In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Tattoos” first ran in our October 1994 issue.
I coveted the ease with which my friends got tattoos in college: tulips on hips, names on buttocks, silhouettes of birds in flight across shoulders. I wanted one but couldn’t settle on a design, changing my mind over and over for years.
I again considered getting a tattoo in medical school, but our physician instructors told us they looked unprofessional, as if ink on our skin somehow reflected an inferior work ethic or intellect. An older physician associated tattoos with military men and flaky young people. His assumption angered me — I was neither a soldier nor a man nor flaky — but still I pushed the idea of a tattoo out of my head.
Years later I read in my hospital’s policy handbook that employees were allowed to have tattoos — though they were to remain covered as much as possible — and I decided to finally get one. I had also decided I wanted to write creatively, which helped me choose a design: all the Arabic numerals and letters of the Latinate alphabet in a rectangle, so that every written work in the world, past and future, could be found on my forearm. To get past writer’s block, I trace the letters with a finger until I find the word I need.
When I get the chance, I roll up the sleeves on my white physician’s coat and make sure others can glimpse them, too.
When my oldest, Pete, talked about getting a tattoo, the word permanent screamed behind my clenched teeth, but I knew better than to trot out my arguments. Instead I relied on the time-tested belief that he’d eventually talk himself out of it.
The day after his eighteenth birthday, however, he informed me that a place in Ybor City had a half-price special. I thought about telling him tattoos weren’t the sort of thing for which you wanted to use a coupon, but I knew it wouldn’t work, so I clapped my hands and told him I’d get one, too. For the first time, he balked. “Really?”
He’d decided on a quote from a song, written in cursive by one of his “not-like-that” girlfriends. I chose an abstract image of a fox. Our left wrists would be the locations. I was still betting he would back down, but if by some strange wrinkle I did end up with a tattoo, I could cover it with my watchband.
Even when he was in the chair, I was positive he’d spring up and wave his hand for us to leave. I even believed he was going to call it all off as my arm was being cleaned and prepped.
When the needle entered my skin, it felt more like being scratched than stabbed. My sheen of nervous sweat receded. I was really doing this. I wasn’t going to faint or vomit. Thirty minutes later we were outside on the sidewalk, holding up our cling-wrapped arms in pride and disbelief.
In the six years since, Pete has mentioned getting his tattoo removed several times, but the expense and discomfort keep him from doing it. His busy work schedule, and the parenting failures I committed while we were all trapped in one house together during the pandemic, keep him from visiting, calling, or even texting more than once or twice a month.
The lines of my tattoo have thickened and blurred. Still, it’s a cherished souvenir. I brush my fingers across it, remembering how it was before other lines got blurry, and wondering if what I thought was permanent still is.
Inside my left wrist, so I’ll see it when I hold the neck of my guitar, is a treble clef and staff with the notes that correspond to the word wanderlust in Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” The tattoo was done by a tall, striking man in his late twenties who carried himself with the lanky ease of a model. He played guitar, too, and fronted a band much hipper than the one I led. He wasn’t a Joni kind of guy, but he liked the idea for the tattoo. He put me at ease by quietly making conversation about music while he worked.
A few years later he died of a drug overdose. His obituary said he had a master’s degree in art education and had taught at-risk students and refugees. I remember reflexively thinking that he wasn’t the addict type. Then I caught myself — there is no type. He was a thoughtful, sensitive, creative man in a world that doesn’t make it easy to be any of those things.
Wanderlust can be a longing for escape. I guess that’s something we shared.
During the Boy Scout summer camp’s midday siesta, Jay and I sat on one of the dusty thrift-store sofas in Staff Cabin Two. While my cabinmates chatted and an episode of Futurama played in the background, Jay etched the image of a pine cone into my side. For a model they used a cone from my favorite tree at the camp, a two-century-old white pine.
“The first layer hurts the most,” Jay said.
They were right. Soon I was more preoccupied with the heat in our un-air-conditioned cabin than with the needle being jabbed into my side. The tattoo was completed in time for the camp-wide afternoon game. I could feel the pine cone pulsing in its permanence.
After that evening’s flag ceremony and dinner, there was to be a closing campfire featuring skits by the troops — always hilariously unfunny — and the famous “bear story.” In anticipation of rain, the event was held in the dining hall. Midway through, someone barged in to warn us of an incoming storm far worse than any we’d experienced before. Over the next two hours a pair of derechos — walls of wind moving at the speed of a tornado — buffeted our camp, destroying the majority of the trees with ferocious efficiency.
We worked well into the night and over the next five days clearing roads, removing campers’ belongings from crushed tents, and restoring power and water. It wasn’t until three days after the storm that my favorite tree crossed my mind. The ache in my side had by then subsided, and, amid the commotion and chaos, I had scarcely thought about my new tattoo.
Worried about that white pine, a buddy and I set off armed with an axe and a machete — as well as a couple of Hamm’s beers — to bushwhack into once-familiar woods now made alien by the storm. The paths were, to put it bluntly, fucked, and the walk, which normally would’ve taken ten minutes, took more than an hour.
When we finally reached our destination, the acres of felled wood perfumed the air with sap. We paused in reverent silence. The white pine, that remarkable specimen, still stood.
We were sitting by the side of a pool, very much in love, openly staring at each other’s bodies. We were talking about tattoos.
“I’d like to get a small one,” she said, “maybe on my back, up on the shoulder. I don’t know what I’d get, though.”
“The only symbol I could see myself wearing forever,” I said, “is a yin-yang, about the size of a nickel. Seems to sum it all up, you know? Dark and light, good and evil. It makes sense.”
Two years later we separated so she could “find” herself. I didn’t know what that meant, but I assumed it was a variation on goodbye. I moved out and waited for her to decide if we should get a divorce. I often tried to talk to her, but it was like talking to a stranger who had taken an instant dislike to me.
After I’d been away five weeks, I came by one day to collect some books and clothes I’d left behind. She was sitting on the sofa.
“I want to show you something,” she said, unbuttoning her blouse. She sounded playful, friendly, and warm.
“What is it?”
“Look.” Between her breasts was a yin-yang tattoo. “You like it?”
“Like it? I told you that was the only tattoo I could ever see myself having.”
“Did you?” she said. “I don’t remember that. I picked this off a wall chart.”
She really didn’t remember, except in that quiet place where we remember everything.
About twenty years ago J. was released from jail and headed straight to the tattoo parlor to get my name on his wrist. The police had arrested him for attempted murder. He’d strangled me until the blood vessels in my eyes had popped. He’d hit me so hard he’d torn my eardrum, leaving me deaf in one ear for months. He’d dragged me down the street by my neck, nearly crushing my larynx. But because I’d refused to testify — I was twenty-one and scared — the county had charged him with assault with a deadly weapon instead. The judge had sentenced him to one year, and he had gotten out after nine months for good behavior. I’d even gone to visit him in prison.
Soon after J. came to show me his fresh ink, I gathered the strength to get away.
J. spent the next two decades in and out of jail for assaulting other women. I heard through the grapevine that he’d covered my name, or maybe removed it. I wish it were as easy to get rid of the marks he left on me.
Christine M. Robertson
Los Angeles, California
Fifty years ago, as a bewildered twenty-six-year-old divorcée, I had a two-inch butterfly inked on my backside. I thought it daring at the time, perhaps even outrageous, yet also safe from judgment: no one would know unless I wanted them to.
I wouldn’t have gotten it without the encouragement of an office mate who displayed a defiant, free spirit I longed to emulate. We’d been talking about it for weeks, and even though her husband opposed her getting a tattoo, she leaned in one day and whispered in my ear, “Let’s do this.” At lunch we zipped off in the new Jeep her husband had given her. I asked what he had said when she’d told him she was getting a tattoo.
“I didn’t tell him,” she said. “I didn’t want to fight about it twice.”
My tattoo felt a little sexy. And naughty. I couldn’t wait to show my mother, a lifelong Catholic who believed body ink to be sacrilegious. I flashed my butterfly at her in a “so there” moment, but the novelty didn’t take long to wear off, and I soon forgot about it.
Today I don’t like tattoos, especially ones that wrap around an arm or slither up a leg like a snake. I know people think they’re colorful and attractive, but I’d rather have bright lipstick or the perfect shade of eye shadow.
I never told my children about mine, and after I fell in love and remarried, my husband agreed to keep the secret. When grandchildren came along, however, they told their parents: “Nonna has a butterfly on her butt!”
My husband and I are restaurateurs, and we once refused to hire a job candidate with visible tattoos. It wasn’t the image we wanted to associate with our business. But things change. We’ve changed. We’ve learned that tattoos can be expressions of who the bearers feel they are, or symbols of belonging to a community. Many of our staff now proudly display their art. Still, I’m happy I got mine someplace no one can see.
Los Angeles, California
When COVID forced me to change housing units at my prison, I was moved from a block of mostly older men to one where many of the prisoners were young, loud, and full of trouble. On my first night there, a guy covered in tattoos up to his shaved skull entered my cell. His name was Paco. I’d seen him around and figured he was dangerous.
“You got a Scrabble dictionary I can borrow?” he asked. I handed mine to him. He thanked me and said, “I hear you’re pretty good. Let’s play tomorrow.” Intrigued, I agreed.
The next day Paco and I played a close game. I squeezed out a come-from-behind win on my final word. Over the next few months, as COVID raged, we played often, splitting wins nearly fifty-fifty. Seated close across the table from Paco, I could see more clearly the details in lines covering his body, especially the portraits. Tattoos that had seemed threatening became an invitation to get to know him. Some people I recognized and asked about.
With excitement he explained that he’d put Al Capone on his arm because the infamous gangster knew how to hustle. He chose Charles Manson because “he brainwashed people to get them to do what he wanted. I did that with younger dudes,” he said. “They did lots of my dirty work.” He had the gunfighter Doc Holliday because he shot people. Paco confessed he’d never killed anyone himself, but he’d shot at plenty of people. Next was John Dillinger, the bank robber.
“I didn’t do that either,” Paco said, “but I got my start sticking up neighborhood stores.” He was only eight, he told me, barely strong enough to hold the shotgun. An uncle had armed and encouraged him. The police caught Paco quickly, and he spent the next ten years in juvenile detention. Paco laughed at his eight-year-old self for not having a getaway plan.
Eight is also Paco’s daughter’s age. Her face fills the left side of his chest, over his heart. His eyes glistened when I asked about her. “She taught me about love,” he said.
In secondary school my son, Derek, was an amazing artist, creating many humorous drawings and highly detailed ink sketches. Once, he squirted wood glue into his palm and rolled the blob around with his fingers, shaping it into a miniature sculpture as it solidified.
After graduation he spent a couple of years at a university, then returned to Florida and worked as a waiter and barback. His mother and I hoped he would go back to school, but he went into landscaping and environmental work, then transitioned into building screen porches and installing gutters. He loved working outdoors with his hands.
When the market crash temporarily derailed his contracting business, he worked as a teacher’s assistant, delivered pizzas, and then became a supervisor at a seamless-gutter company. I still hoped he would use his artistic talent one day, maybe in advertising. He modeled for several years and clearly had a sense for acting. Maybe he would pursue that.
Unbeknownst to me Derek had purchased tattooing equipment and proceeded to ink a large koi fish on his thigh. Later he offered to help a friend remodel a building into a tattoo shop. When the friend saw my son’s tattoo, he asked Derek to join his business as an artist, repeatedly insisting until finally Derek took a leap of faith and worked nights and weekends to learn the trade. South Carolina requires a thousand hours under a master tattooist for certification.
His Instagram posts now show detailed, colorful tattoos he’s done for clients. I’ve visited his shop, met the owner, and watched Derek work. Though it’s not what I imagined for him as a career, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for tattoo art. Derek is respected in his community and has an incredible portfolio. What more could a parent want?
My husband of twenty years, Jimmy, grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, in a community plagued by violence, alcoholism, and drug addiction. At the age of nineteen he escaped by joining the Army — though he admits he really joined to shoot guns and blow stuff up.
Jimmy was a good soldier, but also a product of Far Rockaway. He drank too much and did drugs, and his superiors grew weary of bailing him out of jail after bar fights. He earned the nickname Little Animal.
While stationed in Korea, Jimmy decided to get a tattoo. He’d gotten one years earlier but had removed it himself by scrubbing it with steel wool — while drunk. This night in Korea, Jimmy asked for a pot leaf to cover up the scar, with “FTA” underneath, for “Fuck the Army.”
Despite his attitude Jimmy was given an honorable discharge and returned to New York in 1982. He tried to make a living in Manhattan doing manual labor, but alcoholism and drug addiction took over. He wound up homeless, eating soup and getting deloused at the Bowery Mission. “The hardest part of being homeless,” he told me once, “was finding a place to go to the bathroom.”
Jimmy got sober in 1988 and found a job as an elevator operator in a Fifth Avenue high-rise. He attended meetings and helped a lot of alcoholics find their way to sobriety — including me.
In 2001 Jimmy and I relapsed together. We got engaged at a dive bar and got involved with drugs again, too. My life spiraled out of control for five years. My bottom was when Jimmy overdosed and, rather than calling 911, I watched him struggle to breathe while I continued to get high. Jimmy’s relapse lasted sixteen years. His bottom was when he tried to hang himself and landed in the Bellevue psychiatric ward.
Jimmy is now five years sober, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. We are committed to sobriety, and our marriage is strong. If my husband feels like having a drink, all he has to do is look down at that pot leaf and remember where his addiction took him.
Brooklyn, New York
Gabriel and I decided to get tattoos on our last night together before his deployment to the Philippines. We wanted something that would last, even if our relationship wouldn’t. We had been lovers just shy of two months, agreeing to keep things casual. I was new to Los Angeles, and he was on the rebound after his fiancée had cheated on him and broken off their engagement.
Gabriel was nearly thirteen years younger than I was. Our plan was to occasionally meet for no-strings-attached sex, and maybe some takeout or superficial conversation. My friends who were settled into marriage and their second pregnancies made midlife-crisis jokes about me, but I didn’t care. I had survived a relationship with a man who’d broken my heart and my bones. I was entitled to a little fun.
I told Gabriel I wanted a tattoo of a butterfly on my lower back. Or my ass. Maybe my left tit.
He gave me a wry smile. “That’s hot.”
“You hate it.”
“It’s your body. Do what makes you happy.”
When I asked what he’d get, Gabriel swiped through some of his drawings and paintings on his phone. I knew he’d been an artist before enlisting, but I hadn’t known how good he was until I saw the swirl of block letters forming his last name, folded into a Nigerian coat of arms. Gabriel explained that his surname, loosely translated, meant something like “May you live all the days of your life.” He’d wanted to get the tattoo the night before his wedding, but he’d shelved the idea after his ex had called the ceremony off.
When we stepped into the tattoo shop, a butterfly suddenly seemed silly, so I looked through books and posters, waiting for something to strike me. Nothing did. Gabriel told me to think a little longer about what I wanted, and we’d both get our tattoos when he returned after the nine-month tour.
“I thought we were finished after tonight,” I countered.
Gabriel’s eyes flashed. “I think this could be something amazing, you and me,” he said.
I pulled him close, kissed him, and asked if we could just go home together and stay up late. I wanted to see more of his art, read him some of my writing, fall into bed. He agreed.
We didn’t know that the world was about to screech to a stop. That we wouldn’t touch, embrace, or kiss anyone for the better part of a year. That my employer would send everyone home from the office and I would never return. That Gabriel’s unit would provide disaster relief for COVID and the wildfires that ripped through California and the Northwest. That Gabriel would get back together with his ex. That a new man would become a lighthouse for me through video chats.
By April 2022 Gabriel and I were strangers. So I was shocked to get a video call from Poland on a Saturday morning. It was him, apologizing for disappearing. His unit had been deployed to Eastern Europe because of the war in Ukraine. He confessed his tumultuous relationship with his fiancée had ended again with her throwing the engagement ring into the ocean. “I would never have fallen for you if it was meant to be with her,” he said.
“Don’t act so shocked. You know you love me, too.” When Gabriel placed a hand behind his head, his sleeve slid up, and I saw a streak of black ink on his skin. I asked him to show me, so he took off his shirt. The swirl of letters danced on his bicep.
He asked about my tattoo, and I told him I’d never figured out what I wanted. He said I should still get one; he’d be home in a few months and could take me.
“I think the moment has passed.”
“Too bad,” he said. “It would have made a good story.”
Los Angeles, California
After I had chemotherapy for breast cancer in 2014, my long, dark hair grew back thick and curly. Two years later, for no reason the doctors could find, I began losing my hair again. I shaved my head on New Year’s Day 2017, but it was unnecessary. By March I had no eyebrows, no eyelashes, no nose hair even. I couldn’t stand how wigs felt, and caps were appropriate only in winter. Eventually I decided not to cover my baldness anymore.
People asked if I was dying of cancer. “Did you shave your head because you had to,” a stranger at the bakery asked, “or because you wanted to?” An airport gate agent asked if I had alopecia. All these questions angered me, but I bit my tongue and stayed silent. The last straw was when a stranger hugged me and said, “It’s going to be all right!” I resolved to get a head tattoo.
It took four excruciating hour-and-a-half-long sessions, but the crown of my head is now a mandala of flowers, and birch leaves climb up the back. I have a sunflower over my left ear and a lily over the right. It was worth every searing, painful moment.
In public I’m as eye-catching as ever, but now people express surprise, admiration, or curiosity. I have gone from being an object of pity to a badass.
A sign at the gym advertised a contest: whoever could do the most burpees in a minute would win a $250 gift certificate to a tattoo parlor. I eagerly signed up.
A few months earlier I’d been sexually assaulted while traveling. My attacker hadn’t left any physical marks, but my body still felt like an open wound. I wanted a scar, a mark, a reminder that I’d survived. A tattoo, I decided, would be perfect.
I followed an employee to a mat at the center of the gym. “Go!” he called, and I threw my body down and did a push-up, then stood back up and hopped in the air. Down-up-jump. Down-up-jump. I moved like a machine, breathing in shallow gasps until I felt I might pass out. Less than a minute, I reminded myself, and it will be over. I couldn’t hear or see anything beyond the mat. Midway through my twenty-third rep, the man called time. I’d hoped to do at least thirty. Oh well. Leaving the gym, I imagined some big, tattooed guy claiming the gift certificate.
When I got home, I had a voicemail telling me I’d won. I began planning the design: a buffalo skull with a rose blooming from its left eye. Death and rebirth. Strength and beauty.
At the tattoo parlor Metallica blared from speakers, and horror-movie posters hung everywhere: Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After the first few pricks of the needle, the tattoo artist asked if I was OK.
I told him yes; I’d expected it to hurt more.
A woman nearby said, “Girl, you’re brave.”
I was beginning to believe she was right.
Asheville, North Carolina
My friend Angie and I — two young hippies from Chicago — traveled to India in 1972. We stayed at a hotel in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then), and every morning we went to a fruit stand where the proprietor, Sai, made us a banana lassi. Western youth would gather there and trade information about where to stay, eat, or buy drugs.
When we wanted tattoos, Sai’s cabdriver friend took us to the docks, where tattoo artists plied their trade on foreign sailors. It looked like a scene from an old movie: docked freighters, men loading bundles onto the ships, an air of danger and excitement.
The tattoo artist spoke English and showed us pictures of designs with the cost of each. I picked the Om symbol with a flower and leaves underneath. I had learned to meditate in India, and Om represented the seed of all sound and a connection to the spiritual realm — or so we’d been told. I asked him to put it on my hand so I could see it often. It was illegal to tattoo a woman from the wrist down or the neck up in America at that time, so this made it even more enticing. Angie and I smoked an opium-laced cigarette to dull the pain and waded into the ocean afterward, since saltwater is said to heal wounds.
After we returned to America, my mother saw the tattoo and said, “You know you have an identifying mark if you ever get arrested.” She was Italian, and jail time was part of our family heritage. I told her she was being paranoid.
Years later I was arrested for selling cocaine. The police officer had used my tattoo to identify me. Sitting in jail that night, I had a bitter laugh at my mother’s prediction.
My ex-husband and his new girlfriend decided to get matching tattoos — his on a shoulder, hers on the top of one silicone-enhanced breast (her first husband’s idea), where you would notice it if she wore something low cut. The tattoos were nicely done in yellow, orange, and blue: yin-yang symbols.
But she must have had hers done lying down, with no thought to how the weight of her breast and gravity would conspire against her when she stood up. Where his held its perfect, round shape, hers stretched like a Silly Putty cartoon, distorted and not very attractive.
My ex-husband thought it hugely funny and took to joking openly about her tattoo gone wrong, a permanent, drooping emblem on her body. Though I don’t remember her being upset about it, it always seemed rather sad to me: these two burdens she inflicted on her body to please two men.
In 1952 the Health Department in Cache County, Utah, decreed that all residents ten years and older should have their blood type tattooed under their arm. That way, if we were in an accident and unconscious, the medic would need only to look at the tattoo to determine what type of blood to give us. The problem, of course, was that we could only have our accident in Cache County, because no other medics would know to look for a tattoo under the arm.
I was a high-school senior at the time and thought I knew everything. I showed up at the elementary school on the designated evening and was directed to a classroom where a young man with freckles, curly red hair, and the bluest eyes I had ever seen was sitting on the teacher’s desk, surrounded by a group of admiring girls.
I knew who he was, of course: Ken Van Noy, recently home from West Point and expecting to soon receive his commission in the Air Force. All the girls in town were crazy about him. He’d been dating several but hadn’t given me a glance.
Ken was holding forth on blood types, explaining that most people were positive for the Rh factor but some were negative. I immediately said I hoped I was negative. He asked me why.
“Because I like to be different,” I said.
When he launched into a warning about all the things that could go wrong with my future pregnancies if I married a man who was Rh positive (this was a greater cause for concern back then), I said I’d just have to marry a man who was negative.
When our turn came, we all trooped out of the classroom and lined up in the gym to get our blood typed. I told Ken I was nervous, but he said he’d hold my hand.
I held up my finger to be pricked and saw the tiny pool of blood. I few seconds later the nurse said I was O-negative.
“Oh no!” I wailed.
“Don’t worry,” said Ken, whose blood was A-positive. “I’ll marry you anyway.”
Then I was in another room with my blouse off and my left arm raised. The man, who I assume was a doctor, held a small machine with a long needle. It felt like a lot of bees stinging me. When he was finished, they covered it with gauze. That was it. I put on my coat and walked home.
Much later Ken’s mother told me that, as he was driving her home that night, she asked him about that girl he’d been talking to. He said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Within a year and a half Ken made good on his promise. And, yes, we did have trouble with our babies. We lost three within a few days of their births, but we were still able to raise four amazing children. We had forty-seven years together.
Ken died in 2000. My tattoo is growing faint after seventy years. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever asked to see it to confirm my blood type. It may not have fulfilled its intended purpose, but it is a permanent memento of the day I met my true love.
At the age of fourteen my paternal grandfather ran away from home by jumping a train and ended up becoming a circus roustabout. At nineteen he lifted my infant father from a crib in the hospital and brought him home against the doctor’s advice; my father had typhus, and no treatment was available. Grandpop believed the hospital staff were neglecting and starving him. If his son had to die, at least he would die clean and at home and not covered in shit in a hospital crib.
My grandparents took my father to the old family doctor in town, who told them to feed the baby watered-down gruel, one teaspoon an hour, twenty-four hours a day. They did, and my father lived.
Later my grandfather left the coal mines of Frostburg, Maryland, for Baltimore County with one good shirt to his name. I have the letter from his mother telling him how to wash it so it would last. He hunted and fished, raised three children, and learned on the job how to be a draftsman. He worked hard and was known for being able to fall sound asleep at his drafting table during his lunch break.
Tattoos covered Grandpop’s arms. I remember an eagle and a naked lady, which was shocking to me. He smoked King Edward cigars and had used his metalworking skills to create fish tanks and plant holders for a speakeasy during Prohibition in Baltimore.
Once, I told my mother-in-law, who considered herself classy, about my grandfather’s tattoos. She said he must have been “trailer trash.” When I told her she had hurt my feelings, she said she didn’t care. That’s what someone like him was to her.
Who can describe another human being as trash? Who determines a person’s worth based on their tattoos?
In 1996, when she was twelve years old, my daughter designed the tattoos she would get as soon as she was old enough. I had to admit they were lovely, especially the intricate woven design she planned to get on the back of her neck.
Determined not to wait to practice what she called “adornment” and what I feared was self-harm, she pierced her navel and used nails to widen the holes in her earlobes. I pleaded, cajoled, and raged to get her to stop. Finally, when she was fourteen, I wrote up a contract: I would drive her to a piercing salon of my choice, sign the permission forms, and pay for an eyebrow piercing and the jewelry. In return she would agree to perform no further self-piercings nor attempt to get a tattoo until her eighteenth birthday, at which time she’d be free to do whatever she chose with her body.
I embarrassed my daughter by asking the young man at the salon to wash his hands and insisting on seeing the autoclave mark on the hoop my daughter chose, to confirm it had been sterilized. Still, it was a good day. “Why don’t you get a piercing, too, Mom?” she asked. She was surprised when I accepted the challenge. I had the guy poke a hole in my left earlobe, above the one a friend had made with a sewing needle when I was a teenager.
My daughter never got her tattoo. She died by suicide when she was fifteen. My son, at twelve, designed a memorial tattoo for his sister, saying he would get it as soon as he turned eighteen. He kept that promise, and although the ink has faded, the colors still look vibrant to me.
For years I have considered getting a memorial tattoo myself. If I still had the design my daughter had wanted on her neck, I might get that, but nothing else I’ve found could show what I’ve lost.
Eileen Vorbach Collins
My mother became a rebel in her sixties. Her first act of rebellion was to buy a giant floppy hat and take trips with the Red Hat Society, a social club for loudly dressed women. The other members quickly proved too crotchety for Mom, though, so she moved on to buying a hot tub — against her cardiologist’s advice — and refusing to use a walker no matter how many bouts of dizziness she suffered. Once, she even tried to escape a hospital.
After Trump’s election she knit scores of pussy hats and attended protests, returning with tales of getting lost, falling off her portable stool, and nearly being trampled in the subway. She moved from neutral home decor to an explosion of rainbows and political signs. She dyed a streak of her gray hair blue and chose bright-red glasses that made her look like a demented John Lennon.
A few years ago she began talking about getting a tattoo. I rolled my eyes. I don’t remember what image she wanted, but I do remember I talked her out of it. She was on blood thinners, and the risk was too high.
My mother recently died from leukemia. In the three months between her diagnosis and her death, I watched every bit of rebellion drain out of her — replaced by PICC lines, blood transfusions, and wheelchairs. I wish now that I’d driven her to the tattoo parlor, sat beside her, and even held my arm out for a mother-daughter tattoo. I could have been her partner in crime instead of the daughter who always knew better.
Raleigh, North Carolina
I don’t remember seeing anyone in our preppy Midwest burg wearing a sleeveless white undershirt until my father’s cousin Jim came for dinner. He was only twenty or so, stationed at a naval base just a few miles from our home, and he swaggered in with tattoos covering both arms all the way to his shoulders. My sheltered, twelve-year-old self stared at the images of a spouting whale, a sprawling ship, and a blue serpent that slithered from his wrist to his elbow.
I remember my mother saying she didn’t like the way Cousin Jim stared at my sister and me. She told us his tattoos were ugly and low-class. I decided I didn’t like him, either — or his tattoos: Ugly. Unsavory. We didn’t have him for dinner a second time, and I never saw Cousin Jim again.
When I met my eighteen-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, I was aghast. He was dressed in black, with unlaced Doc Martens and several tattoos, including a quote from Lou Reed on his thin bicep. “He’s not good enough for you,” I told her — meaning his tattoos made him low-class. But when she had to choose him or me, I lost.
At eighteen my son got a complex triangle design tattooed high on his arm. I told him I approved of the location: he could easily hide the tattoo when he went to a job interview or to see family. Secretly I hoped that when we attended our annual family reunion, the weather would be cool enough for him to wear a sweatshirt.
My daughter hid her first tattoo from me for months. It was dainty: a clutch of flowers nestled beneath the top of her Doc Martens. I’ve lost count of how many she has now — twelve or thirteen, many on visible places on her body. For a while I comforted myself with the fact that they are all delicate and beautiful, in tasteful shades of black and gray.
I don’t discuss my children’s tattoos with my ninety-year-old mother, because I still remember what she said about Cousin Jim. I wonder what he must have thought: knowing our family lived nearby yet we’d asked him to dinner only once. Maybe we were wrong about him, the way I was wrong about my daughter’s kind boyfriend, who nursed her back to health after she nearly starved herself. Maybe, under all those tattoos, Cousin Jim was kind and loving, too.
After having served in different units in Vietnam, Adam and I were assigned to a signal battalion in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We were both far from home with time to kill, and one day we went looking for a tattoo parlor. Along with bars, there were many “ink stations” on the main drag in nearby Fayetteville. We decided to get tattoos that expressed pride in our combat battalions. Adam wanted his 173rd Airborne patch, a white wing on a blue background, on his right arm. I would get a big eagle with “101st Airborne” displayed on ribbons clutched in its claws.
I went first and soon found out that my buddies in the barracks were a bunch of liars — my arm never went numb! The artist completed his work, wiped the blood away, slapped some antiseptic salve on it, and wrapped gauze around my arm. The finished product would scab over and appear in a few weeks, he said.
Adam took my place in the seat. He showed the artist a picture of the 173rd unit insignia and said he wanted “173rd” above and “Airborne” below. He placed his spindly limb on the armrest and watched an episode of I Love Lucy on the TV while the artist worked.
We returned to the barracks triumphant, bandages around our prizes. For two days we strutted around our living quarters. On Monday morning, however, we were summoned to the office of the first sergeant, a monster of a man who’d seen a lot of action. Standing at attention, we were informed that we — body and mind — were government property, and getting tattoos was defacement of said property. If we missed one hour of duty because we had to go to the infirmary, we’d be slapped with Article 15 — just below a court martial. In the meantime, as punishment, we’d be picking cigarette butts out of the lawn by day and guarding the greens at the officers’ golf club by night. We endured the consequences and waited for the day when we could finally remove the gauze and see our hard-earned badges of honor.
After the bandage came off and the wounds healed, I had a beautiful red, green, and yellow eagle, just like I’d envisioned. Adam was less pleased. In fact, he was distraught. The tattoo artist had added his exact words to the image: “173rd Above” on top and “Airborne Below” underneath.
As soon as we could, we marched to the tattoo parlor, where Adam unleashed his frustrations. Putting their heads together, he and the artist came up with a solution. It would be a little uneven, but at least it made sense: “173rd Above All” and “Airborne Below None.”
Having a twin sister who made outrageous decisions meant my parents were never shocked by my comparatively mild irresponsible choices. When we were nineteen years old, Kelly covered her entire back with the image of a dark, twisted tree. Compared to that, my little star tattoo was no big deal. When she decided to do the Mongol Rally — a race from London to Mongolia in a beater car — my decision to travel alone to Central America seemed safe. When Kelly bought an ambulance to live in, my life of seasonal jobs appeared stable. The downside, though, is knowing I’ll never be as cool as her. I’ll never have the confidence to learn to fix cars from watching Internet videos, to travel alone to dozens of countries, or to scuba dive through underwater wrecks.
After twenty-nine years of adventure, the pandemic forced Kelly to slow down. Since we lived thousands of miles apart and far from major airports, it was hard to visit. After a mysterious neurological disease forced her to slow down even more, Kelly took her own life. The disability was too much for someone who’d known only constant movement.
At the time of her death she had more than a dozen tattoos, each a little stranger than the one before. When people asked what they meant, she would respond, “Why do they have to mean anything?” Once, we had talked about getting matching tattoos. After she died, I took a picture of my favorite of Kelly’s: a container of french fries on her arm. I’ve found the artist who did that tattoo, and I’m planning to get one to match.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
When I was about ten years old, my dad pointed to a picture on the wall of a pizzeria and said, “That right there is the best band in the world.” It was a promo shot of the Beatles, taken around 1964, when they were shiny-faced lads with mop-top haircuts and black suits.
I looked them up on YouTube as soon as I got home and listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on my iPod. Lying back on the carpeted floor of my bedroom, I fell in love.
I later decided George Harrison was my favorite. One day I saw a photo of him holding a handwritten sign that read “We are not these bodies.” Though he intended to criticize society’s fixation on the material world, the message struck me differently. I’d been struggling with a restrictive eating disorder for nearly four years and was exhausted from the endless cycle of self-hate. To me the quote said what I had failed to say to myself: You are so much more.
I became obsessed with the picture, using it as my screen saver and doodling it on my notes. I decided to put it on my body forever, with one condition: I would allow myself to get the tattoo only if I was committed to beating my eating disorder. A month later I had George Harrison’s handwritten message and the National Eating Disorder Awareness logo tattooed on my left hip, along with a couple of cartoonish mushrooms.
I still love it just as much as I did that first day. But more important, it reminds me of the commitment I made to getting better. There have been times when I’ve loathed my body and felt desperate to return to the comfortable control of disordered eating, but my tattoo helped keep me anchored.
Buffalo, New York
I am a peacock, a swirling mass of colors, a living scrapbook. From neck to feet, most of my skin is covered in tattoos. To me they’re a visual diary. I look at them and remember what was happening in my life at the time I had each piece done.
Strangers often gesture to my ink or touch it. I’ve had men on the bus trace a finger over my neck, women in the swimming pool run a palm down my back. My hairdresser’s husband clung to my hand as he spoke of my tattoos’ allure, until I had to pry myself from his grasp. People tell me that I wouldn’t have done this to myself if I didn’t want people to look and touch. But they are wrong. I don’t crave attention.
In nature, aposematism is how plants and animals warn away potential predators, usually with bright colors. I’m the same. I got my tattoos to keep people away.
All of my siblings got their ears pierced as soon as they could. Not me. When I landed a role in a play where earrings were part of my costume, I used the kind that pinched my earlobes. My fellow thespians marveled over my unpierced ears. They wanted to know: Was I some kind of purist? Not consciously. But the longer I waited, the less inclined I was to poke holes through my earlobes — much less my nose, lips, or other body parts.
When the tattoo fad exploded, my peers ran the gamut from full-limb, multicolored designs to tiny black tattoos in hidden places, but the thought of having my skin saturated with ink gave me the creeps. I couldn’t help thinking about how unsexy and dated some of those designs would look in several decades. Maybe I was a purist after all.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty, and my unmarred body became a blank canvas for my disease and its cures. Scars from a lumpectomy were followed by another beneath my collarbone to facilitate a portal for poison to be dripped into my veins. When a few well-meaning friends tried to dissuade me from undergoing chemotherapy, touting alternative therapies, I quickly set them straight. This mother of a five-year-old and an eleven-year-old would do whatever it took to live to raise those kids.
I was skinny and bald after eight months. When I went for radiation, the radiologist first needed to tattoo precise spots onto my torso to accurately line up the machine and avoid hitting my heart and lungs.
“I’m getting a tattoo?” I said.
“Several, actually,” she explained. They’d be small but permanent. Long past questioning the price of staying alive, I took this in stride and welcomed my new tattoos to the campaign.
While I was changing out of the hospital gown in the dressing room, the radio played an old song I’d never cared for: “Always Something There to Remind Me.” I burst out laughing.
When I was a kid, I saw an old cartoon in The New Yorker of a weathered sailor sitting in a tattoo shop. There was a long list of women’s names on his arm, each with a line through it, and he was having yet another name crossed off. I wish I’d taken a lesson from it.
At eighteen I fell in love and proudly tattooed the woman’s name on my left bicep, despite the artist’s warning that I’d regret it. When I showed my father, he said, “You’re an idiot.”
Sure enough, she left me within a year. I couldn’t stand to see the tattoo, so I covered it with another one.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love again and tattooed my new love’s name on my other bicep. When that woman left, I covered her name, too.
For some reason I continued this habit until, by the time I reached forty, both arms were tattooed from shoulder to elbow. Each time a relationship ended, I tried to make sure there wasn’t a trace of my failings showing through the ink.
Then, at the age of forty-five, I did it again: fell in love and had yet another name tattooed on a bare spot on my shoulder. Two years later I was heartbroken and left with another reminder. Instead of covering this one up or putting a simple line through it, I decided to tattoo a thick black X on top, something I couldn’t ignore.
I’m a slow learner, but that was the last time. Now in my late sixties, I can look at my tattooed arms and know that I’ve loved, I’ve lost, I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve done it all with a full heart and the best intentions.
In the print edition of our May issue, Elisabeth Preston-Hsu’s entry on “Tattoos” was mistakenly attributed to Andrea Rinard, while Rinard’s piece was inadvertently omitted. The Sun regrets both errors, which are corrected here.