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An Apologetic for Ink

Apr 20 2009
Why I got a second tattoo after the first one was a complete mess.

When I see a young woman with a tattoo, I cringe - not because I'm an old prude, but because I know from experience that she may well spend the next 20 years trying to hide it and/or many times its cost trying to get rid of it.
A 2008 Harris poll found that men and women get tattooed at nearly identical rates (15 percent vs. 13 percent respectively), but women report saying they feel sexier afterward (42 percent vs. 25 percent). Conversely, 42 percent of non-tattooed respondents said tattooed individuals are less attractive, less sexy (36 percent), less intelligent (31 percent), and more rebellious (57 percent).

This is the crux of my disdain, if not its visceral source: self-perception vs. communal perception. Those 30-60 percent of respondents with negative views may be biased, but they are also potential influencers whose opinions have the power to either limit or expand opportunities. With the barriers women face, why add unnecessary obstacles?

I got a tattoo on my ankle when I was 16. I wanted something small and feminine, but ended up with an unsightly four-inch mess. Over the past 20 years, I've covered the deformed spider lily with thick scar makeup, bandages, and slacks. When I've ignored it, others often haven't, wondering aloud what it's supposed to be. On my 40th birthday, my husband offered to pay for laser removal treatments. I gratefully accepted. After four $300 treatments, I'm left with a faded pastel skeleton of the original design, and an unwillingness to invest any further.

Why then would I get another tattoo?

I did so in honor of my son Gabriel, who died on March 28, 2008. As the first anniversary of his death approached, a friend e-mailed with the news that he had gotten one of Gabriel's cartoon characters tattooed on his chest. This and another character were featured in a series of comics Gabriel created about racial reconciliation. One character is brown; the other is white. One is dressed in a bunny costume; the other in a bear costume. To me, they represent my two sons: one brown and one white. The images are both whimsical and provocative. I now carry them on my right hip, where I once carried my boys.

The new tattoo doesn't make me feel sexier, thank you very much. Slightly embarrassed, if truth be told. I couldn't even articulate why I did it, until I read something from Andy Crouch's Culture Making website. After learning that someone had gotten a tattoo in response to one of his lectures, Andy wrote:

"Somehow it's appropriate that a tattoo embodies, so very literally, play and pain itself," because art is "an exploration of beauty, fruitfulness and wonder … yet art also inevitably brings us into pain, confronting the mystery of our suffering and brokenness …. We need artists who are willing to do both at once, neither to play without pain (escapist entertainment) or inflict pain without play (which ends up as masochism and cynicism)."
Related Topics:Death; Mourning

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