I have never gotten a tattoo. I wanted a tattoo when I was 16. Nothing big. A rose on my ankle. My mother didn't say a word when I expressed my desire. She helped me find a tattoo parlor and took me to it.She sat there with me in the waiting room and watched me watch.
It was more of a shop. I have never understood why we call them tattoo parlors. Those places are far from the images that the word "parlor" connotes for most people. But, I digress. The shop was at the top of a set of stairs, underneath which was some kind of store. I have no idea what now. It was the 80s, so most of the people in there were bikers, biker babes and other various and sundry badass types. Mostly, though, they were men with long hair and shirts with no sleeves.
I watched people come and go. Nobody at all seemed to be waching the little black girl and her mother. One of the things that struck my mother and me both was the general friendliness in the place. Nobody really noticed us but not because we were being ignored. The attitude seemed to be one that suggested, "hey, we're all here for tattoos. Cool." We had to look like the worst kind of tattoo parlor neophytes. But there we were.
I did not get a tattoo that day because I watched one too many tattoo artists go into the bathroom and come out without washing his hands. I turned to my mother and asked if we could go. Looking back now, that's a funny question. My mother was probably already in the starting blocks waiting, no hoping, for the gun to go off! Still, my mother, calm and cool (unusual for her), nodded, and we left. In the car, she asked me why I changed my mind and I told her.
For my mother that had to be one of those rare mommy moments that mommies get once every blue moon when our kids inadvertently tell us everything's going to be okay, that we've raised them right and now they are going to give us a brief glimpse into that rightness.
When my daughter wanted a tattoo we agreed that when she turned 18 ownership of her body would revert to the party in possession (her) and she could do whatever she felt necessary for its beautification and upkeep. So, at 18 I took her downtown for her first tattoo.
Tattoo parlors themselves hadn't chaned much since my foray 25 years ago. They're still shops (and I'm being generous here). It was dark and dingy and full of badasses, though not always of the biker/biker babe variety. Like my own mother, I watched my daughter watch. Only to my chagrin, she didn't seem the least bit aware of her surroundings, at least not by any visible facial expression or body tics, both of which I am certain I was guilty.
My suburban daughter of the private school variety seemed more comfortable there than I was comfortable with. Her unassuming demeanor thought nothing of the dim lighting, the sea of saggy pants and wads of cash bulging through pockets, all of which sent my always overactive imagination spiraling into a scene from a homeboy flick where everybody dies at the end.
I put on my best game face hoping that what people read there was that I was a mommy and I would protect my cub even if it meant I had to learn on the fly how to give a good old fashioned beat down. My daughter sat there, still calmly unassuming. I hoped she could read my game face, too.
The wait was uneventful. Nobody pulled out a gun and threatened to bust a cap in anybody's ass. Wads of cash came out and went back into pockets with no fanfare whatsoever. There were interesting conversations on cell phones; more interesting, I must say than the ones I hear pushing my cart through Costco. Saggy pants waddled in and out, took seats and got tattoos or piercings and left again. Nobody seemed to notice anybody.
She got her first tattoo on her wrist. Not a mommy moment, I must say. I'd asked her to please get it in a place that is easily concealed. Her refusal to do so was an act of outright defiance. It was a silent reminder of the contract. Her body was her own.
She now has 11 tattoos.
I am constantly fretting over those tattoos because I know something of the world and what it has in store for girls like her. Tattoos, for all their social acceptance, are still taboo. Peole who hire don't like girls with tattoos. Though she is bright, warm, unassuming and intelligent the world will only see her tattoos.
But my mommy moment comes every time I try to talk to her about it. She seems unfazed at my handwringing and hair-pulling. Attempts to get her to hide them are met with a patient coolness and silent resistance. She has ceased to argue with me about it, her look says. One of us will have to get over it, it adds.
And since I am the one losing hair about it, I guess it will have to be me.
She is not the only one of her generation with a veritable anthology of ink on her body. Her body is not even representative of what her generation is doing with ink. But only because her funds have not permitted such license. She is making plans as I write this for a a Kat Von D. style portrait on her back. Of me, no less.
They have done what our generation wanted to do and could not. Many of us from Generation X have tattoos hidden in places where only we can see them. A decorative ankle, a colorful shoulder, belly button or hip. A private rebellion we keep stored like a locked journal entry.
But she has a voice and the strength to use it I wish I had. She names what she wants and wears the courage of her conviction all over her body. She has her tattoos and she expects the world to understand...or not. Her generation has used their bodies for self-expression in very public and permanent ways. Their messages vary but the point is the same. Read my body. In order to read it, though, you first have to see it, acknowledge it's existence. We no longer have permission to ignore it.
It's idealistic. Sure. Maybe even a bit miscalculated and misplaced. But nothing changes until a generation demands it. Maybe in her lifetime tattoos will not be a sign of rebellion. They will be just a part of someone, like brown eyes and fake nails. A decoration. A bauble to be looked over and ultimately dismissed in favor of the intelligence and insightfulness and warmth that resides underneath. And she will have had her say.