Tuesday, July 4, 2017
“My son traveled from Baltimore to get a tattoo in Denver.”
Annette’s statement comes late afternoon during a pause in our conversation as we’re crossing into Colorado. Since I’m the one driving, I sideways glance a surprised look and response.
“No one knows how to tattoo in Baltimore?”
“He Google-researched a good one and decided it was worth the trip.”
Annette grows wistful as she continues.
“I’ve always wanted a tattoo.”
This is astonishing news. My Aussie friend doesn’t exude “tatness”.
“Really? What would you get?”
“the sun for my son.”
Her giggle is contagious and we laugh for a while. Annette and I are a day from Denver on an epic journey through the southwest. A tattoo begins chanting in my fifty-six-year-old ear.
Get one, get one, get one…
My co-pilot must be hearing the same thing.
“Do you think the tattoo place would have any openings tomorrow?”
We must be mind-melded after only three days of one-on-one companionship, I’d already put the idea through the mulling station.
“It’s a Saturday, anyone who’s available is probably not someone we’d want poking us full of holes.”
Contrary to my words, I glance at the Thelma to my Louise.
“What’s the name of the tattoo place?”
Adolescent grin in place Annette contacts her son and the next day we walk into Ritual Tattoo & Gallery rubbing our sweaty palms on our behinds, telegraphing newbie-ness to Crystal, who warmly welcomes us.
“How can I help you?”
Curiously looking for a response, we grapple silently with the unspoken question—are we really doing this? As the nonelected pack leader, I finally cough up a reply.
“We’re interested in getting tattoos if someone is available.”
I’m hoping that the intensity of my eyes, hard emphasis on “someone” and our obvious oldness signals the additional descriptors I’ve avoided, pro, best of the best, and tattoo artist extraordinaire. Crystal must be telepathic too.
“Ladies, you have perfect timing. David is one of our top artists and he’s completely open, which never happens on a Saturday. Do you have pictures of what you’d want the tattoos to look like?”
We shake our heads in the negative, guts clenching with the reality of what is happening.
“Let me see if I can reach him. He hadn’t planned on coming in today. While I do that why don’t you both go out for coffee and come back in an hour? You can use the time to decide what you want.”
For sixty minutes, we caffeine up and freak. Annette changes her original design and goes with a gingko leaf. I devise a vague description of a few feathers floating across my chest.
Back at Ritual while waiting for David to arrive, we anxiety-chatter with a young woman who’s appointment is about to begin. Annette fast-talks questions from how much it hurts (that depends), to the reasons for getting a tattoo (across the spectrum). The pretty girl shares how she reached her own decisions, a few we see peeking from behind her summer clothing.
“I probably got my first one to annoy my parents. But after that, getting a tattoo turned into a statement. Something to me about me.”
Annette follows up to get more information.
“Can I ask if they each have a different meaning? And what do other people think about them?”
“Well my parents just don’t ask anymore or at least pretend not to notice and my boyfriend, though he doesn’t have tattoos, gets it. And other people outside those who know me? Who cares what they think.”
Her tone quiets before finishing, one hand resting on the low half of the other arm, the place she’d mentioned that a collage of flowers will soon exist.
“Each of them represents a piece of my life. At different times it just felt like I needed a tattoo. I’m not sure that answers your question.”
Another young woman walks up to our companion. Her arm is bandaged with clear cellophane and she appears euphoric, the two women apparently know one another. The new arrival speaks first.
“Hey there, how’ve you been? So funny to run into you when we’re both getting tattoos again.”
“I know, right? Can I see?”
The girl rotates her arm and a colorful design is easily seen through the plastic protection.
“Oh wow. That’s awesome. How long did it take?”
“All morning. Now I want to go home and let it sink in, let everything become real.”
As the stranger’s words prick me with their depth, a heavily tattooed man roars up on a motorcycle and parks close to the floor to ceiling windows. I assume correctly that this is David. Annette and I grip each other’s hands while drill-staring the person who will soon perforate our skin at our behest.
David is tall, early thirties, and serious or at least that’s how he presents himself when greeting two women who are a couple of decades older than he is. David asks what we want him to create. As he studies the images on my phone, I ramble on about a breeze blowing two or three feathers from my left shoulder toward the right and when it’s her turn, Annette goes back and forth about the sun or gingko leaf. The artist has opinions, which he shares.
“I think the leaf will present better than the sun nestled in the hollow of your shoulder.”
Annette nods her agreement and David turns to me.
“As for feathers, I don’t think they should look too Pinterest, more natural and less contrived. How about I draw them free hand and you decide if what I come up with works.”
He leads Annette and me toward the back of the busy room and I’m led to sit for the sketching process. David doesn’t speak for close to twenty minutes, his paint marker motioning across my chest without rest. I wonder about the detail he must be including with the few feathers I requested. Annette’s wide eyes reflect that perhaps detail isn’t all that’s happening. When he’s finished, a spectacular succession of feathers swirl on my shoulder and gracefully float across my chest. Stunned, I am unable to count them. David silently watches my face in the reflection of a full-length mirror.
“It’s beautiful David.”
“It’s a lot more than you asked for.”
I low-breath respond.”
“Yeah, it sure is.”
“We can leave off anything you don’t like. I’m not sure how this came up, but the breeze grew from your shoulder. I could sense the feathers…I don’t know. It just happened.”
David stares at his artwork thoughtfully as though wondering if it erupted from my skin on its own. Spontaneously, I grin.
“So, can we do this today in one session?”
Without smiling, he replies.
“That depends on you. This is a big undertaking for a first timer, it would be hard for someone who’s gotten tattoos before. They can get intense, especially during the fill-in process and when we’re at the sternum and collar bone. How are you with pain?”
Flashes of physical trauma methodically troop from the archives, each shouting that they have prepared me for anything. Odd that old hurt would consider itself a badge of honor once wounds have scabbed over and the shock waves have diminished into ancient air. My eyes meet David’s in the mirror, a serious underlayment, contrasting with more colloquial word choices.
“Pain tolerance is one of my mad life skills.”
The artist catches the current beneath our conversation. A couple of beats pass in silence as a rare connection between strangers converses incognito. Neither of us notes anything aloud, shifting on to the business of changing the outward appearance of my skin forever. I warn my family via text what is coming, my daughter and husband applauding long distance while my twenty-three-year-old son calls me instantly.
“What the heck are you doing?”
“Getting a tattoo.”
“Obviously. Are you out of your mind? You’re fifty-six years old and you’ve said that you ‘know’ you’re going to live a hundred and thirteen years. That’s a long time to have a tattoo. Can you imagine what those feathers are going to look like in fifty-plus years?”
“Probably not too good. But neither will the rest of me.”
“Come on Mom I’m serious. Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t really know yet.”
“Then why not wait? Do it when you’ve thought about it more.”
“That sounds logical, it’s something I’d probably say to you, but I’m still getting tattooed today.”
Sighing heavily, like an exasperated parent that has realized an adult child isn’t going to take well-rendered advice, he finishes with one of my time-worn favorites.
“Well, then it seems like you’ve made up your mind. Hope it turns out like you want. I love you.”
“I love you too. I’ll call when I’m on the other side.”
A bewilderment resonates in his last sentence.
“I can’t believe my mother is getting a tattoo.”
Giddy, I laugh.
David and I begin. At first, the pain is not much worse than a minor burn or scrape, though the continuous nature is something new. When sixty minutes pass, I’m confident I can make it through what David says is likely to take the rest of the afternoon. Two hours later I’m not so sure. Closing my eyes I coach myself.
This pain is short term. You’ve been through worse. Isn’t there a meditation practice that can override nerve receptors?
The high-pitched whir and barrage of tiny jackhammer pricks from the designing tool disrupt my ability to go into a meditative state. I breathe deeply, pressing a fist in my side to distract my awareness like a magician holding a hat in one hand while the other plucks a bunny from a cage. It’s necessary to continually increase the indentation to have even a nominal effect. A moan-groan perch on the edge of escaping.
On top of a tattoo, I’m going to have a huge bruise. A kidney is surely going to squirt out and smack David in the face. Holy shit this hurts.
Perhaps everything reaches a particular intensity or the three-hour mark closing in has absorbed all sense of a timeline, whatever the case memories begin erupting without volition. These are on a pain scale ranging from a seven to ten million, four hundred and six. I see events from childhood and adulthood, each sharing what it was like when my body experienced trauma, an invasion, a blow or something as seemingly innoxious as a pregnancy exam by a thoughtless doctor. Some are events that I remember, while others arise from a place I cannot name, but once present are easily acknowledged as having happened.
When David starts imprinting my sternum I swiftly suck oxygen past my lips, pressing myself into the table so as not to thrash.
Stay still or the feather will look like it's screaming. Well, maybe that’s what it should look like. Oh, my God.
Just as I am about to lose the ability to stay still, a space magically opens up. It is a quiet spot, behind what a day presents, a closet or a cave, back where the unconscious and the conscious chat. A familiar voice speaks.
Are you trying to be irritating?
“This is what you asked for.”
Is that a statement about being a masochist?
“You asked to know what it felt like when you were harmed.”
I know what the Voice is referring to. I’ve said plenty of times that my memories are often flat, hazy, and without the filling and if I am truly choosing healing, I need to know all of it.
During therapeutic recovery from trauma I’d discovered that bad stuff I’d experienced had occurred while conscious me rode in the backseat—I’d “apparate” minus Harry Potter’s Floo powder and wait until the coast was clear. In the psychology field, they call this “disassociation”.
The Voice is still waiting for a response.
Is this tattoo recreating the past?
“It is giving you the option of fully knowing.”
Option means that I can opt out. As the staccato vibration of the tattoo needle drives into another bony protrusion, I decide that it is only appropriate there is choice when there once was none.
I cannot change what happened to me or how I coped in the past. I can only do what is right for me in this moment.
Instead of asking David to stop, to finish the tattoo on another visit, I settle in to be present with what I wasn’t able to handle as a child. Unfettered, memories and emotions instigate a light brush of tears. David respectfully stays silent until we take a break so he may change tools and get something to eat.
“Are you okay? Do you want to continue?”
I nod without speaking.
“You’re doing great, it’s making my job a lot easier. There are people who get tattoos regularly who can’t stay still in these areas.”
Not sure if this is something to be proud of, I remain silent as David rolls his shoulders and stretches his back.
“Are the feathers about something important?”
I repeat the question to myself.
Why am I doing this?
Ten years of focused, intentioned healing reflections fan out like flipping through the pages of a calendar.
“It’s about overcoming a not-so-nice childhood.”
“So this isn’t just some wild idea to stir your life up.”
“No. It’s a statement about a long healing journey I’ve been working through.”
“Tattoos can make a statement about what life means and help make sense of shitty things that happen.”
As he stands I reply.
“I think you’re a tattoo shaman.”
“A shaman. Someone who pays attention and then helps people realize their own healing.”
“That’s a stretch. I paint on skin.”
“Anyone can be an artist David. What you’re doing is much more than putting a drawing on my skin. Somehow you’ve connected to what my spirit wants to say. From now on I’m calling you the Tattoo Shaman.”
His laughter exits with him into the backroom. Annette and I whisper like schoolgirls until it’s time to resume and David motions that he’s ready to continue. An hour later, well beyond what I imagined my pain tolerance, the whine of the inking tool stops. David helps me from the table, my legs unsteady and my head swimming a little. I wobble over to the mirror, Annette close to my side. Her inflection gentle, the Australian accent more noticeable than ever.
“That lewked like it huhrrt.”
I know she’s asking if it’ll be the same for her. Not wanting to frighten or dissuade my courageous friend with a backwash of wails and grimaces, I keep it light.
“At certain points, but overall not intolerable.”
Which is true if the value being considered is laid against the nightmares I have carried since childhood. When I face the mirror I see my history behind my eyes. I also see relief for having survived. Eventually, a smile envelopes the old pain. David comes to stand beside me.
“What do you think?”
“It’s pretty awesome.”
He stares at the feathers as they seem to imperceptibly motion across my chest.
“When a tattoo is absolutely right it seems as though you were born with it. This one suits you.”
Ten days later, the epic driving trip to the Southwest comes to an end and as the tattoo is introduced to daily life I come to the realization that the spontaneous impression I’d purchased resonates in ways that go beyond an image on the surface. The awareness begins when my daughter comes to see me.
“Can I touch the tattoo?”
Her hands gently move across the feathers, relating the second-hand impact of my choice.
“I had to see it in person. I remembered as a little girl putting my face on your chest and now it’s not the same.”
As I tear up she leans in and places her cheek against my tattooed skin.
“It’s beautiful Mom.”
Later, when we’re alone, my husband adds a more spousal comment, whispering that he’s never had sex with anyone sporting a tat and while I’m out in public I receive several long sideways glances and pursed lips that state there are quite a few people with judgments about skin art.
Four weeks after walking out of Ritual freshly splashed with feathers, I feel I’ve assimilated the experience, but am still a little surprised with my response when someone asks if I know that instead of looking at my face people will be unconsciously drawn to the tattoo.
Instead of stopping there, a stream of words tumble out, each vying to be heard first.
“These feathers speak more of me than the DNA reflection of my face. When I walk up to someone I want them to know who I am not what my parents look like. This tattoo tells the story of how I got to be in the place that I stand. Nothing represents me more than feathers floating on a gust of wind.”
Nearly breathless as I finish, a sweet sense of calm stays with me. I know that when I’m asked about the tattoo, I’ll answer with a swirling hand motion across my chest and “This represents who I am.”
I’m not certain when I stopped looking into a mirror. It was long enough ago that I’ve forgotten what I used to look like as a younger woman. I wonder, on the very first occasion when my eyes looked down instead of straight forward, what was I attempting not to see? Was it the normal avoidance of newly born silver hair and slow slide of skin escaping the structure of my body? Or did the sight of my DNA ripple old wounds like the screech of an owl on a moonless night?
I cannot say because now that I have resumed bringing my eyes up to their reflection, all I see is a splash of hard-earned feathers floating from here to there, a declaration that I am finally ready to claim my life as my own.