A Moment’s Notice:
Striving for Awareness of Each Moment,
Reflecting on the Events of the Moment
Pop quiz: Your best friend calls to say he/she has gotten a tattoo. Your first reaction is:
B.“What were you thinking?”
Okay, let’s see how everyone answered. Who chose "A"? Well, that’s interesting---I was expecting a pack of Hell’s Angels, and instead I see choir members and schoolteachers.
Now who chose "B"? Hmm, just a couple. I see that growly guy who turns out his lights on Halloween and someone who looks like the girl who kicked me off the playground merry-go-round in first grade.
Let’s try something different. How many of you would choose “B” if your best friend in the whole world had chosen to do something temporary, like a wacky hair color or an unfortunate choice of pants? Let’s call it option “C”: “I’m thinking, ‘What were you thinking?’ but there’s no way I’m saying that.” May I see a show of hands?
Uh huh, I thought so.
I sense a river of ink is starting to move across our world, or at least my small portion of it. It suppose it would be more accurate to say that while sometimes the ink is a river, visible to all, at other times it’s an aquifer, flowing underground, out of sight.
I’m a curious soul, intrigued by activities alien to my own experience. Getting a tattoo definitely falls in that category. Growing up in a small South Carolina town in the ‘60s and ‘70s I only remember seeing tattoos on real live people---not in movies about sailors or crazed convicts on the loose ---on the arms of a couple who ran a clothing store in town. The numbers were engraved on their forearms, courtesy of the Third Reich.
So, the idea of getting a tattoo never even bounced against the fringes of my adolescent consciousness. You might as well have asked me if I had ever considered moving to India to study with a guru. I dreamed about dancing on “American Bandstand,” grooving in the spotlight to the latest song by the Jackson 5. (Younger readers, you’re now excused to visit Google to look up those references. We’ll wait for you.)
Tattoos didn’t register on my adult brain until around 20 years ago, when one of my husband’s cousins said her son had announced he was getting one. I remember thinking, “Hepatitis!” and shook my head in sympathy with the distressed mother.
In recent years I’ve learned that quite a few of my acquaintances and friends have adorned themselves with designs declaring their faith, their family ties, and/or their creative flair. When a friend recently took a seat in a tattoo parlor and returned to work with a colorful design etched around her forearm my curiosity boiled over. I decided to do an informal survey on Facebook.
I asked my friends with tattoos these questions: Why did you decide to get a tattoo? Was it something you had wanted for a long time or was it an impulsive decision? Is the design symbolic or simply cool? Is your tattoo visible to the general public? Do you have more than one tattoo? Any regrets?
Five friends responded, so we’re not talking about an exhaustive study here. Still, I found their answers illuminating, and I wonder if they represent some common threads among tattoo wearers.
The first, most important question: “Why?” B explained her decision this way: “I have four tattoos. The motivation for my first tattoo was half teenage rebellion, half just for me…Each tattoo has a personal meaning to me…a story. I have never walked in and picked something off the wall. My tattoos are symbolic of my faith, my marriage, and my children.”
A tattoo as an outward sign of an inner commitment or struggle resonated with other women as well. M answered that she got her tattoos while going through therapy. “I have two red roses. One is a bud and one is a full bloomed rose. The bud is symbolic of how ‘closed’ I felt when I started therapy and the full bloomed rose represents what I felt was going on inside of me during.” A said her two tattoos have “deep spiritual and personal meanings” for her and she waited “quite a while” before she got them.
The two guys who responded showed their sensitive side as well. Although G said he finds humor in some responses to his tattoos he noted that they represent important aspects of his life. “I can tell you where I got each one and who I was with as well as what they represent. Everything from my faith, to my military service to my wife, boys and friends. “ He added that his tattoos had prompted conversations “with people that may otherwise not have talked with me.”
C chose a religious theme. “Designed it myself. Not visible to public...planned that way. Very specific meaning. Michael the Archangel.”
Do tattoo artists offer volume discounts? I ask because four of my five respondents have multiple tattoos and I’ve observed that trend in the public square as well. G said he wasn’t sure why he started getting tattoos, “but once you get one, you want to get more.” M said she’d like to get another, as did the friend whose tattoo prompted this post.
On to the question of show-and-tell---or not. Although none of my friends expressed regret about their tattoos, some mentioned covering them with clothing from time to time. A said hers are not usually visible because of her fashion choices, and one of B’s is always hidden from view.
Here’s where I start to chime in: What’s the point of having a tattoo no one ever sees? If it’s a statement to the world, shouldn’t the world get the chance to take it in? And if it’s a personal statement, an exclamation point to your beliefs or experiences, how effective can it be if you never see it without the aid of mirrors and some yoga-like moves?
Then again, maybe seeing the tattoo isn’t the most important thing. Maybe significance really lies in the choice to endure a certain amount of pain in order to etch a permanent message into your very skin. Maybe just knowing it’s there is enough.
B summed up the tattoo trend nicely: “There is a generational stereotype that has shifted. Older generations associate tattoos with drugs, alcohol, and a wild lifestyle. Younger generations view tattoos as an extension of self- expression... a permanent accessory that has a story.”
The term “permanent accessory” jumped out at me. I have varying requirements for accessories, but I have never wanted them to be permanent. One of the best things about fashion is that it’s perfectly fine to be fickle. Thank goodness I don’t have to go through the rest of my life wearing my 1983 eyeglasses with the saucer-sized lenses.
I can’t disagree with B on the biases “older generations” have when it comes to tattoos. If I went to a new doctor and noticed he had a dragon writhing around his neck, a peace symbol on one hand and a dove on the other I’d immediately wonder if I were in the presence of an imposter. Even if he demonstrated impressive diagnostic skills I’d always wonder what else was going on in his mind, what messages he wanted his tattoos to send.
After spending several days with this topic I have concluded that tattoos aren’t inherently bad, although I did learn that tattoos are taboo for those of the Jewish faith. (Visit hillel.org for some interesting information.) But I’m more certain than ever that they’re not for me. Too many decisions: Whether to reveal or remain hidden, to have a single tattoo or a gallery, to make this irrevocable design choice or that one. However, I have resolved to ask friends with interesting tattoos a single question: “What were you thinking?” No exclamation points, no condemnation, just curiosity.