“Wear your heart on your skin in this life.”
― Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
The springtime Mississippi air was making my hair frizz and my bangs curl, and I looked younger—felt younger—than anyone else in the dance club. I was nineteen; Lisa was twenty-four, and it was spring break for both of us on the cusp of Mardi Gras 2000. We were dressed in matching backless shirts and short skirts that we had bought together that afternoon in anticipation of our night out.
Lisa’s outfit showed off her man-in-the-moon tattoo on her shoulder blade and the compliments led to revealing her zodiac signs—Leo surrounding Cancer—tattoo on her lower back that was slightly covered by the ambivalent fabric flitting her skin with each movement. I hung back and watched her soak in the attention from southern men, her hair straight and looking redder than mine under the deceptive club lights, even though she was actually blonde.
I shifted in my basic pumps, my arches aching, and wished I would have paid the money for knee-high boots like Lisa’s. I felt the music pulse through me, and I longed to dance, but there was no way I was going to venture out onto the floor by myself, and there was no way Lisa was going to dance without more drinks in her bloodstream or without a man clinging to her hips.
She turned and looked at me over her shoulder before directing her voice to the friend of a man who had his mouth up against her ear. “She has a tattoo also.” Then she turned her face back to the man in her neck, her eyes hidden behind closed lids.
I angled toward the friend, who was shorter than me and coated in heavy cologne, and flashed my shoulder in his direction, my arm draped across my chest so my polished fingernails could position themselves just above the black etchings of my tattoo.
He swirled the pad of his index finger over my skin, and I felt bile burn my throat. I glanced toward Lisa, but she was smiling into a fit Bulgarian’s mouth.
“Oh, it’s a tiger face, huh?” The finger probed me again and settled on the nose. “Are you going to shade it in at all? I mean, it’s still an outline, isn’t it?”
To him, my tattoo was unfinished. I was unfinished.
Later that week, I traced the outline of comedy and tragedy masks from a plastic cup tossed from a parade float onto a piece of office-grade copier paper. When I returned to Michigan, I paid sixty dollars for a man with a soft Mohawk and gray eyes so sexy and so intense he made me sweat, to ink the design into my back left shoulder, shaded heavily with bright colors that have since faded into an afterthought.
My hand found its way under my sleeve and cupped the tender skin at the top of my arm, just under my shoulder, that was healing from the black outline of a tiger head tattoo, a Valentine’s Day gift from Mark. I was starting to regret the design, something I chose hastily from a flash book ten minutes before my appointment. At first, I had wanted a butterfly. Ultimately, I had no idea what I wanted.
“Don’t pass out,” I said to Mark. I stretched my legs out flat in front of me, like I was seated in a dentist’s chair, while a stranger shaved my arm with a dry disposable razor.
“I won’t,” the man said, his eyes dancing between strands of long curly hair that hung over his face. They were the only words he spoke until the end of the appointment when he turned to Mark and asked for fifty dollars, paid in cash.
Finally, he covered my arm in plastic wrap and taped it down with masking tape before handing me a piece of paper with care instructions.
“That’s it?” I expected more. I expected nothing.
I followed Mark out the front door and climbed into the passenger seat of his white Buick. It wasn’t until I was buckling my seat belt that I realized—for the first time in our relationship—he hadn’t opened the door for me.
The tattoo shop I went to after Mardi Gras was on the outskirts of my college town in a building that looked like a weekend rental cabin from the outside. On the inside, however, it was clean and updated with flash boards on the wall to provide design options for the impulsive. The staff was less than friendly initially—the tattoo artist wouldn’t even speak to me directly. Instead, he would consult on my design through his girlfriend, a former meth addict—“crank” she called it—who now made body jewelry and handled all his negotiations. I desperately sought their acceptance, to be welcomed by them for reasons I didn’t know or couldn’t explain.
For the year that followed, the muses Melpomene and Thalia from ancient Greek theater watched from my shoulder blade with the greatest range of human emotions as I caught what is known as “the fever.” I spent so much time in that tattooist’s chair that the ink stink mixed with my blood became a home place comfort.
I spent two hours in the chair for my arm band where he shaded the circles to look like bubbles without asking me first if I would mind. The rose tattoo on my foot—an homage to my trailer park upbringing—took a mere forty-five minutes. Long before lower-back tattoos were called “tramp stamps,” I sat for mine for more than three hours, my pants low around my hips, and my ass crack in plain view of anyone who walked through the shop door. Every hour we took a ten-minute break, and I would angle toward the mirror to watch the design—a face that’s a half-sun and half-moon surrounded by vines—fill space the size of a dessert plate on my skin. It didn’t heal within a day like the others. It gelled and gooed and kept me awake for two long, hot July nights before it finally scabbed over. For a week afterward, the inside waistbands of all my pants were coated with colorful flakes and scabs as the shimmer of healing skin shined through.
Finally, a guy I had been sleeping with spent the weekend with an ex-girlfriend, and I retaliated by inking purple irises across my chest and piercing my nose, both in the same visit. The iris piece was done by someone new, someone who had never inked me before. It’s a little sloppy, slightly crooked, and the only tattoo I can say I often regret. It represents haste, disillusionment, disappointment, and distrust, when it should represent independence and feminism and individualized power.
After that, ten years of tattoo silence.
“You gotta meet her,” Mark said. He was talking about Kim, a woman he had met in a leather store where she worked while he was shopping for a jacket to accessorize his new motorcycle.
I was sitting on the edge of his bed while he stood in front of me waving his hands about as he tended to do when he told stories that weren’t the complete truth, as though his grand gestures would distract me from his lies. For most of our relationship, it worked.
“I think you’ll get along great. She’s really cool.”
I nodded. I had been really cool once, too.
“She has these tattoos on both her arms. Right here,” he clutched a bicep, “And here,” he clutched the other one.
I studied his bare skin and tried to imagine it female, tried to imagine it something other than freckled and pale. I nodded again.
“So, yeah. Really cool.” He swiped his tongue across his lips until they blushed a deeper shade of pink.
Maybe he thought I would find Kim as cool as he did because I had longed for more designs of my own. It was second semester of my freshman year of college, and—aside from my roommates—I hadn’t made any friends, hadn’t connected with anyone on my 20,000-student campus because I spent the weekends with my boyfriend instead of going to parties. Mark was older, more experienced, a college drop-out who lived an hour away. He was an adult, and being with him made me feel like an adult, too.
There is a dichotomy between shame and pride. I had a secret. I still do. I walk into a classroom in pressed trousers and cardigan sweaters, and my appearance barely makes an impression on my students. That is until I watch my students’ eyes shift from the handouts they’re to take from me to the tattoo on my wrist. They move their surprised gaze to my face as though they have realized my humanity for the first time. I adjust my shirt to keep the irises from peeking out of the collar, but not for any reason other than I don’t want the questions, the disbelief, or the distracted gawking.
I give workshops, presentations, trainings, all as a professional who appears professional. Underneath those layers, though, my skin sings a different song, a ballad of many verses comprised of love pain, mistakes, imprinted memories.
I keep hidden, but I often wonder, are people more or less likely to listen to me if I give them something to look at?
When it comes to tattoos—particularly my tattoos—it seems everyone has an opinion, a comment, a critical remark. My mom preferred the piercings because those could be removed; she hoped I would outgrow them, and eventually I did. My dad preferred the tattoos. They could be covered up. They often were. If he didn’t see them, then they didn’t exist.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I bent over to pick up piles of gifts to carry them outside for my dad’s backyard birthday party. Aunt Sue yanked the back of my shirt up while I was still getting a grip on the wrapped packages and tissue paper-filled gift bags and revealed the brightly colored piece that’s half-sun, half-moon.
“Stop desecrating your body,” she admonished. Followed by, “It’s pretty, though.”
I waited until she stomped back through the kitchen before smoothing my shirt down over my back and making my way outside.
In exam rooms where I’m cold, wearing a stiff paper gown, and often kept waiting, nurses have a habit of swooping in without apology, exposing my skin to poke it with a syringe or wrap a cuff around my arm, and reacting to the designs they reveal. During my first visit to a gynecologist’s office, just before scooting down on the table, and the nurse, impatient and hasty with my modesty exclaimed, “How many tattoos do you have?” as the doctor pulled the gown away to check my breasts for lumps and exposed the irises stretched across my sternum.
After that, I found a different doctor whose nurse, if she notices my tattoos, says nothing.
Facedown on a massage table in a darkened room that is heavy with lavender oil, the masseuse will slip in the room after knocking lightly and fold back the top sheet. Often, she compliments the designs she sees, but in doing so, draws attention to the version of me that I am on the table to forget: the physical me, the “me” of the body.
The summer I spent a month teaching English in China, I wore crewneck T-shirts to cover as much as I could, but there was always an armband peeking out, and the rose on my foot was exposed by my sandals. Nobody said I had to stay covered, but I learned during our orientation conference call to err on the conservative; shorts should extend to mid-thigh or lower, flip-flops were out of the question. They didn’t say anything about tattoos, and I didn’t ask. I just assumed, as I always did, to cover up.
In China, the kids thought I was born that way. My tattoos were as foreign to them as my pink-tinted skin and my red hair which they always described as “yellow,” or blonde because I’m white. We Americans. We all look alike.
“Look at that girl with a tiger on her arm.” Mark would purse his lips with pride, even flap his eyelids a little as though he had eyelashes. I don’t know if he ever liked the tattoo itself, but he seemed to revel in it, the visible mark he left on me. I would never be able to forget him. The pleasure in his face when he commented on my tiger tattoo was unmatched by any other look of adoration that he ever gave me.
In the beginning, I would smile back and run my fingertips over the tiger’s face, noting how the swelling had gone down, how the ink had become just as much a part of the skin as my freckles and a fine layer of baby-soft hair that grew back soft, even after the tattooist had shaved it off. As the spring moved into summer and Mark met Kim, I often answered his “look at that girl” comment with annoyed impatience. Didn’t he have anything new to say?
The more Mark talked about Kim, the less I trusted his intentions, and I asked him accusatory questions about her and her role in his life. At first, he gave me reassuring answers, and I longed for the surge of love I felt when he set out to prove that, as he said one night, “No one can hold a candle to you.” I actively sought the dramatic love depicted in romantic comedies because I was immature, just like our relationship.
Fourth of July weekend, I stared out the car window scanning the freeway for Mark’s red motorcycle. He and Josh wore helmets with darkened visors to shield the sun as they headed to a northern Michigan lake somewhere unfamiliar to me. Rather than inviting me onto the back of his motorcycle, Mark pushed me to ride with Kim who drove Josh’s car. I wanted to drive, to have some control over the situation, but I had never learned how to drive a manual transmission. Kim knew how, a skill that no doubt impressed Mark who saw me more naïve with each passing day.
We stopped at a restaurant somewhere near Lake Higgins. The four of us sat in a row at the bar because the tables were full, and I hoped I wouldn’t get carded just for sitting there. I was always the only person in the group who was still under twenty-one, and everyone liked to overlook the limitations that created. Everyone, that is, except me.
“This girl has the prettiest tattoo on her arm.”
I turned toward the voice and saw an overweight man sitting on the stool next to Kim, pointing to the blue swirls on her skin and talking to no one in particular.
Kim sat with her elbows on the bar and took another bite of her turkey wrap. “You should see the one on my back,” she said as she turned around and the pulled the hem of her shirt up past her bathing suit strap. The slight outline of her ribs was visible through her tanned skin. The tattoo was another swirl of colors, a simplified knock off of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I didn’t know that then. Like her, I just thought it was pretty.
The man took advantage of Kim’s self-exposure and studied the image carefully while she chatted with him about where we were from and our plans to spend the afternoon on a boat and watch the fireworks over the water as the sun went down.
“She has one, too.” Kim nodded her head toward me, and I—reluctantly—pulled up the sleeve on my T-shirt. I wanted to go home.
He barely looked, barely nodded a courtesy nod. It wasn’t at all like Kim’s. I wasn’t at all like Kim.
In the years that followed, my body remained unsettled and reshaped itself with countless rounds of weight gain and weight loss, the designs on my skin expanding and contracting like springs.
College came and went and then graduate school, and I was on the job market with nothing to wear to interviews. I had difficulty shopping and dressing for work and special occasions. It occurred to me early on that men put on more clothes when they’re dressing up; women take them off and bare their legs, their arms, their shoulders, their backs. Bare skin is supposed to be sexy.
For me, skin equated to something else entirely. It revealed the decisions and secrets of my past, and a tattoo peeking out from a neckline or too-short shirt sleeve invited interrogations from people who wouldn’t feel the same compulsion to ask such personal questions otherwise.
“Aren’t you afraid of what they’ll look like when you’re older?” Really translated to, “Aren’t you afraid of what you’ll look like when you’re old?”
Of course I am, though I would never admit it. Of course I do.
My ex-boyfriend Raul hated my tattoos, as did his mother. His stepfather Bill—who was also my boss—barely noticed if they showed through the fabric of my casual office clothing. There was no office rule about appearance, no specific dress code to speak of. Even so, Raul didn’t even know that I had them until he saw me with my shirt off.
“They look so trashy,” he would often say as we lay next to each other, partially clothed and vulnerable.
I could only shrug off his comments for so long. The longer we dated, the more controlling he became, and the more I longed to please him as I struggled with my own issues of self-confidence. I wanted someone in my life to be happy with the person I was. I longed for the proverbial “clean slate” that would take away the markings of my past and give me a second chance at something I couldn’t yet define.
I was living in Ohio while Raul stayed in New Mexico, and the berating about my physical appearance grew worse with the distance. I would plan trips to visit him and would be met with a laundry list of improvements I had to make to myself as time went on.
One of the things on that list was tattoo removal. I had five tattoos by that point and the cost of laser removal was more than double my annual salary as a graduate assistant teaching three writing classes a year. An internet search for at-home tattoo removals compelled me to spend $99 on a serum that was to be applied with a brush—much like rubber cement—that was supposed to seep into the skin and bring the ink to the surface. Then all I had to do was wipe it clean.
I tried it on my tiger tattoo first and gritted through the burning sensation as my epidermis turned red, then bubbled, and finally, I had to blot it with a dampened paper towel as a reprieve from the pain. I lost count of how many applications I tried, but it didn’t make a difference. The tattoo didn’t bleed out. Instead, the skin blistered, scabbed, and healed, leaving a muddy scar on my skin.
Eventually, Raul and I broke up. Even though he had made me self-conscious about the tattoos that I had, it didn’t stop me from eventually getting more. In the years that followed, I got three more tattoos. After two of my two cats died, I got paw prints and a purple flower on my left ankle to commemorate them. It was the first tattoo I’d had in more than a decade, but the ink smell and buzzing of the gun were comforting in their familiarity. It was a new tattoo artist who had me lay on my side on a table while he gripped my foot and dug in. The vibration shivered up my leg each time he pressed into my ankle bone. It was a sensation I had never experienced, a pain that made me want to laugh and scream, an agonizing tickle. My reaction was embarrassing; I had always prided myself on being able to sit for a tattoo, no matter where it was or how long it took.
I wanted a cover-up for the tiger tattoo but lost my nerve the first time I wandered into a shop to inquire about it. Instead, I left forty-five minutes later with a nautical star tattooed inside my left wrist, the inspiration origin of it unknown to me.
With the tattoo bandaged, I came home to find my roommate sitting at the dining room table. Joe didn’t even greet me before he asked, “What happened to your arm?”
I didn’t think he believed my response until I showed him that it was a tattoo and not a suicide attempt. Even then, the reassurance was partial.
“A nautical star?” Nick scoffed when I showed him later that night. “How original.”
I shrugged. “I wanted a star.”
He laid next to me with his shirt off, a giant tree expanding across his soft, pale chest, rooted in a woman with red hair who was draped in white around her hips and holding an apple. On his back stretched giant angel wings and “life” in Hebrew was inside his left wrist. I got tired of seeing those images. What at first appeared brave and daring and creative, eventually came to be indicative of his desire for attention and affection. The idea of tattoos as sexy invites the gaze of others, side glances, blatant stares. There were even attempts at touching, to trace outlines with fingertips, to marvel at how the skin felt no different at sustaining such trauma.
He reveled in it. He sought the attention, the gaze from others. The questions and comments that made me want to cover up encouraged him to show off. His markings made others pay attention, and he thrived on their currency.
I didn’t know that the new piece on my wrist was a nautical star or even what nautical meant. I had to look it up, scrolling through images and links to articles. At first, all explanations pointed to someone who had served in the Navy or was somehow affiliated with sea life. Lake-locked in Michigan probably didn’t mean the same thing, and I felt a twinge of imposter shame. But then I found an article that specifically defined the placement of the star on the left wrist aligned with the thumb—as mine was—meant that the star was supposed to act as a positive guide for the future. I could live with that.
The final tattoo wasn’t really a new piece, but instead, the cover-up of my tiger face tattoo that I had wanted for years. It’s nearly a half sleeve now of three flowers, waves, and a train bell. It’s better suited to who I am and what I want, but there is still the face of the tiger visible beneath the center of the sunflower, the stripes still unable to pass as a seed head. It will take more time in the chair attempting to communicate a version of myself that has not yet taken shape, someone who can grow from regret.