There was a time in this country where the people who had tattoos were in the Navy or some sort of Hell’s Angels biker gang. They were feared and scorned and tsk’d tsk’d by the more wholesome citizens. I presume. I’m not really old enough to know.
Then it became a hippie dippie peace and love sort of thing that really lots of druggies did. And of course the prison culture loves their tattoos with the pens and radio parts fashioned together to make a gun (I watch MSNBC’s Lockdown). But I think something happened around ’95 and it became not only commonplace for the regular person to have a tattoo, it became a rite of passage.
At 17 I told my mom I really really wanted a tattoo. Before I graduated High School. It would be awesome and I had my cartilage pierced since I was 15 so I needed something cool and awesome and oh-so-badass before embarking on whatever came after high school. And I didn’t want to go to Dago’s and get it cause I mean everyone knows they don’t ID and have you seen a Dago’s tattoo? I’m classier than that. I was going to Ghetto Dreams. (true story).
And what did I get? A Chinese symbol of course! It was 2000. That shit was fly. And some of my friends and family members were all “how do you know it really says ‘happiness’ in Chinese”. How you know it don’t? Let me have this. But the real surprising thing is that my mom was not only for it, she wanted one too! She was once a 17 year old that wanted a bad ass tattoo but being that it was the late 70’s and she went to the whitest high school in town that really wouldn’t fly with her parents. So she waited…then sorta forgot..then had a 17 year old of her own come down the stairs and ask for a tattoo.
So we went. A very non-traditional bonding moment. But we went. And I was hooked. My Chinese symbol was cool and in an obscure place, but I wanted something I could show off when I wanted. I was in college. I worked part-time! I had some spare moolah. I wanted a kidney belt! Kidney belt? In 2001 it was a kidney belt NOT a tramp stamp. To this day I wish I had some sort of ©2001 on it so when you catch a peek at my lower waist you don’t giggle and say “tramp stamp”. That wasn’t a thing then! A nice foot long stretch of ink to show that I was in the tribe of the American teenager. Anyway, I went back to Ghetto Dreams and paid my $75 and became a little more awesome.
Fast forward a couple years to a friend calling me on a random weekday saying she wanted to add more to her sorority tattoo on her ankle. Was I free? YUP. Did I want a new tattoo? YUP! Quintessential girly butterfly tattoo coming right up!
And I figured maybe this was enough. I was running out of space under my shirt anyway and although my tattoos were cool, they didn’t mean anything. There was no deep symbolic story behind my tattoos. Why did I get them? Cause I was 17 and had some extra cash. Cause I had space to fill on my body. Cause why the hell not? Besides, I was getting into my mid-twenties and needed to be serious about life because that’s what you think the mid-twenties are about. Time to settle down into the 9-5 world and who would really hire a girl with tattoos all down her arms? I’m not trying to be a rapper or work at Whole Foods. I wanted a great soliloquy to form whenever I looked at it. I needed time to think about my next piece. See how I would call it a piece instead of a tattoo? I went to poetry events. I was thoughtful.
So I waited. And got with my sister, an incredible artist, and asked her to draw me up a tattoo. Sure she was only 16 but living overseas granted her the freedom to go get tattoos whenever she pleased and by then had a couple giant tattoos of her own. She drew me the tree of life. Basically it’s a tree in a circle. The roots connect to the leaves. Everything is connected. Neverending cycle. Life and death. Heaven and hell. All of it. Tons of cultures talk about it. Look it up. She drew it. I went to Vince at Bombshell (I had upgraded my tattoo studios by then) and talked to him. He traced my sister’s design and an excruciating hour and some change later I was done. Right where your hand goes for the pledge of allegiance. I had considered it on my back but Vince was like “so you never want to see it again?” so I opted for chest area. He tried to sway me with the wedding dress argument but I’m not wasting my good tattoo showing off years waiting to put on a dress one day.
Fast forward a few more years and I hit my sister up for another tattoo design. Did I want another symbolic work of art? Nope. My exact words to her were “a heart with some squiggles”. With nowhere for it to go, I took a bold move and ventured away from under my shirt and onto my arm. I feel some sort of way about the upper arm. I will never grow my hair out for the back of the neck tattoo to be covered. It’s still easily covered by a work shirt. And I saw it on a Kid Cudi video! Ink me up Vince! Word to the wise, under the arm meat is tender and soft and delicate so piercing needles through the skin for 45 minutes will feel similar to someone dragging a blade across your arm, throwing ice in it, then lighting it on fire repeatedly for 2 hours.
I get the same line all the time about how I don’t “look like the type to have tattoos”. The polos. The Sperry’s. The glasses. The Mini Cooper. I appear sensible. Mild-mannered. Easily approachable. And I am! I just happen to have several tattoos under my Gap t-shirt. So what?! Now I’m ready to be free about them. The more I think about it, the more I realize that people my age are becoming the majority in the work force. We once thought of ways to hide our tattoos for interviews and for appearance. Cuffs and long-sleeved shirts. Long hair and concealing foundation. I notice more and more people are becoming free about showing off their ink. I’ve gotten into several conversations about the next piece people plan to get, or when they got their first tattoo…at the office water cooler. I know in a few years when I’m the school’s Open House with the kid I won’t second guess the teacher’s ability to teach my kid math just because she has a butterfly on the back of her neck. I’ll probably lift up my t-shirt and show her the butterfly that sits a few inches above my hip bone. And we can nod to each other in solidarity that we in fact, look like the type to get tattoos.
What’s your tattoo story? When did you get your first one? Do any have symbolic meaning? Any you regret? Plans for another? Reason why you never got any at all?