Doing battle with daily dragons

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Quality of Mercy

Since it's a lazy Sunday and I'm inspired by the body art question of my Friday meme, I thought perhaps I would recount the story of my first tattoo. I was staring at it in the shower this morning (when I say shower, I mean tub that you sit in and hose yourself down with the showerhead while trying not to drench the entire bathroom. Calling it a shower is charitable.) and realised that it’s rapidly coming up on its 10 year anniversary. For old ink, it still looks fabulous.

Dreamy lines indicating a flashback sequence.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Picture this: The summer of 1995. I was 20 and enormously frustrated.

My parents and I have a brilliant relationship. It has not always been that way. It improved vastly when I left for university 500 miles away and spent almost all of the following summers living in the tiny Midwestern town that it occupied. But in the fall of 1995, I was to spend a semester studying (another charitable word, as it turned out) at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, (Now much less of a mouthful: Gloucester University) so decided to return to the bosom of my family.

I was utterly used to living as I pleased after two years away from the house and was surprised to return home to find rules in place that had to be followed. I know I shouldn’t have been; in effect, I was a guest, living under their roof and using their resources. (Plus, I spent quite a lot of the summer with a musician who smoked WAY too much weed, so that probably didn’t help in the anxiety department.)

Enter Virginia.

Virginia (not her real name, by the way) is my best friend from high school. We’ve known eachother since we were about 5. Realistically, we knew this would probably be the last summer we’d ever be in the same place at the same time. It was a sad realisation; that your childhood is coming screaming to a close, but we faced it with chins up and tried to catch as many fireflies as we could.

The idea came from Silent Bob, the musician. He had a rather spectacular piece of ink on his chest; two koi carp, one in reds and oranges, the other in blues and greens, swirling around in a graceful yin yang shape. When I told him how much I admired it, between tokes, he drawled, “Why don’t YOU get one?”

To be honest, I don’t remember HOW I came to decide that I actually WOULD do it or how I came to decide WHERE I’d do it, but I DO remember deciding that I was going to be damned if I was going to do it alone.

There were two tattoo studios in our hometown of Frederick, Maryland at the time. The one we chose, Marks of the Spark (slightly reminiscent of a dentist's office; A Good Thing) and the other one, which, to my knowledge, didn't HAVE a name; only a light up sign out front which, at night says, “TA OOS AN BO Y PIERC NG.” It was situated next to a Harley Davidson dealership.

Marks was (and still is, to my knowledge) run by a husband a wife tattoo team called Alfie and Marge. Alfie looked much like you’d expect a tattoo artist to look, but Marge looked and talked like your mom, only covered in tats. Virginia and I crept into the parlor with the obvious trepidation of anyone who’s ever let someone stick sharp, ink filled needles into their flesh and leave something permanent enough that you might, someday, be ashamed to show your grandchildren. Yes, Virginia, we ARE going to get inked.

Marge did both of us. She chatted merrily away over the sound of the buzzing needle. “My kids are going through a rebellious stage,” she said matter-of-factly, “they don’t WANT tattoos.” I hadn’t thought of that particular outcome of getting inked; the immediate decision by any future children that anything mom does is fundamentally un-cool. Personally, if my kids want ink, that’s okay by me, but as long as they live in my house, there will be conditions.
  • A) It absolutely HAS to mean something. To my mind, if you’re going to mark your body permanently, it has to be a significant reminder of the time in which you received the mark. There’s definitely something to be said for LOOKING cool, but if my 16 year old wants a little rose bud on her right breast, she’s got another thing coming.
  • B) Its gotta be small. Like it or not, there are things people assume about you if you’ve got an obvious tattoo, especially women. (Men seem to be able to pull it off better) Even I do it. My mother plays the organ and did a biker wedding once where the bride had a backless dress, the better to show off the most enormous dragon tat you’ve ever seen. (Some guy also tried to bring beer into the ceremony. I think my mom felt a bit out of her element.)
  • C) I get to go with them to make sure they don’t end up in “TA OOS AN BO Y PIERC NG.”
To make an already long story shorter, we both emerged with matching flower vines on our feet, both feeling euphorically victorious and butt-clenchingly nervous at the prospect of returning home to conceal our foot art from the Powers That Be.

I’m a bit of a Nature Child at heart. Having shoes and socks on in the middle of July is not in my character. If I could go barefoot all year round, I would. I have extreme Hobbit feet, even to this day. Even my mother remarked upon this fact over the next week as I lounged around the house in a very old pair of closed toe deck shoes. Having my little piggies enclosed in the heat of the summer was becoming slightly unbearable. It became clear that I was going to have to come clean for the sake of comfort.

My salvation (oh, the irony) came in the form of The Reverend Harold B. Wright, the godsmith from my childhood house of worship who, the Sunday after The Inking, delivered a rather cracking sermon on the nature of forgiveness. (I’m not a religious soul, but Christ had some pretty decent convictions in that area.) Following the service, we went out for a leisurely lunch and I decided that it was now or never.

“Guys,” I began, “I’ve got something I’ve got to tell you.”

Across the table, my parent’s eyes widened rapidly to the size of small diner plates and I realized what had entered their minds. Silent Bob and the prospect of a shotgun wedding.

“No, hey…nothing like that!” I said quickly, seeing the visible relief wash over them. “What I mean is,…Virginia and I have been friends for a long time and….”

Again with the eyes. I’m not sure if the second prospect that occurred to them was more unwelcome than the first, but judging by their feelings about Silent Bob, I doubt it.

“No, no! Listen,” I began again quickly before I did any more psychological damage, “It’s just a tattoo! I got a tattoo!” I stuck my foot out from under the table for inspection.

“Hmm,” ventured my mother, “I noticed that. I thought it was just a pattern on your tights. It’s pretty.” And that was that.

I would definitely recommend trauma to anyone who’s trying to break any difficult news. Making my parents think, in the space of a minute that I was A) having a weed monster’s baby and B) a lesbian, made a tattoo positively (if you'll forgive the obvious foot pun) pedestrian.