When I was in my twenties I wanted to get a tattoo. Just something small, like a heart or a rose on my bikini line.
“If you get a tattoo, I’ll divorce you,” my husband threatened, only half joking.
“Ew,” my mom said, wrinkling her nose as if at a bad smell.
“If God had wanted you to have tattoos you’d be born with pictures on your body,” was my dad’s contribution.
At the time, I didn’t know anyone with tattoos, and when I imagined someone with tattoos, it was probably the same stereotyped image that my husband and parents had – a grungy old big-bellied biker who went shirtless beneath a leather vest, sporting ‘mom’ on a slab-like bicep. In a heart.
I gave up the idea not so much because of the resistance but because I couldn’t come up with an image that I was willing to 1) suffer pain for (I’m a big baby) and 2) have on my body for the rest of my life. I decided to wait til I qualified for the Boston Marathon, then get a wing tattooed on my ankle. When I finally qualified, I decided to wait until after I finished the race. I told my friend Ken, who remarked “That would be like putting a bumper sticker on a Porsche.”
My girlfriend Shelly, who had a regrettably executed green butterfly on her calf, admonished me not to. I was newly single by then, and she earnestly related an article she’d read in a magazine at the obgyn’s: “Eighty percent of men wouldn’t date a woman with a tattoo.”
She turned out to be wrong about that – it’s only half of all men that won’t date a woman with a tattoo. I learned that from a Harris Poll last year which reported that one in five U.S. adults now has at least one tattoo. Only one in ten adults in my age cohort are inked, which is not surprising, but women are more likely (23%) to be illustrated than men (19%), which did surprise me.
The tattooed reported all sorts of peripheral benefits, from feeling sexier or more attractive to feeling more spiritual, healthy, intelligent, and athletic. It’s great their ink makes them feel so good about themselves, because they’re going to need it – the same poll reports that the un-illustrated do not share the euphoria. In fact, quite the opposite: while half grudgingly agree that the inked are more rebellious, 45% of the non-inked say tattoos make a person less attractive, less sexy, less intelligent, less athletic and less spiritual.
I did eventually get inked, but not because it made me feel rebellious, or sexier. In fact, quite the opposite – by the time I finally got my first tattoo (four years after my divorce), it had gone from being stigmatized to almost standardized. I got my first tattoo for the same reason I got my fourth tattoo – I just like the tattoo art form. It’s the only art form that both defines and redefines its canvas. I like the way they look, colorful and surprising, and stylized, snaking out of a neckline or peeking from a sleeve.
But mostly I like them for how they tell a story about the person wearing them.
Not all of the stories are interesting or special – there are ordinary tattoos, and tattoos that are trite. Some are funny, like the surfer who sat next to me on the plane who saw the edge of my tattoo peeking out from my sleeve and lifted his shirt to show me a huge tattoo that covered most of his right side. No Regrets, it read. Only at first it had read No Regres, because the tattoo artist didn’t spell it right. The surfer had to have some painful laser removal sessions before the misspelling could be corrected. I admired the finished product and we laughed about it, but he soberly advised me “Dude, don’t ever get words tattooed on your body.”
But sometimes the stories, like the tattoos, illustrate something unique, vivid and beautiful.
Last night the husband (who sports six tattoos) and I watched LA Ink on Hulu. For those not familiar with the show, it’s one of a string of pop culture paeans to skin art, a tattoo parlor run by a tall, geeky goth girl who manages a stable of surprisingly talented tattoo artists.
I’ve seen the show before, watched them etch people’s histories and mysteries into their skin, the end result often a mixture of poetic, amusing prettiness, as in the case of the girlish vegan activist getting a portrait of the 800 lb sow she rescued. The pig seems to smile from the heart-shaped frame on her back, a funny and affecting reminder that we don’t always choose who we love, and why.
Then there was the fireman’s portrait of his toddler daughter, just above his heart where he most remembered looking down into her eyes looking up, her soulful expression, little bald head and intubated nose silently testifying to her lost battle with leukemia.
In this episode, a handsome Chinese-American policeman, his thin quiet face intelligent and thoughtful, brought the artist (herself heavily tattooed, a lacy line of black ivy creeping around her neck) a picture of his father. The father was the only subject of the photo, sitting on a dock and gazing with a faint smiling expression at the camera. His age was almost impossible to tell, though the instinctive way he relaxed, his pants cuffs rolled slightly to dip feet in the water, suggested an older man, accustomed to hard work, enjoying an unaccustomed relaxation for these few moments.
As the tattoo artist worked, her mmmm hmmms blending with the buzz and drone of her black-dipped needle, the handsome policeman told the story of his father, a man born and schooled in electrical engineering in Beijing, a prescient man who saw the smoke of Communism rising, rising, a nation of people choking, the tendrils reaching into his very house.
So he gathered his family and fled to America, where such an intelligent and driven and prescient man had no difficulty finding well-paid work with the government, work that ensured he could never, ever go home again. To do so would be to risk a swift version of the death he so accurately foresaw those many years ago.
So he lived out his life in America, raising his good son, caring for his wife, protecting and loving his family the best way he knew how, through endless hours of work, the only hint that he had longings of his own in the occasional mention of China, his eyes going distant for a moment, then clearing with a shake of the head, a reassuring smile for anyone that happened to be watching him, the certainty firm in his quietly longing heart of having acted quickly and well those many years ago was worth it all, and then some.
Now on TV, years after these events, the handsome policeman tells the story of his father, and though it seems he is telling the story to the tattoo artist, the quietness of his voice and the tears that trickle slowly from his eyes tell the truth, that he is telling the story to himself, realizing as he speaks the great depth of his father’s sacrifice, the quiet heroism of fathers determined to give their children every possible chance to live a life that is fully realized, a life of freedom of thought and being.
When he speaks of his father’s death, his voice trembles as he remembers reassuring his father, I will do all I can to keep the family together, to make sure everyone is provided for, that no one ever wants for anything. And so the father’s gift is passed to the son, one man gently lifting the burden of the other as he breathes his last.
The tattoo artist is only hearing about the policeman’s father for the first time as she plies her trade, but it is apparent that she has heard a truth of her own, and one that gets just as deeply at the heart of the matter, for when the policeman stands up and turns his back to the mirror to see, his back is not there. Instead, there is a temple, where his father sits placidly in the foreground on a bench. In the distance behind him, the green mountains of China are misty, majestic.
The man’s age is hard to determine, but in his bare feet and the relaxation of his body, the half smile on his face, the simple building in the foreground, we see a man content in his later years, living out his days in the land that has called to him all his life, a gift his fine son, whom he taught well, could only give to him after he died .