Tattoos have emerged from the shadows of sailor culture, street life and foreign exotica to be recognised as art forms and embraced by popular culture. What you get inked on your skin is the big decision. But where you get it matters, too. Tattoos right over bone hurt the most and "stretchy" skin areas might wrinkle into a muddle with age. An unusual place for tattoos is the upper thigh, but it has had a strong symbolic significance as a body art location.
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Etched in the Memory
Social Security numbers for Americans appeared as part of the New Deal and efforts to get the numbers accepted by the public produced some heavy marketing. People were told they needed the numbers for all sorts of essential functions. A trend started to ink Social Security numbers so they couldn't be forgotten or misplaced and a number of people tattooed them on their upper thighs, out of sight but definitely not out of mind. The numbers were inked in black and occasionally framed with simple lines, according to a web page on the Jacksonville University website.
Samoan tattoo custom covers the upper thighs and more in a hand-inked black tribal design. The ritual of getting the tattoo symbolises courage in facing a major passage and the process can be quite painful. A traditional tattoo artist works for hours, sometimes days, to produce an elaborate design with a classic diamond, arrowhead or wave band for women that encircles both thighs. It can stretch as far as below the knee and always includes the birds of Samoa. Men's tattoos are more elaborate and begin in midtorso, covering the entire body to below the knees. Birds are signs of beauty and signify the bravery to set out into the unknown. Anchors are reminders that the spirit is free even as the person is anchored to a body. Often men's tattoos tell the legendary history of Samoa.
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After Hurricane Katrina, tattoo artists in New Orleans noticed a sharp spike in one particular tattoo. People were requesting fleur-de-lis, a New Orleans icon, as part of larger tattoos but just as often, as solo statements of solidarity with the city and its plight. According to a web page on the Columbia Journalism School's website, one woman explained why she got the flower symbol in an encircling band tattooed on her upper thigh, her first and only tattoo. For her, it was a highly symbolic act -- both a protest at the handling of Katrina and its aftermath and an assertion that the city would recover due to the resilience of its people. The upper thigh, not the most common place for a tattoo, presents a larger canvas than some other parts of the body and signals a deep personal commitment to the meaning of the art inked there.
Tattoos are almost de rigueur for celebrities these days. Each new inking excites a paparazzi frenzy for an hour or two before the next one crops up. One of the most famous tattooed canvases belongs to film star Angelina Jolie and she recently ignited a firestorm of speculation with an upper, inner thigh tattoo, visible in a photo shoot. The small script reads Whiskey Bravo, a mystery if you are not a pilot or a military cryptologist. Whiskey Bravo is civilian aviation code for the letters "w" and "b." It's used to avoid mistakes in communications, much as you might explain, "That's "d" as in "dog," not "b" as in "boy." W B are the initials of Jolie's partner, William Bradley Pitt. The tattoo and its location are a quasi-public statement of a more private personal relationship.
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