Why is The Bee sponsoring a tattoo contest?

For years we journalists have been derisively called "ink-stained wretches," but the phrase has taken on new meaning since we asked readers to "Show Us Your Tattoo."

For our contest that draws to a close today at 5 p.m. on, we encouraged readers to submit photos of their tattoos. Whoever's tattoo is the favorite of our online voters wins the privilege of getting a new tattoo during the Music & Body Art festival in Lodi this weekend.

Reaction from some readers has been needle sharp. Some called the contest a trash idea from a trashy newspaper.

"What kind of knuckleheads are running the paper these days?" read one caustic e-mail. "Can't you guys come up with anything to raise the level of consciousness up a little around here?"

Another reader wrote on our Web site, "I don't know why The Bee wants to glorify this despicable art form."

As the "knucklehead" behind the contest, allow me to explain.

My photo should reveal that I'm not the stereotypical big-muscled, hog-riding ruffian whose back is a canvas for a needle-and-ink portrait of the Grim Reaper. I wear neckties and wing tips, and I don't have any tats.

But I recognize that tattoos -- once the domain of bikers, carnival workers and other rough-and-tumble types -- have become much more common in society.

To men and women 30 and under, the stigma earlier generations associated with tattoos hasn't imprinted. Maybe that's why there are about 50 registered tattoo parlors in Stanislaus County and 80 or so registered artists.

It's that under-30 generation we're trying to reach with the contest, hoping they'll stop by our Web site to view a few tattoos and maybe even pick up a copy of the newspaper.

We took precautions to block tattoos in questionable taste. Sexual references, gang signs -- we wanted none of that.

Among 119 entries, we didn't get any.

What we found was that the sentiments the tattoos expressed echo the values most people in our community share: family, friendship, patriotism, faith.

One of the first tattoos submitted was done in tribute to a stillborn child. Others honor living children, including a sweet one showing a toy biplane followed by puffs of exhaust spelling out the child's name.

Many of the tattoos celebrate marriages or anniversaries. Others show military insignia honoring relatives and buddies who've served their country.

While a few refer to death with skulls and gargoyles, more refer to the hereafter with angel wings and cherubs.

One man has a portrait of his mother who died during heart surgery.

"Not only is my mom in my heart, now she's on my skin where I can see her every day," the entry reads. "This helps to heal my heart."

Despicable or trashy? Not at all. That's a worthy use of ink.

Day is director of interactive media. Contact him at 578-2332 or