Local Writer Randy Ross Gets Elephant Tattoo to Feel Young (Opinion Column)

Sight unseen: The march of time prompts one man to take his self-esteem to the tattoo parlor

I had heard all the age-related cliches: 60 is the new 40 (or 50); age is only a number; you’re only as young (or old) as you feel — ad nauseam.

But it is also true that a man of a certain age tends to feel invisible. No longer do we respect, as our parents did, the silver-haired foxes like Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Even pushing six decades, when these ageless icons entered a room, heads turned, people talked. But times change, and youth must be served. Just go to any mall or watch prime-time TV, and you’ll recognize that society caters to a younger crowd.

So, one winter morning, I looked in the mirror and saw no reflection that I recognized. Oh sure, it was me; but it was a me that had changed, aged, become — to my bewilderment and chagrin — almost invisible. I had lost the image of myself; I was convinced that others weren’t looking at me, but through me.

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Change is at hand, I thought. I will recreate myself, and become visible again.

It started with my hair — I still have the silver heft that made Grant and Fairbanks fashionable — so I moved the part. It started right, and then center, then left, and then back right. Undaunted, the rebellious follicles hung to their original positions, yawing at any angle that they felt like.
I countered by using “product” (as it is called in the trade). There on my son’s shower shelf was AXE gel — that potion of youthful energy touted to do to your hair what spinach once did to Popeye. I would be restored and renewed. At least my hair would be.

Not to be stopped in my quest for visibility, I changed my deodorant, my chin sprouted hair (although quite gray), my choice of bath soap went from whatever I could find to a “manly scent.” I set out that day with a brisk step and a new glow.

One day a week into my revival, while on my way to purchase the new GQ, I found myself gazing at the tattoo parlor near Marist College in Poughkeepsie. At any other time in my life, the store would have been invisible to me. But that day it summoned me, made me think of how a tattoo could, when viewed through new eyes — my eyes — make the invisible visible.

I did my homework: spoke to both fans and foes of the needle, googled designs, made sketches, and decided that this was something I wanted to do. So I did it.

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It sits on my forearm now, a bright tattoo of a smiling elephant, balanced circus-like on one leg. A longtime symbol of luck for me, the elephant is a reminder of the time in my life that was circus-like and out of balance; a time when the proverbial elephant was in the room; a time when other things really seemed to matter, but don’t anymore.

Getting that tattoo neither hurt nor changed society in any way. But if you’re a 60 year-old-man who wants to be visible to waitresses and busboys, sales people and doctors, a tattoo will bring you that attention. You view it all day, in sun and shade, in front of your TV and at work. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. The tattoo has made me visible to myself. I face it — and the reasons why I got it — daily. Others see it, but if it changes the way they feel about me, the way they see me, most don’t say.

Regrets? I’ve had a few, beginning the next morning. Just me in the mirror again, parting my hair, but looking at my arm, bedecked now with what some call the “silent scream” of a tattoo. Would I be judged differently — perhaps harshly — by the people who already know me? Conversely, would people who don’t know me judge me just on what they see on my arm? And — here’s the important question — should I care?

I, however, can see myself again in the mirror. I no longer look at the part of my hair or think about letting the stubble grow on my chin. I see my tattoo, visible and real and mine. Visible and real, like me.

» Read more by Randy Ross

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