I’ve wanted a tattoo for as long as I can remember. But I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted, I just knew I wanted it.
Like little girls who grow up just wanting that perfect wedding day — they might not know why they want it so badly — but just that they do — a wanting for what everyone wants. And they want theirs to be perfect. An odd parallel, I hear you smirk, but there it is.
There’s always been a certain danger to me, though, in chasing something you just want without having done the work of understanding why you want it, whether you’re ready for it and exactly what shape or form the thing you want so desperately should take.
And then once you have it — are you ready to keep it? To look that specific wanting in the face every day and say — ‘Yes, I’m over the moon that I chose you and I will carry you with me for the rest of my days?’
Maybe it’s not such an odd comparison after all.
Long road trips, crazy weekends and deep-bottomed bottles of red wine were often the metronome malady of my tattoo obsessing as my mind ring-a-rozied with many answerless questions.
Finding a resonating symbology
I wanted to find some sort of truth in it, with an unbearable desperation. But trying to untangle what a newfangled phrase like, ‘my truth’, even meant, was a whole other story.
The desire for my tattoo to evoke a particular feeling, trilled in me like the fingers of an impatient school teacher. But whether the tattoo would manifest as an infinity loop to evoke the wistful certainty of commitment or, perhaps an Africa shaped footprint with a heart in Cape Town, representing the grainy, nostalgia of travel and home, was all still entirely elusive. Simultaneously, a heightened gag reflex was developing alongside all these trite ideas spilling from my mind.
And in the background, the critical chatter of my ego probed another self-doubting question to every desire. Attacked from the inside out.
Finding the piece of skin you’re willing to sacrifice
The ‘where do you want it’ question — was more about visibility for me. Part of me almost liked the idea of having it somewhere discreet, where daily confrontation wouldn’t be an worry. The nape of my neck ranked high as a good a place for a private declaration. It was also a good hiding spot of an error in judgement. Boredom was another concern of daily visibility. But, surely, if I was ready to committing to it (like the perfect wedding day parallel) there shouldn’t be fear of tiring of it before permanence had set in. But then, there so often is — and there’s no escape window in the bathroom of tattoos.
With each new concept for a tattoo, the awareness also surfaced that perhaps I wasn’t as unique as I thought. If the tattoo was inked on my wrist or my ankle, the whole world would see my unoriginal love for lotus flowers, or that I too had a penchant for words like ‘believe’ or ‘just breathe’.
The more I thought — the further away the answer felt.
Learning from other people’s thoughts on tattoos
I needled friends and family, like a relentless shrike turning over every leaf, scratching into their minds to find a richer fuller perspective. Perhaps I could puzzle together bits that didn’t make sense to me yet.
My dear friend, Brad, always got this wild, giddy state in his eyes when he spoke of his tattoos, the passion for developing the theme of time that linked them all together. To me he seemed completely addicted to the process of covering his skin, living beneath the canvas of another man’s art, and yet completely matter of fact and practical about it. He would get one when there was budget again — almost administrative in executing his sleeved progress.
For months only his forearm bore a dark, stippled cuff growing into a silhouette of trees, leaving the rest of his arm looking unusually inadequate and bare as ordinary skin and an older, fading tattoo cowered near the blackness. I wonder whether he had researched the type of trees. That would matter to me — whether I chose to live with a conifer or redwood on my arm. Brad didn’t care. He just wanted to be submerged in their shadow.
Then a job would come in. Brad worked in the film industry. Immediately the magnitude of the job would be weighed up against how much more of his sleeve he could have done. After a year of growing his production company, the dense canopy of trees on his forearm now give flight to a large, feathered crow, equally as ominous in its stippling of fresh black ink. The last time I saw my friend after completing another crazy run of production, the crow was pecking at a Diá de Muertos skull. I loved and admired his passion for developing the theme of time. Ironically, he seemed to want to accomplish it rather impatiently.
I also talked to people without tattoos to make sense of why their skin was, to them, good as is, un-inked. It was either a waste of money, or they felt they didn’t need to express something in such a tortured way.
I probed artists, poets, a coroner, doctors for segments of the what the inky-ness meant to them. The poet was thrilled by the simplicity and power in a simple line of words and his ability to commit to them. In that light, vows paled in permanence.
The coroner likened the tattoos on the lifeless forms on his steel table to the inner ear branding of cattle. It was so much easier to confirm identity. He spoke it with a sense of administration. I detected gratitude too.
A paramedic told me once of an accident scene where a small indistinguishable flimsy, fleshy bit of no-longer-human, but merely just body, lay on the pavement — a bow and arrow etched on the surface. The peculiar detailed addition to the skin bit, made the scene harder for him to process.
He kept wondering what that tattoo meant to the victim, when they had gotten it and then somehow ended in saying that life was so short, even if she had regretted it, it didn’t matter now anymore anyway.
I didn’t know what to make of that, but I stowed it in my bank of my stories none the less.
The practicalities of getting a tattoo
After the edifice of my desired tattoo seemed to settle, many other considerations still floated to the surface. Reflections on timing, healing duration, travelling, seasons, the complexities of showering and having no one to lather my hair, rinsing the suds without getting the bandaid wet.
My ability to endure pain also careened its head from the barrage of considerations. This seemed to determine the size and limit the stainable locations. Rib cages are particularly painful. So are hip bones. All the feminine curves that held a certain mysterious, delicate appeal seemed to come with their own brutal, pain bearing sacrifices.
And then the pennies I would have to fork out filtered in. Surly there was a limit to what should be spent on an urge, a desire, a commitment and, at this point, something I still deeply feared may end up a regret.
The poetic truths to tattooing
I’ll never forget one particular conversation with a former colleague. His name was Bill. Bill was a rather robust Englishman with no hair, but what he lacked in mane he made up for with the gentlest, sweetest, soccer-loving demeanour.
Bill said this to me, “you commit to it because it means something to you at the time and then, if one day it no longer does, you learn to make peace with that which you cannot change.” Bill got divorced several years later.
The day the news filtered through to me, I thought of that day in the little kitchen talking about his intertwined rose and protea tattoo, a commitment so very visible right there on his forearm.
This new perspective sent me careening into the lessons of acceptance an inked commitment might teach me. Or rather would I be open to accepting whatever lessons it brought?
Ultimately though none of the information and stories mattered. You can arm yourself with as much information as you desire, but you could never puzzle together a protective barrier from other people’s lived experiences. Eventually it would come down to simply honouring the voice within that says you are ready — regardless of outcome or regret — ready to commit to the thing in your heart, or your gut. Ready to pursue the inexplicable and be transformed by it.
And then one day two people probed me about this endless talk of tattoos.
We were driving back from a walk in the mountains, my dear friend and I. He hadn’t known me for too long a time, in the Roman calendar sense. To us though, it was always more like a re-acquainting than a meeting for the first time. In all his talk on the subject he referred to it as “this tattoo”.
On this particular overcast day, after what felt like several hours of my rambling on about hummingbirds and their ability to find stillness through movement, as I did through yoga, as well as a myriad other picturesque life analogies and representations, my friend probed me again about this tattoo. No ultimatums. No appointment dates. Just a gentle reminder of how long I had been talking about this tattoo.
Silence swelled in the car, the air between us suddenly pregnant with insinuation.
A monosyllabic, petulant, rebuttal trickled from my lips.
While I didn’t really want to admit it, not much thought had been allocated to the almost extreme depth with which I was analysing this tattoo. A red hot poker of self doubt, and a little bit of shame, glowed in my gut.
But it was true. Like a butterfly, I flitted from one concept to the next, unable to settle, nectar-weary.
Commitment issues. The words tumbled of out of me like an embarrassed school girl trying to explain a mouth-shaped bruise in the nape of her neck. But as clumsy and shy and blatantly transparent as my words were, there it sat for all to see, puckering and purple. A hot dalliance that ultimately lead no where.
He hadn’t meant to interrogate me about it. I drove the rest of the drive home feeling raw and disturbed by my own restless obsession.
Some weeks later, I brought it up with Ava, my psychologist. Of all the things to talk about, I needed to know why this thing festered within me.
Her questioning reverted back to ‘that little girl’ as it so often did when we couldn’t find the first fleck of paint on the canvas.
It was that same little girl who once tore from a magazine a picture of a simple flowing chiffon dress, and then for… two decades.. left it and all notions, discarded in a drawer.
A memory cracked the silence.
My grandfather had tattoos all up his right arm from his days with the navy. Sea green, bleeding and splodgy, they reminded me of cokie drawings — boats and gulls and anchors all up his arms — the same arms that tossed me high in the swimming pool.
Then, a second memory washed across my face.
She asked me to elaborate. I’ve had an old photo of my mom and dad stuck to the easel in my art studio since high school. They were all dressed up like Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in Grease, her in red, they looked so happy together, him with his low slung biker jacket and my mom, her hair all permed, lycra leggings and heels. They were kissing. My dad’s left forearm had a tattoo drawn on it, of a dagger stabbing a bleeding heart. Further down his arm, his wedding ring shone.
“It wasn’t real. Just a drawing.” My words cut through the bank of silence that hung in the room like cumulonimbus clouds, heavy with precipitation.
“But it’s real to you, isn’t it?”
Both my oupa and my dad were such material parts of my youth. My ‘becoming’, as Ava referred to it. Within two weeks of each other, both slipped from my life — my father loosing his battle to cancer, my grandfather — a heart attack in his sleep.
I was left behind in a life of mourning matriarchs.
Out of nowhere hot beads of rage splattered from my lips, white hot drops of leftover soldering wire crashing to the surface below. After almost a year of delicate psychological prying and tweaking, the reality that almost every grappling in my heart was scorched there by the death of my father, inflamed my tongue with profanities.
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