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A flaming skull just isn't me

His punk years over, a classical musician and fan wonders: What kind of tattoo captures his passion best?

"Notes," Chris DeBarge says, "I do those all the time. The other day, a girl came in, she wanted a G-clef and three notes. She didn't even care what they were."

DeBarge, who plays guitar for the band The Curses, isn't talking about free jazz. He's speaking in his other professional capacity, as a tattoo artist at Stingray Body Art in Allston. We're discussing musical designs -- including the one he's about to engrave on my arm.

Over the past 40 years, the link between musicians and tattoos has become indelible. Music was the pathway by which an art form previously associated with sailors, bikers, and criminal elements moved into the mainstream; a frequently cited milestone is the tattooing of Janis Joplin by the legendary San Francisco artist Lyle Tuttle in the late 1960s.

The coming of punk and heavy metal in the 1970s inked the deal. Now, most musical genres claim their share of intricately decorated practitioners and fans.

Even classical music? As a teenaged punk rock fan, I might have opted for a rebellious talisman or two, but I never got around to it. As a professional classical musician, I have decided that the usual designs -- band logos, electric guitars -- don't really resonate. What's a suitable tattoo for someone who's as likely to associate Sid and Nancy with the romantic couple in Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring" as with the Sex Pistols? Bach's skull in flames? Beethoven's? (Both skulls were photographed, a side effect of 19th-century German civic leaders upgrading the composers' hallowed remains to bigger and better tombs.)

Consider this: if Beethoven had a tattoo, what would it have been?

"It would definitely be the lyre," says Darcy Kuronen, the curator of the musical instrument collection at the Museum of Fine Arts. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European culture was fascinated with all things ancient Greek; the lyre became a near-ubiquitous symbol for music. "The lyre would really communicate the idea of 'classical' music, in multiple senses of the word" -- even though nobody at the time actually played the instrument. "It's funny," Kuronen says, "the lyre really only survives as an instrument in parts of east Africa."

He shows me a number of "lyre-guitars" in the MFA's collection : boxy, vertically-standing affairs with decorative side arms in imitation of the Greek model. As objets d'art, they're quite beautiful. As instruments? "They're almost impossible to play," Kuronen explains. "They're the sort of thing a woman would hold while getting her portrait painted."

Given the amount of my life I've spent at the keyboard, I'm not that inclined to swap it out for an instrument I'll never touch. And in researching contemporary musical tattoos, I found that lyres are little in evidence; the most common classical-themed tattoo seems to be a phrase of actual music, a piece that, for intellectual, sentimental, or even visual reasons has inspired a permanent, notated souvenir. Such seemingly simple designs are a challenge, says DeBarge: "Parallel lines" -- like the five that comprise the musical staff -- "are the hardest things to tattoo."

American soprano Andrea Gruber has the opening bars of "In questa reggia," Turandot's aria from the eponymous Puccini opera, tattooed on her back. It was an important role in her career, but the character and the aria also took on added significance, one related to the canvas of the body.

"The opening line is 'In this palace,' " she says. "I had just had gastric bypass surgery, and I lost 170 pounds. My body turned into a very different palace!"

Later in the piece, Turandot vows to avenge the scream of her ancestor ("io vendico . . . quel grido"), an image Gruber relates to her previous battles with drug addiction.

The soprano is speaking by phone, just back from Italy, where her decorations inspire more fascination than apprehension. "I've been privileged to sing with a lot of the singers of the older generation there," she says. "These very distinguished, cultured gentlemen, they're always amused by this crazy American girl with her tattoos, but who still has this knowledge and love for the music and the language."

James Jorden , who writes the popular online opera magazine "Parterre Box," chose an iconic tattoo, Maria Callas in full, photorealistic dramatic cry during her famous 1958 Dallas performance of Cherubini's "Medea."

"For me, this was above all an expression of commitment as an opera fan and as an admirer of Callas," he says. "But to tell the truth, the core inspiration was a guy who wrote a fan-biography of Ann-Margret. He got a tattoo of [her] to celebrate her Oscar nomination for 'Tommy.' That always struck me as such a cool expression of devotion."

The prevalence of tattoos in the rock world also played a part. "I think it was a conscious attempt to draw a parallel between rock/punk fandom and opera appreciation. I always admired the fierceness and dedication of rock fans even if I hadn't a clue what the music was about. So in a sense I was trying to emulate that dedication."

Hannah Petersen, a 21-year-old viola da gamba player and apprentice instrument-maker, makes an even more explicit connection between classical music and the subversion of punk rock. She mentions Mozart's K. 465 String Quartet, commonly called the "Dissonance" for its extraordinary, clashing introduction. The Hungarian Prince Grassalkovich, according to Mozart's widow, tore up the music upon first hearing the piece. " [Classical musicians have] always been irritating other people," Petersen points out.

For Petersen's first design (she now has three), a musical theme at least partially appeased parental disapproval: "My mother said that if I ever got a tattoo, the only one she would accept would be the sound holes from my instrument." It references a famous 20th-century image: Man Ray's "Le Violon d'Ingres," a photograph of a woman painted with a cello's sound-holes on her back. (Unlike the cello's f-shaped holes, a viola da gamba's are closer to c-shaped. "People are always asking why I have telephones on my back," Petersen says.)

The Man Ray homage, perhaps the only classical-related tattoo to gain wide currency, was first translated into a tattoo by Ruth Marten, a New York painter and illustrator who also gained fame in the 1970s and ' 80s as a tattoo artist. She was one of a new generation who came out of art school -- the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in fact -- rather than the secretive apprenticeships that previously held sway.

"The old hobgoblins about criminals, loose women, gang members -- they've been worn away to nothing," Marten says. She thinks the rise of personal computers, and the corresponding ease with which people can manipulate images, has changed the art industry from one where you would choose a bit of pre existing flash off the parlor's wall to one where the customer, more likely than not, has had a hand in the design.

"There's a high comfort level with type and graphics today," she says. "There's also the comfort level with branding, with advertising." People gain familiarity with visual representations of products and ideas, a vocabulary they then apply to the self. "Anyone who feels very strongly about things will look to their own life for designs. The choices are very specific to this time."

My own choices end up eclectic. Even with the addition of some old-school roses, courtesy of DeBarge, it's a far cry visually from the terse symbolism with which sailors first brought tattoos to these shores. But the main elements -- my wife's name, and a phrase of music (which DeBarge delineates with surgical precision) -- promote the same subjects as those early designs: sweethearts and allegiance.

To someone who views the classical repertoire as timeless and immune to passing fads, this whole subject may seem silly, trivial, tangential to the actual music. But maybe that's what attracts musicians to tattooing's permanence: Music itself is so incorporeal that, for someone who's devoted their life to it, a fixed physical manifestation is particularly enticing.

Petersen puts it best. "You're obsessed with it -- it eats your soul for breakfast," she says. "But once you play those notes, they're gone. So the idea of an art form based around the self is appeal- ing. You're the walking piece of art."