Tattoos

I got my first tattoo at the age of eighteen. Back then tattoo parlors were still illegal in the state of Oklahoma, so when I entered the state of Arkansas for college, I was enthralled to see all the parlors on the state line. The possibilities for marking myself irreversibly to cause many years of embarrassment ahead were endless!

Isn’t it weird that they’re called “parlors”? When else do we use that word anymore?

The plan was to wait until Valentine’s Day to get that free heart tattoo I’d heard all about from the sophomores. But after only a few weeks of college I couldn’t wait any longer, so one day after classes a group of us went to AAA Tattoo, home of Smilin’ Jack.

I wanted something to symbolize my newfound freedom, which, because I was eighteen, meant a butterfly. I got it on my lower left hip, a.k.a. my ass.

Which means you’ll need to buy me a few drinks before you can see it.

It’s since become quite blurry. Because of this, I won’t get a color tattoo again.

But it’s okay, ’cause I forget it’s there most of the time.

Apparently my dad flipped out when my older sister got her first tattoo, so there was big family cover-up to keep the news of his baby daughter’s inaugural ink from him. Even though every single member of the family knew, including the extended family in far-reaching Florida, we were successful for a number of years. Until one night over wine on vacation in Florida my aunt spilled the beans.

My dad said, calmly, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t do drugs.” Then it was my sister’s turn to flip out.

I took this as permission to get some more.

A few years later, at the age of twenty-five, I got my second tattoo.

My best friend, Sarah, was moving away from me for the first time since we’d become friends our freshman year of college, so we decided to get matching Ss on the insides of our left ankles to commemorate our friendship.

We think it looks badass.

It was because of this tattoo that my niece learned the word “tattoo” on a family vacation. She knew only a handful of words back then. For months after vacation, whenever someone asked her to say it, she would touch the inside of her little ankle.

I hear the jump from one tattoo to two takes a while, but after two it’s addictive. Which could explain why I got my third just over a year later at the age of twenty-six.

I decided to get a lotus flower on the inside of my left wrist to symbolize my having survived all the shit I had recently gone through and to remind me to stay (metaphorically) open and conscious and awake and to never, ever let myself go back to (metaphorical) sleep again.

Lotus flowers bloom from mud, inconceivably white and perfect.

This tattoo isn’t as visible as one might think. People are always surprised when they see it. “I didn’t know you had a tattoo!” is something I hear a lot.

All of these tattoos are on the left side of my body. I’m pretty sure this is because I favor my right side so heavily (I’m both right-handed and right-brained) that I feel the need to somehow balance things out.

But I’m not sure things are quite balanced out yet.

Everyone goes about deciding to get a new tattoo differently. Personally, I pick a spot on my body where I would like a tattoo to be, and then I wait until I’ve decided what I want to get before I actually go to the parlor.

The next spot I’ve picked is my left shoulderblade. But it’s taken me a long time to decide on what to get. So long that I began to think that maybe I’ve grown out of the tattooing stage of my life. I hear that happens. People get old and boring (or wise, whichever).

For a while I thought I might want a tree, and I found one I really liked, but after staring at it for a while decided it wasn’t right for me. Too curly or something. It reminded me of the much-maligned Curlz font, darling of teenage girls everywhere.

But today I was rereading a favorite poem of mine, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

And then I knew exactly what I wanted.

A small silhouette of wild geese.

Because I feel as though I’ve finally found my place in the family of things.

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6 Responses to Tattoos

  1. kylajoyful says:

    This is quite timely, because my family was just having a conversation about tattoos. My sister got her first yesterday. She’s the first in my immediate family to have a tattoo, and it created quite the stir. I might have to go and get one, just to balance everyone out. Also – i did not know that the Lotus grows out of mud. That is, well, awesome.

  2. Julienne says:

    The geese are beautiful!

  3. Kathleen says:

    That poem is perfect for you! And I love the geese.

    I, personally, am completely torn about a tattoo on my own body. I like certain ones on other people (I like yours). Lately I have been quite drawn to them. But I know my parents would disapprove, and I don’t think my husband would like it. That’s not why I haven’t gotten one, though. I’m not sure how I would feel about it myself. The pain, the permanency, and then there’s also my obsession with symmetry which would make it tough for me to get something on only one side of my body. So I remain in tattoo limbo.

  4. Cory says:

    I LOVE the tree and was looking at something JUST like that on my shoulderblade as well. Wouldn’t that be um, kind of weird…. When we were in Greenwich Village this weekend, I almost stopped in and got a tattoo. How many people do you know can say they got a tattoo there? The girl that cuts Hud’s hair has the flourishes that start on her back and down on arm. I LOVE them but the tattoo is too big for me. I can’t decide if I want a flourish on my back or a C back where I lost my other tattoo.

  5. Courtney says:

    I have 3:

    1) The Chinese character for “poetry” on the small of my back. In my defense I got it when I was 18 (in 1997), long before they were called “tramp stamps”.

    2) A 4-leaf clover and the words “Get Lucky” on my lower belly, off to the right. I have no excuse for this other than I was young (19) and incredibly dumb. I’M NOT EVEN IRISH. When I get preggers one day and that tattoo stretches and grows I’m going to rub it and in my best white-trash voice say, “Ahhh, yeah, I got lucky!”

    3) An armband that circles my left bicep. By far my favorite as it’s beautiful and femine with a purple flower at the front. I got it when I was 20.

    If I could go back I’d never get any of them. I don’t regret them per se, but I wish I’d put more thought into them and really, overall I’d just rather not have any. Now whenever someone says, “I want a tattoo” I tell them to find a picture of what they want and tape it up somewhere they have to look every day, like the bathroom mirror. If you’re still absolutely in love with the design a year later, then go for it. Thankfully 2 of mine aren’t seen often and the armband isn’t seen till the summer months. When the temps start climbing and I start wearing short sleeves into the office everyone always asks, “Is that new?” I laugh and say, “I got it 11 years ago…”

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