By Alan Dean Foster
“Inka-dinka-dee, Inka-dinka-doo … .”
That was the great Jimmy Durante’s signature song. Later recorded by, among others, John Lithgow and Ann Margaret. For those of you who remember or enjoy the music of the ’50s, comic songs did not begin with Ray Stevens (kind of hard to imagine something like “Ahab the Arab” making it into the Top 40 these days) or Sheb Wooley or Allan Sherman. I’ll grant you Gilbert and Sullivan.
Ah, Allan Sherman, the lyrics of whose parody song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” was set to Ponticelli’s “Dance of the Hours”… a ballet to which I alluded in my column on classical music a couple of months ago because it also provided a source of amusement to Walt Disney and his animators, who parodied it in their own way in “Fantasia.”
Which naturally leads us into a discussion of the art of scarification, body modification, and tattoos.
I have to laugh at the people who think the current frenzy for tattoos is a passing fad or something new. Human beings have been treating their bodies like collagenic versions of silly putty since time immemorial. What possessed the first person, possibly a Neanderthal (Neanderthal jewelry has been recorded back as far as 130,000 years) to pierce their ears, or their nasal septum, or some other unknown body part, and then stick a talon or bone through it may well remain forever unknown.
“Hey Uluk, why you put piece of food through your nose? Goes in mouth. You want to become extinct?”
Following animal parts, people subsequently started to make holes to receive cut fragments of stone, then gemstone. Gold work of increasingly delicate and skillful design followed. When tattooing began thousands of years ago, it was applied not only to enhance the attractiveness of the wearer but to signify status and, in ancient China, identify criminals. The word “tattoo” comes either from the Tahitian tatu or the Samoan tatau — a moot point, since all the Polynesian languages are closely related to one another. Picked up from the Polynesians by visiting sailors, tattooing naturally became particularly identified with seafaring. My older cousin Joe, who served in the Korean War, had a tattoo. Primitive by contemporary standards, it was not especially well done, but it was considered a mark of manhood as well as of maritime service.
I wonder sometimes what Joe would have made of women who today completely cover themselves with tattoos. Not to mention body piercings containing enough metal to set off alarms in even small airports and ear stretching enhanced with plugs the results of which are significant enough to astonish a Maasai warrior.
According to one Nielsen poll, in 2015 one in five Americans had a tattoo. It’s always interesting and amusing to see how acceptance of such body mods vacillates down through the ages as cultures undergo their inevitable changes. Even though society’s acceptance of such modifications was already well underway, when I acquired an earring back in 1991 I occasionally received a sideways glance or, more rarely, a snide comment about it being feminine. I sometimes replied that the individual making the comment should imagine voicing the same observation to Blackbeard, who was noted for wearing rather more than one earring and who would have responded to such an accusation with other than a polite rebuttal.
Nowadays only some old folks (those who didn’t have relatives in the Navy, anyway) blink at the profusion and astonishing variety of body art, be it a simple ankle tattoo of a chain or a full sleeve or ear plugs or nose rings. As for myself, I choose not to indulge since, well, the canvas is a bit old and fragile these days. But I do admire the artwork on others, much as I admire the classical tattoos of Japan, the earpieces of the Maasai, and the crocodile skin scarification of those who dwell along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. The men who undergo the latter ceremony, which involves cutting the skin and rubbing ash from a fire into it to produce raised bumps, believe looking like the crocodile gives them the power of the crocodile.
Remember that the next time you might be inclined to chastise someone younger than yourself for having a butterfly inscribed on their butt.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.
Tags: Alan Dean Foster, Allan Sherman, Ann Margaret, Dance of the Hours, Fantasia, Gilbert and Sullivan, Inka-dinka-dee Inka-dinka-doo, Jimmy Durante, John Lithgow, Maasai, Neanderthal, Papua New Guinea, Perceivings, piercings, Ponticelli, Ray Stevens, Sheb Wooley, Spik River, tattoos, Uluk, Walt Disney