I was 18 years old when I got my first tattoo. Specifically, I had turned 18 the exact day I got my first tattoo. My parents weren’t thrilled with my decision, and they were even less thrilled when their daughter disappeared between dinner and cake to spend her birthday money on having ink stabbed into her skin at the tattoo shop behind CVS.
I remember my mother pursing her lips and saying, “People are going to judge you for this.” I laughed off her well-intentioned concern with teenage ease.
I don’t see tattoos as a symbolic representation of my entire being. I see them more as totems of who a person is in a given instant, a specific moment in their bearers’ lives.
You evolve every day and you outgrow physical things. Bad haircuts, material objects, short-lived relationships—all of these things feel defining at one point, but we rarely hold on to them. Over the years I’ve picked up half a dozen tattoos the way that we pick up scars and wrinkles, as stories of our lives written on our bodies. An outline of a horse once drawn by my grandmother, some Latin text, a heart. All of them are subtle, easily hidden and mean something to me that I don’t often explain but absolutely never forget.
Of all my small tattoos, the smallest one is the one that gets noticed. I was on a date with a guy who caught my interest despite his penchant for wearing monogrammed shirts. He took a sip of his drink, looked at the small triangle in the dip of my arm and asked, “So, what’s the story with your tattoos?”
“I just pick them up as I go,” I said. I was just getting to know him.
It wasn’t until months later that I recalled that conversation. Chatting with a mutual friend, she asked about us dating, and I replied that it had fizzled out after a few weeks. She, having a fairly close relationship with him, nodded and said, “Yeah... I heard about that. He told me he was into you, but...”
“But what?” I remembered that he never called me back after a few dates.
“I’m only telling you this because I think it speaks more to him as a person than you. . . . He liked you, but he didn’t want to date you because his family wouldn’t approve of your tattoos.”
I looked wide-eyed at my friend, and after a beat we both proceeded to burst out laughing. Dating is nothing if not an adventure, and I’ve heard my share of impressive lines, but this one catapulted to the top of my list. Two months ago I was wondering if I liked Mr. Monogrammed Shirt enough to introduce to my roommates (maybe), and he was seeing if I’d fit into his family tree (evidently, no).
Mother’s prophecy had been fulfilled. I had been deemed not-quite-good-enough by Monogrammed Shirt.
But is that a loss? If a few illustrations on my body were enough to detract from my intelligence, great legs, and winning personality, then there probably wasn’t a deep and meaningful connection there anyway. And honestly, as much as I’d like to judge him as being a materialistic, nitpicking, backwards conservative snob, I can’t fault him for feeling turned off. Getting to know and judging someone are parts of dating, and if my handful of tattoos was the catalyst to dooming our romance, that’s fine by me.
I thought about my most recent tattoo, a tiny stencil of the word “YES” on the side of my ribcage. When I first moved to Los Angeles, a friend had bestowed the word on me as the only advice that I would need. “Say yes to things,” she told me. To adventures, new friends, mistakes, changes. . . . Yes would make things happen.
I have said yes to experiences that have shaped me, and I have gotten a handful of representations of those moments immortalized in ink on my body. Although I’ve been judged for my symbols of what some might consider youthful rebellion, I wouldn’t change them. Given the chance, I’d say yes to getting them all again. They’re illustrations of my ever-expanding story, and even if that’s not for someone else, they’re still good enough for me.
(Photo by Evgenia Kohan)