Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

The Painted Outlaw

On tattoos and faux-rebellion

Earlier this year, the cover of Rolling Stone magazine featured an image of Johnny Depp, costumed for his role as Tonto opposite Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger, under the headline “Johnny Depp: An Outlaw Looks at 50.” Mr. Depp strikes me as an interesting man, one with a bit more panache than the typical Hollywood star and maybe a little bit of taste. But an outlaw? Setting aside for the moment the question of whether an outlaw is a desirable thing to be anywhere outside the creaking perpetual masturbatory adolescence of the sort of people who read Rolling Stone, Mr. Depp is not an outlaw. He may in fact be the farthest thing from an outlaw it is possible to be: a contracted employee of the Walt Disney Company. A heavily tattooed employee of the Walt Disney Company.

Mr. Depp has made some interesting films over the years, but his well-buttered bread owes its savor to his having spent years portraying an unthreatening, broadly comical character based on a theme-park ride that was, as a matter of historical interest, the last one whose development was personally overseen by Walt Disney himself. Some of those pirates from the original ride had tattoos, and several tattoo parlors now offer Pirates of the Caribbean–themed tattoos. You know who has one? Johnny Depp. Getting a tattoo based on a movie starring you: That’s outlaw.

Ink is no longer a mark of hoodlumhood, or of anything else. Despite his tattoos, Mr. Depp has made a career in the most conservative department of the most traditional corporation in the most hidebound of American industries, putting more than $5 billion into the pockets of his corporate shareholders in the process. On paper, Mr. Depp is much less like an outlaw and much more like somebody likely to be courted by the Republican party for its presidential nomination. (Which is perhaps not the worst idea in the history of bad ideas if the competition includes the notion of nominating Herman Cain.) Johnny Depp is to outlaws as lime Jell-O is to Higgs’s boson. There are insurance agents and realtors and Rotary Club members across these United States with a better claim to being outlaws.

Mr. Depp does not have an outlaw curriculum vitae. His tattoos, like drug habits and other such accouterments, are but the costume of outlawry. Tattoos, while lasting a lifetime, demand only a momentary physical discomfort. But it takes a great deal of endurance of physical discomfort to be an outlaw, at least one of any serious sort. And liberalism — especially Hollywood liberalism — is a philosophy for the comfortable. As Robert Downey Jr. observed about his time behind bars: “You can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal.” The experience with incarceration puts off a great many aspiring outlaws, which of course is what prisons are there for. Outlaws do not often dwell in mansions in the French countryside or Manhattan lofts that have benefited from the attentions of interior designers. And if they do dwell in such places, they generally do not dwell there long. Outlaw Bernie Madoff was notable for his longevity as much as his rapacity. It is difficult to imagine a Rolling Stone outlaw living a life that includes traveling via Greyhound, sleeping rough, or (inevitably) spending time incarcerated.

There is nothing inherently objectionable in using the proceeds from a partly vulgar career to finance a comfortable life of gallery-browsing in Paris, or whatever it is Mr. Depp spent those years in France doing. Will Ferrell, who makes even dumber movies than Johnny Depp does, is in his private life a man who collects Robert Indiana prints and Hans J. Wegner furniture. (His European wife is an auctioneer of modern art and furnishings.) But nothing became Mr. Depp’s life in France like the leaving of it: He was chased out by the threat of double taxation thanks to the almost unique stupidity of U.S. law. Although Mr. Depp has not to my knowledge used the phrase “territorial tax regime,” he understood the outlines of the problem. But outlaw Johnny Depp never lifted a finger to fight The Man — that job needed Mitt Romney. Any outlaw worth the name would be comfortable with a little bit of tax evasion. I doubt that Jesse James ever filed a 1040EZ.

#page#You know which Jesse James I mean — the outlaw. The other Jesse James, the one who had the television show, just has a bunch of tattoos. As many as Johnny Depp? Rolling Stone is on the beat:

Depp is, at the moment, dressed like a hobo whom other hobos would worry about. On his head is a battered, ancient brown fedora with a big tear on top, like Indiana Jones’ post-refrigerator-ride. He’s thrown a shapeless brown canvas jacket over a blue denim shirt that’s open to reveal a bonus shirt, an orange-striped Henley, beneath. His jeans are huge, carpenter-cut, shredded practically to bits, with white paint splattered up the legs and duct tape covering some of the worst holes at the rear. He’s wearing a bunch of skull rings on his fingers. His brown leather boots (worn over white socks) are the only faux-distressed element of his outfit — a gift from their manufacturer, A.S. 98, they’re brand-new but look 30 years old. He has a goatee and a mustache and many, many tattoos, some of them very recently acquired. “I’m running out of real estate,” he says.

So: many, many. For more precise journalism, consult Depp Impact, a website dedicated to the actor (“Celebrating Johnny Depp Online Since 2000”), which keeps an obsessive catalogue of his tattoos, of which it documents 31. One of them is a traditional banner emblazoned with the words “Wino Forever.” It used to say “Winona Forever,” but romance is a fleeting thing.

Tattoos once were the mark of outlaws, gangsters, sailors, and other men living on the edge. According to the American Medical Association, 21 percent of Americans have a tattoo, 38 percent of Americans between 30 and 39 have a tattoo, and — still! — 50 percent of Americans believe that getting a tattoo is “rebellious.” Call it the Johnny Depp effect: outlaw on the street, Disney in the bank. It is a slightly less expensive version of the Harley-Davidson effect: Motorcycles, particularly Harley-Davidson motorcycles, have long been associated with rebellion and outlawry, but with prices for a decked-out bike crossing the $40,000 mark (the CVO Limited starts at $38,999), motorcycles are no longer for Hell’s Angels but for Hell’s Dentists and Hell’s Bankers. The outlaw rock star Joe Strummer of The Clash is today just another brand in the portfolio of the Fender Musical Instruments Company of Scottsdale, Ariz., which made a pile of money selling guitars decorated with his name, faux-distressed like Mr. Depp’s corporate-freebie boots.

Motorcycles lost a little bit of their outlaw swagger with the passing of mandatory-helmet laws, and now tattoos are poised to get the same treatment: Washington, D.C., is considering a law that would mandate a 24-hour waiting period before the application of a tattoo. (They do call the instrument of application a gun, after all.) This is a vapid proposal for many reasons, but mainly for the lost opportunity: What should be mandatory is not a cooling-off period but a spell-checker. Every tattoo parlor should be required to have at its service a professionally trained copy editor to prevent the orthographical disasters one sees on tattoos from time to time, e.g. “To young to die / To fast to live,” “Only God Will Juge Me,” “Beautiful Tradgedy.” Preferably, this person would speak Mandarin as well. A fellow named Tian Tang has long been chronicling the abuse of Chinese characters in Western pop culture, and has found tattoos containing either laughable errors or, in many cases, evidence of plain mean-spiritedness on the part of the artist: One fellow who wanted a tattoo reading “Outlaw” got one reading “Snitch,” while a woman was inked “Cheap Whore” and a presumably laowai type labeled “Foreigner.”

From tattoos to motorcycles to every other emblem of the counterculture that in the 1960s became simply the culture, there is nothing that cannot be suffocated by the nannying impulse, which is not limited to the organs of the state. Party-hearty libertines looking forward to the eventual legalization of hard drugs should consider with some trepidation what the FDA is going to do to their precious cocaine before Walmart is allowed to peddle it. Everybody knows the old joke about the union whorehouse.

Why we should admire outlaws at all is another question. John Brown was an outlaw. So was Timothy McVeigh. So was David Berkowitz. When Iceberg Slim was beating women into submission, he, too, was an outlaw. Perhaps Hollywood or Rock, Inc., finds something to admire in these men. Perhaps not. What they’re really in love with is Robin Hood, which is odd, given that they consistently vote for the Sheriff of Nottingham, who was, after all, the king’s tax collector, Lois Lerner to the vile pretender’s Barack Obama. And as Al Capone knew, the taxman is a fearsome foe for genuine outlaws and faux-distressed outlaws alike. But they react in very different ways: The outlaw takes what he wants — Mr. Depp is happy to beg the king’s permission to keep what’s his.

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