For a long time I’ve wondered why people go in for tattoos. I mean, what if you change your mind?

The charitable interpretation is that these folks are celebrating the fact that all of the decisions in your life are real and permanent. There are no do-overs. But somehow I can’t convince myself that their thinking is that sophisticated.

This morning I saw a wacky little ad on Facebook — something about tattooing your Facebook home page because it’s naked. And the lightbulb went on. That’s why people get tattoos! They’re scared of being naked.

Our culture places a huge emphasis on outside things as markers of identity. All human cultures do. When you’re naked, you can’t define yourself in terms of your job, car, shelf of bowling trophies, or whatever. Okay, you’ve still got your haircut, but that’s it. In the absence of outside markers, we suffer a loss of identity — a loss of self. We don’t know who we are, apart from those things. Indeed, most of us probably have a lurking suspicion that we’re not anybody. Or at least, not the person that we’d like to be.

So a tattoo is an admission to the world that on some inner level you’re afraid of being overwhelmed by loss of self — of being revealed as nothing, as nobody. Thanks to the tattoo(s), though, even when you’re naked you’re still wearing the Nike swoosh or the Raiders eyepatch or whatever marker helps you construct your identity. Not saying anybody actually gets a Nike swoosh tat, that would be lame. But how is that barbed wire around your ankle really any different?

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