Every year when my birthday or Christmukkah* rolls around, my often-changing wish list always has one item the same: tattoo money. Tattooing isn’t cheap if it’s any good, and, while I may be biased, I’m pretty sure all of mine are pretty damn good. And, I have more than a couple of them.
The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever thought I’d be as tattooed as I am today. All through high school, I eagerly awaited my 18th birthday, when I planned to get my first tattoo. But then, 18 came and went, and I remained un-inked. Then 19, 20, 21, 22…I’m not quite sure why I didn’t end up getting one right when I could, but I think I just simply didn’t feel strongly enough about one image to have it permanently imprinted on my body. (Also, my high school/college sweetheart was adamantly against it.) Finally, at 24 (after breaking up with aforementioned sweetheart), I decided to finally move away from my hometown to go to grad school in Boston. Finally, I felt like it was time to get a tattoo. I had read somewhere that sailors would get a swallow tattoo when they left port on their maiden voyage, which resonated with me. So, at age 24, right before my “maiden voyage,” I got the outline of a bird tattooed on my right ankle.
It took all of 10 minutes and my dad stood nearby, photographing my pained, grimacing smile. Afterwards, flustered by the adrenaline rush, I tipped the artist with a lottery ticket** and flitted out the door. A few days later, when I went back for a tiny touch-up, the minute the needle touched my skin, I blurted out, “oh, I’ve missed that!” I guess I should’ve realized then that this would not be my last tattoo. I’ve never had a particularly high tolerance for pain, and even now, cannot handle needles in any other capacity. But for some reason, here I am, nearly six years later, with tattoos on my upper back, right arm, left arm and shoulder, left wrist and ribs.
For me, my tattoos feel like storytelling. Each one is a memento of a very distinct moment in my own story; like a snapshot of how I was feeling at a certain point in my life. Sure, maybe in ten years, I won’t be that into my bird tattoos. But I can’t imagine regretting them, because they were where I was at a certain point, and a piece of how I got to where I am now. I have the word “home” on my back because that’s what I was looking for, and what I wanted to keep close, at the time. My olive branch reminds me of my trip to Israel. And the semicolon on my wrist was my 30th birthday present to myself; a symbol of a pause in a continuous sentence, but also a bringing together of separate segments into something long and complete.
So will the three plants on my left arm – St. John’s Wort, mulberries and roses – have the same meaning to me in ten years that they do today? I have no idea. But I’ll always be able to look back and see a little picture of my mindset at thirty.
Plus, I do get more than a little satisfaction knowing that I have the strength to (repeatedly) do this thing that used to scare me. And when people ask me, “did that hurt?” I say, “of course!”
* I’m the agnostic/vaguely JewBu child of a Jewish mama and a goy dad.
** To be fair, I’d already scratched it and knew it was worth 25 bucks.