Teenage Passions, Writ Small

Dog tags, ranging from simple to ornate, can declare the wearer's identity, history or passion.
Dog tags, ranging from simple to ornate, can declare the wearer's identity, history or passion. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

Without saying a word, Teofilo Rubi announces his identity to everyone he passes at his Prince William County high school. All they have to do is glance at the dog tag around his neck, emblazoned with the blue and white flag of his native Central American country and the words, " Yo Soy CATRACHO " (I am Honduran).

A few lunch tables over at Gar-Field Senior High, a 16-year-old girl sports a dog tag engraved with a photo of her girlfriend. Another classmate wears a dog tag with a picture of Al Pacino clutching an assault rifle in the movie "Scarface."

You want to know the essential truth of teenagers? Check out their dog tags. Walk through the hallways or cafeterias in just about any high school, and you can see them draped around students' necks like modern-day lockets or shiny talismans, proclaiming an identity or intimating a tantalizing narrative.

Resting squarely on students' chests or swinging with their strides, the oblong pieces of metal are engraved with images of boyfriends, slain relatives, native homelands or any number of hip-hop approved celebrities such as Tupac Shakur or Jesus. In what has to be one of the more ironic appropriations of U.S. military apparel, the dog tags can be encrusted with diamonds, gold-plated or filled with blinking LED lights, carrying price tags that range from $20 to $100, and in some cases more.

"Everybody wears them. It represents who you are. It deals with who you are," said Rubi, 18, as he sat down for lunch one day with friends, while wearing his Honduran dog tag. "My girlfriend gave it to me for Valentine's Day. She said, 'If you don't wear it, you're going to see what happens.' "

Rubi's friends around the lunch table started razzing him, pretty much immediately.

"It's going to run out of fashion in two weeks," said Lionel Granados-Ortez, 17, a Salvadoran sophomore. "As a matter of fact, I'm going to get a cat tag."

"You're stupid," Rubi shot back with a smile.

Granados-Ortez nodded and finally conceded. "Nah. It's tight."

Earlier generations draped themselves in silver or gold heart-shaped lockets, earnestly sentimental neckwear that enclosed a person's most private thoughts or relationships. Now, the modern-day locket, as worn by teenagers, young adults and the hip-hop avatars they parrot, has taken the shape of a military dog tag, but the inscriptions and images are hardly discreet.

Befitting an age in which teenagers are glomming onto just about any inanimate object for self-branding -- think cell phones, custom-made Nike sneakers and, sigh , Myspace.com -- personalized dog tags are just another avenue for self-advertisement, a way for young people to feel like celebrities even if their stratosphere is hemmed in by lunch bells and school bus schedules.

Dog tags -- the official identification of the U.S. military, providing the wearer's name, Social Security number, blood type and religion -- were first employed as novelty items on a large scale during the Vietnam War. Protesters wore red and blue plastic tags that said "Love" or "Peace," according to Paul F. Braddock, a Pennsylvania-based author of a book about dog tags and their history.

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