Milton Love. Dive Travel Magazine. Winter 1996.

America is going to hell in a hand basket and here is why. We are overrun with people claiming to be marine biologists. It seems that every yahoo who has ever eaten deep-fried monkfish feels that he/she can assume that mantle. So how can you, the befuddled public, separate the real marine biologists from those who are but egregious poseurs?

There is, of course, only one sure way.

Check for tattoos.

Really, true biologists will have a tattoo of their favorite organism somewhere on their bodies.

I got my first tattoo in May, 1994.

I decided to get one about a year before, while writing a grant proposal to do research on rockfishes. Sitting in my dreary University garret, the dank walls illuminated only by the cold light of my Mac SE/30, feeling not completely in control of my life, it suddenly struck me that it would be very cool indeed to get a tattoo of a rockfish. I had always loved rockfish; there were so many species, they were really quite spectacular and I had been doing research on them for over 20 years. Cow rockfish, Sebastes levis, were my favorites. They are big and spiny, and underwater they really do look sort of bovine, but even slower and more stupid. Yes, I thought, if I get this proposal funded I'm going to get a tattoo of a cow rockfish. I mean, I'm forty-six, what's my mother going to do about it?

Predictably, when I told my kids they had somewhat mixed feelings. Fifteen-year-old Shoshanna thought it was a wonderful idea, while eleven-year-old Elan said that I could always gnaw my arm off if I ever changed my mind.

Just to make sure the proposal was funded, I decided to hold a little ceremony on the night before the granting agency made their selections. I tried the broad spectrum approach, attempting to appeal to the widest possible range of deities. That night I went to a crossroads at midnight, sat down and chanted, "Please, please, please, make them give me the money. Thank you". Just to be on the safe side, I was going to sacrifice a goat, but instead I purchased a take- out order of curried goat from a Santa Barbara restaurant and ate that while chanting. Admittedly, there was one moment when, what with the chanting and goat-eating, I felt mildly foolish. But then I decided it was really Performance Art and if I played my cards right I could get funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Well, I didn't get the grant, but I did decide to go ahead with the tattoo.

Okay, I had made the decision, now there was just the minor detail of who was going to do the deed? I don't travel much in tattooing circles and I mentioned my quandary to my friend, Mary. As luck would have it, she knew a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory whom, she said, had "an entire kelp bed tattooed on his back". Ooh, that sounded good to me. So I checked with Pat, the student, and he said that the man for the job was James McDermott in Santa Cruz.

I called James up and made an appointment for a consultation. For emotional support, I brought my friends Jane and Mary with me. At the time, James had his shop in the back of a smoke-filled establishment that specialized in heavy metal records, along with comic books and tee shirts that would have made Henry Miller stand up, take notice and order three of each. Behind the counter I noticed a guy about 18 years old, whom I believed at the time had a raw hot dog hanging from one ear. "That wasn't a hot dog", Jane said later. "That was his earlobe." Apparently, the gentleman had hung a weight from the lobe, and with time it had reached to his shoulder. I made a mental note to explore that possibility another time.

I loved that place. And James McDermott was all I could have asked for. Cool, calm and collected, with manners befitting a brain surgeon, he was very laid back and had the right answers for everything. I would have followed him into battle.

"I don't want to get AIDS." "The needles are sterilized when I buy them and I only use them once ."

"How do you know what to draw?" "You and I will sit down and make a drawing together. When you are satisfied, I'll reduce it on a copier to the size you want. Then I'll ink it, place it on your skin and use that as a template."

"Well, what about...pain?" "If we do it on a fleshy part, like your upper arm, it shouldn't hurt much. It's when I do it on bone, like around ankles, that it hurts. Take some Advil before you come in."

"How much will it cost?" "Oh, about $60."

Sold. I returned about two months later, more-or-less ready for the big event. There was only one really bad moment. I forgot to bring any photographs of a cow rockfish for James to use in his drawing. I had a line drawing, but I thought that wouldn't be enough. I had driven 300 miles for this and I hated the thought of canceling. But James overcame that. Mary and I stood by offering advice as he took a two-dimensional figure and drew it in three dimensions. "No, the lower jaw is slightly longer than the upper one." "Can you make the dorsal spines just a little longer?" "And it has dusky bars on the sides."

Well, actually there was one other bad moment. Just before James put needle to skin, as he was swabbing my upper arm with antiperspirant, he said, "You know, some people get light- headed just after I start. If you feel like you are going to pass out let me know." "Ah, and why would people feel that way?" "Because their bodies start to secrete endorphins, the natural painkiller."

Yes indeed, I thought. Your body secretes endorphins when your kneecap has been bitten off by a rottweiler or when you slam your nose in a door. This is insane, why am I doing this? If I want to be in pain, I could run as a Democrat in the next election. And what if I hate it? What if James has some sort of seizure right now and decides to ignore the template and tattoo the entire Vienna Boys Choir singing the best of Cole Porter? What if he actually tattoos all of the lyrics to Another Op'nin, Another Show on my shoulder? Well, actually, I've always kind of liked that one so maybe it wouldn't be that bad. But what if...

And it turned out really neat. It didn't hurt; at most it felt like a mild sunburn. It looked reasonably accurate and, most important, I felt like a real man. I suddenly realized that I could go into any biker bar, order a diet soda, roll up the sleeves of my polo shirt and flex my cow rockfish with the best of them. "Hey buddy, you want to participate in the 'shatter a beer bottle on the forehead' contest?" Sure, I have a tattoo of a cow rockfish!

My daughter had only one warning for me regarding tattoos. "They're addicting," she said, "Once you get one, you'll want more." She was right. This year I got one of a deep-water anglerfish and next year, well, who knows?

James is still in the business. At this writing, he's at the Staircase Tattoo Palace, 607 Front St., Santa Cruz, CA, (408) 425-7644.


Entertaining, yet mildly thought provoking things,
for persons with short attention spans.