For most of my life, tattoos have been in the category of “things other people do.” My parents find them vulgar. Growing up, my main exposure was in the context of shows like “Mannix” in which the Bad Person often sported a lightening bolt or dragon on his malevolent forearm. In mysteries, too, the “distinctive tattoo of a Phoenix” was often the means by which the Bad Person was rooted out, despite having covered the tell-tale ink with clerical garb, or robes of mysterious Eastern cloth. Aside from various and sundry Bad Persons, tattoos were the province of Holocaust survivors, and men who had been in the military as impressionable youths. They were, those images, numbers and anchors, signals of something dark, regrettable, or offensive.
Many years later, I began to notice the presence of lighthearted, “cute” tattoos, particularly on women. My son’s second and third grade teachers both had a tattoo in the vicinity of their respective ankles, and they were both fine teachers, good mothers, and unaffiliated (to my knowledge) with anything particularly sinister or indiscreet. I started looking at tattoos, admiring fine art, asking strangers what the words or symbols meant, and did it hurt to have it done there? I discovered that many people I knew had a tattoo I had never noticed, and that some were signs of misspent and alcohol-enhanced youth, but most had great personal significance. A honeymoon tattoo, a tribute to someone dearly loved and lost, a symbol of deep religious significance.
A shift took place during my Tattoo Studies, and I began to see nothing unusual about people who had covered large parts of their bodies with ink. My husband’s nephew enthralled me at a family picnic describing his plans to have his late father’s face tattooed onto one of his legs. This plan would, at one time, have provoked no response on my part other than a secret conversation with my husband about possible ways to talk the kid out of doing such a thing. I was fascinated. I wanted to know how they would get the picture on his skin, how big it would be, was it a common thing to do, would it hurt, so close to the prominent shin bones of a slender young man. I read “Tricycle” and noticed that many of the Buddhist monks with shaved heads and saffron robes were extensively tattooed.
I wanted one. I thought about placement, size and design. I first considered my wrist where it could easily be hidden by a watch or a sleeve when spending time with my mother. I favored the ubiquitous ankle, but thought that maybe it should then be done only in black to avoid clashing with the colorful skirts and sandals I wear in the summer. I wondered whether anyone else in the world worried about such things. I saw a beautiful, tiny heart on the back of a young woman’s neck, but decided that for my purposes, my tattoo needed to be visible to me. My purposes had evolved, over time, from the “cute-” a whisk, a pencil, two hearts for Rob and Sam – to the more serious. I wanted either a tiny dharma wheel or “om mani padme hum” to remind me to stop and be in the moment, compassionate, and fully alive.
I ran a trial balloon past my mother, thinking that perhaps she had become accustomed to the prevalence of tattoos in polite society. “What if I got a tattoo?” I began, tentatively, “I mean, I’m not saying I’m going to do it…just ‘what if?’”
“You can never be buried in a Jewish cemetary,” she began, “and it looks cheap. Who do you know that would mutilate herself like that?” There were literally a hundred people, but I interpreted the question as rhetorical, and moved on to safer topical ground.
I spent too much time thinking about the tattoo. I didn’t have the cash, and it was such a serious commitment. It is “mutilation,” strictly speaking; it’s the insertion of needles into your flesh, chemicals under your flesh, and it involves the risk of infection, scarring and pain. I have watched too many TLC documentaries not to know that there are many instances of post-tat remorse, and that the cost of removing one’s prison tattoos or the name and picture of an ex is high in both dollars and nerve endings. What if I hated it? What if, following my already flaky spiritual path, I decided that I wanted to practice Judaism and to be buried in a Jewish cemetary? What if it stretched or shrunk into some unrecognizable form as the result of weight gain or loss? What if it really, truly did mean that I was in some way cheap, tacky, and/or nothing more than a Dedicated Follower of Fashion willing to make an irrevocable mistake in order to enjoy three weeks of feeling like one of the cool kids?
I haven’t decided. The cash will be available today; I’ll put it in the bank and think some more. I don’t really need a permanent, inked reminder to be mindful; it actually seems to violate the most basic tenets of Buddhism to require such external motivation. I still fear judgment, categorization and dismissal. I do not fear the pain. I need to sort out the difference between an expression of freedom and some subconscious desire to seem like someone who is free. I should be thinking about a hundred other things, like work, laundry, genocide, planting tomatoes and marriage equality. Instead, I find myself imagining a tiny, black dharma wheel hovering somewhere above my right ankle. A discreet prayer across the top of my left wrist. A message to myself and to the world, about something I have not yet understood, something inchoate, urgent, and suspect. Something I need to hear, whether or not it is ever broadcast on my flesh.