Permanently Bonded Leisure Suit

A Marginal Revolution reader asks:

How would you pick a tattoo, if you decided you were going to get one? How would you pick something that your future self is most likely to be glad to have? A favorite piece of art? Follow Leeson's lead and get an economics-related tattoo? Names of family members are off-limits, as are answers like "get a small dot in my armpit that nobody would see."

I could argue that it is impossible to make a political, religious, or personal statement one is 100% sure will still be relevant 30 years hence.  Here is the solution I teach to my kids -- never, ever make a fashion you can't remove (e.g. piercing OK, tattoos not OK).   I have lived through leisure suits and grunge, wide ties and narrow, short skirts and long, tie dye and soft pastels.  Think of tattooing as having a leisure suit permanently bonded to your body.

Some will say this is evading the question, so I will actually provide an answer.  The only thing I might have conceivably chosen to ink my body with at 20 that I could probably still live with today at 48 would be something having to do with my undergrad college (Princeton).   Call it the George Shultz rule.


  1. Doug:

    So if I went to UC Santa Cruz, I should have a banana slug tattooed on my butt? THAT would hold up over time? (So to speak.)

  2. Andrew:

    it really depends on the culture you live in, but many people with tattoos choose them to be significant at the time they get them so that when they look back they can remember where they were.
    In cases like that it doesn't really matter if you feel the same way about them later, its all about reminding yourself about how you felt then.

  3. Maddog:

    "How would you pick a tattoo"? "Why would you?" is the threshold question. And that I cannot pass. Since there are no graphical images which are not altered over time, imprinting yourself with an image is foolish.

    My desire to belong to a group is also not sufficiently overpowering to move me through the threshold question.

    The last thing that comes to mind is harrowing experience. For that I might get a tattoo, but while I have had a few, all have been with my closest brother at my side. We share blood and a tattoo could never be more than an impuissant representation of blood. I am too much the loner to place my life in the hands of another and I have no desire or emotional need to lead. There will be no friendship forged through harrowing experience to commemorate.

    I guess I lose, no tattoo for me.

  4. Dr. T:

    If I had to choose a tattoo, mine would say SKEPTIC.

  5. Fred Z:

    My 'Onkel' Michel has his blood group tattooed on his arm.

    That is one of the many reasons I dislike tattoos.

  6. Liberty:

    I've survived this long without ever feeling the need, but I were to choose one it would be the words "Spirit of `76"
    perhaps with the appropriate image.

  7. Evil Red Scandi:

    As one of my friends is fond of saying with regards to tattoos: "You don't put bumper stickers on a Ferrari..."

  8. gordon:

    Knew a guy who got a tat of the mascot of small school where he went to play football. He got it before camp, and didn't make it through camp his freshman year.

  9. GB:

    I once considered getting a R and a L tattooed on top of my feet. Never did it, but hey it is a joke that stands the test of time and could be useful in old age... As to evolutionary fitness and tatooing there was a recent study (no idea of the academic rigor used)suggesting that better genetic specimens were more likely to be tattooed. Contrary to what you would think.

  10. Sean:

    I grew up in the 60's and 70's when tattoos were more associated with WWII veterans who came back with a souvenir of a drunken leave or liberty. My kids of course live in a different world. When conversation of tattoos came up, it was almost always a justification of allowing a new piercing as it was less permanent than a tattoo. Both kids (a boy and a girl) ended up getting tattoos while in college (one at West Point). That led to the only guidance I gave my son regarding who he can choose to marry, the girl has to have fewer tattoos than he does. He is in fact married now and I asked if his wife met the criteria. He said she did and I will just have to take his word for it.

  11. Fred from Canuckistan:

    Even worse than ink tattoos, the kids these days are creating their own non-erasable digital tattoos . . . think Facebook, texting/sexting, social media et al.

    What would George think of digital tattoos?

  12. IgotBupkis:

    OK --two comments here:

    Point one:

    Matt Groening made his own variation of this commentary many years ago in one of his Life In Hell toons --

    Single-panel Picture, no dialogue or commentary:

    Two Grandpa-Simpson types sitting in rocking chairs on a porch, facing each other, both in classical undershirts.
    On the arm of one is a tat reading: "Alannis Forever". On the arm of the other is the tat "Metallica Rules".

    'Nuff said.

    In general, I more than amply concur -- there is very little one can say at 20 that one will be sure to want to say at 60.

    Point two:

    More importantly -- I will not attempt to speak for women looking at men (or lesbians looking at women), but, frankly, any woman who thinks that any possible work of art made by man can improve in any regard that matters upon the simple artistic wonder of smooth female flesh is just utterly clueless about what motivates men and takes our breath away.

    There's a scene in Cider House Rules -- and any guy who has seen the movie instantly knows, without reading any further, which one I'm talking about -- in which Toby MacGuire turns around and just stops, dumbfounded, as he sees Charlize Theron's backside in a classic nude pose, and I'll tell you, what goes through the mind of any man even vaguely above pure troglodyte is not lust. It's the higher sense of appreciation of "form and beauty" that has motivated true art since the caveman days.

    There are no doubt men who can see that scene and the first thought through their mind is, "I'd TAP THAT!!", but not one who should be called "human". Anyone with that reaction is a mere ape who has learned to tie shoes and not fling poo.

    My point: A tat on Theron's flesh could only detract from that awesome sight.

    It can only say, "Hey, look at me! I'm this ugly thing marring a spectacularly magnificent work of art! I'm a giant mole on the Mona Lisa, a cancre on David's ass, a goiter on Venus on her Half-shell!"

    Once again -- "'Nuff said."


  13. perlhaqr:

    I've contemplated getting the text of the Bill of Rights tattooed on my back. One hopes that would retain relevance over the span of my life. And if not, I'd have no qualms about having it as a monument.

  14. Brad Warbiany:

    At the very least, I was told in college of a simple test that should be a bare minimum before choosing to get a tattoo. Once you've decided what you want, wait 1 full year. Don't get the tattoo unless you still want it a year later. I followed that advice with both of my tattoos, and a decade later, I don't regret them.

  15. cut bait:

    all right, y'all. knock off all this here common sense talk. an ignernt person might stumble upon them and use them to his/her advantage. this would negate the primary function and use of tats: as dumb-shit indicators. in these dark & dangerous times, we need all the help identifying them we can get.

  16. ZT:

    As my old pappy told me, "Son, never get a tattoo. It's just one more thing the cops can put on the 'Wanted' poster." I have followed his advice.

  17. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    > in these dark & dangerous times, we need all the help identifying them we can get.

    What's tough? Ask one question: "What do you think about Obama?" Not only will the answer give you a straight up-or-down on the dumbshit test, the full commentary can give you a full spectrum gradation from "Lackwit moron" to "Savvy guy/girl".

    If the circumstances have you feeling slightly less political, "What do you think about Man-made Global Warming?" That will function much the same.


  18. greg:

    Andrew is on the right track. A tattoo has significance fare beyond the actual words or images depicted. It's a reminder of the time in my life when I got it, the people I had around me, and what I was going through at the time. The markings makes my body look different and unique from the "standard human being". It provides a sense of permanence to the world. (my clothes wear and fall apart, my house rots, my vehicle rusts, but my tattoo looks the same as the day I got it). I could go on and on providing personal reasons for my decision, but in the end you are either a person who 'gets' tattoos, or they don't. (and if you can draw any sort of comparison between a leisure suit and a tattoo; you're probably in the latter category.)

  19. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    > The markings makes my body look different and unique from the “standard human being”

    Amazingly, I bet your DNA did a much more effective job of that... :oP

    > but my tattoo looks the same as the day I got it

    LOL -- You clearly haven't aged much yet -- look at the tat on an old sailor -- the dies fade and spread (just like clothing) and your flesh WILL sag, turning that bold eagle into a decrepit crow.

    > if you can draw any sort of comparison between a leisure suit and a tattoo; you’re probably in the latter category.

    It is, of course, your body, and in EVERY sense, yours to do with as you will... don't let anything I say lead anyone to believe I would think to deny anyone their right to do this sort of thing however much, often, and in whatever way they choose -- But trust me, "son", when I say, that comment you just made has been made by every generation attempting to distinctify itself from its predecessor since Og, son of Gag, first strapped a piece of obsidian to a stick and sneered at Gag's Mammoth Thigh Club.

    Even if you're not young any more, that statement still holds true.

    You may never regret the tattoo, and, frankly, more power to you in that, but, in the end, as with long hair and zoot suits, it's a fad, and once a lot of people have them, they will become the mark of "uncool", instead of being "cool".

    Therein lies the problem, since , unfortunately, long hair can be cut off, and zoot suits can be hidden in the back of the closet never to be spoken of again.

    And thus, I will continue to maintain that there is a tremendous future growth business in laser tattoo removal.


  20. Orion:

    safest tattoo-a deceased relative. The relationship cannot change by virtue of the fact that they are not around to change the terms. Second safest tattoo-a child's name. They will always be your child no matter what happens in the meantime. I have neither tattoo yet I do have several tattoos. I see them as a snapshot of a point in time. I still like them although two are far less relevant to my life now.

  21. yunglew:

    remember back when all the hip folks were all smoking cigars? (women too! they looked so **cool**!!!) remember how awesome it was, and everyone toodled off to join a humidor club, and told themselves they'd _always_ enjoy the fine taste of a hand-rolled chingada y basura after a hard day? remember that?

    how'd that work out? did that craze fade away? oh, _permanent_ damage, right? (except for the pictures their kids will use in the coming years to make mom & dad's life hell? "mom, why are you engaging in an act most commonly associated with dockworkers and 'the most interesting man in the world'?"

    pictures, however, can be destroyed; ALL the evidence can vanish if you're suitably assiduous. tats....not so much.

  22. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    > Second safest tattoo-a child’s name. They will always be your child no matter what happens in the meantime.

    The danger here is that something awful happens to the child, and it becomes a constant reminder of that awful thing, rather than a beneficial memory.


    I'll give you the deceased relative one, though that oughta be one majorly impressive relationship to memorialize like that.

  23. Matthew Brown:

    Someone once said to me "The only names you should ever tattoo on yourself are your parents', your kids', and someone safely dead," and that sounds like a good rule. Also, I think, tattooing any band's name or logo on yourself is just fated to jinx them -- they will break up or start to suck almost immediately.

  24. CAP:

    I have only one tattoo. It is of the United States Constitution with a banner above that reads "Live Free", and a banner below that reads "Or Die". It was relevent 200 years ago and it is still relevent today.

  25. Robert:

    I will be getting my three boy's date of birth in Roman numerals on my upper back once I find a reputable tatoo artist (go ahead and make the obligatory joke here) in my area. My boys will always be my boys. I will always remember them regardless of whether "something awful happens" to them or if they outlive me (hopefully the latter).

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  27. markm:

    Perhaqr and CAP have the least bad ideas for tattoos.

    For the worst tattoo idea ever, see the movie "Down Periscope". (Amazingly, Wikipedia manages to review the movie without mentioning it,but if you've ever seen the film you won't forget, and if you haven't, you should.)

  28. jay:

    The problem can be out of your hands.

    There is the danger that the image you select now that is cool and reflective of you might in future be co-opted by people that you don't want to be associated with.

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