I got my first tattoo when I was 22…so, 23 years ago.
It always surprises people to hear that at that time, tattoos were illegal in New York. New Yorkers like me were forced to go to New Jersey for their ink, which, in the minds of Manhattanites, was disgraceful.
I’d wanted a tattoo for a long time. Back then, it was actually a statement of rebellion and that was a statement I wanted to make.
I happened to hear about a guy in Chinatown who was doing black market work, and of course, being the intrepid youngster that I was, thought that sounded a lot more appealing than going over the bridge.
The day I went happened to be the Chinese New Year, so I sat in a cab in gridlocked traffic watching the fare skyrocket as a giant red dragon with golden scales floated along beside us in the crowd.
The tattoo artist was on the third floor of a nondescript old building, the ground floor of which featured a comic book and adult video store. His “studio”—and I use the term loosely—was a cramped dingy room with a single window which looked out over the teeming throngs in the street below.
I gripped the design I wanted in my sweaty hand—a pattern of Celtic snakes and dragons (though I have not, to my knowledge, a single drop of Irish in me). The artist took it from me, traced it on a piece of paper and then transferred the image to my low right back.
The tattooing itself was mildly disappointing for its lack of pain. It just felt like a slightly pissed off wasp making his feelings known.
Afterward, oiled up with Bacitracin, I walked all the way back home to 7th Street rather than be stuck in another cab.
My tattoo wasn’t nearly as awesome as I’d wanted it to be, but it was awesome enough and I was glad I had it.
I didn’t get to keep it all that long, though. Within a few years, it started to fade. By the time I was 29 it just looked like a stubborn bruise. People asked me what it was now and then.
“Nothing good,” I’d say, pulling my shirt down low.
Tired of being the sort of person who would get a tattoo and having nothing to show for it, I hopped in another cab, this time in Chicago, and went to a real tattoo studio. Inexplicably, I went with no idea of what I wanted. I flipped through the big books of tattoo designs, and settled on an abstract version of my original Celtic snake knot. It had a classic 90s’ look ( I didn’t realize that tattoo designs come in and out of fashion just like clothes) with its thick, black lines.
It was only after I got home that I realized—it looked exactly like a giant waffle fry.
My husband hated it and so did I. Soon, I was on a quest to get it removed. If I was looking for pain, the tattoo removal certainly provided it. It was an excruciating, expensive procedure which felt like rubber bands fitted with tiny knives being whipped time and time again against my tender skin.
After six months of treatment, I gave up. Once again, I was left with what looked like an old bruise—only this one was twice the size.
Years passed. Life went on. I had kids, became vegetarian, then vegan, then a yoga teacher. It was during yoga teacher training that my tattoo fire was rekindled. Everyone in the yoga world seemed to have tattoos. I still loved them.
To celebrate the end of my teacher training, I got a simple Om symbol tattoo’ed on my ankle. Then, a year later, I got the Sanskrit symbol for devotion, “bhakti,” on the inside of my wrist.
As anyone with tattoos knows, once you get one (or two, or three), you always want more. I felt I was at the limit of decency with my two baby pieces, but then I remembered my bruise. At this late point in my life, I figured, no one but my husband or I would see any work I had done there. I consulted with him—he said to go for it.
This time, I thought carefully about what I wanted and why. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone. I wanted a beautiful, bold artwork that represented me. Months of mulling brought me to a book of Audubon birds. These old paintings of every bird under the sun make me quite nostalgic. I grew up with them, as did my sister, my mother, my grandmother. Plus, they are exquisite.
I selected a painting of a summer red bird perched on a grape vine. I saw in those lush shapes and colors my love of the natural world, a connection to my family and the symbolism of a bird—which can mean many things, but which to me, means joy.
I found a woman to do the work. That seemed important. She did an excellent job. Four hours and a lot of water breaks later, I became the proud owner of a rarely viewed but very lovely tattoo of a red bird sitting among bright green leaves dripping with ripe grapes.
Will I ever get another tattoo? I doubt it. And to all the intrepid youths out there I say this; wait until you know who you are before you get your ink.
On the other hand, getting mine was part of the process of becoming who I am today, so who am I to judge?
We all wear the scars of our lives on our bodies, whether they are written in ink or not.
It’s best to own them and understand them for what they are; the rings of the tree which is you, growing and changing year after year, until hopefully, one day, you are a big, battered oak whose imperfections only add to your beauty.
Like elephant culture on Facebook.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
Image: via Pinterest