Lessons in Permanent Ink

The other night I walked across the dark lawn to the neighbor’s house, originally to play a round of Farkle with them and the folks I live with, but we all ended up just hanging around the island counter of the kitchen, sipping champagne and chatting. After a bit, the conversation somehow turned to tattoos. 

We discussed the different standards of beauty around the world; the various reasons people want tattoos; and we laughed about the terrible botches some people end up stuck with (my personal favorite from the internet: “No Ragrets”!). 

Overall the attitude was open-minded, but the consensus seemed to be that tattoos are a frivolous adornment and did not personally appeal to those present. The host shared an amusing story of how he discouraged his daughter and her friends from getting tattoos when they were younger. He told them, “It is a permanent reminder of a temporary situation.” And then showed them his supporting evidence, a photo of his wife back in the day with a beehive hairdo. From his perspective, a tattoo was the same as a fad: a momentary craze that will inevitably lose its meaning and novelty over time. 

I participated in the conversation to this point with surface commentary. I had my own deeper thoughts on the subject and a little secret to boot. Did I dare share it…? 

My heart began to beat faster. Here was an opportunity for growth; a chance to practice being open and vulnerable, two things that are challenging for me to do. I’m a very private person by nature. Yet I have been wanting to become more transparent and real with others in everyday interactions. Would I let the moment for greater authenticity pass me by? Or would I rise to the occasion and take the risk? I knew I had to take it. Before the topic died away, I mentally braced myself to speak up.

“I’m sort of throwing myself under the bus here, but, errr… I have a tattoo!” 

With everyone’s attention fixed on me, I could feel the heat of their gaze like a spotlight beating down. Oh boy. Here we go! 

I addressed the various pros/cons that everybody had proposed in our conversation, as I’d come to understand them through first-hand experience. I shared with them my inner conflict after getting the tattoo; the doubts, anxieties, and eventually the self-acceptance. I explained in brief words how meaningful the tattoo was to me.

They asked if they could see it. Fortunately it’s in a publicly acceptable location! From any distance it sort of looks like a black mass, so my audience asked curiously, “What is it?” I had to laugh. It’s tree stump with a little sprout growing from the top.

It was fun to put myself out there, and yet it kind of hollowed me out, too. I’ve only been someone with a tattoo for a year. It’s a newer part of my identity. I felt uncomfortably exposed.

Getting a tattoo was not something I had ever planned to do. Although I’ve always loved them on other people, I just didn’t think there was anything that I could possibly get permanently drawn onto my skin that would be meaningful enough to want there for a lifetime. The dawning realization of what that implied is the thing that ultimately got me into the tattoo chair. I was afraid to commit

I was afraid to fully claim what mattered to me. Afraid to give my heart to it. Afraid to show it to the world. And I could see how that played out in other areas of my life, too. The ways I was always holding back, waiting, hesitating, over-analyzing, worried about making mistakes and doing things I would regret, not allowing myself to jump all in with anything because of the fear that it wouldn’t, couldn’t, live up to my grand visions. Which masked the deeper fear that I as a person wouldn’t and couldn’t live up to them.

The idea for my tattoo came about quite unexpectedly, but the instant it did I felt called to do it. The experience then proceeded as a matter of course, like rolling with a wave to the shore. The momentum grew magically and inevitably from concept to conclusion in a very short 24 hour period. While getting the ink work done, I felt as if I were crossing a threshold. Something important was happening, and not just what I was aware of on a conscious level. 

After the fact, though, when the dust of spontaneity settled and the initial excitement had waned, I found my mind struggling to catch up with the abrupt change. I got a tattoo? Just like that? It doesn’t come off! What the hell was I thinking???

I spent the next couple of weeks in melt down mode. I freaked out over one thing after the next, running an emotional gauntlet. 

It turned me inside out.

Fortunately, I have good people around to help get me through the rough spots of life. I talked at length with various friends and family members who listened to my panicked rants and helped me to gain perspective. (Normally I’m pretty good at it. The tattoo unhinged me, to say the least.) 

On the other side of getting inked, I had to deal with the sense that I was no longer “pure”, i.e. free of ink on my skin, and no longer one of the rare individuals nowadays who doesn’t have a tattoo. I saw others with no visible body art and felt a pang of jealousy. “That used to be me,” I thought. 

Post-tattoo anxiety and regret isn’t something I ever heard anyone I knew with a tattoo express before. But when I talked to one of my brothers about it, he admitted to it. He said he had to let his first tattoo grow on him. I loved that. “Let it grow on you.” Eventually, over time, you get used to it and it just becomes a part of you. A lot of others I spoke with echoed this sentiment. 

It helped me to relax into it by viewing my tattoo with the understanding that our experiences, our decisions and the consequences, whether we wish they were different or not, invariably make up who we are. Those things are always best embraced. It is an act of self-love to do so.

I used to be someone without a tattoo. Now the tattoo has become a part of me. The other me is still there beneath the ink. She just grew a little bit.

One specific challenge I grappled with in coming to terms with my tattoo was concern over its placement, on my lower back. The infamous “tramp stamp”. I was aware of the reputation of that spot when I chose it, but consciously decided to push back and claim it on behalf of womankind. I had other reasons for wanting the tattoo there as well, and so I knew it would be a fear-based decision if I didn’t choose it. I ashamedly discovered that I cared more about what people thought of me than I had wanted to admit to myself. That others might see the location of my tattoo and think certain things about me and the type of person I am, brought me up against fears and anxieties I had never had to fully confront before.

It led me to surrender my control of others perceptions, as best I could. They will think what they think. If they don’t actually know me and don’t know any better, they’ll project whatever stereotypes they want. Letting go of that, and standing in my own power, was kind of freeing. Who cares, really? 

Another issue I faced with the tattoo was that I wasn’t really satisfied with the result. My own aesthetic taste was disappointed by it. I nitpicked and struggled with it until my dad told me about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is about accepting the beauty of what is imperfect. It’s kind of been the story of my life actually. In that way, the challenge of my tattoo wasn’t particularly new. It was just next-level. To deal, I adopted the wabi-sabi world view for my newfound identity as a tattooed tramp and turned it into a pun: I was waBri-saBri. It was kind of silly, yet effective. The tattoo became an immersive lesson in embracing the inherent imperfection of myself. My choices, my life.

Despite the myriad of post-tattoo misgivings, I gradually got comfortable with it. And through everything, my tattoo was and is very meaningful to me, on many levels. 

I got it in honor of a good friend’s sister who was killed. Her death completely shook my inner world apart. The tattoo was a way to sanctify that grief. Also significant was being able to share the tattoo experience with my own two sisters; one drew the artwork and the other got the same tattoo with me. That tree stump and the little sprout therefore held everything in it. Sisterhood. Connection. Art. New beginning. The power of growth. The triumph of creation over destruction. The pulse of life itself.

I found that personal meaning does not always translate well to other people. It’s hard to convey it, and what something means for you could be totally lost on another. What is significant to each of us is mostly private. You can share it, try to convey it, but inevitably others interpret things according to what it means to them, through their own lenses and associations. What matters is that you know who you are and why you do what you do. That is enough. 

Even though I once held the same mindset, now that I have a tattoo, I find it interesting that such a big deterrent for people in getting a tattoo is to have something on their body for the rest of their lives. I totally get it, that could be a long time (if you are lucky) and tattoos are certainly not for everyone. But why is that idea of permanence so daunting to us? 

The body is most certainly not forever. Why do we shrink from declaring who we are with it? The fear that a “permanent” tattoo may be something we dislike on ourselves someday, I believe is symptomatic of us not liking ourselves as we are now. If we fully embraced our own identity, we wouldn’t suffer from so much fear of future self-judgment. If we allow ourselves to be flexible in who we are, to accept change as the natural progression we must all go through, we wouldn’t get so caught up in precautionary living, or in feeling anticipatory regret. 

The primary takeaway from my experience with permanent ink is, ironically, that nothing is truly permanent. Who we are is temporary. Life itself is impermanent. And even tattoos can be removed. 

In the tattoo shop, there was an art piece of a little buddha-like character sitting on a tree stump, meditating. I smiled to myself, delighted at the synchronicity. And the words of a song came to my mind, which we all sang at the celebration of life for my friend’s sister. It was one of her songs. 

“A tree was once a seed
What’s large is also minuscule
And love is all you need
to live a life that’s magical.”

Who we are now is the seed of who we will become, as we grow into new and hopefully greater versions of our selves. As a tree wears the scars of its lifetime, we are wounded and healed and scarred by experience. This can happen involuntarily, or with our permission and active engagement. Like it or not, life will etch into us the stories of our lives. If we are afraid to tell the stories ourselves, afraid to make it known, to be open and vulnerable, we risk never showing the true wabi-sabi beauty of who we are. And then, with no way to trace it, the story of who we are dies with us. 

I feel inspired to note here that the body of my friend’s sister was identified by her many beautiful, artistic tattoos. The description of them was enough for the morgue to confirm that it was her. Consequently none of her family had to view her body after she died. They could preserve intact the memory of her fully alive and wholly herself as they knew her and loved her. Who she was became a magnificent story that lives on in the hearts of everyone touched by her life. It lives on in art on my skin, and the ways that it has changed me. 

What we take with us when we die, if anything, is not the form but the substance. Not the pieces but the sum. Not the experiences, but the lessons we glean, that expands our consciousness and grows us beyond ourselves. And what we leave behind, is what of ourselves we have shared with others along the way. 

What I learned from my tattoo surprised me, and ultimately, was well worth the pain of it. Not the pain of the needle (which was negligible), but rather the growing pains that came from unexpectedly confronting my own shadows; my various fears, doubts, insecurity and a self-defeating bent toward perfectionism. From the simple act of getting a tattoo, I was broken open into greater self understanding and self love. I grew from it. And I live a little more fully and deeply, because of it. Which was, poetically enough, what my tattoo is kind of about anyway.

My teenage sister, the one who drew the tree artwork that became my tattoo, expressed these wise words regarding the whole affair,

“It might have been a mistake. We might have all made a mistake. But that’s ok, that’s part of life.”

Listen to:
Wake Up by The Wandering Wonderers
Unpack Your Heart by Phillip Phillips

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