Years and years ago, my uncle was the scariest person that I knew. Even though he was my godfather, he still frightened me when I was a young girl for a variety of reasons: he was larger-than-life, he drove a motorcycle, he had German shepherds that were terrifying in their own right, and he had tattoos. In fact, he was the only person I knew who had tattoos. Over the years, I realized that everything that scared me as a four-year-old wasn’t that bad as a twelve-year-old. Even the dogs mellowed a little bit . . . but the only thing that I still looked at as taboo were the tattoos.
I can’t even begin to tell you what his tattoos were. Probably an eagle on his rotator cuff. Maybe something to do with his military service. Tattoos were the one thing that seemed so far away from the norm of my family that to even think about them would conjure up ideas which were certain to damn me to a life on the streets or on the back of somebody’s bike. We just didn’t do that. No tattoos. No piercings beyond the ear. Even a double piercing was pushing the bounds of “good taste” . . . god forbid your son wanted his ears pierced. What would the neighbors think?
Even in college, when girls were getting tiny flowers on their ankles or being really daring with the ubiquitous “tramp stamp” or the Pam Anderson barbed wire, I still didn’t get why people would do that. Didn’t they know that you were going to be labeled as that kind of person . . . forever? In my mind, I always saw my uncle’s tattoos, and I knew I would never get one.
I couldn’t tell you why I decided to get my first tattoo (total lie . . . I got it because I was pissed at my brother but thank god I changed my original plan because it was going to be something completely inappropriate like skeletons fucking or an anatomically correct version of a vagina) or why I decided that it didn’t matter if I had them. At some point tattoos became something that I didn’t look at as taboo or dirty or even rebellious. They just became something that I liked. I enjoyed seeing how other people could cram a wealth of personal expression into a small piece of skin no bigger than an index card. So I decided to get one. Just one. Because one would be enough. And to be completely clear, it was going to be some place that no one – especially my students – would see.
But then my daughters left for college, and for the first time in my adult life, I would be without them. So I got their birth flower on the inside of my wrist just to keep them close. Even so, I pulled my sleeves down while I taught because I didn’t want to be that teacher, the one with the tattoos. But sitting in a meeting one day with a parent who had a ginormous tattoo of creepy eyes on his arm with the phrase “Does Not Play Well With Others” tattooed under it, I realized I didn’t give a shit any more. A few weeks later, I turned 40 and needed to see a favorite Frost quote, my “cheat sheet for life,” on a daily basis, so that made an appearance on my forearm. God knows that I was ready to put some closure to my brother’s death; what better place than the crook of my elbow. And so the tattoos grew and grew and grew.
At this point, I have eight. One is a joke and done when I met some of my O + U partners for the first time (and let’s face it . . . we didn’t know each other very well, and I’m incredibly socially awkward, and there was a tattoo place near the bar). Another is something that keeps me sane and grounded. And yet another I keep close to my heart to remind me of my daughters and the love that we share. The eighth? It’s filled with the things I love. I have no idea when I will have enough. Chances are I won’t figure that out for a few more years. Lucky for me I have a lot of skin to go around. I figure there’s still room for a map.
Is there anything that you once considered “out of bounds” that you now embrace? What changed it for you? I still don’t know why I said, “Why, yes! I’d really love to pay for that pain,” but I’ll say it over and over and over again.