Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Let's Talk Tattoos


I have three small tattoos, & by this point, each of them looks like they were done in prison. I got them all before I turned 23, before I moved to D.C., before my life even began, practically. It's weird to think of myself, more than a decade ago, deciding what ink I would still love when I turned 30 & feeling so sure that I'd gotten it right. I didn't.

I got my first tattoo when I was 18, though I can't remember exactly when. It was the summer between my freshman & sophomore years of college, maybe, & my school friends had come to visit me in my hometown. My three best friends & I got small, matching four-leaf clover tattoos, mine on my left hip. It felt like bee stings. We stopped being friends that same year.

My second tattoo came shortly after my ex-boyfriend's suicide; I think I got it done with his best friend. Red stars, his on his bicep & mine on the inside of my left wrist, the same tattoo Dave had. I cried. A few months later, on what would've been Dave's 21st birthday, I went back to the tattoo artist alone to have "10:47" added next to the star, Dave's lucky time of day. "I'm glad I didn't have to do more to you than this," the tattooer told me, "because you're a huge baby." But I wasn't crying because it hurt.

I got my third tattoo alone, on a whim, shortly before I moved to D.C. It's a question mark within a heart, the cover of an album that's important to me, & it means "Are you brave enough to love?" The tattoo artist didn't get it quite right, though, so it's thinner than it ought to be, a little bit squished. Seven years later, the week before I moved back to Ohio from D.C., the musician who made that album shattered the illusion when he tried (unsuccessfully) to sleep with me when I went to a small show of his on U Street.

Today, my tattoos are faded & warped. The star on my wrist is pink now, no longer a vibrant red, & the number next to it have blurred together so that they're hardly readable. I had an allergic reaction to the ink on my foot, which bubbled up & left behind jagged lines & a splotch where no splotch ought to be. The shamrock on my hip has fared best, but I've also gained enough weight in that particular area that I can't really see it unless I'm looking in a mirror.

I don't know what happened. Did I get them done by subpar artists, or is something wrong with my skin? I've seen elderly people with tattoos in better shape than mine, so I don't think it's just the passage of time.

But still, I want another.

When I was young, I only got small tattoos, inconspicuous ones in places I could cover up with a watch, a boot, even a Band-Aid. I knew that, at that age, I couldn't be relied on to choose a large piece I was sure to want later in life, so I got small spots of ink to tide me over until the time came.

Now, I am almost 32, & I think maybe it's come?

I thought the time had come a few years ago, in New Hampshire, when I paid a $50 deposit to a surly tattoo artist in downtown Portsmouth. But I didn't love the design he came up with & found him hard to work with, grumbly & cranky. I knew that if I came back on ink day, I would say, "Yes, sure, that works," to whatever he drew up, out of a desire not to engage with him, & then I'd end up with some tattoo I never wanted to begin with. And that's probably not how this should work.

There are more options now, though, lots of respected tattoo artists in the Cleveland area. I went to elementary school with one of them. I could find someone who's easier to work with, someone who's an artist, someone who will answer my questions & not just snatch the bill out of my hands.

I ordered a large temporary tattoo from an Etsy shop, an old-timey-looking ship, & I plastered it to my inner arm to see if I like the way it looks - not this design, necessarily, but the idea of a large, inky image on my skin. I felt silly applying a temporary tattoo, reminiscent of childhood days & temporary tats of rainbows & cartoon characters that came inside those little plastic eggs from quarter machines at the grocery store. But I like the way it looks, big & imposing like this, yet somehow still delicate & artistic. I do.

Would I, though? Forever? I've been thinking about one particular design - & the meaning behind it - for more than six years now. This is the tattoo I want, not some spur-of-the-moment hipster whim. But I look at my other tattoos, tiny & warped & a little white-trashy, & I wonder: Will I want this in five years? Ten years? Thirty? Will it eventually blur together & fade the way the others have, only on a larger & more embarrassing scale this time?

I don't know, but as with anything, if I worry about it forever, I'll always remain too afraid to move forward. And so I think I may go ahead with it anyway...

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