SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies 

Student (name withheld by permission)

White Tattoo

Several years ago, I decided to visit some family in a small town in Pennsylvania.  While staying with my uncle, I remember waking up and reading a horrific article in the newspaper.  A black man named James Byrd was dragged to death in Texas by a couple of white men.  I felt awful about the incident, as I do now.  My uncle on the other hand seemed to be unaffected by the article, which seemed odd to me at the time.  He acted as if he believed the man probably deserved his death.

A few hours later, my uncle took me to get my first tattoo.  He was taking me to a parlor where he had had several of his tattoos done in the past.  This parlor was a building no bigger than a one-bedroom apartment.  It was just outside of the small town, and the only building within a two or three mile radius.  On the outside, the parlor looked like any other tattoo shop.  But once I walked inside, I knew it was no ordinary tattoo parlor.

The first indication of this was the four skinheads inside who owned the shop.  To me they appeared a little intimidating.  All four of the skinheads were at least six feet tall and muscular, with shaved heads and numerous tattoos.  At that time in my life, I did not know much about skinheads other than that they hated other races and other whites that associated with other races.

Despite my wariness about them, I began looking around for a design while my uncle and the skinheads talked.  While I was trying to figure out what tattoo I wanted, several Hispanics walked into the shop.  One of the skinheads approached them, said a few words to them, and the Hispanics left.  I do not know what they said, but when he came back all the skinhead would say was “F****** wetbacks.”

As I looked around some more, there was a definite difference between the choices of tattoos at this parlor as opposed to an average tattoo parlor.  This particular shop had one wall of drawings that put swastikas and Harley Davidson symbols next to crosses and designs of Jesus.  One could get a tattoo of Hitler, but there were no drawings of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Also, there were no symbols of words or letters in any other language other than English.  By now it was clear to me that only white people were welcome there and no tattoo representing non-white races was acceptable.

About thirty minutes later, I finally decided on a tattoo of the grim reaper.  During the process of the tattoo being inked on, my uncle brought up the article in the newspaper about James Byrd’s murder.  The skinheads all began laughing and saying he deserved it for being a black man.  My uncle was laughing as well.  Until that point in my life, I was unaware of my uncle’s prejudices.

After laughing about the murder for several minutes, my uncle began telling his own stories of violent acts he and others he knew had performed on blacks and Hispanics in previous years.  My father later told me it was not until my uncle became a police officer that he began to be prejudiced.  It was a combination of being an officer in a larger Pennsylvania town, where most crimes were committed by blacks according to my uncle, and being around a certain group of individuals that changed his attitude toward other races.  I believe that his prejudiced beliefs also came from his ignorance of the blacks and Hispanics that were good-hearted people.

As my uncle told stories, the skinheads began to tell stories of their own.  For the next two hours, these skinheads told story after story about gruesome beatings they had performed on black men, as well as Hispanic men, over the years.  And they would laugh about how a few of their friends had killed men and now were in jail.

Now, I did not know the skinheads personally.  I did not know if they had been taught by someone at an early age to be prejudiced.  Or if they had experienced an incident in their past to make them feel as they did.  All I know is that they did not want non-white people around them.  The skinheads did not want other races to experience the privilege of “whiteness” or to be like white people at all.

My tattoo was now finished. As we left, I remember feeling very tense and baffled.  My uncle acted as if nothing that was said in the parlor should bother me.  This was the first time I had ever been exposed to such racial discrimination and to such a high degree.  At the time, I pretended to be oblivious to all of it.  Now, I openly disagree with my uncle and the skinheads’ prejudices.  I also believe it is sad when individuals in society believe the only way to correct their problems with other races is through violence.

 Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage