The other day my father and I dropped Lola off at a tattoo appointment. As we drove away he asked me what I knew he was thinking- “Why on earth do you all get tattoos?! I literally CANT understand it!”
My father is kind of Old School. He was born in the 1940s in Chile, spent basically his whole life working in the world of academia as a Spanish Literature professor, and spends his time reading and thinking about language. Things that make sense to him: the opera, The New York Times, the critique of literature, deep thinking, intellectual conversations, and ham sandwiches. Things that don’t make sense to him: pets, unpaid internships, bad grades, his smart phone, vegetables, and mine and my brother’s tattoos. Well, presumably everyone’s tattoos, but more specifically, the tattoos on people he knows. I remember once when I was in my late teens arguing with him and my stepmother about my tattoos, and telling them that whether they like it or not, they are going to have to start accepting these tattoos on my body cause they aren’t going anywhere, and their response: No, we never have to accept the tattoos on your body.
I knew I wanted to be tattooed starting at a pretty young age. I have always been aesthetically inclined, I studied art in high school and college, and my attraction to subcultures has always been strong. My favorite CD to listen to on repeat when I was in 5th grade was Nirvana unplugged, I considered myself a “punk” and a riotgrrl in middle school when I discovered Bikini Kill, I came out as bisexual (ooh la la) at 13, and I wore slips as dresses to school, much to the chagrin of school officials. The groups of people I idolized- homosexuals, musicians, artists- well, a lot of them had tattoos.
I got my first tattoo when I turned 18. Its a poem about the ocean by Chilean poet (and family idol) Pablo Neruda. I got tattooed at MacDougal Street Tattoo, in the Village in NYC, by some super apathetic dude, and while he tattooed the back of my thigh (right under my right butt cheek) I read White Noise by Don DeLillo. I used to be way cooler. I put A+D lotion on as aftercare, and paraded around the halls of my high school feeling very very superior.
At age 19 I got my second tattoo- I picked a super ambitious image (an antique print of a bird I found in some ornithology book at the Smith College art library) and a super ambitious location- right below my collar bone, with the tail feathers wrapping around the side of my left breast. Thats right- I got my boob tattooed at the second go around. This tattoo was done in Boulder Colorado while I was visiting my brother over Spring Break, took hours, and hurt like HELL. That was my first year at Smith College and I was feeling super gay, super liberated, and super entitled to take my shirt off and not give two damns about this tattoo guy seeing my boobs. Apparently everyone else was scandalized- but I was like, tough shit- tattoo my boob please.
My collection of tattoos has continued to grow over the past 13 years. I’ve got a pig, a bear, a key, a lantern, an apple for NYC, a rabbit eating a carrot, a tattoo that says Lez, some roses, a skull, TCB, a snoop dog lyric, 2 pairs of scissors, an umbrella for Portland, a ton of friendship tattoos, a literal “bro-tat” with my brother, some tattoos I regret, some I’ve covered up, some I have with ex partners, some with ex friends, some with current friends who are also ex partners.
All of them have hurt a lot, some of them more, depending on the location. I don’t have a favorite one, but I do like some more than others. I have two appointments coming up, and in order to support this habit, I recently started working the counter at a tattoo shop by my house. I have been tattooed by some super sweet and incredibly talented artists. I have also been tattooed by some mega douche bags, and a lot of those tattoos I have covered up, or have plans to cover up.
So really though, what is it that I like so much about tattoos? For real, they are expensive. And FOR REAL- I repeat- they HURT. Every time I sit down for one, I think to myself, what on earth is wrong with me? Why am I subjecting myself to this? But deep down inside I know that I am going to keep getting more tattoos, and sure enough as soon as that particular tattoo appointment is done, I am ready for the next.
How do I explain this to my father, who has, over the years, stopped asking me if they are permanent, and has started ignoring my growing collection, but nevertheless, still asked me the question just the other day- why do you get tattooed?
I was recently working behind the bar at my other job, chatting with one of the baristas about our future tattoo plans. She has some beautiful work on her left arm and has been completing a sleeve over the last few months. We were commiserating about how different spots on her arm hurt more, and how the older we have gotten the more tattoos have started to hurt, and so we got onto the question of why we do this.
So I said to her what I think to be the biggest truth for me, one that I have learned over the years: every time I get a tattoo, especially one that captures the image I have in my mind, that fits in the right place on my body, it feels like some part of my self image is falling into place. It feels like I am further claiming that one particular part of my body as mine, and only mine, with which to do as I please, and of which I don’t owe anyone a single explanation.
I started there, at that, with my answer to my father. And I continued: This act, of claiming, is not just important as a female bodied and identified person, its also important as a queer person. Since forever the “female” body hasn’t been regarded as ours, but rather as public property for public scrutiny and ridicule. And same goes for the bodies of queers, those of us outside the “norm,”- truly, how beautiful it is, and how terrifying as well, to forge our own path. Our own “norms” and our own standards of “beauty,” of relationships and family, of life goals.
Getting tattooed is also to fall inline and become part of a historical tradition of body art and modification, one that has been expressed by various indigenous cultures the world over. Getting tattooed can be rooted in religious practice, it can be rooted in the practice of queerness, in the practice of rebellion, and for me, in the practice of self awareness and in the harnessing of personal power.
For me, its also a completely ridiculous exercise in the even more ridiculous idea of “permanence.” Invariably I get people saying to me “I love tattoos, but I could never get anything tattooed because I change my mind all the time and I couldn’t possibly decide on anything I want to look at forever.” Want to know something though? Guess what isn’t forever- this body. And by extension, anything you do to it in this world, in this lifetime, is in no way permanent, and every time I agree to have someone ink my skin, I giggle to myself about the actual impermanence of it all. The moment is fleeting, the pain is fleeting, and in the end, this body, with all its art and flaws, will fall away to impermanence.
You know what else is true? The more tattoos you get, the less precious they become. When I first started getting tattooed, uff, I would think about a tattoo idea for months before I committed! I would draw and redraw, I would ask friend’s opinions, I would draw it on myself. It has felt really good to let go of some of that over time, to instead feel lighter about the experience, and instead of focusing on the permanence, focusing on the fleeting whim of a moment that feels good and memorializing on my body. I am not scared, I do not feel fear of cursing a relationship or friendship, I do not fear regret- this relationship to my body and literally what I do it, is so incredibly freeing.
And lastly- I get tattooed for the art of it, simply because I think tattoos are beautiful, and interesting and as trite as this might sound, fucking cool. Which is a totally legitimate reason, in my humble opinion, to get some permanent art on your body.
I am not sure if this explanation made sense to my father. But it was a great reminder to myself that there are so many ways to relate to our bodies as fully our own, and tattooing is one of my favorite methods. Mystery solved!