115 Tattoos, 40 Million Stories

Barbara Davenport, San Diego Citybeat

August 13, 2008

“Choosing to get tattooed transforms you … sometimes innocuously, sometimes with profound significance.” Kip Fulbeck should know. His new book, Permanence, shows photographs of 115 people with tattoos, each photo paired with the person’s handwritten statement. A grandmother, a Hells Angel, a marine biologist (“only real marine biologists have tattoos. That’s how you can tell the real ones from the wannabe’s”), a father with his toddler son, an Auschwitz survivor, an Army Ranger, a cancer survivor with a double mastectomy, rocker Joan Jett, a New York fireman with the burning Twin Towers on his back, a dwarf, a middle-aged white guy, an Asian teen, a gay Mormon — the range of people is as diverse as their reasons for getting tattooed.

The photos are striking, but people’s statements — windows into their longings and aspirations — make the book compelling. You can’t read them without being moved, having your understanding widened and experiencing the mystery of the lives of others.

Extensively tattooed himself, Fulbeck is respectful of the artistry and ritual of tattooing and proudly wears the works of Japanese masters. He was an All-American swimmer at UCSD, and for 19 summers he’s come back to teach in the junior lifeguard program in Solana Beach. He’s also made nine films, and he’s a full professor and head of the art department at UC Santa Barbara.

Some 40 million Americans now have tattoos, every one of them with a story. Fulbeck thinks the rise in tattooing has to do with the need for ritual.

“People who get tattoos are looking for a deeper layer of meaning,” he says, “a ritual of transformation.”