I knew from a young age that I wanted tattoos. I must have been about 10 or 11 when the idea of getting tattoos first dawned on me. I had snuck into my mother’s room to watch MTV while everyone was busy downstairs finishing up dinner, doing homework, watching Law and Order. Some MTV dating show circa the early 2000’s was on. One young woman decided to get a tattoo while on a first date with someone (as you do). She had brought in a tie that used to be her father’s. Let me clarify, she brought in a multi-colored, multi-Tasmanian Deviled tie that belonged to her late father. Lest you think that this tie was decorated with adorable angry critters from Australia let me further clarify. It was not covered with cute marsupials. It was covered with the tornadoed cartoon character from the beloved Looney Toons. She picked out one of the images from the tie, and had it tattooed on her hip bone, just below a standard hipster panty line. Again, as you do.
But my eyes were then opened to the world of decorating skin. I would spend nights lying awake in bed thinking up tattoo ideas: picture, color, placement, size. My left leg would feature all 151 of the original Pokemon. I wasn’t yet aware of what “sleeves” are; I just wanted domino-sized individual tattoos of each one. My other limbs would feature various favorite cartoon characters and animals all done in the style of lick-and-stick, twenty-five cent tattoos. But 10/11-year-olds aren’t allowed to get permanent tattoos. Praise be.
Cut to thirteen. During 8th grade (my one year in the public education system) I began experimenting with Hot Topic and punk rock. A favorite Christian pop-punk band was playing a gig at our local Christian coffee shop (hardcore, I know), and I decided to take my ensemble of zippered and chained black pants, band t-shirt, Chucks, and ball-chain necklace to the next level. What is the next level, you ask? Sharpie tattoos. I covered both of my arms with little ink drawings: a vine snaking around my right forearm with thorns drawn into each of my self-harm scars, band symbols, goofy little doodles. Who could stand before the might of my alternativeness now? I was sure to be the most bad ass looking kid around. (I say “looking” because there wasn’t a bad bone in my body.)
At some point in the evening my father called me a “slut” for having drawn on myself. My teenaged brother, before we really began getting along, called him out on this.
At some point I was informed that if I ever got a tattoo while my maternal grandmother was alive, I would be written out of her will.
At some point I too began to associate tattooed women with wickedness and immorality.
At some point I outwardly abandoned the dream, and only ever imagined myself with tattoos in my wildest, on-tour-with-Social-Distortion fantasies.
When I turned 18 I distracted myself by dying my hair purple…and pink, and green, and blue, and every shade of red, and sometimes even more than one color at once. By then I had toned down my suburban goth thing and was doing more of a bandana-ed hippie thing anyway. The inheritance-with-strings-attached was sufficient motivation on its own. For a couple of years, at least.
When I was 20, I accompanied my good friend Abigail as she went to get her first tattoo. She chose to have her name’s meaning (I believe it is “father’s joy” or something like that) translated and transcribed into Hebrew characters. I went to the consultation with her, and proceeded to follow along to the actual tattooing appointment as well.
I felt itchy during her appointment, and in the days and weeks after. I would say I felt antsy, but it was something more visceral than that. There was a miniscule little flame dancing around in my core, and I could feel the heat moving surreptitiously through my veins, heading toward my limbs, and working its way from deep in my meaty flesh to just under my skin. Then that little flame began to scratch a message, moving from the inner wrist of my right forearm to the pit of my right elbow. Back and forth, back and forth. I could feel it working its way to the surface, burning to be realized and heard.
So, I listened.
I made an appointment at a shop with good word-of-mouth, and took Abigail with me. It wasn’t anything difficult; I only wanted six words tattooed in plain handwriting spanning the length of my inner forearm. The artist drew it up in less than ten minutes (taking great liberties with capitalization and punctuation), and took me back to his chair. Having already asked him to rewrite it for font style a couple of times, I let him have his way with the mechanics of the sentence. Such a tattoo newbie concession.
The actual tattooing took all of maybe twenty minutes. That was that. The endorphins rushed, and I felt relieved, as if the flaming words under my skin had been pulled through to the surface, made permanent with ink and needle.
Abigail and I left to meet up with our former high school drama teacher, her husband (our former high school songwriting teacher), and one of their daughters (my sister-from-another-mister) at an open mic night in Denver. Mrs. Cole (the aforementioned drama teacher) asked to see my tattoo, “Oh, sweetie! It’s like your soul was speaking out to you. You need this reminder to carry with you. Oh, I’m so happy for your little heart!” She knew. She’s always had a way with speaking truth into people’s lives.
The quote itself is nothing extraordinary, but in its brevity and simplicity it acts as a motif that connects the disparate segments of my life together. In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha he tells a parable of a river (excuse my shoddy paraphrasing): a river is constantly flowing. It moves between the cradle of its banks, around rocks and obstacles, through mountains, plains, villages. We call the river by a singular name. When we step in a river we say we are stepping in the Ganges (or choose whatever river floats your boat). But each time we encounter the Ganges it is a new river. It is never the same water, never the same exact mud, or banks, or rocks. It is an entirely new river each time. The water never ceases in motion, is never of an identical composition, is never as it was in the centuries, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, even seconds before. Hesse writes, “Onwards, onwards, this is your path.”
And I become the river. Moving ever onwards, onwards. Never entirely the same as I was seconds previously, yet recognizable, embanked by familiar markers and traits. When a boulder lands in my flow I do not cease, but I bend, and split, and rush, and rejoin. I continue onwards. I turn obstacles and barriers into unique properties of self, adjusting my course and flow as need be. I carve myself into the narrative of existence, never content to be dammed, reservoired, or impeded. Onwards, onwards.
When I feel myself pooling and stagnating, when I allow myself to fantasize about a quiet, unremarkable, and choked existence, I glance down at my arm. I glance and repeat to myself, “Onwards, onwards, this is your path.”
I got home in the evening after the open mic, and proudly displayed my tattoo for my family. I suppose I was past caring what they thought. What was done was done. No going back. Upon seeing it my brother said, "Oh, by the way, thanks for giving me your inheritance."
(Lest you all think my grandma was rigid unto death, she came around and accepted the fact that I had tattoos.)