- an evening drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters
- an entertainment consisting of music, marching, and the performance of displays and exercises by military personnel
- a rhythmic tapping or drumming
- mark (a person or a part of the body) with an indelible design by inserting pigment into punctures in the skin
- make (an indelible design) on a part of the body by inserting pigment into punctures in the skin
There are different definitions for the word “tattoo,” and of course there are a host of different meanings for any tattoo a person chooses to have permanently etched into their dermis. And however personal, or not, the decision to ink is, I find that it can be a fairly polarizing topic. As can piercings, or anything some might see as not the norm, can be. In fact, not too long ago, my boss asked me, “Can I ask you a personal question? What’s with the tongue thing?” (I have a pierced tongue, and I also just so happen to be an intelligent, successful, functioning member of society.)
So today I’m going to dive into the way I look at tattoos, and I’m hoping those of you who scoff at tattoos and piercings and/or are judgey little fucks will get all the way to the end of this piece and perhaps rethink your position. Or at least have the grace to shut the hell up the next time you think your opinion on someone’s choice of bodywork simply cannot be lived without.
I like to have meaning – to tattoos, clothing, shared birthdays, coincidences, the names of my pets… Everything on me means something.
Sometimes it’s the art – words, symbols, images, classic art, pinup girls, random “nonsense” (I say it in quotes because just because it appears to be nonsense to you and me doesn’t mean that it actually is), or American Classic designs from the bygone era of famous artists like Lyle Tuttle (Google it). Sometimes the meaning is in the act itself, the decision to get a tattoo – rebellion, fearlessness, a rite of passage, maybe a drunk night with buddies that you now get to remember forever whether you like it or not. (I have a male friend with a tramp stamp of that variety, or so he tells me.) Hey, it happens…
And sometimes it’s the need for the physical release that comes from the riot of sensations only achieved by the tattoo experience: immersing yourself in the smell of ink, Vaseline, anti-bacterial soap; meditating among the white-noise buzzing of artists and their guns; and of course losing yourself in the unique pain of having your skin engraved by rhythmically vibrating needles, followed by the sweet ecstasy that is your artist gently (if you’re known to tip appropriately then it’s gentle, if you don’t then you’re a dick and deserve to get roughed up) wiping away excess ink – and maybe a little blood – with a cool paper towel made moist by whatever concoction said artist prefers. (I also personally enjoy the story telling and cursing of the artists – makes me feel less like I have “trucker mouth.”)
At this point there are likely a few of you who, once again, assume I’m bat-shit crazy (totally understandable, BTW), others who may be preparing to vomit, others who are intrigued enough to keep reading, and still others who totally get what I’m saying.
Keep going – I’ll start to get to my point, you’ll see. 😉
So what’s the purpose behind the pain? (See? Point coming.)
Maybe it’s the sweet pain of a memorial tattoo that helps you grieve, or the sharpness of covering up a former SO’s name (Tip: it’s always a mistake to tattoo names of non-family or even spouses – kiss of death for any relationship!) and processing bitterness, sometimes it helps release anger or rage, and others experience the pain that comes with a gladly endured physical sacrifice when having something of deep meaning put inside of you forever.
Or, hell, maybe it’s just me that feels this way because, as anyone who really knows me will tell you, I don’t do so well with the emotions and the feels and such. And this is how I process. I find something I can deal with.
Some people journal (or blog!), some people see therapists, some people medicate (prescription or otherwise), some people talk to their friends and family, some people cut themselves, and I’m sure some people are just fully formed, operational adults who have mastered the ability to identify and productively deal with the veritable smorgasbord of human emotion to which we are all subjected. I don’t know who these people are, but I imagine they exist. (Kind of like Big Foot or men who can hit the hamper with their dirty clothes.)
Some people (me) avoid, squash, deny, ignore, get busy (at work, you perv, get your mind out of the gutter), get angry, get obsessed, or sometimes…get tattoos.
I never really recognized this phenomenon until my dad got sick. And then again when he died.
As anyone who’s read my previous blogs, the grief just overtook me. All the way to the core. With every agonizing step, every guilt-ridden breath, every pissed off, desperate beat of my heart. Tears weren’t enough. Telling my Aunt and Grandmother how unfair it all was wasn’t enough. Laughing and joking and trying to make it all somehow morbidly funny, like it wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened, wasn’t enough. Driving too fast in the dark, listening to loud music, attending his memorial (potluck style and held at a bar, of course), socializing, isolating, sleeping in his bed, wearing his Cornhusker and Seahawks hoodies, talking to him even when he was gone…nothing was enough. Not enough to put the grief back in the bottle. Not enough to make me feel like I wasn’t alone.
In fact, some days, it’s still not enough.
Because the funny thing about losing someone you love (funny weird, not funny haha – obviously) is that the grief never goes away. We humans, we fragile funny little life forms, are so infuriatingly adaptable that the grief doesn’t leave and it doesn’t actually kill us. It lurks inside and is just there. And you still have to get up every day, and put clothes on, and do things, and talk to people. And you have to keep doing it. Every. Single. Day. Until one day, without meaning to, you’ve regrown yourself around the grief. So now it (the grief, the loss, the bad, the dad-shaped hole in your heart) has a nice, cozy little place inside your reformed being, and it stops poking at you so much. It goes to sleep.
And you can breath again.
And each step doesn’t drag a ten ton ball and chain along with it.
And your heart beats without the feeling of a vice grip squeezing the blood in and out of the chambers.
And then one day you laugh without starting to cry.
And every now and then, something wakes it up and it pokes at you. There’s a lot of things that wake up my grief, even after two years, so I won’t get into that. The point is that it wakes up, and it pokes me. I’m a successful, productive member of society who has to function at a high level each day, so the usual vices don’t work for me – no drugs, no booze, no smokes, no sleeping around, no gambling, no fighting. Not my style. But I need something else to hurt more and less than the grief and all that comes with it.
That’s what made me recognize this particular addiction of mine, but there are other things that make me want the sensation. Things like getting older (and fatter…) make us all a little uncomfortable and need to reinvent every now and then. If my body is my temple, why not decorate the walls, yeah? Other times I come to a deep revelation of some sort that I don’t want to forget, and what better way to remember than to store it in your skin and carry it with you always? And at the moment, I want to add to my otter and make it a sort of memorial tattoo; I also want to find something to get with my best girlfriends; and I’m constantly on a path to self improvement and recently found an Ernest Hemingway quote I love; and my koi fish is a little lonely – he will need some company; plus the Monet on my left thigh leaves my right one seeming a little bare…
discovered layers of the onion that is the human experience, and losses I need somethingone which can only be translated by those who choose to look at it through a different lens.
I need something. So…
I need a tattoo.