There are two kinds of people in this world: those with tattoos, and those without.
I fall into the former category. We who get inked cannot fully explain why we do so. The things we choose to mark on our bodies having meaning to us (well, most of us: drunken buffoonery aside, we take our ink seriously), so much so that we want to make it part of our skin. But even that doesn't fully explain why people willingly endure hours of pain to indelibly mark themselves with colored ink.
I can't speak to what motivates people to take something they've seen and embed it into their flesh. I can only relate my own experiences. I don't have them so I can look cool, show off or fit in. I have never impulsively walked into a tattoo studio and gotten something off the wall, just to get a tattoo. Each one is the result of months of thought, mentally deciding where it would go, what it should look like. I waited until I was an actual adult, not a teenager playing at being a grownup, before I got my first one.
Perhaps all of this puts me in a minority of tattooed folk. There is not a single mark on me that I don't love, nor do I regret any of my pieces. I can't tell you how many people I've spoken to about their tattoos, and many lament their choices. The other day in Whole Foods, the woman in line ahead of me at the register had a tattoo on her arm reading "Monitor Radio," with a circle around it. I thought perhaps it was a call to arms: as in, we should monitor our radio airwaves (and hey, the word radio always catches my attention, anyway). When I asked her about it, she ruefully ran a hand over it and told me it was a friend's band when they were in high school. "They were gonna be huge," she added with a smirk. There are countless stories like hers in our not-so-naked city. This is why I choose my ink oh so carefully. No band names. No fleeting trends. Nothing with an embarrassing backstory.
My city, Portland, has been tapped as one of the most tattooed cities in the country. It's become something of a joke, really; you can't move here unless you have at least one, or you promise to get one within one week of moving here. We also have the most strip clubs per capita than other city in the U.S., which means we probably also have the most tattooed strippers in the country (p.s., no, Snarky, I am not one of them).
I myself had only two tattoos when I moved out here in 2001. I had acquired my first four years prior, when I was living in New York City. At the ripe old age of 28, years of wanting a tattoo finally reached a peak. I felt a yearning, a need, to do it. I couldn't verbalize why; it just felt like the right time. My then-husband, a resident in emergency medicine, forbade me to do it. He worried about hepatitis, dirty needles, HIV. He "didn't like tattoos." But I did. I knew what I wanted. I could feel rebellion rising in me, because why couldn't I do what I wanted with my skin, especially since I'd be paying with money I had earned?
And so I did. I snuck off to the East Village with a girlfriend of mine and got the bottom of the "two fish" from "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" on my right inner ankle. I'd wanted a fish, but a special fish. So I chose one from my childhood, one that meant something to me. I could share it with my children someday, when we read the book together, saying, "See? There's Mommy's fish!" Say it with me: Awwwww.
Setting out that day, I figured this would be my only one. I'd heard that getting inked was addictive, but I didn't see how. After that experience, I understood. There is a rush when you're having it done, from the release of the pain to the intimacy you create between yourself and your artist. There's an energy from the other people in the studio, a sense of camaraderie, of respect for each other. Those people understand why you want what you want; they get you right away.
My subsequent tattoos each have a story behind them. After my first son was born in 1999, I got a symbol representing Ischtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility and sexual pleasure. This was just before the whole MILF movement kicked into high gear, and I was feeling invisible when carting around my beautiful baby. That symbol signified what all mothers wrestle with: we're moms, but don't forget that we are some hot women, too. Right on.
Elsewhere, I have the Chinese character for "love" (I had originally intended it to be the characters for "wife," but a wise friend advised me against it. "You may not always be a wife," she counseled, "but you'll always have love." Boy, was she ever right). I have a tribal Taurus symbol for myself, and my sons' zodiac signs and birthdates. My sons' Hebrew names are right above a big, beautiful gardenia, with the name "Ethel" in script next to it. It's a tribute to my Grandma Ethel, my maternal grandmother, who died when I was seven.
My eighth tattoo is one I carried in my mind for a long, long time. I knew I wanted to get a tattoo with musical notes, but like all my other pieces, it couldn't just be random. It had to have a connection to me in an important way. As soon as I made that connection in my mind, the tattoo created itself in my head. My favorite song is David Bowie's "Heroes" (and I abhor all covers of it, especially the one by the Wallflowers. Seriously, Jakob Dylan does not want to cross my path after I've had a few, I just might take him down), and I found the sheet music online. I sent it to an artist, told him what I wanted, and last October, I had "we can be heroes" and the corresponding notes added to my collection. It's as though I reached into the sheet music, tore out that section, and slapped it right onto my skin. I love it, and anyone who sees it really responds to it.
Let me make this clear: I don't go around showing my ink off on purpose. It's not about getting a rise out of people or trying to draw extra attention to myself. I am a LADY and dress accordingly. But there are times that call for no sleeves, and that's when I get the questions and encouraging comments. I love my ink, and it's nice when others like it as well, but we all know it's more for me than anyone. My mother has even gotten with the program, and my kids think it's just part of who their mom is. The boyfriend, too, smiles and accepts the new ink when it comes, although he's not making suggestions for any new ones, either.
Yet the question always comes up: are you done?
Those with more than one tattoo will answer that you are never 'done.' Maybe you stop for a while. Maybe you never even get another one. You'll always look at the ink of others, perhaps with longing for a new one of your own. I would always answer, "Right now, it feels like I'm done." After the Bowie tattoo, I couldn't think of anything that would feel right on my skin.
Until early last month, when the dormant tattoo bug in my brain awoke and whispered, "I want one on my foot." I'd see all of these fabulous women around Portland with tattoos on their feet and think WANT. The foot is a tricky place when it comes to tattooing. In my case, there's simply not a lot of room to work with; I wear a size six shoe. It needed to look clean and simple. Stark against the white of my skin. I already have a flower and a fish, I have family represented, and I would never in a gazillion years get my boyfriend's name--you know that's the relationship Kiss of Death.
So, maybe one that's really just about me. Lately, I've been trying to focus on my future rather than dwelling on my past. I've got the ol' irons in the fire, writing-wise (I mean, I'm on here, which is pretty freaking awesome), including shipping my first novel to literary agents. I'm not letting a boss or a husband-figure tell me what to do. So, like, I'm writing my own story here.
My love of the Italian language led me to online translators and help from Twitter. I'd studied Italian in high school, but I had to be sure it was perfect in every way. Today, I made it permanent, curved around the arch of my left foot, letting the world know, in my terms, in my way, that I'm the boss of me. I write my own story.
I love it. Thank you, Cheyenne and all the cool dudes over at Atlas Tattoo. Once again, I had a perfect experience getting inked. Lucky number nine, maybe. And yes, right now, it feels like I'm done.
Of course, there IS this photo of my kids I've been thinking of getting done as a portrait....