Just the latest insult to Native American traditions by parents without the guts to get their kids real tattoos
No, its not the old 19th century smallpox-impregnated-blanket trick. And its not the literally countless number of broken treaties and promises. And its not even close to the lets-give-them-the-worst-land-everywhere policy thats created reservations on some of the most hostile terrain in the United States.
What Im talking about is the horrific rise of the artless application of paint to the face of every kid in America, at every event held from sea to shining sea. Whether its at a community picnic, a traveling carnival with cool, superdangerous, never-safety-inspected rides or food booths, grandma and grandpas long-anticipated murder/suicide memorial service, or an ongoing four-alarm fire raging through your neighbors house, youll almost always find an individual seated at a folding table with a folding chair for clients (I assume for quite-getaway purposes) with pots full of pasty color, a hand-lettered sign taped to the side of the table reading Face Painting for Kids!!!!!! And a suggested donation that, if more than zero, is vastly overpriced.
Im not sure what it is about face painting that irks me so. Not that it irks me more than just about everything else, but youd think that Id at least let this one little thing go. Its harmless. Its ubiquitous. Youre never going to be able to stop it. So just forget about it and concentrate on the great issues of the day.
Then I thought, Nah, forget it. Im going after these kids faces like an eagle hungry for chin meat.
The first, and most essential truth about face painting, is thats its an activity jammed down kids throats (or in this case, smushed into their faces like a malicious clowns cream pie) by their parents so they can have some quality time in the beer tent at public recreational gatherings, to whit:
Dad, Im bored. Theres nothing to do here. I wanna go. Its hot. Im tired. The food smells funny and the rides are all squeaky and shaky [boy, does this kid know his traveling carny business], says the five-year-old boy to his father, whos not hearing a word of it as he cravenly staring into the invigorating deeply shadowed interior of the brew tent with its libatious temptations of unlimited shivery cans of lite beer and the possibility of small talk with a cool quart of hometown MILK (Mom Id Like to Know, if you know what I mean).
The kid pulls down hard on the edge of his old mans T-shirt, which he has tucked into his jeans for maximum visual effect. He looks down hard at his son from under the brim of the ubiquitous baseball cap, so angry he could throw a handful of dirt at the boy. Then, snapping briefly back to reality, smiles at his son, who has amazingly already mastered driving the family ATV at full bore. He scans the booths, the whirring devices of almost-certain mechanical death or dismemberment (the one thing his wife would never forgive him for), and spots the perfect alternative.
He hands the kid a five and and says, Whyont you get your face painted with all them other kids?
The boy looks at the line, the kids all around him who have butterflies and flowers and fully licensed, trademarked animation charactersin clear violation of any interpretation of fair useever attempted as a defended in any U.S. court of lawdrawn on their faces. The kid knows its this or three poison dogs that will leave him bloated and hallucinating in the noonday son, so he agrees.
All right, Dad, he says, taking the sweaty half-sawbuck.
All right, dude! Dad replies, high-fiveing his son, even as his feet are already moving of their own volition toward the semidark anonymity of the beer big top.
And thus this five-year-old becomes both victim and victimizer. How, you ask? if youve managed to read this far.
The scourge of face painting has reduced a generation of children to nameless, faceless generic canvases by parents who dont have the guts to get their kids real tattoos. This is symptomatic of this Age, where candy cigarettes are looked down upon, if you can even find them. (I always had a pack of candy cigarettes on me, from the time I was allowed to play outside on my own. And I grew up to absolutely despise the real thing.) Semi-realistic looking toy guns (like the Davy Crockett rifle my best friend, Brian Beckmeyer, received on his eighth birthday. Real wooden stock. Real black metal barrel. Unfortunately, when we were in the swamps playing Alamo on the very day he got the long gun, he made the mistake of turning his back on me, at which point I did what any of the defenders of the legendary Texas mission would have done to one of Santa Annas soldiers: I clocked him over the head with the gunstock, snapping it in two and knocking him unconscious just long enough to take off for home and deny I had anything to do with the guns stunning and sudden demise.)
And if you wanted some colorreal color, permanent coloradded to your life, you paid someones big brother with the change youd stolen over the years from your fathers dresser top to take you down the shore and get one.
This was before ruby lasers and advertisements for easy laser removal techniques. You knew the price youd pay, and continue paying, for the enormous eternal mistake youd made. But during those times, there was nothing as temporary, nor as lame, as face painting. The rub-on tattoos you could by then lasted longer than the current crop; Im sure they had a lead-and-mercury base, but they looked great and it took them weeks to wash off.
Admittedly, most of us went that route, including me.
But to those kids who went whole hog, and returned from the beach with the smell of salt in their hair, a bandage on their arms, and the full knowledge that theyd be punished for years in ways the rest of us could only imagine, I salute you here.
And so kids nowadays settle for the bland, fleeting, cookie-cutter (not literally), facial equivalents of the cheapest car paint job. They wash off with spit, or drizzle in a gentle breeze, with a single flash of a digital camera, or simply with the thought that they should be gone now.
Particularly when looked at in the light of the original purpose of face painting.
This, from a column, Grandmothers Speak in the Manataka American Indian Council:
Face paint, or medicine paint . . . was a visual indication of . . . individual personal power as well as tribal affiliation. Materials used were roots, berries, tree bark, and colored clay.
Each tribal nation had its own designs, and individuals respected those guidelines . . . often the individual design could be a portrayal of a spirit message, a vision, and have spiritual significance to the individual that was unknown to others.
Red was the color of war . . . yellow was the accepted color of death or deadly encounters. [These paintings] were calculated to strike terror. Some warriors entered battle naked except for a loin cloth, but with their bodies streaked in bizarre examples in red and black paint. . . . Yellow paint meant that a man had lived his life and will fight to the absolute end.
Now thats face painting.
No Miss Piggy as a princess on the cheek.
No Shrek on the forehead.
No full-face Hello Kittys.
When I asked a Native American if he thought the current wave of face painting was an even bigger insult than Mount Rushmore, he said . . . No.
When I said to him, Look, it would really help my story if you could just way yes to that question just this one time, and I wont even use your name, just the fact that youre a Native American.
He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged and said, Yes.
So, there you have it, from a bona fide original son of this land. Face painting is even more insulting to native tribes than the huge presidential faces carved to watch over Native Americans and the land to which theyve been relegated.
So I make this simple request: Resist the sirens call of the face painter when next it comes, and no matter how cheap it is. Instead, tell your children of the great warriors who marked their faces before they left their villages to protect their people and the land they cherished.
Tell them what a real tattoo is, the commitment it requires, how theyre not old enough to get one (a fascinating challenge if I ever heard one), and how expensive and painful they can be.
And if they remain unconvinced, if they remain hard-hearted despite the wealth of cultural knowledge theyve just received, then tell them theyre going to look really stupid with Sponge Bob dripping off of their tiny little faces when it starts to rain, which it looks like its going to in about, um, five minutes.