A few weeks ago, I posted a story called “Canvas” in which the narrator dismisses her tattoo because “it’s not who she is anymore”. A few days later, I finished a story featuring a character who hates her tattoo even though her partner loves it. It’s no secret that, while fiction is fiction, a writer’s feelings about this or that can color the details of a story. In this case, the fact that I am ambivalent about my own tattoo seems to have crept into my work.
I got my tattoo at twenty-three. It’s a thick, black Celtic knot at the base of my spine. Not to date myself, but when I got it, the female population was still generally limiting tattoo placement to ankles and hips. The tramp stamp wasn’t a thing yet (and I’ll be honest, I was kind of bummed when every girl and her mother got inked in the same clever spot I’d chosen a few years before).
Anyway, I chose this design after wearing the knot as a pendant for ages, after a lot of consideration. I also did it very much against my parents’ advisement. My mom especially hated the idea of the tattoo – what would people think? I didn’t care what people would think, and her motherly concern made me care even less. I wanted that tattoo for reasons I was not prepared to discuss with either of my parents. I was adult making my own money by then, so I went ahead and booked an appointment. It was the first time I ever explicitly (meaning openly, without lying and sneaking around) did something against my parents’ wishes. I didn’t realize it then, but booking and keeping that appointment ended up being far more pivotal than the ink itself was.
My brother was curious so I invited him along. The tattoo didn’t fit his image of me – it wasn’t delicate or particularly feminine – but he’s always been supportive and in true brotherly style, he didn’t ask questions. It was enough for him that I wanted it. And I did want it – that design specifically – not the lovely, thin-lined adaptation Trent (the tattoo artist whose name I freakishly remember) first penciled out. His interpretation was pretty and tempting, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted the thick, black knot I finally got.
That knot is part of a design cluster that means strength and perseverance. I don’t tend to put much spiritual meaning into symbolism, but I do appreciate symbols as powerful visual cues. It was because of the knot’s meaning that I chose to keep the design’s thick, bold lines rather than translate them into something finer or more delicate. I didn’t want delicate. I wanted something strong – strong and curved and bold – at the base of my spine to counteract the fragility I so often felt.
So, that was me at 23. Now, at 37, I often forget the tattoo is there. When I do occasionally catch it in the mirror I usually feel something close to impatience. I remember what getting it meant to me, and how deeply I needed the outward expression of things I couldn’t voice. I needed that so badly when I was young. Now that I’m older, I feel vaguely uncomfortable wearing that raw need on my skin. Like my character, it isn’t who I am anymore, but after fourteen years, it remains a permeant feature of my body. For better or for worse, my young self will never gracefully fade away.
And, in the end, that’s probably a good thing, despite my ambivalence about the ink. It’s easy to forget where you’ve come from, especially when you don’t particularly like it. Part of me would love to send that reminder packing, but it would feel disingenuous – sort like sweeping a mess under a rug because you’re tired of looking at it. That mess was me and the knot represents both the mess and my determination to clean it up. Ultimately, that’s a valuable thing, which is why I haven’t had it removed or incorporated into a new design (even though I’ve seriously considered it). Whether I like it or not, that tattoo is a symbol of what I needed when I was young. It’s a static reminder of what I wanted for myself. So, as ambivalent as I am about it, I try to be grateful for the ink. Besides, it could be worse. At least it’s not a picture of Donald Duck.