Janesville Wisconsin. August 5, 2004: Keith Kowalski, 24, was the target of verbal abuse yesterday, when he showed up at the Rockport swimming pool without a tattoo, the bank teller reported from poolside. Meeting several of his coworkers for an afternoon swim, Kowalski, a life-long resident of Janesville, was planning on a few hours of fun and relaxation. His hopes faded quickly upon arrival.
“It started almost immediately,” Kowalski recalled, as he lay on his towel alone, watching the pool full of people. “The guys and I were taking off our shirts and stuff, and Scott [Peterson] and Pete [Wilmert] commented on each other’s tattoos. You know, ‘hey, nice tat, man,’ or something like that.” Peterson, 26, sports a “tribal” design on his right shoulder and a barbed-wire ring around his left bicep, while Wilmert has two Chinese characters on his left shoulder.
“They mean ‘Strength’ and ‘Courage’,” Wilmert had explained proudly, running a hand over the inked skin.
“Cool,” Peterson remarked.
“I agreed that it was a cool tattoo,” Kowalski continued his account, “and then they asked me where my tattoo was, and I told them I didn’t have any.” Kowalski scowled momentarily before continuing. “Pete just kind of scoffed and rolled his eyes, and Scott said, ‘what are you, a puss?’ I was actually kind of shocked, but I just shrugged and went to the pool.”
According to Kowalski, he wasn’t able to forget the incident, because just five minutes later, three of Peterson’s female friends joined them, all sporting skin art. “Scott introduced them to Pete first, and then he pointed at me and said, ‘and that’s Keith,’ and laughed a little and was like, ‘he’s too scared to get a tattoo’.”
Katy Morgan, 21, who has a “tribal” design on the small of her back—known as a “butt-topper” by skin artists—was surprised by the news and asked Kowalski if that was true.
“I just told her I’d never really thought of getting a tattoo,” Kowalski recalled, shrugging.
“Oh, I knew I had to get one,” Sara McCormick had responded. She also sports a “butt-topper”, almost identical to Morgan’s. “I wanted something to stress my individuality, you know. I chose this,” she said, turning to show off the artwork, “and the guy at the shop said it was one of the most popular designs.”
Indeed, an informal survey of the seventy to eighty adults at the Rockport pool revealed nine other similar or identical “tribal” designs, all on the backs of young women (seven being “butt-toppers”, while two were at the junction of the neck and shoulder blades). Fourteen men and six women also displayed similar designs somewhere on one arm.
“Yeah, don’t you, like, want to be original and, like, say who you are?” Julia Gonzales had asked Kowalski next. She turned her shoulder toward him and showed two Chinese characters of her own, explaining, “these say ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Womanhood’, or ‘wise woman’.” Then she’d indicated a single character on her lower abdomen, visible just above her bikini bottom: “and this one is ‘Strength’.”
Kowalski noticed that the two purported ‘Strength’ symbols—one on Wilmert’s shoulder and the other on Gonzales’s stomach—were completely different, but he didn’t comment.
Our Asian News correspondent, Suen Yun Chao, viewed the tattoos in question, however, and reported that Gonzales’s skin art actually said “sick dog” on her shoulder, and “hoof shavings” on her stomach. Wilmert’s two characters, meanwhile, actually read “beef with peanut sauce”. Four other swimmers at the pool had apparently visited the same food-inspired artist, as Chao noticed “roasted duck with peppers” on a man’s shoulder, “egg-drop soup” on a shoulder blade, and two “butt-toppers” advertising a “mixed appetizer platter”.
Of the approximately forty adult women at the pool, twenty of them had tattoos on their ankles, eight of which were butterflies, while five were roses. Eight women had small animals on their shoulder blades, and three others had Chinese characters that Chao confirmed actually said what they were reported to.
Of the men present, four had Chinese characters and twelve had bands of some kind around their biceps—four of which were identical “tribal” bands, while another three were barbed-wire. Several men did actually sport intricate pictures that were completely unique from the other range of skin art.
Kowalski was the only person at the pool over the age of 18 without a tattoo. Among other comments he reported hearing about his body’s lack of ink were, “you’re too conservative”, “what a wus” and “get an identity, man.”
“At that point, I got out of the water and came over here to lie down,” Kowalski explained. “Now I’m just looking forward to Winter.”