Tattoos for the Star Bellied Sneeches
Your Tattoo Isn't a Rite of Passage
I must be getting older; people with tattoos are starting to annoy me.
It isn't because I think tattoos are gross or make people look like trash or criminals, but rather because, increasingly, people with tattoos think that they are part of an elite club. An elite club whose reputation has been sullied by all the "normals" busting in on their subculture. As someone who has always toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo here or there, but can't keep the same hair color for more than a few months at a time and feels that tattoos should, at all times, be meaningful rather than decorative, membership has eluded me many times. My greatest issue is, and will always be, the permanence of it.
I have many friends with tattoos. In fact, I would say the majority of my friends have tattoos that are both beautiful and meaningful. And anyway, it is rare to find someone from my generation (GenX) and younger who doesn't have, for example, a small butterfly on their shoulder or a chipmunk on their ankle. I'm sure there is the odd person in my age group (like my ex-husband) who thinks only low-quality persons get tattoos, but they are in the minority.
There really are only two requirements for joining this club: A tolerance for pain and a willingness to live with whatever you choose until you die, regardless of how much you love it or hate it.
These are the only requirements.
I bring this up because recently, I read a piece about a woman in New York City who was refused a neck tattoo. I was surprised that the artist refused to do the work, considering the canvas is nearing 40 and all she wanted was her daughter's name, in a very tasteful script, tattooed on her neck. I immediately thought, "Yup, he didn't think she was worthy to join the club."
This club is full of some pretty big posers. Yes, in some cultures, tattoos were the ultimate rite of passage. It could take weeks or months for a big tattoo to heal; cleansing and care involved the entire family. But the tattoo of the parrot you just got on your arm? I admit, it would hurt, for a little.
But you aren't Polynesian, lying in some hut on an island in the Pacific (a la Hunter Christian), biting down on a hunk of fabric to take your mind off the pain. Your tattoo artist is, most likely, using the latest in modern tattoo equipment; when you leave, you're not going to have to make frequent trips down to the beach so your loved ones can cleanse the deep wounds on your body with salt water. There's a good chance that, before you leave the shop, your tattoo is slathered with antibiotic ointment and covered with a sterile bandage.
I have a friend who was in prison. Not only does he have a lot of prison tattoos, but he has them in "game-changer" places, like his hands, neck and scalp. He had them done in prison, with a home-made tattoo "gun" made from a BIC pen and an electric razor. The artist used the ink from the pen. My friend nearly died of ink poisoning the day he had his entire back tattooed. That is something to be in awe over.
Kinda funny, then, to read about the NYC artist refusing to do this lady's neck tattoo because it would be considered a "game changer." I could almost understand the artist's point of view if this woman was in her teens or 20s; I could even understand it if she wanted to have a boyfriend's or husband's name tattooed right there on her neck. But she's nearing middle age and has shown extraordinary restraint when getting tattoos in the past; how could he imply she hadn't thought it through? Not to mention, she wanted her daughter's name on her neck. I thought your kid's name was a no-regret choice for everyone.
Why the fatherly oppression, tattoo artist guy?
I'm a Mom, I Know What Pain Is
Last year, I almost did it. A friend of mine was in town and wanted to get a souvenir of her visit. She said she likes to get new tattoos in all the places she goes, so I took her to what is considered by many to be the best place in town, West Side Tattoos.
My first mistake was that I thought we were there for her to get a tattoo. But she remembered I'd been thinking about getting one for ages, so had me look through artists' books to see if one of them had a style I liked. Looking through those books not only did not inspire me, it terrified me.
I know exactly what tattoo I want. I'm also an artist, so I'm clear about my artistic vision. Unfortunately, I also know that the very large tattoo that I want artistically may be more than I can handle physically. My dream tattoo reaches from my tailbone all the way to the nape of my neck. For those of you out there pursing up your lips and sucking in your breath just imagining the pain: Yes, I do know how incredibly painful it would be, and I know it would take several sessions to do the entire thing. It would also be really expensive. Which is why my back is still tattoo-free.
And this is where the tattoo clique rears its ugly Mean Girls head. Again, I'm an artist. I know what it's like to work with clients. Our mediums may be different, but I know what I want. The pictures of cliche wild animals you tattooed on other people isn't filling me with inspiration, it's filling me with dread.
So when you seriously suggest I get a "tester" tattoo on, say, my ankle or suggest I go a little "bolder" and get a spatula and whisk, crossed, on my upper arm with a "Bad Mama" banner across it, my confidence in you as an artist just ... vanishes. As if by magic. Only it's not magical, it's just you annoying me with cliches.
As you can well guess, just like the NYC blogger, I got in an argument with the artist. I had the feeling that I was not supposed to have any reservations whatsoever, at all, in any way, about getting my first tattoo after 43 years of roaming the planet without one and I was definitely not supposed to be honest about my extremely low tolerance for pain.
Dear Male Tattoo Artists: I've had three kids, so I know what real pain is. I don't like it. It hurts. And in spite of the pain, I did it twice more after the first one. I'm just that dumb. So unless you've passed a dime-sized kidney stone or been shot, don't tell a mother how much pain she can endure. Trust me, she knows. We all really, really know. You tolerated getting two sleeves done? Well, let's get you a gold star, then.
You're Going to Have to Do More to Impress Me, and It Can't Involve Tattoos
Everyone needs to put tattoos in perspective.
On the one hand, having one - or even an entire body full of them - doesn't mean you're a whore or a car thief. It doesn't mean you've been in prison or are part of a biker gang.
But on the other hand, having a chipmunk carved into your ankle isn't akin to having reached the summit of Mt. Everest. It doesn't mean you swam the English Channel or sailed around the world on your own. It doesn't mean that you're brave. It doesn't mean you stand up for what you believe in, even if what you believe in is tattooed on your arm.
For good or bad, a tattoo is a picture permanently painted on your body. The pain you had to go through to get it was fleeting. Temporary. Over. There are people out there whose emotional scars are consistently more painful than the pain you went through to have that flower tattooed above your boob, so stop acting like your tattoo means you're some kind of force to be reckoned with.
You are neither hero nor villain, unless you tailor your actions to your pretty picture.