July 2, 2003: Perspective

The Tattoo Lady

At a tender reunion, the perfect touch

By Robin Herman ’73

Illustration: james kaczman

Robin Herman ’73 is director of communications at the Harvard School of Public Health. Here she remembers visiting the Class of 1972 at its 30th reunion, last year.

We had made a pact months before Reunions weekend to drive down to Princeton. It wasn’t a big reunion year for us; we were Class of 1973. But it was the 30th reunion for the Class of 1972, so our chances of seeing “the boys” were good.

They’d been our big brothers. We had shown up unexpectedly, 101 of us in that first class of women, and the boys from ’72 were the ones who had let us tag along and make our mistakes and be friendly when that was all we wanted. We knew them mostly from the eating clubs. Older, wiser, but not too much wiser.

So here we were, the coeds, showing up unexpectedly again.

It was my pal Robin Krasny and me – the two Robins, they used to call us. I picked Robin up in Manhattan, and we drove down to the ever-verdant campus. I didn’t say anything to her just then, but I had a plan.

In my bag was an envelope full of Princeton tattoos; little squares you could rub onto your skin for a temporary decoration, a gimmick the Alumni Council had used at another event, and I’d grabbed a bunch then.

The first step in my plan was to tattoo myself. I pressed a square to my upper arm with a bit of damp tissue, counted 30 seconds, and then slid the paper backing away. Left glistening on my skin was an orange and black tiger sprawled atop a Princeton shield.

I was ready.

What happened next unfolded in typical Princeton character. Arriving at the 30th-reunion tent for the Friday-night party, I walked to the beer line and ran into the tall, cheerful Bob Murley ’72. He greeted me with surprise and delight, and then his eyes locked onto the tattoo. “Hey, where’d you get that?”

I pulled out the envelope of tattoos, and he asked if I’d put one on him. I turned to others in the line and called for water and a tissue.

Someone quickly supplied a cocktail napkin; someone else passed along a cupful of Bud. Murley said with bravado that he wanted the tattoo on his face.

Well, we found out after a couple of tries that beer doesn’t work on temporary tattoos; the alcohol degrades the ink. It happened to be raining (this being Reunions), and we caught some water dripping from the tent.

By this time, a line of guys demanding tattoos had formed. The first real success came with John Davren ’72, a quiet, serious type who had played baseball and whom I’d known at Tower Club. John was still looking like Robert Redford – less and less, he asserted, as he grew older, but I didn’t see it. He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a sculpted deltoid, and the tattoo slid right on. He grinned, and said that when he returned home, he was going to tell his four daughters that he’d “gone wild” at his reunion.

Another guy rolled up his sleeve to show a hairy upper arm, and the tattoo wouldn’t stick. When I remarked, innocently, that for this to work I really needed a dry, hairless patch of skin, the ribald jokes started flying – all manner of possible sites were suggested, including where George Shultz ’42 had his infamous tiger imprint. Attempting to place the tattoo for the third time on Murley’s damp face, we were all crying with laughter.

The next clean success was on Rob Smart ’72. He had been business manager at the Daily Princetonian when I was a reporter there. With a long face and slim body, he’d hardly changed at all. The tattoo on his arm came out beautifully, and then an older gentleman stepped forward, asking if he might also have one – he was Rob’s father, Bill Smart ’41.

As we played out our funny game, amid the all-too-familiar smell of spilled beer, I recalled how easygoing and spirited the joking had been in our undergraduate years. These days perhaps people feel compelled to be more sensitive, but back then it was mostly viewed as high spirits. The coeds were there to integrate Princeton, after all, and that meant joining in the fun – though those rugby parties were a challenge to survive without embarrassment. So the spirit was recaptured there under the 30th-reunion tent. We all felt the crackle that can happen between boys and girls, men and women, even of a certain age.

On Saturday the sun broke out, and it was a splendid, achingly beautiful day on the campus. Showing up at the tent before the P-rade, I found that I had acquired a nickname. I was now “the Tattoo Lady,” and the children of the boys of ’72 were coming up to me and begging for the tattoos. I applied the orange and black decoration to the arms and faces of little boys and girls and beautiful teenagers, sent to me by their grown-up fathers, and my eyes welled over several times.

Then, inside the reunion tent, I found my old Princeton boyfriend. We’d kept up with each other over the years, but I hadn’t seen him on the campus in an awfully long time. Catching sight of my tattoo, he asked if he could have one. We sat down at a table, and he laid out his forearm and said to place the Princeton tiger there. The skin shone smooth, the arm in such a vulnerable position, that I stared for a moment before pressing the damp cloth as he held still. It was the closest moment we’d shared since we were in our 20s.

Getting up from the table we walked over to the P-rade with the rest of the Class of ’72. Robin K. was there, and she and I marched with the boys for a while, a scattering of them bearing their tiger tattoos. Then we drifted back to the small clutch of classmates from ’73 who marched behind the “Coeducation Begins” banner that always prompts such big cheers from the crowd.

The tattoo scene stayed with me on the long drive home. My classmate Jane Leifer phoned the next day and asked about the reunion, then exclaimed, “You see why it was so great. The tattoos gave you an excuse to touch everybody. It’s what we all want, really, when we go back, to touch and be touched.”

Now, a year later, I can’t part with that envelope of tattoos. I always carry a few with me in case I run into some fellow Tigers. I’m the Tattoo Lady now.


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