Roo's jailhouse tat

You often see people with tattoos that make you think, Wow, are you ever going to regret that one day. One that stood out was at a pricey bar in New Hampshire where I was having a burger. A woman sitting next to me said to her boyfriend, “Ugh—such a pretty girl. Doomed for life.” She was talking about the 22-year-old bartender, who was reaching up to get a bottle of single malt from a high shelf when her shirt untucked to reveal an ornate tattoo of the variety called a tramp stamp. It was done in the curliqued style of an easel card for a vaudeville barbershop quartet of screaming eagles. The customer, who had a couple of drinks under her belt, said to the victime du tatouage, “Hon, you don’t mind my asking you, do you, but I’ve just got to know what were you thinking when you got that tattoo?” and the bartender said, “I know. I was 18. It was the stupidest thing I ever did in my life. I hate it.”

Of course, it doesn’t always have to be that bad. A few years ago I resided at a motel in Marshall, Michigan, where the owner had decided when she was either 60 or 70 to indulge her lifelong yearning for a tattoo. “I’m done trying to look good to anybody but me,” she told me, and she decided to pull the trigger in Orlando on her annual Disneyland vacation. The first one was, I think, Sleeping Beauty. She loved it and ever since then got another couple of them every year . She showed me almost—just barely almost—all of them, and I have to say, they were quite lovely. Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi—about two dozen Disney characters. Everywhere. She rolled sleeves up and waistbands down to show me. They made her happy, they were as cute as she was and I was honored to have been shown them.

But that’s the bright end of the ink spectrum. There darker side has always been busier. I don’t mean the tattoos people get to try to make themselves look tough—spiderwebs on their arms or cracked skulls on their chests or headstones with their own names on them under a Western pastiche of a pair of crapped-out snake eyes and snarling rabid wolves and dripping hypodermic needles and some wafting up from the barrel of a gun in the clenched grip of some anticipated future killer.

Of all of them, though, the most troubling one is the tiniest and least showy of them all: those teardrop tattoos that came out of the mix of gang life and jail. Every teardrop drop signifies a murder and the tragedy of a life of crime and violence. Not just for the dead, but for the killer. For the way murder changes you. And I wouldn't get any ideas about casually festooning yourself with a teardrop just for how badass it looks without earning it: let your local Crips see it and they’ll peel it off you like the skin off a slab of mackerel down at their favorite sushi bar.

One of the worst things about tattoos is how permanently they make their declaration. Not many people can afford the services of my acquaintance the talented Dr. Tattoff, who provides relief to his patients in the form of high-priced laser tattoo removal in Beverly Hills. Most people can not afford to get Billy Bob Thornton’s name erased to make room for complicated sets of navigational instructions. And if you happen to have something horrific depicted in your tattoo—not Billy Bob, but murder, (though Billy Bob was certainly guilty of murder when it came to the movie he made out of one of the best American novels ever, All the Pretty Horses), for instance—you better be ready for that tattoo to become your entire identity. If you have a teardrop tattooed under your eye, the cops might not even cuff the clerk down at the 7-11 for getting a little itchy with that .38 snubnose under the register when you reach into the your pocket to see if you've got exact change for a couple of 5 Hour Energy Drinks and a blue Slushy.

Seeing Roo show up looking that way after a burst of mayhem today in northwestern Arkansas got me thinking. That expression on her—have you ever seen Roo that distant? That pensive? Something went down in those brambles today, something about whoever had to pay for that badge. Maybe something in the way they looked or something they squeaked about how their family needed them, how many little rugrats they had. Roo’s not given to remorse, but that’s the look of a dog realizing that she’s never, ever going to unsee something bad. Real bad.

That’s how you earn your teardrop. And that one of Roo’s is blood. The worst of them all.

On second thought—nah. Roo couldn't possibly be happier about it. I think she was just burping on her duck jerky when I took the picture.