It's not like I got them when I was young. Or drunk. Or in prison. Or for undying love.
Nope, I was 40 before I got my first tattoo, both parents safely in the ground, or rather, scattered among the kelp and sea lions off the Central California coast.
Even though I'd never even considered getting a tattoo before, suddenly I needed a flower, a lotus, in a particular spot and so I asked around, found someone suitable to do it, and there it was, inked on the inside of my arm and did I ever love it. I loved its soft colours, how it flashed and was only visible out of the corner of the eye. I even went back and had it enlarged, more petals added, and it was even more fabulous. I didn't have an outline though, even though the tattoo artist thought it necessary. I didn't want an ugly black line, and that's how I thought of it, even though in the tattoo world, the black line is requisite for all tattoos--helps the colour stay, makes the design more visible, etc. And I'm sure most of the time it's true. But I still didn't want it.
The next couple of years I got a few more, a grapefruit blossom, a deity to accompany me through the world, and finally a rose, a type that grows in Santa Barbara called French perfume, and this is a suitable name. The rose is ivory, pink, yellow and orange, and fragrant enough to fill the room. This is absolutely my favourite rose, and I wanted it to commemorate my black belt in taekwondo. I chose the solar plexus for placement, as I always had a pain there, an ache that I thought perhaps a rose would fix. Sly me, covering that gaping hole with the flower of love, thinking it would do the trick. This time the artist wasn't going to even consider doing my flower without the outline and I didn't argue. I loved my tattoos, and even agreed to take the black outline on the lotus as well. The colours had faded a bit, and if I didn't have the outline, I would have to get touch ups every few years, most likely.
I should have opted for the touch-ups. As soon as the black line was in place, it was no longer my tattoo. I no longer snuck peeks at it. It didn't look bright, sexy, elusive and sweet any more, but heavy, crude, and masculine. The pinks and yellows of the lotus were too soft and feminine, too pretty for a big black line. The tattoo artist insisted this was actually a very thin line and he thought it looked better. I agreed, hoping I would really mean it in a few days, after I got used to it.
He also did the rose, right there on my solar plexus, with the line as well. Perhaps he was just having a bad day, I don't know, but the tattoo artist, who is really excellent, and usually does beautiful, intricate, bright and living work, just didn't do a good job. I guess that must happen--I never had considered it. Makes sense, but it's always easier to hope that other people somehow have it all together better than we ourselves do. If I could have an off day, why not him too? But I refused to consider this and okay'd the design before it went on, thinking it would somehow look better on me, in living and permanent colour. I had my vision and no amount of reality would change it, at least not at first. Once it was on, I stammered that I loved it, as I certainly would, certainly. After all, tattoos are always a bit freaky when you first get them. It takes time. Even my delicious (outline-free) lotus took a few hours to get used to.
But this never happened with either my rose or the now outlined lotus. I tried to love and then like, and then stand, the rose, but it never happened. It looked more like a bloody wound in the changing room at the dojang. "What on earth is that?" I would hear as my friends tried to be nice about it, "Oh I see it now!" God.
As for the lotus, I couldn't even look at it. Somehow I was ashamed now. I had loved this lotus, all it stood for, and it's sexy twinkling flash on my inner arm. Yet I had betrayed it, had betrayed myself, listening to someone, an expert, and going against my intuition and agreeing to have a permanent addition made, to mess with perfection.
I couldn't get these out of my mind--every time I saw either one I looked away. But tattoos are permanent. Almost.
I went to the studio and told the tattooist and he was quite upset, and I'm sure he must feel bad about it, but not as bad as I do and I got a brochure for a tattoo removal place and now I am in the middle of a long, painful, and expensive process to remove the mess from my solar plexus, and the line from the lotus. I still want that flower to flash on the soft white inside of my arm-- I want it the way it was, and so I am trying.
I am lucky to have found a reputable place for this removal. But it costs the earth. And it really hurts. You can minimize the pain, somewhat, but it's way worse than getting a tattoo. I can only be glad that this ink is just a year old.
The best thing is to put lidocaine cream on, cover it with plastic wrap, and stay like this for hours. Once at the clinic, you are subjected to a cold air machine, blowing like crazy on the skin about to be lasered. This is a great device, as once the lasering starts you can see just how painful the possibilities are. You've got to wear goggles, and still close your eyes tight so the retinas don't fry. And then you hear a snapping, not too loud but very sharp, and each time you hear it you feel it as well, but oddly. It feels like a snap, but directly on your bone, like your core is being pounded by a tiny snapping thing, and you can feel it in your head too, and behind the nose, and around the ears. The only place to go is to breathe in and out in the best, deepest yoga style you can, and wait for it to be over.
It doesn't take too long, but has to be repeated many times. Many like 8 maybe. Or even more. And how your body reacts is anyone's guess. My lotus just looks bruised-reproachful and sullen. It looks shocked, and a sickly yellow pall covers it. It's pale and unhappy, after this assault, but I am holding out for a beautiful future. The rose is another story.
It looks sick and angry, tortured and burnt. Pockmarked by blisters, blood red patches, and a sober all over pallidness, it really looks like a bloody open wound and of course it is. Activities are proscribed for a week, and this is an inconvienent place to have such a weeping, stinging burn, but what can I do? I want it gone.
As if I needed something other than my black belt to commemorate! I was just thinking tattoos were the all important markers, suitable for everything in my life. But I had the black belt, there was no need for a tattoo. And the ache in my solar plexus? Could have partly been my gall bladder, now gone, sucked out in Mumbai earlier this year. It could have other reasons, this ache, which I suspect, and which won't be so easily cured with a panacea tattoo! So the rose was just stupid, and the lotus, a betrayal. Both must be rectified, and so they shall be. It may take a couple of years, in all, but those years will pass anyway, inshallah, with or without the tattoos.
It's funny that as much as I have lived my own life, and not spent a lot of time thinking about family constraints on behavior, I never even thought about getting a tattoo until my mother was dead.
Anyone whose parents are dead will understand that this is complicated. It's not a question of the emotions that you might think. Those are certainly there, but there are freeing aspects as well. For example, I am so glad my father was dead before September 11. That's one of the first things I thought of that morning: Thank God he's dead. It would have broken his heart. Thank God he missed the entire Bush cartel. He died in September 1992, before Clinton was elected! Before the internet! Before cell phones became ubiquitous! What a different world! George Bush the father was in office, and we thought that was bad. Quayle was his insurance. Although my father hated all those guys, Reagan, Bush, Quayle, Sununu, Gingrich, and back further through Kissinger, Nixon, all of them, the whole rotten bunch--he was a Roosevelt democrat and had a fundamental optimism in America and our system, he had a belief that I can't help but feel it would be hard to cling to today, that the bastards will be thrown out, and America being the best that it can be will prevail. He lived through the Civil Rights era, the McCarthy era, the depression, the American war in Vietnam, the Nazi occupation of Europe, the first and second world wars, the Holocaust, and on and on. He was born in 1912 and died in 1992. My goodness.
But he missed this opportunistic war we are embroiled in, and missed the environmental catastrophe we have caused, and missed the Bush cartel's disdain for our constitution, the terrifying new precedent set in our treatment of "enemy combatants," the shameless enriching of the ruling elite though hundreds of scams and rackets in Iraq and elsewhere. Etc. No point in listing it all. I'm just glad he missed it as I remember how upset he got with Reagan!
My mother was alive for September 11, unfortunately for her. She died in May 2003 and was born in May 1928. She lived through many of the same periods my father did, but due to her upbringing, was not as aware of many things, until she was shown--she and my father in a railway station somewhere in the south in the 1950's: she came back from the having a drink of water and asked him why there was a sign over one drinking fountain saying "colored" when that water wasn't colored at all! She was raised and lived in a beautiful movie set world, and her sense of reality was tempered by my father, so even though she had to face the same events, the same assassinations, the same wars, the same outrages, as my father, her idea of America and reality was just as positive as his, although she was not a Roosevelt democrat. After he died, however, she had no shield, and the world hit her like a freight train, and she was shocked by so much of it. But when we invaded Iraq, shortly before she died, she couldn't come to grips with it, and cried and cried, outraged, trying to apologize to me, not understanding what had happened to our country, stunned and shocked at the powers Bush took upon himself, the blatantly transparent excuses for war, and most of all, the lack of outrage by the people themselves. The truths she held to be self-evident were no longer.
So there is a certain part of me that's glad they are not around to see all this. The outrages continue daily. A lot has changed, even since 2003. Never mind about the tattoo...