I’ve never had to decide where a tattoo should go: I feel it waiting under my skin. It sometimes takes years before it becomes clear to me what the tattoo looks like, and longer still to draw it out well enough that an artist can make it visible to others.
My first tattoo made itself known to me in Hong Kong, where I was staying for a few days on my way home from Tibet. A girl I’d just met wanted me to go along with her and hold her hand while she got a rose tattooed on her ankle. As I watched her design being placed, I suddenly knew what my tattoo was and felt it burning over my left breast. I drew it for the old man in the shop: a small orange sun above a black crescent moon. It was a symbol of protection I had seen painted on my hotel door in Lhasa, slashed in white on houses and barns all over Tibet, and, once, tattooed on the hand of a truck driver. I wanted to carry a piece of Tibet with me for the rest of my life. I sometimes wonder now, though, if it does too good a job of keeping my heart from harm.
I got my next tattoo for my thirtieth birthday. A tattooed friend and I motorcycled around San Francisco, looking at artists’ portfolios to find the right one for me. I settled on Laura, a woman who does amazing three-dimensional drawings using light and shadow. Together we worked out what I wanted: on the back of my neck, at my fifth chakra, an abstract picture of a dolphin leaping backwards out of the water. It came from a dream I’d had many years earlier of a tiny dolphin that lived in my throat.
The next tattoo was a snail on my right inner thigh. Its shell was purple and blue. I had planned a simple spiral to represent patience and process, but the head and tail insisted on being present. Friends made faces when I told them about it. I explained that I could tell new lovers it means, “Go slow.”
The inner thigh is unexpectedly sensitive, and the snail was the only tattoo that hurt. It hurt so much I got high from endorphins. By the time I left, I was floating; I couldn’t eat for hours. The tattoo got infected, probably because the skin there was thin and hard to keep clean, and it rubbed when I walked. Several months later I had to have it redone, which took a lot of discipline. I got what I asked for: patience and process. It healed faultlessly the second time around.
Now I feel other tattoos making themselves known, each bigger than the last. Vines crawl up my spine and curl into my clavicle. Feathers line my shoulder blades. Some kind of ball is dancing behind my right shoulder. Someday my legs will be covered with Celtic knots, traced over the varicose veins that will develop. There is no hurry to make these tattoos known to others. By the time I die, everything I have been and done will be visible.
Jaida n’ha Sandra
I got my first tattoo after I had been married for two years. I was feeling the anguish of growing up while growing out of the relationship.
I had always wanted a tattoo. My ex-husband tried to talk me out of it, even threatening to leave me if I got one. I figured it was my body, my choice. There was no way anyone was going to stop me.
I called Spider Web, a local tattoo artist, got an appointment, had a few beers, and went in to commit to flesh some permanent mark of the enormous changes going on in my life. I had Spider embroider a small, blue quarter-moon on the right cheek of my behind.
I told my mother and sisters first, proudly showing them the reddened flesh under the bandage. I thrilled to the feel and color of it, could still smell the ink, hear the buzz of the needle; it had been positively hypnotic.
I hadn’t wanted my father to know, but he was outside the kitchen window on a ladder, painting the side of the house. When he heard, he came inside, looked at me with a queer expression, and said, “Well, at least if someone kidnaps you, kills you, and cuts off your head, we’ll still be able to identify you by your ass.”
Laura H. Kennedy
When I was pregnant with my daughter, Miranda, I spent hours sitting on my porch stoop in the sun, oiling my swollen belly and reading up on pregnancy and childbirth. If I was alone, I bared my breasts, since the sun is supposed to help prepare nipples for breast-feeding. I went for long walks beside the ocean, clad in a fuchsia bikini, enjoying the stares, and often the smiles, of passersby. I was proud of my big, brown belly.
At thirty-one, I’d wanted to have a baby for a long time. I’d ended an unplanned pregnancy years earlier with an unwanted abortion, which at the time had seemed the only logical solution. However logical, it devastated me in ways I could never have anticipated, especially when it seemed that I might not get another chance at motherhood. But from the moment I knew that I was pregnant again, I began to feel redeemed, reborn, reconnected to my own spirit.
After my daughter was born, my big, brown belly deflated like an old balloon. With my skin no longer stretched taut, the healthy-looking tan I’d acquired appeared much too dark and wrinkled, like old shoe leather. Stretch marks — which I thought I’d avoided by oiling myself so religiously — suddenly revealed themselves, and no amount of oil or cream would banish them.
I got my figure back through exercise and breast-feeding, only to lose it again when I became pregnant with my son.
Mischa weighed more than ten pounds, and left me with dozens of stretch marks and a few inches of extra skin. As I write, my free hand wanders down to these folds and gathers them into a temporary tummy tuck, then releases them and traces the rippling paths of my stretch marks. I don’t really mind these marks of motherhood; like initials carved in the bark of a tree, or tattoos proclaiming the names of lovers, they say, “Miranda and Mischa were here.”
I asked our neighbor Spike what inspired him to become a tattoo artist. He said that at one point in his life he’d come to feel trapped in his job tracing maps into a computer for the Department of Fish and Game. He’d made a striking piece of sculpture to commemorate his time there: a nude man with large wings, bound to the ground by a crisscrossing web of ropes.
One night, he told me, he had a dream that he was driving down a Los Angeles freeway in a beat-up Volkswagen with three dollars in his pocket. He drove by a giant fun house called Land of Tattoos. It cost only three dollars to get in. Inside, there were mannequins with colored drawings all over their arms.
“I woke up, still in the dream,” Spike said, “and my arms were sore: there were black-and-gray drawings on them. My mom — who’s dead in real life — began screaming, ‘What did you do?’
“I went back to Land of Tattoos and found a little black man sitting on a throne with women in blue-satin dresses beside him. ‘How do you like the bionic arms?’ he asked. I told him to put some color in the drawings and finish them up.
“Then, still in the dream, I thought, I might as well do it myself. So I became his apprentice.”
After this dream, Spike ordered the machinery and immediately began practicing on himself. “If I hadn’t had that dream,” he told me, “I might still be wondering what to do with my life.”
Yesterday, while I was loitering in the Santa Monica Museum of Art, my youngest son got himself a tattoo. It’s a malignant, greenish design about the size of a flapjack, located on the back of his beautifully curved calf.
I flinched when he showed it to me. I didn’t see my son all grown-up and hairy and trying to turn himself into a man. I didn’t see the shaved patch on his leg, the swelling, the discoloration. What I saw was his leg when he was one year old, his chubby calves, dimpled and smooth, nice to squeeze in my hands. I loved to eat his fat toes for breakfast every morning while he laughed and laughed. I miss that plump, sweet baby. I didn’t know how much until he got himself a tattoo.
We were sitting by the side of a pool, very much in love, openly staring at each other’s bodies. We were talking about tattoos.
“I’d like to get a small one,” she said, “maybe on my back, up on the shoulder. I don’t know what I’d get, though.”
“The only symbol I could see myself wearing forever,” I said, “is a yin-yang, about the size of a nickel. Seems to sum it all up, you know? Dark and light, good and evil. It makes sense.”
Two years later we separated so she could “find herself.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I assumed it was a variation on “goodbye.” I moved out and waited for her to decide if we should get a divorce. I often tried to talk to her, but it was like talking to a stranger who had taken an instant dislike to me.
After I’d been away five weeks, I came by one day to collect some books and clothes I’d left behind. She was sitting on the sofa.
“I want to show you something,” she said, unbuttoning her blouse. She sounded playful, friendly, and warm.
“What is it?”
“Look.” Between her breasts was a yin-yang tattoo. “You like it?”
“Like it? I told you that was the only tattoo I could ever see myself having.”
“Did you?” she said. “I don’t remember that. I picked this off a wall chart.”
She really didn’t remember, except in that quiet place where we remember everything.
I got it when I was nineteen, almost ten years ago. In that time Wayne Gretzky has broken seven scoring titles, and the younger brothers of guys I used to play with have made the Red Wings, Bruins, and Sabres. It’s basically a four-inch piece of raised skin that extends from the top of my deltoid muscle to the upward slope of my trapezius. On each side of it are several rows of small marks where the stitches were. Two circular spots of mottled tissue indicate where the surgeon inserted the stainless-steel nails to keep everything in place. I can’t remember how long I had those nails.
My wife doesn’t like to touch it or look at it. She says it looks as if I was shot with a shotgun or cut with a knife. But when she sees my wistful expression as I gaze out at Lake Michigan and think about the past, she gently touches my arm and tells me that maybe, if we ever have a son, I could teach him how to play.
My mark isn’t a tattoo in the true sense of the term — just a little bodily reminder of my youth and the dreams I once entertained. Like so many other athletes, I hadn’t prepared for what might happen if I didn’t make it. I remember the scouts at the games, the ones from the Maple Leafs and the Canadians, who came down to Detroit to sit near the glass with their spiral notebooks teetering on their laps. By the middle of the season, they knew my name and number without having to study a program — which meant I had a future in the game, at least for the next year or two. “As long as you stay healthy, you’re in,” my coach once said. That was before I got my tattoo.
These days I rub on Ben-Gay before leaving for work, my eyes threatening to tear from the pungent aroma. I never look at my tattoo in the mirror; it reminds me of the coolness of the ice when you first step out and the crowd is hooting and hollering for your team. Or the flash of a camera behind the scratched glass as the puck dribbles through the legs of the sprawling goalie and the fans rise to their feet because the player who has just scored is only nineteen, from an obscure suburb north of Detroit, with a very good chance of making the pros next year.
I got my tattoo for my father, but it has already outlived him.
When he saw it before he died, he said, “It’s big, almost the size of a credit card.” He told my mother how pleased he was and made me show guests; it ranked up there with his letter from President Clinton that hangs in the kitchen.
It’s the sign of the crab: his sign, but also the name of his disease. It covers the inside of my ankle and has only one large claw because, of all the losses caused by his brain tumor, losing the use of his left arm was one of the hardest.
This mark on my skin says nothing of the time before cancer. Nothing of the sound of his classical-guitar playing, ringing throughout the house. Nothing of his high, gentle singing voice or his love of books. Certainly, nothing about the time he taught me the right moment to shift my car into third.
A tattoo can’t express these things. But to me it is a symbol of his courage from 1983 to 1993 — almost half my life. I got this mark because, like his kindness, his strength, his spirit, it will endure.
My ex-husband and his new girlfriend decided to get matching tattoos — his on a shoulder, hers on the top of one silicone-enhanced breast (her first husband’s idea), where you would notice it if she wore something low cut. The tattoos were nicely done in yellow, orange, and blue: yin-yang symbols.
But she must have had hers done lying down, with no thought to how the weight of her breast and gravity would conspire against her when she stood up. Where his held its perfect, round shape, hers stretched like a Silly Putty cartoon, distorted and not very attractive.
My ex-husband thought it hugely funny and took to joking openly about her tattoo gone wrong, a permanent, drooping emblem on her body. Though I don’t remember her being upset about it, it always seemed rather sad to me: these two burdens she inflicted on her body to please two men.
I didn’t intend to leave visible scars, and I wasn’t trying to do lasting damage. After countless nights of waiting for his call, knowing he was with someone else, knowing that the next day I’d again embrace him without reproach, I mainly just wanted the distraction of physical pain. Actually, I didn’t feel any discomfort that night from the shallow slashes on my arm, but the sight of my own blood sobered me. I realized that I could spend no more nights waiting.
I’ve never revealed to anyone the origins of the scars I carry; the memory of such despair remains humiliating. Since then I’ve made many changes in my life, leaving that man and that pain miles and years behind me. But sometimes the lines on my arm — which might as well spell out his name — remind me of how far I have traveled, and of the place where I will never allow myself to return.
I was having a hard time deciding whether I should or not. I wasn’t looking for a huge tattoo, just a little one that proclaimed some part of my personality to the world. Maybe a butterfly, symbolizing new life. Finally, I asked the man I was dating what he thought. He threatened to end our relationship if I got one. Talking with him helped me make up my mind. I never really loved him anyway.
Des Moines, Iowa
I’d never met a multiple until I met Joanne, who shared her extra personalities with Chris and me on break in the smoking lounge. We were on retreat together, all survivors of abuse, all recovering parts of ourselves.
The smoking lounge allowed a small group of us to gather in safety. Joanne’s personalities didn’t come into the smoker. Sally, her preschooler, didn’t smoke; she spent part of the weekend trying to grab teddy bears from the participants. Joanne kept apologizing for Sally’s behavior and sometimes had to take her out of the session. Finally Chris gave Sally a gray, lop-eared stuffed rabbit, and Sally settled down.
Toby, Joanne’s teenager, was angry at being dragged to the retreat. She sulked at the back of the room and wanted to yell profanities at the meek presenter.
Joanne laughed about her “kids,” but they worried her. A few weekends earlier, she told us, Toby had been out cruising. Joanne awoke at 3:00 A.M., walking the streets of Minneapolis, barefoot and coatless and miles from home. The next day she noticed an itching pain over her right shoulder blade. She couldn’t see the cause, but her fingertip recovered a drop of blood from the spot. In the mirror she discovered the source of the irritation: Toby had gotten a tattoo.
“Do you want to see?” Joanne asked, pulling her T-shirt slightly off the shoulder. “It’s a butterfly.”
We leaned in to have a look.
“I hate to tell you this,” Chris said, “but that’s no butterfly. It’s a flying penis.”
St. Paul, Minnesota
My husband and I had spent the better part of the morning walking back and forth across the Santa Monica pier, dangling our legs out over the water, feeding the birds, listening to the carousel. Now we were climbing the hill into town to have lunch and catch the Saturday matinee. A stocky man had removed his shirt and, clutching it in his hand, was working his way up the path in front of us. I noticed an elaborate script tattooed down the back of his left arm. I tried to decipher it, but had little luck until we were only a foot or two behind him. Then the flowery letters suddenly popped out at me: White Power. My heart began to race.
I glanced over at my husband and he squeezed my hand. Quietly, we walked in step behind the tattooed man. As we reached the top of the hill and our shadows fell across him, he turned in surprise. Fear came into his face. At first he searched about, as if to discover a friend or ally. Then, determining he was indeed alone with a black man, he clenched his fists and ran ahead to the boulevard, where he blended into a group of T-shirt-clad men milling on the sidewalk.
Moments later, as we walked past the group, the tattooed man emerged, spat on the ground, sang out, “Nigger lover!” and glared at me. Feeling strangely like a child on a playground, I stared right back.
Los Angeles, California
Johanna and I were eighteen and bored in London.
“Let’s just open the guidebook and do whatever it says,” I suggested. So we shut our eyes and fluttered through the pages of England on $5 a Day, stopping only when Johanna breathed, “Now.”
“Tattoos,” I read. OK, we would get tattoos. As simple as that.
We set off on the tube for a decidedly unfashionable part of London. There we found an unassuming store front where a small, hand-lettered sign perched on red silk read simply, Tattoos by Henry Grimsby. A white-haired gentleman in a white coat answered our knock. He looked more like a pharmacist than a tattoo artist. At first, he didn’t let us in and made us show our passports to prove we were eighteen. Then he told us gently, “Come back in an hour after you’ve given it a wee bit more thought, my dears.”
When we returned, Mr. Grimsby took us in. The wall of his studio displayed hundreds of designs to choose from: hearts, dragons, tigers, battleships, dancing mermaids with flowing red hair; the stuff of men’s dreams. Among these masculine fancies we found a pair of soaring birds. Johanna chose a blue swallow for her right hip and I a blue crane for my left, its wings, neck, and legs outstretched as it flew across a rising red sun.
I remember Mr. Grimsby telling us his designs all came from his mother, a tattooed lady, and that he had just finished tattooing nipples on a man who had been born with none. He said the man had always been embarrassed to go swimming, until he got his tattoos.
Mr. Grimsby also said women are much easier to tattoo than men. Men are squeamish and often faint, he said, and few can get through in one sitting. But women never seem to mind. He speculated that it must have something to do with having babies. We thought that maybe women were just more used to pain in general.
Now, twenty-two years later, my children marvel at their own tattooed mother. Stretched by pregnancies and weathered by years of living, my soaring crane reminds me every day that I have the courage to change my life any time I dare.
I am a young, single woman living in an end-of-the-road, lakeside town where they say if you meet a man who’s got all his teeth, a job, and no tattoos, he’s a catch.
I teach at a middle school where the children’s parents have eagles, skulls, snakes, and hearts forever etched on their biceps and cleavages. I once put tattoo on the board as a topic for journal writing, and one boy, Ben, wrote about how his brother had chased him down with his dad’s tattoo gun and emblazoned his butt. Some days later, Ben brought me his father’s photograph. “Miss Clark, my dad needs a girlfriend and I told him you were cute,” he said.
I looked at the faded snapshot of a young man with Ben’s impish grin, a head of shaggy blond hair, and bell-bottoms riding low on the hips. Ben had just moved back in with his father after having been beaten by his mother’s boyfriend. I scrutinized the picture, looking for tattoos: Ben’s mom’s name with a line through it, perhaps.
Ben watched me hopefully. “He said to tell you it’s an old picture, but it’s all we could find.” He had carried the snapshot in his notebook proudly, carefully, all the way to sixth-period English, on a mission to patch the holes in his young life. He was disappointed when I returned the picture and told him to tell his dad, “Thank you, but I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to date a parent of one of my students.”
Later, I wondered how it would be to lie in bed with a man who had tattoos. I’d touch them and say, “Tell me the story of this one.” I’d ask, “Why this one?” And each of a life’s chapters would pour out. I’d listen, my naked body unscarred, uncolored. From the next room we would hear the troubled boy’s gentle, steady breathing, and as the father held me, I would feel comforting to him, clean like soap, like a fresh start.
Clearlake Park, California
Hank told the night nurse he was dying. She told his physician, who said with a laugh, “Not Hank. He’s said this before.” Hank told his wife he was dying. She smoothed his tousled hair and said, “No you’re not, honey. You’re going to get all better.” Hank told me he was dying. As a nurse, I’ve cared for many dying patients. I believed him. I comforted him, called the chaplain, changed his sheets, damp with perspiration. I spoon-fed him ice chips. I opened the windows when he was warm and tucked blankets around him when he was cold.
As the hours passed and he became too weak to use the urinal, I removed his wet boxer shorts. They had concealed the most incredible tattoo I have ever seen. Swirling lines of red, green, and blue covered his buttocks. Winding roses surrounded the name Lucy, blanketing his groin and traveling down and around his penis — even climbing around the head. I was awestruck.
Before I went off duty, I stopped in his room to say goodbye; he seemed comfortable. But I awoke early in the morning thinking of him. At 3:58 A.M. I called the night supervisor, who told me Hank had died thirty minutes after I left. This man I had cared for, this husband and father, was dead, and all I could think about was that damn tattoo.