Let’s Talk About Ink, Baby


According to the New York Times, 27% of Americans now have a tattoo. They’re not just for sailors and loose women anymore, ma!

My uncle John was a sailor when tattoos were just for sailors and “loose women” (and those newfangled motorcycle clubs). Some of my fondest memories are of his incredible storytelling (many long nights reading The Princess and the Goblin aloud to us with unrivaled inflection and drama), and while I loved getting a glimpse of the dragon on his bicep, I always asked for the story behind the question mark tattooed on his forearm.

“What does it mean?” I’d beg while my cousins and I sprawled on a lumpy old bed, in the eaved rooms of the summer house we all shared, for our bedtime story. And with a gleam in his eye, and a conspiratorial grin, he’d say, “Ah, Desiree. . .” and give each time a new version of the answer “that’s only for me to know.” Such mystery! Such intrigue!

So strong was my longing for my own mysterious ink that I tattooed my first “jailhouse,” as they’re called, when I was about sixteen. With Bic ink. I knew that needle + ink = tattoo, but was not so much aware of the imperative nature of that ink being India. I was not so foolish the next time.

As a budding young palm-reader, I had become exceedingly alarmed that my “decade lines” on my inner wrists were rather tragically abbreviated. Palmistry holds that your dominant hand carries the fate you are born with and the other the fate you create yourself. Neither of mine has more than two and a half lines. My birth mother died at twenty-seven. So I tattooed (permanently, at last!) an ankh, the hieroglyph for life, over those lines on my left wrist. (Call me superstitious or silly, but it’s holding strong so far!)

At eighteen I rushed into a small mistake which I regret and will someday cover, but each of my other tattoos holds great meaning for me. . .  A dragon of my own, in honor of my uncle and for my son whose name means Dragon in Old English, on my right bicep: my strength. A butterfly in flight (not pinned down flat and dead): metamorphosis. A wave inside a circle that I needed to get on my first trip to Maui. My brother laughed; he also felt compelled to get a tattoo on his first trip. We promised each other that we would “come full circle” back to that perfect place in the middle of the ocean, together, again and again.

I have a consultation with a new artist for my next ink: a map of the place where those summers with my aunts and uncles and my cousins held so much magic, the place where my cousin and I now each visit our lost brothers buried on a cliffside overlooking the Bay, the place where a piece of my heart will lie forever.

Don’t ask me what I’ll do about my tattoos when I am old. I will be thankful to have grown old at all, and certainly to carry my memories and my sense of self on my skin.