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.

My Tattoo

My Tattoo

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.


  1. Thanks for sharing this! The photo, the story, the meaning.
    A young colleague of mine said he’s going to buy his niece a tattoo for her 18th birthday. She’s chosen the phrase ‘broken crayons still colour’. I think your Celtic knot has aged a lot better than that one will!

    1. Thank you, Vida! I’m *really* glad I didn’t get a tattoo at eighteen – I’d probably have chosen something quite like your colleague’s niece! It’ hard to imagine something staying with you for the rest of your life. I had a small sense of that when I got it, but not of how much my relationship to it would change!

  2. What a wonderful post. As you know, I have a Celtic symbol tattoo as well. Mine is a symbol of protection. I absolutely understand what you are saying about how the bold lines and how you needed that strength that they convey at the time. Often, especially early on, we need more brute strength to either tear down or rebuild. Fine details and elegance come later once the structure is ready. Nowadays, the refined and delicate features of your strength and beauty shine through every aspect of you. They can shine because of the firm foundations and soaring structures that give you the strong frame necessary for elegance.


    1. Thank you, Honey! This is the loveliest response! I love your tattoo. It’s beautiful – the perfect blend of strength and grace. I suspect part of my ambivalence is that I wish I’d compromised a bit on the heaviness of the design. That said, your comment about it representing a firm foundation has actually made me reconsider a bit. Thank you – as always, your perspective has given me something to think about. You are wonderful. Xxxxxxxx

  3. I think it’s a lovely tattoo. Partly because it’s so personal but also because it’s a beautiful, bold graphic. It’s the fact that the knot is encircled by a delicate oval that i really like. That’s unusual for a tattoo and it really does take on the attributes of a pendant (as you said it was modeled after). Even in your youth, you decided on something unique and personal. That’s significant.

    (Were I to have gotten a tattoo at 23, it surely would have been Disney related or musical theater related, needless to say, I’m relieved I didn’t pull the trigger on that).

    1. You’re one of the only people who has ever noticed it’s an oval! I really appreciate your thoughts – I think it’s time I began looking at it with fresh eyes. Your kind and very generous perspective helped me see that. Thank you. Xx

  4. I love hearing about your younger days. I could read a whole memoir from you and be endlessly entertained.

    The idea of anything permanent on me freaks me out to no end so no tattoos on this girl. An ex had my initial still tattooed on her for 3 years after we broke up and I hated seeing it. I very much am someone who would rather send a reminder packing, so I admire your ability to reconcile past and present. (And honestly, that is not a bad tattoo at all.)

    1. Thank you! *grin* The reconciling of past and present just seems easier a little easier than getting more ink or having it removed. Also, for what it’s worth, I would have felt totally uncomfortable seeing my initials on an ex for 3 years after the break up. That’s definitely one version of permanence a girl can do without..

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