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Hair, Hats & Tats

Guys, if you’re swinging your ponytail, stroking your beard, playing with your earring, or peering out from under your hat as you read this, Glenn O’Brien has a story he’d like to share.

If the clothes say a lot about the man, then style writer Glenn O'Brien has edited his sartorial statement to perfection—now if only he could be as decisive and committed when it comes to getting a tattoo.

I grew up in a conformist time, a conformist place. If you wore a pink shirt you were a suspected communist homosexual security risk. My grandma told me, “If you came to pick my daughter up in that shirt I wouldn’t let her go out with you.” Luckily I didn’t want to date my mother. If you had a tattoo you had either done time or would soon. If you had a beard you had something to hide.

My grandpa told me that. He didn’t trust any son of a b*tch with a moustache. Hair creeping around your collar meant you were a beatnik foreigner. Hats were OK, until 1963 or so, then they too were beyond the pale. Who does he think he is, Humphrey Bogart?

Sandals? Queer! Earring? Ditto. A real man wore a white shirt, plain tie, blue or gray suit and black shoes, was freshly shaved and his hair was neatly cropped in a flattop that made him look like the square he was.

When I got to be a teenager, I could see where all this was going. It looked like war up ahead, and after that, a lifetime of corporate service, followed by a retirement spent absorbed in a hobby, then death. I considered the alternatives. There was Europe. The life of a merchant seaman. There were beatnik ghettos in coastal cities. But I wanted to signal immediately that I was different. I wanted a hat, a beard, a tattoo, sandals, an earring—whatever it took to step out of line. I wanted to look like jazzman Eric Dolphy, who wrote “Hat and Beard,” who had an afro and a pharaonic chin beard.

In 1966 I grew big sideburns. In 1967 I stopped cutting my hair and acquired a large motorcycle. Then I grew a beard. Soon I looked a bit like one of those bad paintings of Jesus as a hippie biker. But I didn’t get a tattoo. I wanted one, but I couldn’t think of one I wouldn’t get sick of.

By the time I got to New York, the world had gone crazy. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Pop art. Riots, first black, then white. I had hair halfway down my back, but got a lot of complaints about the beard. Girls didn’t like it. So the beard went. Then I started noticing that a lot of cops had hair almost as long as mine. And I realized that actual rednecks looked a lot like what had recently defined hippies. So off went the hair. And, oddly, I felt free in my sudden ambiguity. You couldn’t tell what I was. I could be a Special Forces guy or a punk rocker.
My look stabilized. I seemed different because I didn’t dress like a clone. And I wore fedoras. But then, not long ago, I got a yen for a beard, so I grew one. My wife objected, but I kept it short and eventually she stopped complaining.

And I realized that a beard is really makeup for men. I looked younger with one, even though it was gray. And when all the young dudes started wearing beards and hats and dressing like characters, I was happy. It seemed like a free world. There’s only one thing missing: I don’t have a tattoo. I still can’t think of anything I wouldn’t get sick of. It’s the only writer’s block I’ve ever had.