At one point in my rich teenaged fantasy life, I was convinced I wanted a tattoo of a leopard draped across my shoulders. I think this was influenced by a steady diet of Guns-n-Roses videos on MTV and a desire to shock mainstream culture with my internalized misogyny, oh-so-white sexuality. It’s embarrassing what the sheltered think of as shocking.
My first tattoo was less shocking. It’s a palm-sized sprig of Pennsylvania mountain laurel on the back of my left shoulder. When I was 18, a California girl facing the end of a year lived in the completely alien city of Philadelphia and the end of my first live-in relationship, I wanted to mark myself with a visual reminder of everything I experienced in this strange city of brotherly love that was often scarily hostile. The Liberty Bell, with its doomed crack and over-simplified symbolism would have been the obvious choice, but I went with the mountain laurel. Literally a last minute decision, made when I asked the artist what the state flower of Pennsylvania was and he looked it up in the set of shop encyclopedias because that’s how old I am – my first tattoo predates the internet. (Although you probably guessed my age by my reference to music videos on MTV.)
I sat wrong-way forward on an old chair, arms crossed along the top edge of the back and my chin digging into my forearms. My Flashdance-style shirt draped half-way down my back, I asked the artist, a thin, bearded, long-haired man I assumed to be OLD, how long he’d been tattooing. He glanced at my ID and replied, “Oh, about as long as you’ve been alive.” It’s funny to think he was probably as old as I am now. Then he turned on a buzzing like a hundred bees rehearsing an opera, placed a reassuring hand on my quivering back, and began to scar my flesh with ink. I fell down a rabbit hole of introspection and art and found myself in love.
I don’t want to credit Generation X with bringing tattoos into the mainstream (mostly because this is the internet, and as soon as I do, someone will present a thesis on why it’s not true), but some numbers claim the difference between tattooed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is twice as much. When I was discussing my plans for the elaborate (and painful and thankfully never realized) shoulder-leopard, tattoos were still seen as counter culture, but counter culture itself was seen as a positive influence. Sailors and convicts had given way to rock stars and 70s icons and that was A-okay with us. Between Gen X and Millennials, the numbers increase yet again.
Which is not to say that tattoos are universally accepted. I happen to live in a conservative part of the country (both socially and politically), and have actually been tut-tutted by older people for my arms, which are approximately 60% covered in tattoos. It’s enough to get me second glances. Within tighter spheres of social influence, tattoos can mark me as a rebel (military wives in my age bracket), a liberal (the church crowd), an esoteric, artistic type (upper-middle-class intellectuals), or an instant member (music festivals and the Renaissance Faire). People adjust their attitudes when they notice I have large tattoos. It’s a very human thing to do. Even when they are adjusting for negative prejudice, I strangely feel closer to them – engaged in a social interaction that might have gone ignored were it not for the pictures on my skin.
What my tattoos don’t seem to do is give insight into my personality, which is ironic because I have custom, elaborate pieces that the artist and I collaborated on extensively. I chose meaningful symbols, specific colors and placement to reflect a culmination of experiences – a sort of I Am Here map for my life thus far. The selection of a tattoo artist merits its own post, but suffice it to say that trust in artistic vision is probably at the top of the list. Once the design is set, sitting in the chair and submitting to the pricking of dozens of microscopic needles piercing the skin becomes an exercise in mindfulness. Or at least it did for me. The pain I experienced was less about enduring suffering and more about perseverance during metamorphosis. The picture was already under my skin, coded in my cells – I just had to wait for it to appear. At the end of a four hour session, that waiting can get tedious, but still worth it.
I have plans for more tattoos. Ideas taking shape under the surface, waiting for their time. I have to arrive at the place before I can map it.