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.
Major companies -- Coca Cola, General Mills, Old Navy -- also were distributing dog tags with their names embossed on them as a way to lure in a younger demographic and boost sales, Braddock's book says.
But the current teenage dog tag vogue can be more directly traced to the late 1990s, when camouflage -- camo couture, it has been called -- became the choice look for hip-hop stars seeking to harden their images and build a kind of combative solidarity. Some view the rapper Master P (also known as Percy Miller), with his crew of No Limit Soldiers, as one of many artists responsible for glamorizing dog tag pendants.
(One of Master P's lyrics: "Got the world screaming my name/From every soldier to soldierette/From every killer to cadet/Playa hatas get wet.")
Novelty dog tags became popular in urban communities, especially among blacks and Latinos, the predominant groups who wear them in schools.
"While a lot of African Americans and Latinos may have negative perceptions about the military, they can still identify with the strength of the soldier," said Joseph Anthony, chief executive of Vital Marketing, whose company has organized youth-oriented events for Nike, Nintendo and the U.S. Army.
"The urban culture is very narcissistic. It's about self-glorification and saying, 'I grew up in a poor neighborhood, but if I get something nice, I want to let the world know about it.' It's about have-nots being able to create an equal platform for themselves," Anthony said.
Teenagers get the dog tags mainly from kiosks at local shopping malls, where they can pick out their favorite image from a catalog or bring in photographs for engraving. The process can take a half-hour or so and can be as inexpensive as $30.
But sometimes, kids buy name-brand dog tags from Icedoutgear.com or Ecko Unlimited that are 18-karat white gold-plated or stainless steel. (Gucci sells an 18-karat white gold-plated dog tag necklace with diamonds -- for about $2,500.)
For the most part, students say they buy dog tags for their girlfriends or boyfriends. Often the dog tags outlive the relationships. Jae Sung, 16, a Gar-Field student, got a dog tag several months ago with a picture of her girlfriend on it, and on the back it read: "10-23-04 I Love You."
The dog tag was a conversation starter for new people, and, more often than not, just something to fidget with during class. A few weeks ago, though, Sung and her partner broke up. But she still keeps the dog tag in her backpack as a reminder.
"It was a mutual breakup, but it's kind of inappropriate for me to wear it. It's there for me to hold onto," she said. "I miss the relationship. I changed for the better. Before, I really didn't treat girls in the nicest way. She taught me to treat people better."
For others, the dog tag carries serious weight, serving as a portable memorial to a lost relative. At Montgomery County's Blair High School, Eric Jackson, 17, a senior, was strolling through the cafeteria with a dog tag that reads "R.I.P. Ronald G. Jackson, a.k.a. Dad."
"I'll be walking around, and other students will look at my shirt and read it and say, "Oh, how did your father die?" Jackson said. "My dad died of cancer in April of 2005. . . . He was a manager at UPS."
To cultural observers such as Minya Oh, the author of a recent book on hip-hop jewelry titled "Bling Bling: Hip Hop's Crown Jewels" and a radio show host on New York's Hot 97, the emergence of dog tags in the high school scene is a harbinger that the fad could be coming to an end.
"It's completely played out. I've seen the next thing," Oh said. "I am seeing a lot of talented independent jewelers making sneaker-related jewelry or DJ-related jewelry. Like replicas of speakers around your necks."