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Tattoo

For most of my life, tattoos have been in the category of “things other people do.” My parents find them vulgar. Growing up, my main exposure was in the context of shows like “Mannix” in which the Bad Person often sported a lightening bolt or dragon on his malevolent forearm. In mysteries, too, the “distinctive tattoo of a Phoenix” was often the means by which the Bad Person was rooted out, despite having covered the tell-tale ink with clerical garb, or robes of mysterious Eastern cloth. Aside from various and sundry Bad Persons, tattoos were the province of Holocaust survivors, and men who had been in the military as impressionable youths. They were, those images, numbers and anchors, signals of something dark, regrettable, or offensive.

Many years later, I began to notice the presence of lighthearted, “cute” tattoos, particularly on women. My son’s second and third grade teachers both had a tattoo in the vicinity of their respective ankles, and they were both fine teachers, good mothers, and unaffiliated (to my knowledge) with anything particularly sinister or indiscreet. I started looking at tattoos, admiring fine art, asking strangers what the words or symbols meant, and did it hurt to have it done there? I discovered that many people I knew had a tattoo I had never noticed, and that some were signs of misspent and alcohol-enhanced youth, but most had great personal significance. A honeymoon tattoo, a tribute to someone dearly loved and lost, a symbol of deep religious significance.

A shift took place during my Tattoo Studies, and I began to see nothing unusual about people who had covered large parts of their bodies with ink. My husband’s nephew enthralled me at a family picnic describing his plans to have his late father’s face tattooed onto one of his legs. This plan would, at one time, Β have provoked no response on my part other than a secret conversation with my husband about possible ways to talk the kid out of doing such a thing. I was fascinated. I wanted to know how they would get the picture on his skin, how big it would be, was it a common thing to do, would it hurt, so close to the prominent shin bones of a slender young man. I read “Tricycle” and noticed that many of the Buddhist monks with shaved heads and saffron robes were extensively tattooed.

I wanted one. I thought about placement, size and design. I first considered my wrist where it could easily be hidden by a watch or a sleeve when spending time with my mother. I favored the ubiquitous ankle, but thought that maybe it should then be done only in black to avoid clashing with the colorful skirts and sandals I wear in the summer. I wondered whether anyone else in the world worried about such things. I saw a beautiful, tiny heart on the back of a young woman’s neck, but decided that for my purposes, my tattoo needed to be visible to me. My purposes had evolved, over time, from the “cute-” a whisk, a pencil, two hearts for Rob and Sam – to the more serious. I wanted either a tiny dharma wheel or “om mani padme hum” to remind me to stop and be in the moment, compassionate, and fully alive.

I ran a trial balloon past my mother, thinking that perhaps she had become accustomed to prevalence of tattoos in polite society. “What if I got a tattoo?” I began, tentatively, “I mean, I’m not saying I’m going to do it…just ‘what if?'”

“You can never be buried in a Jewish cemetary,” she began, “and it looks cheap. Who do you know that would mutilate herself like that?” There were literally a hundred people, but I interpreted the question as rhetorical, and moved on to safer topical ground.

I spent too much time thinking about the tattoo. I didn’t have the cash, and it was such a serious commitment. It is “mutilation,” strictly speaking; it’s the insertion of needles into your flesh, chemicals under your flesh, and it involves the risk of infection, scarring and pain. I have watched too many TLC documentaries not to know that there are many instances of post-tat remorse, and that the cost of removing one’s prison tattoos or the name and picture of an ex is high in both dollars and nerve endings. What if I hated it? What if, following my already flaky spiritual path, I decided that I wanted to practice Judaism and to be buried in a Jewish cemetary? What if it stretched or shrunk into some unrecognizable form as the result of weight gain or loss? What if it really, truly did mean that I was in some way cheap, tacky, and/or nothing more than a Dedicated Follower of Fashion willing to make an irrevocable mistake in order to enjoy three weeks of feeling like one of the cool kids?

I haven’t decided. The cash will be available today; I’ll put it in the bank and think some more. I don’t really need a permanent, inked reminder to be mindful; it actually seems to violate the most basic tenets of Buddhism to require such external motivation. I still fear judgment, categorization and dismissal. I do not fear the pain. I need to sort out the difference between an expression of freedom and some subconscious desire to seem like someone who is free. I should be thinking about a hundred other things, like work, laundry, genocide, planting tomatoes and marriage equality. Instead, I find myself imagining a tiny, black dharma wheel hovering somewhere above my right ankle. A discreet prayer across the top of my left wrist. A message to myself and to the world, about something I have not yet understood, something inchoate, urgent, and suspect. Something I need to hear, whether or not it is ever broadcast on my flesh.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

30 responses »

  1. The stigma of tattoos certainly is generational and people of our age are caught in the middle between the “Tattoos are mutilation/nefarious” and “Want to see my dolphin tramp stamp?” groups.

    Unless you are set on being buried in a Jewish cemetery this is an aesthetic issue, not a moral one.

    Certainly many people regret some of their ink choices both in design and location. As a sober adult, it is pretty easy to make sound decisions you won’t regret later. Select something that is meaningful to you and locate it some place where age and gravity won’t turn your cute little dolphin into a full body mural of “Jaws”.

    Reply
    • You are right about the generational issue, and the fact that, for me, it’s an aesthetic issue. (Except that my mother lives in my brain, and for her it’s a moral issue). The truth is that I will probably die long before a tattoo loses shape or color, I’m thinking about relatively low-flesh areas, and…I really kind of want to do this.

      Reply
  2. Do it! I have 1 on each shoulder. Both quite large. A Frog perched amonst flowers (I have a serious love for frogs) and a mother fairy holding a baby fairy (though not a fairy fan, it was the perfect beautiful tribute to my mom after she passed.)

    I got the frog when I was 21 or so. The 2nd in 2007 or so. No regrets!

    Reply
    • Those sound kind of lovely. I might worry that if they were on my shoulders and colorful, that they would limit what I could wear in the summer. Do you care if your green tank top clashes with the color of your frog? (I’m serious). Am I worrying about ridiculous things?

      This is encouraging. You seem quite rational, and you have tattoos that you love…..

      Reply
      • I never think about what color I am wearing and it clashing with my tats… the frog one is quite colorful and matches it all. But I completely understood where you were coming from when you said that! (so no, you are not ridiculous!)

  3. Until recently my feelings about tats could be summed up in a personal story. For several adolescent years, I really, really wanted a Marine Corps “bird and ball” on the back of my right hand, especially after I enrolled in the Platoon Leaders Class in college.

    Through a chain of events too complicated (and uninteresting) to go into here, I wound up in the Air Force.

    Lately, though, I’ve been sort of mulling over the idea — same as you — of a wheel, or Om, or Sanskrit mantra on a wrist. Only thing is, I already have a mala on the left one, and a wrist watch on the right. A bit short in the display department.

    Also, given that I wear the mala all the time, how Buddhist do I want to look? How hard to advertise a path that I was drawn to because (in large part) of its lack of proselytizing and ostentation? (Well, there’s the robes, but we usually don’t wear them to Heat games.)

    Mostly, my problem today is the seeming unconcern with which people (a) label themselves (b) permanently. My younger daughter has been making monthly pilgrimages to a cosmetic surgeon to have removed a tattoo that she really thought she wanted 10 years ago, but that now hardly fits her image as a mom.

    Another thing that bothers me is placement. The work in progress extending up an arm is one thing. The seemingly haphazard way that many folks get one here, and then one there, so that they look like a target rather than a canvas, rather turns me off.

    So I dunno. My personal jury’s still out, for aesthetic reasons and those outlined, but I think a tastefully located reminder of where one’s head is, is just fine. As long as one really has a pretty clear idea of the latter.

    Good one, Annie, as usual.

    Reply
    • You raise many of the issues I’m mulling myself – fortunately, I am unlikely to be become a Marine or to join the Air Force any time soon. πŸ™‚

      I am too old to be in the spot in which your daughter finds herself, but the placement thing bothers me. It is strange to be adding a Buddhist label (I don’t wear my mala, but I wear a pendant that’s an old, Thai Buddha my dad bought in China. On the other hand, this is, for me, not about making an announcement but about a steady reminder of something I frequently forget.

      Thanks for such thoughtful thoughts!

      Reply
  4. Were you going to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, anyways? I’m just saying –

    Reply
    • Well no; although if I remained unmutilated I think they’d have to take me no matter how cravenly I cavorted with Jesus and Buddha….and bacon…..

      Reply
  5. Ann,

    This is so much an individual thing, Im not sure if anyone elses input will make much differance.

    Raised by strict Missouri Synod Lutheren moores left us very sure that any self mutilation damned us. I spent years agonizing over a peice of pencil graphite imbedded in my left leg after a clasroom altercation. What was Saint Peter going to say when he saw it, would he think it was a tattoo? “So Robert, just exactly what did you think made it OK to draw on Gods temple?”

    But being strong in ones beliefs has a benefit, removing the ambivalence to rightousness that comes with floating between various beliefs. I have found myself requiring a clear answer (alibi?) for Saint Peter prior to the commitment of becoming a permenant art canvas. Trust me, this is not the kind of question to pose to the pro-ink community, they will not react kindly.

    In the absence of a convincing answer, I will finish out my days undecorated.

    Reply
    • I didn’t know it was verboten in strict Christian circles as it is among Jews. I guess I am a belief floater, maybe as the result of having been raised with none? I have many, many moral beliefs that are the backbone of a good life, but they are often quite different from those observed by any religious orthodoxy.

      So: I respect your position, I always value your thoughts, and I hope you’ll still respect me if I have a bit of ink on my ankle?

      Reply
  6. I’ve decided that I’m too old to be getting my first tattoo. That since I didn’t do it by age 30, like all of my tattoo-wearing friends, it would just be construed as part of a mid-life crisis. I have done lots of things in my life, but I will not be having a mid-life crisis. πŸ˜‰

    Reply
    • Lord, Rich, I’m a lot older than you are. If you’re too old, well….

      Here’s my story: this is NOT a midlife crisis because I’m too old to be at “midlife,” so this is simply, maybe, an expression of my geriatric willingness to try new things?

      Nah.

      Reply
  7. Regarding the whole “mutilation/Jewish” angle, I’d rank circumcision right near the top of the mutilation list.

    I also grew up in a very ultra-conservative Christian area and they had an hysterical attitude about tattoos for the same reasons Robert has already given. Their go to argument was “the body is a temple and cannot be desecrated”. Yet many were obese, never worked out, took multiple prescriptions a day for hypertension, heart problems, etc. I guess some mutilation is “God’s Will” and only the facade of the temple matters.

    Reply
  8. Love your Mannix reference! Me, too!

    With regard to tattoos, I think they never look good after they’ve aged 10-20 years. I think when it’s all faded and smeary and my skin has changed it’s texture, I would really regret it. My uncle had one, and by the time he was in his 70s you couldn’t even make out what it once was…it turned into a bluish black blob and it was sad to look at on his papery old man skin.

    Reply
    • I’m pretty sure they do get icky – a friend said she didn’t want to be buried looking like granny with a smudge that couldn’t be removed. πŸ™‚

      Reply
  9. I’ve often considered one too. I very seriously considered it the year of my 40th birthday. I’ve never come up with the perfect design, which has partially stopped me. I was going to get it on my lower back at the time, but now I have too much “back fat” and don’t think it’s such a great plan lol. The shoulder is good and can be hidden if you want too..after my blog today I wonder if it should be some sort of spring time reference……I don’t think I’ll ever decide…

    Reply
    • You don’t have to – but you have historically been much more daring and fun than I am, so if I can do it…..

      Reply
  10. Well-written and an entertaining read.

    I would suggest wearing a fake tattoo, either a kids scratch off, or henna in the shape and on the location of where you’re thinking of…or draw it one with a sharpie and see how it feels to not be able to wash it off.

    Now here’s my real opinion, speaking strictly for myself, since you brought up the subject of genetics:

    I watch my skin now. I wait, and I worry. I’m watching for some telltale changes. How would you monitor an abnormal change in your tattooed skin? How will your tattoo look if a piece of it has to be removed?

    I already have a tattoo: it’s everywhere that the sun has touched and left evidence…it’s the permanent tan on my arms, it’s the freckles (and the lines) on my face…but more importantly, it’s the melanoma in my family.

    Reply
    • imagineannie

      As it turns out, there’s a whole other issue I overlooked. I have all sorts of skin crud – psoriasis, eczema, nickel allergy…I can’t even wear my wedding rings in the summer. It turns out that many tattoo dyes contain nickel, and that a person with sensitivity can end up buying a lifetime rash. I am not up for that.

      My mother had skin cancer removed years ago, and I am pretty vigilant about checking. Fortunately, i was never a fan of “laying out” like she was, and I have been sheathed in SPF 30 for years. I still check, though.

      this may not happen…maybe I’ll just get henna and “renew” it periodically…..

      Reply
      • Sounds wise.

        I, too, have a lot of skin-allergic reactions…I get all of the embarrassing ones. πŸ™‚

  11. I think starting with henna sounds like a good plan.

    I think I am your age…maybe I’m a little older…I have generational trouble with the tattoo thing, but I think it’s not merely bias, but also pragmatics.

    The permanency…what will I think about this thing when I’m 70? 80? Will it be like embarrassing 30-year old garments in the closet that I could never throw away? I have made several profound belief changes over my decades on earth, they come around about every 15 years or so. So that what was extremely important to me 15 years ago, I hold a lot more loosely now.

    And ‘m concerned about permanently over-writing the beautiful way our maker has made our skin. It is a work of art in and of itself. Do I want to “pave Paradise, and put up a parking lot?” (I’ll see your Mannix and raise you one Joni Mitchell!)

    I do understand going through a period where visible symbols are profound, helpful, and important. I guess you’ve already ruled out the obvious–a ring or a pendant?

    Reply
    • imagineannie

      I think we’re probably about the same age – I’m 48. I still have residual bias about tattoos in some ways; I am frustrated by young people who cover themselves with ink and are then outraged that they have difficulty getting hired to do certain jobs. It is, of course, their choice to have extensive body art, but it is also the choice of an employer to remain “unhip” and wish to project a different image to clients and customers.

      Pragmatically, I understand all that you say; I have perhaps different feelings about the relative importance of skin, but I strongly agree about the potential for regret. (I also love Joni, by the way). That’s why I’m waiting, thinking, experimenting, and ruminating.

      The jewelry suggestion is a good one, and I do wear a pendant that is helpful. I am terribly allergic to most jewelry, and can’t even wear my wedding rings in the summer, so the tattoo appealed to me as something that would always be there and be visible, even if all jewelry was stowed for a bit. That “always” thing cuts both ways, though…..

      Reply
  12. I spent my youth wanting a tattoo, many designs rose and fell from the top of my list, I was worried it would look awful, I was worried my parents wouldn’t approve, that I would regret it later in life. I am now seriously considering it, to the extent that I know the design I really want, where I want it and who i want to do it but it is not cheap, rather than wanting what I cant have, im going to wait until I CAN have it and then decide whether I still want it or not. I believe that will tell me whether it is truly worth having or not.

    Reply
  13. I suppose it would be another way of “putting on the Dharma like a garment.”

    Reply

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