A Trip To The BVI Aboard The Bad Kitty

On Sunday we hauled out our passports and took an excursion to the British Virgin Islands aboard the Bad Kitty. It’s a nice little boat with a friendly three-person crew that took us and about two dozen other passengers on a three-stop tour.

The tour started with a long leg across relatively calm seas to the Baths, a popular destination for cruise ship excursions. Along the way, the crew gave us water, juice, fruit, and bread, then checked us in with the British authorities. The Bad Kitty then anchored close to the beach by the Baths, and the passengers and two of the crew members swam over. Because I didn’t have a waterproof carrier and didn’t want to wreck my phone, I didn’t get any photos of the Baths. They’re interesting rock formations right on the beach and pictured in countless swimsuit photo shoots. Be advised — there is some bending, climbing, and physical exertion in visiting the Baths, as you scale rocks and squeeze through crevices; an older guy in our group found it to be a struggle. And speaking of exertion: after the visit to the Baths we swam back through the surf to the Bad Kitty, which was about 100 yards offshore. My exposed cellphone would never have survived it.

Once all of the members of the group were present and accounted for we sailed past a number of the small islands in the BVI — many of which are apparently privately owned — to Norman Island for snorkeling. Along the way we saw lots of sailboats and other craft out on the water. It was a perfect day weather wise, and people were enjoying it to the hilt.

At Norman Island, we plunged into the water again to explore some good snorkeling territory, with lots of colorful tropical fish, like schools of yellowfin tuna, and a cave to explore. We were given flotation vests because U.S. law requires it, but the water is so salty floating is easy.

Then it was back into the boat for the last leg of the trip, to Jost Van Dyke. With the strenuous work done, the crew supplied us with a flow of “painkillers” — a popular local drink featuring rum, fruit juices, and a sprinkling of nutmeg on top to give it a nice holiday touch. We also were given Bad Kitty temporary tattoos, and the ready availability of the painkillers made for some creative tattoo placement on the part of some passengers. I went for the traditional upper arm placement.

Our final stop at Jost Van Dyke let us wade ashore onto what is supposedly one of the world’s premier party beaches. (We were told 15,000 people were expected on the beach for New Year’s Eve, which would be incredible if true.). Dozens of boats were anchored in the bay, and the alcohol flowed freely for the visitors. We stopped and had lunch, flaunted our tattoos, and enjoyed our trip to the BVI.

Ancient Tats

I’ve written before about the increasing number of tattoos you see these days — with reports estimating that about one-third of Americans are sporting ink — and what a cultural change it represents from the United States of my youth. (Arrows and infinity signs are popular these days, by the way.)

It turns out, though, that the current craze for “body art” has a very ancient lineage — and its known history has just gotten even older.

telemmglpict000155855176_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqmkujzfylr8qfmlqp7nvuva3q8tt5y4yc6db7uimlx80Researchers recently determined that two Egyptian mummies in the British Museum have tattoos.  The mummies are 5,000 years old and date back to pre-dynastic Egypt, which pushes the date of the earliest known use of figurative body art, rather than geometric patterns, back by an additional 1,000 years.  One of the mummies is a woman who has a series of four “s” shapes — perhaps coiled snakes? — inked on her shoulder, which may have been symbols of status, bravery, and magical knowledge.  The other mummy is a man who has depictions of a wild bull and a sheep on his upper arm.  The bull figure was supposed to denote power and virility, but it apparently didn’t help the male mummy, who died of a stab wound to the back when he was between 18 and 21 years old.

The markings were made using a technique that would be considered incredibly crude by modern standards.  The British Museum thinks the tattoos were produced using soot as the coloring agent and needles of copper or bone to insert the soot under the skin.

There’s no way to know, of course, whether figurative tattoos have an even more ancient history, because we don’t have preserved bodies going back 10,000 years.  The discoveries of cave paintings made by the earliest human ancestors, however, suggests to me that the creation of figurative art is instinctive and has played a key role in human development.  It just makes sense that the cave painters would also have experimented with decorating an actual body or two.  I’d bet that if you invented a time machine and went back to check out the humans of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, you’d see your fair share of ink.


Tattooed Nation

Bloomberg reports that about one third of adults in America now have tattoos.  That’s right — fully 30 percent of the people walking among us every day are sporting ink, somewhere, and that number includes about half of the “millennial” generation.

dennis-rodman-tattoos-5This news will not come as a surprise to anyone who is observant about our modern world.  Go to any local eatery, and you’ll notice that the young person waiting on you will have an elaborately designed sleeve, or a neck stamp.  Watch an NBA game, and you’ll see multiple examples of the cover art on Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man come to life, sprinting up and down the court and throwing down thunderous dunks.  Sit in a subway train, and you’ll observe that when the 40ish businesswoman sitting on the other side of the aisle crosses her legs, she displays a Chinese or Japanese symbol on her ankle.  In America, the ink is clearly flowing, and it’s pretty much everywhere.  The Bloomberg article reports that the increasing popularity of such “body art” has made tattooistry into a thriving industry that generates an estimated $1 billion annually, primarily through cash sales at individual tattoo parlors.

The tattoo phenomenon is one of those cultural changes that has happened so gradually you don’t really notice it — until you reflect on it, and compare modern times to earlier years.  Once, tattoos were rare and basically reserved for aging sailors, ex-convicts, Ivy Leaguers like George Schultz, who famously had the Princeton tiger tattooed on his keister, and outrageous personalities like Dennis Rodman, who displayed a lot of ink when he wasn’t wearing a wedding dress.

Now tattoos are ubiquitous.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to get one, however.  The idea of paying somebody to puncture my skin and ink up the dermal layer underneath gives me the willies.

But I wonder:  What’s next — serious facial and body piercings?  Maybe Dennis Rodman is more of a cultural trendsetter than we ever suspected.  That’s kind of a scary thought.

Tat Trouble

In case you’re looking for another reason to not get a tattoo, let me be of assistance — medical researchers are finding that a measurable portion of people who get inked report skin reactions which can last for months, or longer.

A recent study published in the thrillingly named journal Contact Dermatitis interviewed 300 New Yorkers with tats in the area around Central Park in June 2013.  (Wouldn’t you love to know, by the way, whether it took more than 15 minutes to find 300 inked people around Central Park, and how many of the people approached told the researchers to stick it?)  Ten percent of respondents reported having problems with their body art, ranging from rashes to itching, swelling, infections, delaying healing, and skin bumps, with six percent saying the problems continued for more than four months.  Some of the reactions appear to be responses caused by the body’s immune system.

The study also indicates that conditions seem to be related to the color of the ink used, with skin problems reported for red ink at levels disproportionate to the commonness of red ink tattoos. Researchers don’t yet know whether the reactions are due to the ink itself, or to brighteners or preservatives used with the ink — but then, tattoo-related conditions haven’t exactly been a hot topic in the medical research field.  That’s unfortunate because, as Dr. Marie Leger, spokesperson for the study, said, “The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood.”  No kidding!

If you’ve ever had poison ivy or a bad rash, you know that there are few things more maddening than persistently itchy skin.  I can’t imagine dealing with it for months, or even years.  With tattoos becoming increasingly common — Dr. Leger estimates one in five adult Americans has at least one tattoo — maybe it’s time to take a careful and systematic look at just what risks are involved in getting permanently inked up.

Some Piercing Observations On Body Art

Recently I went to the doctor’s office for a check-up.  As the nurse wrapped the blood pressure cuff on my arm, I noticed she had some kind of tattoo on the inside of her right wrist.  It appeared to fall onto the tasteful end of the broad spectrum of tattoos, but still it was jangling and discordant — like hearing a hockey player speak with a British accent or meeting an accountant who snapped his gum and had his hair fashioned into spikes.

Body art is one of the most ancient forms of human expression and individuality.  Different human cultures have often featured tattoo art, piercings, and other forms of ritual interference with normal body appearance — like using rings to stretch necks or wrapping female feet to keep them appropriately dainty (and crippled).  But as civilization moved forward, extensive tattoos were relegated to harpoon throwers and sideshow attractions.

It’s odd that such practices have had a seeming resurgence in modern times.  I suppose I can appreciate the impulse to get a tattoo that attests your devotion to a particular individual or branch of the military, but I can’t understand what would motivate 21st-century Americans to cover their bodies with writhing snakes, angry eagles, barbed wires, and skulls, or put a bolt in their nose, a ball through their tongue, or a ring or chain through other tender body parts.

When I see people with ornate body art I wonder what deep back story might be at play that would cause them to endure the countless painful needle pricks, skin cutting, and other forms of self-mutilation needed to produce their current appearance.  They seem to be making a sad cry for attention that they would not receive otherwise — and I confess that I draw inferences about their neediness, their judgment, and their impulsiveness.

Elaborate tattoos and nose studs might be fine on NBA players, punk rockers, and unisex hair salon workers, but I don’t think I’d vote for a presidential candidate with an ear ring and face tattoo.