—from A Gallery of Ethopaths

The world is filled with brainless brats
Who all insist on having tats.
These morons with their inked-up bods
Walk about like savage gods
Displaying, to the public’s view,
A poisoned skin of garish hue.
Their ugliness defies belief—
Your mind’s been shipwrecked on a reef
If you think tats are cool and cute.
You look just like some feral brute
Who lumbers through the vegetation
Of some far-off jungle nation,
Or some circus sideshow freak
As retch-inducing as a geek.
In the past, tattoos were sported
By lifetime sailors, or distorted
Characters like thieves and sluts,
Hit-men, thugs, and low-class mutts.
A decent guy just wouldn’t do it,
Or did it once, and then would rue it.
Maybe some drunken night his pals
Assured him he’d impress the gals,
And after several belts of gin
They got him to entrust his skin
To one of the downtown seedy shops
Not yet shuttered by the cops.
Now he’s stuck with it forever—
There’s no way that the guy can sever
Stupid designs from off his arm;
He’s marked like cattle on the farm.
And girls—you think you’ll get a man
With a tramp-stamp on your can?
Or that a guy will marry you
If you’re colored green and blue?
Why deface your perfect bod
With images bizarre and odd?
Wise up, ladies—don’t go nuts.
Tattoos are the mark of sluts.
Inked-up jerks have all forgotten
That even well-toned flesh gets rotten.
Imagine when you’re gray and old,
Your skin in shrunken, wrinkled rolls
All scaly with dermatic crud
And mottled by your sluggish blood.
What will your tats look like then?
You’ll resemble what a fen
Gives up to those who dig with slanes
To harvest peat: the drenched remains
Of those who drowned in ages past
And are brought to sight at last
As horrid, blackened, grotesque stiffs
All giving off putrescent whiffs.
Is that what you hope to resemble?
A dinge-dark corpse that makes folk tremble?
Tattooing is obscene, so please—
Avoid it, as you would disease.


Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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20 Responses

  1. Joan Erickson

    WOW!!! This is so good – so well said!!!!
    Should be posted in every school and every college,
    and public places. Thank you for this poem!

  2. Joseph Charles McKenzie

    Puritan-liberal America has become the land of the new Aztecos. For, indeed, tattooing, is the mark of the pagan, the godless, and the brute. It is how Satan brands his herd.

    Pre-Vatican II tracts on moral theology place tattooing under the heading of suicide, since both suicide and tattooing are conditioned on an appropriation of the body by the creature, to whom it belongs only in stewardship in view of the Creator. The temple of the soul, in other words, is not ours to efface.

    The brilliant and much-need satire culminates in the word “obscene” most appropriately as Salemi exposes the full “pathos” of this “ethopathy” in all its horror and human indignity.

    • Peter Hartley

      I’ve never understood why people have tattoos but this poem has given me some insight. And it’s very true that tattoos do always end up blue and green after a while as the yellow and red pigments fade away. I’ve never seen an attractive one and doubtless never will. Joseph treats the subject here with the withering acerbic wit it deserves.

      • Moe Shinola

        Excepting some locals, Joseph Salemi is my favorite poet ever. The Lilacs On Good Friday is a wonderful book.

  3. E. V.

    1). I love how Prof. Salemi combines his message with rhyme and meter. This poem is excellent.
    2), Although Evan is correct that there are many fine people with tattoos (i.e. my daughter, a mathematician, has a “pi” tat), readers are made aware that the opinions expressed in a poem belong to THE POET, not SCP. I agree with the poet; tats aren’t my thing, either.
    3). On line #22, should it read: “… he’d impress …” instead of “…he’s impress …” if I’m correct, Evan can fix it.

    • Evan Mantyk

      Just to clarify, E.V. refers to a Facebook comment I made:

      There are a lot of wonderful people out there who have tattoos, but I think this cultural phenomenon has gotten out of control. Thank you for the honest and needed dose of reality, Dr. Salemi! I agree with Joan Erickson’s comment on http://www.classicalpoets.org : “WOW!!! This is so good – so well said!!!! Should be posted in every school and every college, and public places.”

  4. Ram N

    Without going into the right or wrong of tattooing, let me say this poem is beautiful. It throbs with powerful images. Great work!

  5. Sally Cook

    Joe –
    My husband has sailed to just about every port, world-wide, since he was a teenager, and I suppose saw lots of these things on every ship, and in every port. Calling them tats doesn’t make them warm and fuzzy (though I suppose some may be.)
    He never wanted one.
    Today,we no longer look inward – at any subject, or at ourselves as individual. All is on the surface. Using all the dyes, self mutilations available, we eagerly try to make ourselves as garish as possible.
    Could this be a way of saying we feel ugly inside? Possibly, since no one thinks or reasons anymore, and all is emotion and hysteria.
    Try getting the job you want with tattoos on arms, face, neck. Will you be taken seriously? Not likely. Mr. MacKenzie is right — If you respect your body, there are things you simply will not do to it.
    And aside from anything else, tattoos are just plain ugly.
    Searching out Ethopaths is a great project; plenty to write on.

  6. Gregory Spicer

    The poem is truly clever in a laughing “at” someone sort of fashion, but will this sort of criticism be effective at getting the people who engage in tattoo style degradation to adopt a more wholesome habit such as, for example, classical poetry? Would a missionary to that jungle fashion more converts with gentility, or with rancid critiques (or worse)? In this manner the poem can be seen as a kind of war paint (or tattoo) in it’s own right. Make no mistake, I am in agreement with the poem’s long list of why not to get a tattoo, but I suspect the banal American mindset will be too mired in natural defiance to be initiated into the all too rare ponderation required to make genuine and lasting changes for the better. I strongly suspect that the cheap thrill “tat” crowd is simply unequipped with the wisdom to make better decisions about their very own skins. They will only receive that wisdom from their elders and if they do not possess it then it is we who have failed them.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Juvenalian satire is not concerned with changing people’s opinions or saving the world. Its sole purpose is to attack and to ridicule folly. There is no requirement that Juvenalian satire work to improve persons — just to go after them, as targets of one’s raillery.

      • Gregory Spicer

        Rail (or derail?) first and dissemble after. Do we see the mark of a fractured soul?

  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    I’ve explained what Juvenalian satire is. If you have something to say about it, let’s hear it.

    • Gregory Spicer

      So many of your comments, and much poetry, are such seemingly bitter polemics, but now you seek the aegis of Juvenal canyon, so to speak. You have no helpful suggestions then, regarding the dermatological restoration of our fair republic’s denizens?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I don’t know what “the aegis of Juvenal canyon” means. A poet works within the genre that he has chosen. Juvenalian satire is a genre of attack. Why the devil would I use it to make “helpful suggestions”?

        Satirists aren’t therapists. Like snipers, their only task is to take out targets with well-placed shots.

  8. David Watt

    I don’t regard this poem by Prof. Salemi as bitter in the least. Rather, it cuts to the truth that tats are ugly, and generally signify poor taste or a cry for attention. Tats are increasingly common, and in my opinion they cause the wearer to appear ‘common.’ Why deface the body permanently for the sake of fashion?

  9. James Sale

    Dr Salemi is correct: poetry doesn’t have to do anything. It can change the world; and it can change nothing at all. And the essence of using form is that it be beautiful, even when, as in Dr Salemi’s case, the work is trenchant, biting, and vicious. Yet, because of its form – its beauty – we read on. It may be the world ignores this now, but in some important way that is not so important, for the poet is leaving a mark for the future; then it may be his work is reviewed, rediscovered, and found to ‘speak’ to that generation. We have enough examples from history to know that this has happened many times. But heck, whether it does or doesn’t is beside the point: it is the beauty of the thing that we wish to encounter now, and to ask whether it is going to change anything is to be part of that post-modernist mistake which has elevated virtue-signalling to be the only sort of virtue in town. Which is to say, no virtue at all.


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