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Tattoo Regrets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was wearing a sundress the other day and June asked what’s that thing on my back.

I hesitated for a second. I didn’t want to say the word “tattoo” to my two year old. It sounded weirdly graphic and raw in her presence, which makes no sense considering she’s been saying “vagina” since the age of one and tattoos anymore are as rebellious and transgressive as wearing faux leather jackets or shopping at Hot Topic. Everyone has one. You can’t walk down the street without seeing at least one Celtic band peaking out from the sleeve of some some guy’s tee shirt or an ice cream cone dotting a woman’s ankle.

“It’s a half moon,” I said. “With a star.” A friend once told me to keep responses to a toddler’s questions short and sweet, which seemed appropriate here.

“Oh,” she said. And then she went back to wanting to know where her favorite yellow napkin is.

I thought about it later — why I didn’t want to say the word “tattoo” to June — and I realized it’s because I don’t want to give her a jump on concocting some elaborate Three Wolf Moon design which which to illustrate her bicep by the time she’s eight.

I don’t like my tattoo. It means very little to me and with each passing year, it looks more and more like an indeterminate smudge. By the time I’m 70,  it’s going to resemble a mechanic’s thumb print. It just looks dirty.

I don’t like that when people see it for the first time, they may make associations about me — “she probably used to smoke a lot of cloves and listen to Alanis Morrissette” — which may or may not be true (I was more of a 10,000 Maniacs fan, for the record). I don’t like how it — in a very literal way — marks me in ways I don’t intend. The only thing I do like about it is that it’s small and, for three seasons of the year, anyway, relatively unobtrusive.

I got my tattoo when I was 17 years old, had moved away from home in Montana and was nannying full time for a dysfunctional family in New England.  Kids my age on the East coast were either still in high school or already in college — there were no working stiffs like me — so I had a hard time making friends. I was lonely and depressed. Moving away from home early wasn’t as adventurous or as fun as I thought it would be.

One weekend off, I drove to a seaside town by myself and wandered around the tourist shops, sampling free fudge, eating frozen yogurt, probably buying scrunch socks, when I noticed a seedy tattoo parlor at the end of the block. Feeling melancholy and detached, I thought getting inked might be a good way to express these emotions. So I went in, paid $50 to some biker dude to scar my back forever. Why I chose a half moon and star to convey woe, and not say, a weeping heart or an eye shedding a single tear, who knows. I was 17. I wasn’t very deep. I listened to Sinead O’Connor. It hurt like hell, but I reminded myself I was tough enough to brave it,  and by extension, tough enough to endure working for this weird, creepy family and ultimately, tough enough to be on my own.

The tattoo was meant as a symbol of fortitude during unhappy times except it really wasn’t much of a symbol since I couldn’t even see it and therefore, it didn’t goad me on to take control of my own experience in any way. I was only reminded of its presence when some girl behind me in step class would ask me about it (“I didn’t know you had a tattoo!” “Yep, a tattoo.” “Bitchin.’”)

And that is ultimately what I don’t like about it. It was a facile, superficial expression of empowerment without any meaningful action to back it up, for example, quitting my crappy job and going home. Instead, I got inked. And went right back to work for a man who ultimately set fire to his own house (a story I’ll save for another time).

It’s cliche to say, but who I was when I was 17 isn’t who I am now. Now, I’d like to think I’m the sort of person who goes for action over meaningless symbols. Now, I’m that middle aged mom with the smudged thumb print on my back.

Which is why if June ever seriously considers getting a tattoo (as a minor), I will ask her what she’s really trying to convey through body art and try to help her channel those feelings and emotions in actionable ways. And if she still wants to get inked? I guess I don’t have a problem with it. As long as she’s 35 and it’s not a coiled python around her neck.

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