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Look really close at the pictures on these pages—they all have something in common. Since at least the ’60s, hand stamps and marks have been a fixture of the D.C. club scene. Stamps are supposed to do a lot of things—identify underage kids so they can’t get plastered (at least not inside the club), show security who has paid the cover (so clubs can keep the rest of you cheap bastards outside, where you belong), or get special people (i.e., non–cheap bastards) into the VIP areas.

But the era of the hand stamp is at its end. Newer megaclubs such as Nation and Dream are moving away from the stamps altogether, preferring wristbands. Adding to ink’s air of antiquation is a futuristic option currently used at clubs in Barcelona, Spain, and Glasgow, Scotland, where VIP clients have radio-frequency identification devices implanted under their skin. These miniature electronic devices serve as their admission tickets and keep track of their bar tabs.

It’s not just technological evolution that’s doomed the stamp. In just about every way, the stamp has failed.

It’s failed because it comes off. Anyone who doesn’t mind losing a few layers of skin can scrub off a supposedly indelible under-21 stamp. “We would rush the bathroom and wash it off,” recalls Marcela Lopez, a Dream partygoer, of the stamps she got in her underage days. Her friend Marilyn Nunez had a different tactic, opting to carry hand sanitizer for her clandestine stamp removal “because sometimes they have people watching the bathroom.”

It’s failed because it doesn’t come off. Stamp ink is often water-resistant and formulated to be difficult to remove. When this sort of ink is applied in large amounts with a very well-inked rubber stamp, the result is a lasting mark of your weekend debauchery. For some clubgoers, the stamps are a very real job liability. Dante Ferrando, owner of the Black Cat, says that at least one patron has tried to claim stamp immunity because she was “a hand model.” Caroline Kenney, who is a puppeteer, can relate. “You can’t have a hand stamp doing puppetry,” she says.

It’s failed because it can’t be seen. The stamp is supposed to stand out on a hand so bartenders and bouncers can easily read it. But many clubbers, such as Eric Doyle, a 9:30 Club patron, arrive covered with tattoos. This presents the door staff with the challenge of finding spots on their hands that are clear enough for an image to show up. “People have been really belligerent,” says Doyle, when they are searching for an uninked patch of skin.

It’s failed because it can be forged. For those on a budget, there are tactics for getting discounted admission at local clubs. John Somers has made his own ticket to party at clubs by taking an X-Acto knife and copying their designs into rubber. But the most popular method for getting an illicit stamp is something that Ferrando calls the “lick and stick.” This is a scam in which one person pays, gets a legit stamp, then licks his hand and tries to imprint it on someone else’s. To combat “lick and stickers,” Ferrando uses only stamps that are “nonreversible, like ‘Black Cat’ written out in words.”

Other clubs, such as Apex, employ a different weapon to foil the “lick and stick” scam: ultraviolet lights. Justin Knight, a Dream partygoer, says he’s run into the lights before. “Without a certain amount of ink, the stamps don’t look right under the light,” he says. Eric Bjerke, head of security at Madam’s Organ, hopes that his club will “be moving to a system like that soon.” But the price of the lights will probably prevent them from becoming standard equipment for most clubs: A light system can range in price from about $80 to several hundred dollars, a gallon of UV-sensitive ink costs as much as $200, and replacement bulbs run from $17 to $35.

It’s failed because it necessitates having a hand. Some situations arise where stamps just can’t be applied at all. Josh Burdette, a crew chief at the 9:30 Club, recounts the story of a patron who literally didn’t have a right hand to stamp.

The hand stamp’s only success is an artistic one. Stamping brands club patrons with lighthearted and decorative designs—from words to abstract squiggles to angel wings. The stamps are a form of body art, which, when taken together, present a visual record of the D.C. club scene. So take a good look, because hand stamps probably won’t be around much longer—except on patrons who’ve opted for more permanent versions. “Two people I know of have the [9:30 Club] stamp tattooed on them,” says Burdette.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.