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The Illustrated Congressmen

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Tattoo artist Matt Knopp, owner of Tattoo Paradise in Adams Morgan, says there is much less stigma attached to tattoos these days. At least a handful of Members of Congress admit to being inked, although none were willing to show off their body art for photographs.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) — the only known female member of the caucus — went to a tattoo shop shortly after the 9/11 attacks to get “a tattoo of a cross, which is a reflection of her strong faith,” spokesman Ken Johnson said.

Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) has a Kappa Sigma tattoo in honor of his fraternity — but wouldn’t necessarily want to see his children follow in his inky footsteps.

“I am still proud to have it but won’t be encouraging my kids to get one,” Boren said.

Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), is the granddaddy of the Tattoo Caucus and the only Member of Congress to sport a tatua, the traditional form of Polynesian tattooing that is performed when a boy enters manhood. 

While Western tattooing isn’t exactly a walk in the park — it involves, after all, the repeated insertion of dozens of needles into the skin — the art of tatua is not for the faint of heart.

The process can take weeks to complete and traditional artists, known as tufuga ta tatau, use tools made of bone, wood and seashell to perform the tattoos, which can cover much of a person’s body.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Marine like Hunter, also has military tattoos. In a 2008 interview with Esquire, Webb revealed he and his son have matching tattoos celebrating their Irish and Scottish ancestry.

A Glorious Past

Tattooing has something of a history in politics. Goldwater’s infamous hand tattoo — made up of four small stars and a half moon — was part of his participation in the Smoki People, a group of largely white, Native American culture enthusiasts in the Southwest. The late Arizona Senator was long celebrated for his role in cultural appreciation of Southwestern tribal art and customs.

President Theodore Roosevelt purportedly had his family crest tattooed on his chest, while Winston Churchill — whose mother had a snake tattooed on her leg — famously had an anchor tattooed on his right forearm.

But despite that history and the rising popularity of the art form, it’s still difficult to find Members who have them — and in some cases even more difficult to get them to talk about their work.

Yes, one of man’s oldest art forms — and an ostensibly outward expression of one’s life or self — flusters even the most quote-ready Member of Congress.

“Oh come on, man, who told you that?” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said when asked recently about his work. West, a former Army officer who has an eagle tattoo and airborne wings on his arms, among other work, was remarkably shy when discussing the tattoos he’s gotten.

Still, he did offer that, “I don’t have to worry about looking at it all saggy or with some chick’s name on there” — referring to two tattoo rookie mistakes.

That reluctance to be tagged isn’t abnormal. For instance, Del. Gregorio Sablan (D-
Northern Mariana Islands), who has a prominent tattoo on his hand, declined to comment on its origins or meaning.

Matt Knopp, owner of Adams Morgan’s Tattoo Paradise, argued the reluctance of some Members to discuss their tattoos isn’t surprising.

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