For my twenty-second birthday, Mitch bought me a tattoo. (If you’re just tuning in now–Mitch is my husband, and my twenty-second birthday was this year.)
I love tattoos, and have wanted one ever since I found out that there was such a thing. For the past, oh, ten years, I’ve been designing tattoos in the margins of my Lit351 notes, sketching amid the squiggly script of my journals, on damp napkins, as I drink coffee/talk to friends/watch MTV, and finally, finally, I made the appointment, handed the girl at the counter my final sketch and walked away, knotting my fingers, tapping my toes in excitement.
Of course, it would hurt. And it would, okay, it would be there forever, even when my skin gets wrinkly and dry, and it would fade, and bleed. But oh! I thought, doing a little jig on the sidewalk, grinning, it would be so very worth it.
In high school I came across a better (or at least, a legal) way than dealing drugs to drum up pocket change–I started designing tattoos for my older friends. Daisies and winged crosses and bands of stars and skulls; little soaring hearts and artfully rendered flames, you name it. This was not a booming business, but making a little money with my sketches made me happy, and it also made me wonder if maybe there was something more in it for me…
My sophomore year of high school, in health class, we did career studies (in health class, yes, it was a small school)–we each picked a career and looked up salaries, required experience/education, etc, wrote up a paper and presented it to the class. I, with my home-dyed peroxide pixie cut and my wallet chains, presented my fact sheet on what it would take to be a tattoo artist.
At some spirit rally during my senior year of high school, I won “Most Likely to Be a Tattoo Artist”, as well as “Most Likely to Join the Banditos” (I didn’t know what a Bandito was, then–this was before the great Northwest Bandito bust of ’05). Winning “Most Likely to Be a Tattoo Artist” thrilled me like it might thrill most girls to receive “Most Likely to Succeed.”
In college, I was broke, and then married (and, thus, still broke), but the sketches kept piling up, journal after journal. I convinced several professors that drawing in class actually helped me concentrate (particularly when I was sketching my professors…), and every Christmas or birthday I’d say to Mitch, You know, I’d really like a tattoo, and he’d say Fine, but by the time said occasion rolled around I’d have scrapped whatever design I’d planned and said, Oh, oh no, not yet.
Until at last (at last!) I abandoned my attempts at profoundly symbolic designs (crowns of thorns, burning hearts, and Hebrew script), drew a simple, pretty design–all black, something like three curls of smoke–and informed Mitch that for my birthday I would like a tattoo. Though he arched his eyebrows and nodded knowingly, he said, Okay.
The day after my birthday, I found myself sitting in the lobby of Camden Chameleon, flipping through giant sheets of sample tattoos with Mitch, while the wall clock scraped past 5:20, 5:25 and landed dead on my appointment: 5:30.
I was not nervous/I was very nervous.
I was not concerned about pain or blood, but about the permanence of what I was about to do to my body–always, always it would be there. I’d picked my upper back, a spot unlikely to bulge or soften with age, or stretch with pregnancy, but still. At sixty, would it be an inky blur? At seventy, a gray shadow?
Eh, I thought, flipping past a grotesquely bright drawing of Mickey Mouse in his Fantasia robes, my whole generation will be sporting faded tattoos. All of us sitting in nursing homes with pinkish wreaths of roses encircling our swollen ankles, barbed wire ’round the biceps of the old men dozing in their wheelchairs, skulls and flames and daisies amid the liver spots and varicose veins, and I laughed aloud as the girl at the desk looked up from her clipboard and called my name.
Of course, it hurt like hell, but I was not surprised. I kicked my shoes off and wiggled my toes; I took deep, measured breaths in an effort to obtain enlightenment through suffering, or something that. It didn’t work.
Megan, the artist (she is lovely, please, go see her) chatted with me about my job, my parents’ jobs, my chickens, my writing, whatever came to mind for forty minutes as she outlined my tattoo, filled it in, then washed & bandaged it up. Nothing, I swear to you, nothing felt better, on both a physical and emotional level, than when she washed my back with that cool, damp towel.
And when she was finished, I realized that my fingernails had left violet half-moons in the palm of each hand, and that any lofty ideas I’d had about the cleansing properties of pain, however half-formed, had vanished–though I felt weirdly elated. My toes, my fingertips tingled; my back burned. Oh, I felt feverish, and alive.
Though it’s not been four months, I’ve already got another design in mind. I heard somewhere that we don’t remember pain, and I remember telling myself explictly, as Megan outlined the second wisp, that I must never, under any circumstances, do this again–but I appear to have forgotten. Ah, I think, it wasn’t that bad. I’m better now, and stronger, and ready for round 2.