Barred For Life: A Review on Jaded Punk
by Dan Ozzi
April 10th, 2013
If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you have a Black Flag bars tattoo. And you probably think it makes you pretty special, huh? Well, bad news:It doesn’t. Thousands of people have The Bars permanently branded on their flesh. Tens of thousands, even. It’s arguably the most common music-related tattoo out there. But is it more meaningful than just a tattoo? Barred For Life is a book that seeks an answer to that question.
The 8x10” book features interviews with all Black Flag members except for two who declined: Henry Rollins, who was probably busy doing deadlifts and Greg Ginn, who was probably too high to answer the phone. The interviews give some insights into the background of the band which, if you’re enough of a fan of the band to read this book, chances are you’ve heard before. But the band members’ reflections on the tattoo and the logo itself are uncharted territory for most Black Flag aficionados and are most relevant to the crux of the book’s story.
Barred For Life is held together by the personal narrative of the author, Stewart Dean Ebersole, who reflects on Black Flag, The Bars, and the meaning of the Punk Rock movement. (His capitalizations, not ours.) While not uninteresting, it is a distraction from the book’s main eye candy: Dozens and dozens of black and white photos of people with their Bars tattoos and their brief thoughts on it. Each subject is asked for the following: name, age, location, occupation, favorite singer, favorite song, favorite album (amazingly, someone said Family Man), and what the band/logo means to them. Through hundreds of pages of these featurettes, we get a comprehensive picture of what kind of people get The Bars tattoo. And the answer is all kinds.
Flipping through Barred For Life is a bit like looking through a high school yearbook. Chances are pretty good that you’ll spot someone you know, either personally or from a band/record label/venue you’re a fan of. A former member of Avail makes an appearance, as does the drummer for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the founder of Equal Vision Records. Frank Turner is featured on the book’s final page. Some punk notables, like former Indecision and Milhouse singer, Artie Phillie, aren’t even credited as such. Everyone from 44-year-old NYU psychology professors to 25-year-old bike messengers in the UK are included. Some are self-professed bums and others are city councilmembers or Daily Show producers. Some seem to have intimate and deep connections with the logo and the band, whereas others profess to having gotten it to fit in to a scene.
There is an especially moving story from a wounded U.S. Army veteran who met Henry Rollins. “[Rollins] asked me now that I lost my leg what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to go back into combat with my buddies. He left the room and came back in red-faced. I think that he was crying.”
The tattoos of the iconic logo themselves tell a larger story as well. It’s a story of a movement that acts as a Rorschach test, meaning something different to each person it touches. Some tats are timeworn and faded while others are crisp and new. Some are small and subtle while others prominently take up an entire limb. They adorn people’s asses and people’s throats.
Some folks got them in prison and some were the result of late night drunken tattoo sessions in basements. Some people got theirs at 18, others got them at 48. Liberties were taken with the logo, like the guy who got the Bars as bacon strips.
While it would’ve been a much easier undertaking for the author to publish a book of general punk tattoos, he instead narrowed in on one specific logo, did the subject due diligence, and the results are infinitely more impressive. It’s amazing that four simple sticks can capture such a comprehensive story, but much like Black Flag did for the punk scene, Barred For Life ties it all together.