Take a good look around, and you’ll be hard-pressed to escape those pretty bastards out there relishing in the buzz that has, over the past two decades or so, made getting tattooed socially acceptable for upstanding law-abiding members of society. Everyone from fat-cat, corporate executives to police officers—you know, the so-called pillars of the community—are now white-knuckling it through augmentations of the flesh in an attempt to show their peers that they are edgy, gosh darn it, and should be, at least in some regard, revered as one of the cool kids.
Long gone are the days when inked appendages were badges of badass almost exclusively carved into the bodies of bikers, sleazy musicians, and ex-cons. Somewhere along the way, pop culture got porked by punk rock and gave birth to a red-eyed love child that looks a heck of a lot like you!
Within America’s bizarre movement to express itself, however, where everyone and their momma is inked-up and sleeved out, there exists an absolute legion of hell-raisers, outlaws, and die-hard stoners forever scarred with various pot-related pigmentations that none of these well-dressed specimens of modern fashion would ever be caught dead with—not in a million years.
In the ’70s, the marijuana tattoo, most commonly represented with a shoddy-looking cannabis leaf that appeared as though it resulted in a gnarly staph infection, was perhaps the official symbol of rebellion. People with the cannabis coat of arms were dead-set against the principles of popular opinion. None of them bought into any of that “religion will save humanity” crap, and they damn sure weren’t about to go to work for the man. They didn’t subscribe to all of the BS being forced down their throats by the frightened servants of authority. Nope, they lived life by their own set of rules, going against the grain of ongoing cultural brainwashing, both parental and political, while giving the proverbial middle finger to, well, anyone who fucking deserved it.
“From the very first time I smoked weed, I understood why the government was trying to turn the population against it,” Steve, a 65-year-old from Springfield, Illinois, tells High Times.
“Marijuana helped me see through all the lies I was told in school and in the church, which made it clear to me from my early teens that the people of this country would need to fight for it.”
Branded with the image of a small, barely legible cannabis leaf on his left forearm, Steve, who remains a loyal advocate for the cannabis cause, is unapologetic about permanently pledging his allegiance to pot. Even if, by his own admission, his ink looks like total dog shit.
“I was like 16, and this dude who had just gotten out of prison was giving people tats in the kitchen at this party,” Steve recalls. “He told us that’s how he made a living in the pen, so we thought he’d do a good job. He didn’t. Mine’s all faded now, and people always say I need to get it covered up. Give me a break. It was done with a paperclip and an ink pen. What do you expect? To me, it symbolizes how far this plant has come.”
Cannabis Ink Goes Mainstream
To the supposed do-gooders of society—the ones putting on their best face regardless of how miserable their life by the rules has become—a pot leaf tattoo was considered the unsavory mark of the longhaired, hippie loser. Anyone spotted with one was considered a heathen. The tattooed stoner culture perplexed working-class Americans. After all, how was it so hard to stop listening to the Grateful Dead long enough to get a freaking job?
The cannabis tattoo has since become less taboo as judgmental society has moved on to slay modern monsters. Cannabis-related ink has risen from the ashes of a subculture and taken on, to some degree, mainstream appeal. Scott Campbell, famed tattoo artist and owner of the legendary Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn, New York, says that people today are just as likely to get etched with the icky in the sanitary conditions of a professional studio than in prison.
“Obviously, with us being in the middle of marijuana legalization, having a pot leaf has less outlaw biker connotations than it did in the ’80s,” says Campbell, who, throughout his career, has inked a number of celebrities from Heath Ledger to Penélope Cruz.
Campbell admits there’s been a radical shift in the type of person he sees literally wearing this passion for pot on their sleeve.
“There is still a bit of illicit excitement when I see people with pot leaf tattoos. It’s not so much, ‘That guy kills people,’ but more like, ‘That’s the guy in the PTA meeting I want to sit next to,’” he says.
Ink as Advocacy
In many ways, this brand of body modification remains a toking testament of the rowdy. Yessiree, there are still plenty of people out there getting homespun stoner ink as a tribute to a lifestyle that the average citizen may not be privy to. In some cases, the tireless work of cannabis advocacy in areas of the United States where weed remains a no-no is where these initiations of the green go down. Benjamin from Bryan, Ohio, tells us that his one and only cannabis tattoo, a pot leaf on his right shoulder, followed an event to decriminalize marijuana possession.
“I was standing on a table downtown with a guitar in my hands singing Legalize It over and over again when this mother came to sign up and said she loves what I’m doing for the cause,” Benjamin tells us.
The woman’s son, a local tattoo artist, eventually showed up to extend his support and offered Benjamin some free ink as a token of his appreciation. Of course, he kindly accepted the gent’s proposition because, duh.
“I closed up and went over to his house and walked away tatted up,” he says.
Ink in the Industry
Out west, where advocacy and capitalism have collided, cannabis tats are, at times, calling cards of the industry. Kelly, a 53-year-old grower from Salem, Oregon, has one that she says was conjured up one night in the spirit of the age-old motto: sex sells. She decided to get inked in an elevated state of mind as she plotted a move to Eugene, Oregon, to get into the cultivation sect. In business, location is everything, and weed is no exception. So, as a going-away present, Kelly pulled up her shirt and had her dedication to the doob marked on her boobs, of all places.
“I had [my artist] tattoo weed leaves on my breasts because, in Eugene, it is legal for females to go outside and be free to be topless,” Kelly tells us, adding that she thought it was a sure thing from a marketing standpoint. “Any advertising is good if it’s nipples and weed!”
While wanting to be branded with an homage to the herb, many refuse to give it reverence with a simple pot leaf. For advocates like Gayle from Greenville, South Carolina, the more traditional designs are too generic. Rather than the leaf or even the molecular structure of tetrahydrocannabinol, arguably the next most popular breed of weed art, she opted for one that portrays the beauty of the cannabis plant under a microscope.
It’s a clandestine nod to the nug. To untrained eyes, the tattoo doesn’t appear to have anything to do with cannabis. It’s just a bunch of red, blue, and teal orbs affixed to some slime green squiggly ribbons emerging from torn flesh. There’s no way it could ever be used by law enforcement to establish reasonable suspicion.
“One day, it just hit me that cannabis, from a scientific view, was the tattoo I was supposed to get,” Gayle told us. “It’s different from the average pot tattoo.”
A Badge of Honor
There are times, though, when the tattoos of our past become indiscretions of youth. They are often cruel reminders that we’re getting older and, of no fault of our own, have outgrown the things we once adored and thought were cool. The names of lost love, symbols of political alignments in which we no longer believe, and perhaps even a silly cartoon character. Inked nostalgia is a bitch. It tells everyone we know that there is indeed a body buried out there somewhere. But we’ve lived and learned and, the devil willing, we’ll live some more.
The ink of yesteryear, however, will survive the floods. Perhaps that is why the tattoo removal industry will reach nearly $800 million by 2027. Nobody wants living proof that they were ever that foolish. The stoner with the marijuana tattoo, however, isn’t one steeped in regret. That badge, regardless of its quality or style, remains, presumably from here on out, the highest living honor.
“I can honestly say I have never covered up a pot leaf tattoo,” Campbell says. “Anyone who was brazen enough to get it tattooed before the current cannabis-friendly climate is probably enjoying being able to wear it without having their bag searched every time they go through customs.”
This article appears in the August 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.
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