When I was a kid, tattoos were unusual, exotic, and a little bit creepy. Sailors had them. Bikers had them too, although for me that was only in the movies, because I didn’t know any bikers. Women did not have tattoos. At least, not respectable women. I would never have a tattoo. I wasn’t that kind of girl.
Years later, when my daughter turned 18, she asked if she could get a tattoo, and by that time, tattoos were pretty mainstream. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but legally she had the right to do as she wished, and she was paying for it herself. I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no, so I acquiesced. Because I suspected that all tat shops were really fronts for drug traffickers or prostitution rings, and also because the tattoo’s placement required her to unzip her pants in front of a strange man, I insisted on going with her.
The shop was a little seedy, but we went during the day in the middle of the week, and the place was pretty dead. It seemed safe enough. Run down, but clean. The guy who waited on us, and did the tattoo, seemed a little sketchy and scuzzy, but he washed his hands and wore gloves and sanitized everything. Within 30-40 minutes, the little butterfly she had chosen to go on her hip was complete and she was happy with it. She reported that the process wasn’t really painful, more of an irritated scratching sensation. Hmmmm…maybe someday…but probably not.
When she asked for a new tat for her birthday a few years later, I went with her again, this time to a different shop and a different artist. She had a French phrase inked on her left wrist, and I was fascinated by the process this go-round. I liked the artist too. He was young and funny and personable and he looked like he bathed and washed his hair on a regular basis. I would probably never get a tattoo, but if I did, I’d come back to this guy. His name was Joe.
A few months later, Celeste went back for another tattoo, and came home with a beautiful swallow, very reminiscent of lots of the old sailor tattoos. It covered up the old boring butterfly that she had outgrown. The new one was colorful and feminine. And I was sold.
I had to get my own ink.
I had no idea what I wanted, but I knew I’d find something perfect. I spent a few months looking at endless tattoo websites and came up empty-handed. I saw designs I liked – lots of tribal this and kanji that, but nothing struck me as ME. I felt that, if I was going to permanently commit something to my skin, it should have some significance.
And it should be unique. I wanted something that was mine alone.
I found inspiration in my own kitchen (go figure!) in the form of a ceramic wall hanging. It was a brightly colored sun that was being eclipsed by a crescent moon. Both sun and moon had faces. You’ve probably seen these – they are very common in any bazaar in Mexico. I researched the symbolism and discovered that in many cultures, the sun and moon together represent marriage and commitment.
At that point, Mark and I had been doing the marriage and commitment thing for about 26 years. The idea of commemorating that with some ink was appealing. I took the little wall hanging to Joe, gave him a few more specifics so he could come up with a design, and set an appointment time for the following week. We had a plan! I could barely contain my excitement.
The big day arrived. The only question, as I sat with Mark and Celeste, my own peanut gallery, was the size. Joe showed me two different versions of his artwork. I hemmed and hawed and said “maybe the smaller one?” The peanut gallery immediately vetoed this. Celeste said I should think of it like breast enhancement: did I really want to have it done and THEN decide I should have gone bigger? Go big or go home! We tossed out the baseball-sized option, and went with softball-sized.
The drawing he showed me seemed a little plain, but Joe assured me that once he was done with the shading and color work, the tat would come to life. And he was right. When he finished, there was a brilliant orange sun being embraced by a sultry blue moon on my left shoulder blade.
I was totally smitten with it. It was perfect! But one tattoo was enough for me.
Until it wasn’t. I loved my sun and moon, but it’s hard to admire something on your own back. I wanted another tattoo where I could see it. The next one, a purple dragon, went on my right ankle. I named her Drusilla and she was magnificent! But surely two tattoos were all I needed.
Here’s the deal with tats; people rarely get just one. If you survive your first tattoo experience, chances are good that you’ll want another one. In that regard, they’re like potato chips. If you experience only some vague, irritating discomfort during the tattoo process, you love the result, and you leave the shop planning your next tattoo, congratulations! You have been bitten by the bug. Find a good artist and start saving your money. Remember some tattoo wisdom: Good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good.
Looking back, I know that I got that very first tattoo as an act of defiance. I did it because I thought that I shouldn’t. Having a tattoo wasn’t what society expected of me. I wasn’t that kind of girl, remember?
So what kind of girl does have a tattoo? As it turns out, respectability has nothing to do with it. Self-assurance does. Confidence does. A woman who trusts in herself, who believes in her own strength and abilities, who takes life head-on? That woman can have a tattoo and recognize that it doesn’t define who she is. It’s just a form of self-expression.
Having tattoos has not changed who I am. I am no less respectable a woman with ink than I was without it. Ink doesn’t impede my ability to do my job, or to be a good student, or a good wife or mother or daughter or friend. I’m the same person, regardless of what anyone else may think.
For me, it’s now five years and 10 tattoos since that first one. Each one has meaning. Two tats pay homage to my band. I have my magnificent sleeve, with a larger, fiercer version of Drusilla traversing the heavens and weaving through the planets, including Mars, which is a Foo Fighter logo. I have a heart-shaped tat on the back of my neck with the double-F imposed over a peace symbol. Peace-Love-Foos.
And there will be more. Because, evidently, I am exactly that kind of girl.