Yesterday afternoon, I got my sixth tattoo, and my husband got his first. No, they weren’t matching, not exactly. We got each other’s mascots on our forearms.
The story is that while spending a week at a music festival last summer, my husband bought two small carved animal figurines. You know the ones- they’re made of stone, about an inch or two high, and you can find them in most gift shops, especially if the gift shop also sells crystals. He bought an owl, because he calls me his owl for my big eyes, and a bear, because I call him my bear for his strength.
He’s always wanted a tattoo, but at age 32 he still hadn’t had any ideas that he cared enough to commit to his skin forever. When we got engaged, however, he said he’d like to get a tattoo that represented me. When he came home with those little figurines, we decided that they would be our mascots for each other, and yesterday we got them tattooed onto our arms. I now have a little black bear, and he has a red-brown owl.
This of course is not my first tattoo, although it is definitely my favorite. I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen years old, in a rather shady apartment, from a man who did work under the table for extra cash on the side.
Before you get too concerned, my mother and my sister both accompanied me. My parents were unusually okay with me getting inked so young- they agreed that for my sixteenth birthday, they would give me their permission to get a tattoo, if I paid for it myself.
Surprisingly, I don’t regret my choice. I got a bird swooping down in front of a sun on the back of my shoulder. The sun represented my childhood pet name, sunshine, and the bird stood for my free spirit. Cheesy, yes, but I was sixteen, and despite the hasty and rather reckless decision I still love my first tattoo.
Two years later I got my second, this time on my ribs. This one I drew myself, and despite being very proud of it at the time, I’ve since grown as an artist and will admit to a little bit of embarrassment about the design. Still, I love the message. It’s a very simplistic flame, meant to represent my passionate streak and often fiery personality. A little over a year later, when I was diagnosed as bipolar, my psychiatrist suggested to me the book Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, which examined the link between manic-depressive illness and the creative mind. That book added some extra, more clearly defined symbolism to my flame tattoo.
When I was nineteen and a freshman in college, I got my third tattoo. Like my last one, it would serve a dual purpose. It’s the word “learn”written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the strange letters you see next to a word in the dictionary telling you how to pronounce it. I placed it on my wrist, right next to a burn scar that I had given myself during a nasty mental breakdown. I tell everyone that it is a reminder to myself to always stay committed to my passion for learning and education, but it also serves privately to remind me to learn from the mistake of harming myself. Unfortunately, it took me a few more mistakes before that lesson really stuck.
One year later I went with my dad to get tattoos together. I had given him the idea (and a little persuasion) to get his first ever tattoo, that symbolizes his lifelong passion. I, on the other hand (literally), got another word on my opposite wrist. “Create”. This was to remind me permanently that while I am devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and traditional academics, I also have a creative side that I need to not neglect. It’s in a typewriter font, to symbolize that writing is my true creative passion.
Another year after that, when I was 21, I got a fifth tattoo during a bit of a manic episode. I was visiting with family out of state, and my bipolar kicked into high gear out of nowhere. While my psychiatrist sent emergency meds over the phone to the nearest pharmacy, I whirled about in a frenzy of impulsive decisions, extreme hyperactivity, and bouts of intense, irrational irritability. One of my impulsive decisions was another tattoo, which again, I don’t regret. I drew it myself- five Guatemalan worry dolls, each colored in a way that signified to me each of my biggest worries: mental illness, relationships, death, sexuality, and money. My parents had gotten me worry dolls when I was little and had trouble getting to sleep. You are supposed to tell them your worries, place them under your pillow, and let them carry your burdens throughout the night so that you can enjoy restful sleep. I got the dolls on my wrist, below “create”, so that when I put my hand underneath my pillow at night I have my own permanent set of worry dolls to whisk my troubles away.
Now I have six tattoos in total: one that symbolizes my childhood personality, one portraying my drive and my mental illness, one expressing my love for learning and one my love of writing, another to take my worries away, and finally one that represents the love of my life and our beautiful relationship. I could not be happier with the work of art that my body has become, a canvas that displays and will continue to accumulate all of the important pieces of me.
I currently have plans for two more tattoos. One will be a floral arrangement designed to look like my wedding bouquet, that will cover the scars on my arm that spell the word “LOVE”. I put those scars there in a dark time, when I thought that love would always mean pain. By covering that message with the flowers I carried with me down the aisle, I intend to replace it with the message that love is, in fact, beautiful.
The last tattoo that I have in mind will be of an axolotl. I recently became somewhat obsessed with the cute, peculiar creatures for two very different reasons. One is that they have the remarkable ability to regrow nearly any part of their body- including their brain. But more importantly, the image of a baby axolotl that first peaked my interest came to represent to me the unborn child that I lost. When I see a tiny little salamander with feathery frills, I think of my baby- the tiny little precious life that was mine only briefly and I never got to know.
Tattoos mean different things to different people. Some tattoos are purely aesthetic, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I love to admire other people’s tattoos, and hearing their stories is always a fascinating and earnest glimpse into who they are as a person. My tattoos will always serve as a special reminder of who I was, who I am, and what is important to me.