slinky body. It was as if shedding my own personality and donning a pink groove would somehow allow me to feel cool or in control.
I announced to the world at age twelve that I was going to have a Pink Panther tattoo. What better totem than having Pink’s poise and laissez-fair attitude permanently gliding over my body? My mother was less than thrilled at my inspiration.
The University of Evansville was as far from my rural Indiana town as I could get while still staying in the state. Now that I lived in the "big city," I quickly discovered other queers and spent most of my year at school submerged in gay culture and drama. I dropped out the next year at 19. I've cursed that decision ever since — it was an idiotic resolution made by a child who should have been home watching cartoons instead of a man about to face the dreaded "real world."
Bill Clinton ran for president that year against the notoriously anti-gay George H.W. Bush. Clinton was touring the nation with a cavalcade of busses. He stopped in Evansville and having nothing better to do, I went to the rally.
"WHAT ABOUT AIDS?" screamed signs at the assembly. Curious as to why gays were picketing Clinton, I threaded my way through the crowd to the protestors from ACT UP. They explained their mission to get him to simply talk about AIDS to the American public at his campaign stops and asked if I'd like to join them on the campaign trail for the next few stops. Without a dollar in my pocket, I took off.
A few weeks later the bus tour ended in St. Louis and I headed back to Evansville and a really pissed off roommate. (Well, I did leave a note!) After a couple days of "Where have you been?" and "Where is your rent?" I was extremely relieved to get a telephone call from New York right after Clinton announced his intention to campaign the same way through the Midwest.
As a bonus, the bus tour would end close to Houston, Texas — site of the 1992 Republican National Convention. ACT UP had a large demonstration planned for the convention. Just about every gay rights, abortion rights, women's rights, civil rights, animal rights and religious right group had a protest of some sort in Houston that week. I signed up for a full tour of duty right away.
Jason Westmoreland was one of many people running helter-skelter around the ACT UP headquarters, but he was the first to ask me on a date. After a wild night of drinking and sightseeing on top of weeks of constant protesting, my rebelliousness and testosterone levels were peaking. Houston hosts several tattoo parlors and when I announced my goal of being inked, Jason knew just where to take me.
Around the time we pulled up out front, panic set in. I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of my date though, so, taking a deep breath and swallowing a prayer, I walked in.
The first sketch I saw was a huge Pink Panther someone had down their back — tail running down a leg. Horrified and fascinated, I had to inspect further. I found a few other smaller designs — but most were rather crass. Pink with a liquor bottle. Pink on a Harley Davidson. Pink doing things to other cartoon characters that you usually only see in magazines with brown covers. The only halfway decent depiction was of Pink in a tuxedo with a walking stick. Thinking it was now or never, I chose the tux.
Jason paid the man a decidedly small amount of money and suddenly the man was facing me with a razor in one hand and a pair of rubber gloves in his other. My drinks had worn off rather quickly. Coincidentally, it seemed to happen at about the time it sank into my liquor fogged mind that I was really going to have needles thrusting into my skin. I was excited, terrified, and sober.
As the man prepared his inks and needles, Jason quickly shot me the "peace" sign. Before I knew it, my arm was being held steady and the process had begun.
Surprisingly, it didn't hurt nearly as much as I thought it would. The only way I can think of to describe the feeling is to imagine a cat scratch with pressure behind it. I relaxed soon enough and began to enjoy watching the design take shape. An hour and a half later, I had a rakish Pink Panther, sporting a top hat and tails, on my right arm. I left ecstatic.
For months after I came home I would step out of the shower forgetting I had been inked and shocking myself every time I looked in the mirror.
My friends all thought my tattoo was "cool" and very "me." However, to me that little spot of ink on my skin had became a turning point — a "coming of age," if you will. I was a man now with the capabilities to look after myself. It still is a symbol of something more — of a feeling, an attitude. Even if things go wrong, just find a way through it and keep your cool.
It's a totem of swank and a source of identification. It is a permanent part of me.
I immediately wanted another tattoo. Five years later, I got a black and green tribal anklet. Now I want another. Mom's still not too excited.