Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speaking Truth to Power. Everywhere.

Ghandi on the Boardwalk, 2011

As I sat down to write this I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. In that story a little boy, bored with the view out the window of his nondescript house on a nondescript street starts noticing all kinds of amazing things he’d never expected to see.

I have to admit that neither the Boardwalk in Virginia Beach nor a tattoo are places I’d have expected to find the words of Mahatma Gandhi. But the more I pay attention to the life of the oceanfront the more I’m realizing that you can see a little bit of just about everything there. To wit, the young man above.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

I don’t know a lot about tattoos. But I know they come in all varieties. In just a few minutes this past weekend I saw everything from discreet little roses to palm trees to dragons to cannons firing. They were sentimental (“Mom,” “Parrothead”), religious (“Jesus is Awesome”) or completely in your face (“BACK OFF, MOTHERF-----S!”).

Years ago I stayed in a hotel Philadelphia where a national “body art” convention was taking place. After that, I thought I’d seen it all then. But clearly I had much left to learn.

There’s one thing I can say for sure, though. It’s that most people with tattoos want you to see them. I noticed a young man the other day, for example, who had one sleeve of his tee-shirt rolled up across his shoulder just so the tattoo on his upper arm could be seen. I wish I’d gotten a picture of that. But I didn’t because I wasn’t ready. I’m learning that if you want to shoot tattoos in a crowd you have to shoot fast and worry about composition later.

The young man in the picture above caught my attention because he has so much “written” in the tattoo on the back of his neck. Your garden variety redneck with a Confederate flag inked across his back doesn’t hold much mystery. But someone with several lines of text; well that takes some determination.

I was shooting with a wide-angle lens—it was too crowded for anything else—so I didn’t have the luxury of standing back from my subject. I got up close enough behind the young man to take this picture. But to be honest, I wasn’t close enough to read the tattoo. When I got home and looked at the picture, I thought this might just be another young disaffected man—there are a lot of them around here—with an attitude. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow” sounds like one of those bad attitude lines you’d hear Nicholas Cage say in a movie.

But then I read the second line, “Learn as if you will live forever.” That definitely didn’t sound like a Nicholas Cage line. Disaffected young men don’t walk around espousing lifelong learning. So I Googled the line and learned that this tidbit of a life lesson was originally spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, the modern godfather of civil resistance.

The only mystery left now is to figure out why the young man has this message tattooed on the back of his neck where he can’t even see it instead of some place where he can be inspired by it and see the reaction of other people reading it. I mean, if your life’s going to be a lesson for other people, don’t you want to see if it’s working?


  1. Maybe he intends to lead. . .

  2. Maybe he wants others to heed the advice...Love your tattoo series.

    A friend of mine is taking a leave of absence from Duke and she and her husband are heading off on a Semester at Sea to 7 different Mediterranean countries. She's starting a blog that's called "O, the places we'll see." Seems to be a Seuss theme today.