Say it in 8: Knuckle tattoos get personal, evolving far past ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’

Say it in 8: Knuckle tattoos get personal, evolving far past ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’

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Say it in 8: Knuckle tattoos get personal, evolving far past ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’

It started about two years ago with a heavy metal concert at the Railyard, a gritty live music club along the tracks in downtown Billings.

The band played at an assaultive volume, screaming lyrics about death and rage, spitting and stomping around on stage while their fans bloodied each other in the mosh pit.

After the show, the band hung around with fans for autographs, fist bumps and a few sweaty embraces.

One of the band’s abundantly tattooed guitarists had knuckle tattoos spelling out “TAKE CARE,” a sweet, grandmotherly sentiment that contrasted nicely with the fury of their songs.

I asked if I could take a photo and he readily agreed.

Since then, I’ve asked more than 150 people if I could photograph their knuckle tattoos. I’ve stopped them in airports, at the movies, in restaurants, at the grocery store, in line at the DMV and once at a bicycle race.

Every one of them has said yes, sometimes after a bewildered pause. A few said they didn’t want their face in the photo, one of them whispering, “I owe some people some money.” A few of the women asked to wait a minute while they rubbed lotion (or saliva) on their knuckles to make their tattoos shine.

As art forms go, knuckle tattoos are like the haiku. There are built-in limits. You get eight letters to make your statement. And you have to be committed. If you thought inking “BEDWETTR” or “TACO BELL” was cheeky good fun when you were 18, you’d better hope it’s still funny when you’re 88, because you only get one forever shot at it.

Most of the people I met didn’t want to say much about their knuckle tattoos. As public as the tattoos were, the messages seemed private, intended only for them, an indelible reminder to “HOLD FAST,” “DON’T FRET” or “STAY GOLD.”In fact, the messages were almost universally positive: “CAN’T FAIL,” “STAY TRUE,” “SELFLESS,” “4EVR KIND.” Very few couldn’t be printed in a family […]