There’s this woman at work. I don’t know her very well, but I know her name. She’s what you call a passing acquaintance, which to me actually just means, “someone you say hello to when you pass them in the hallway.” I’m sure that’s not the actual etymology of “passing” in this context, but I’d like it to be, and, anyway, I digress
When I first met her, her hair was all about the same color. But now it’s all streaked with whites and grays. I just realized this a few days ago when I happened to see her riding on the same bus as me. I had to resist the impulse to go up to her and tell her how beautiful her hair is, because I actually hate it when someone points out my own grays. But it really was beautiful, and in a way that’s a little hard to put into words. I found it beautiful because of what it meant, I guess. It meant she’s survived long enough to have grays. She’s been marked by life, and I just think this kind of earned beauty is extravagant and precious and rare. You’ve lived, you’ve made it this far, you’re still going, you’ve been around in this body long enough for life to leave its stamp upon you. Like spending an afternoon in a coffee shop, and how the aroma of coffee clings to your things for hours afterward, those of us with grays, and scars and other marks, we’re redolent with the stories life has bestowed upon us.
I have a few scars. There’s a nearly invisible scar on my chin from the time I was five and running around with my underwear on my head, and since it was covering my eyes, I couldn’t see the corner of the open closet door before I ran into it with my chin. There’s the scar on my left hand from when I was nine and I slipped in the rain and hit something sharp on the ground. There’s the one on my head, just behind my scalp line from when I was drunk in college and never mind the details of that actually. And there’s my newest one, from when I had an accident in the kitchen and sliced through the adductor tendons of my right thumb. These are my little stories, and they, along with all my interior scars and the accumulating changes and small destructions occurring by the minute (DNA, skin, collagen, need I go on), are all part of my big story, my favorite story, the story of my life.
Why am I telling you this? Because, as I write this, I’m just a day away from getting another mark: my third tattoo.
I got my first when I was 21, the summer after I graduated college, just one of the pieces of flash art on the wall in a Kentucky studio. Young, white, semi-affluent kids were just starting to get tattoos for the first time, and I jumped directly on that bandwagon as quickly as I could. Back then, the only other people waiting to get tattoos in the studio were truckers and bikers. The older lady who gave me my first looked like she could have been a truck driver herself.
The second tattoo I designed myself, and had it applied by a kid in Nashua, New Hampshire, because, back in 2002, there still weren’t any trustworthy tattoo studios in Boston, where it only became legal in 2000.
I don’t regret either of my tattoos. In part, this is because, on both, I stayed away from any design that had any particular meaning to me. Well, the second one is a moon, and the meaning of that is, I like the moon. I figured that was a safe bet. I figured I would always like the moon. I do still like the moon, and I do not doubt, thirteen years into having it, that I’m ever going to wake up and be like, “The fucking moon. What a piece of shit. I can’t believe I got a tattoo of that stupid thing.” I also feel like I learned something I *really* needed to learn from having tattoos: permanent isn’t so bad or scary. Even if I ever do come to feel a twinge of regret over either of my first two tattoos, I’m confident now I’ll just see them as scars, as records of who I’ve been and what I’ve lived, and that makes it easier.
Realizing that is what gave me the courage to decide to make a more meaningful tattoo this time. Ok, it’s not just meaningful, it’s actually going to be positively fraught with meaning. The images that will make it up will be a story of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I believe in. That’s my story, or maybe just one of them. It took a long time to figure out what I wanted it to be, and I had a little help.
First I shopped around online to see what other people were doing with tattoos, and then I thought about symbols and imagery that would possibly have meaning for me. Nothing really clicked perfectly, but I did start to gather a body of concepts and ideas that spoke to me. When I had a list of elements that I was pretty sure I wanted to include, I looked at online examples of as many local artists’ work as I could find. Finally, at one of the last shops I checked out, I found one artist who I thought might fit for what I had in mind.
I contacted the artist, and over the past six weeks, we’ve emailed and met and reviewed ideas, iterated and put something together that… I AM SUPER EXCITED BY. It’s going to be awesome, and it’s going to be me, and it’s going on my arm tomorrow, and — ok, well, wait, that’s not strictly true. This is a big, complicated piece. Tomorrow, I’m just getting the outline, and that’s going to take about three hours. Over the coming weeks and maybe months, I’m going to have to keep going back and getting more work done on it. The artist estimates about 10-15 hours total.
So I’m writing this a little bit for me, because I want to say goodbye to my unadorned right bicep. Here’s what it looks like today, and this is the last time it’s ever going to look like that, for the rest of my life:
That’s me, and that’s a part of me that’s about to change. Forever. That’s a little scary, even though I know I just said “permanent” wasn’t scary. A friend of mine asked me today, “Do people get tattoos because of who they want to become, or is it because they want to mark who they are?” I think for every tattoo, for everything we do that leaves a mark, that answer is different, but for me, it’s a little bit of a reminder that change is part of life. That you have to say goodbye to the way you’re comfortable with things being, and choose a new way for things to be. It might be a mistake, it might be an indelible mistake, but you can’t let that keep you from making choices.
So for me, now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I think I’d answer the question like this: I want to keep becoming who I am, and this tattoo, when it’s finished, is going to be an excellent daily reminder of that.