When I was fourteen, my father got a split-feather tattoo. He came home one Saturday and rolled up the leg of his jeans, wincing and cursing as it chafed his skin, and revealed his calf with a red and brown and black split-feather spanning its entire length. I touched it, running my index finger over the varied terrain of its healing. Tiny red and yellow scabs flaked off from the rough parts amid other smoothness; they looked like fruity pebbles in my hand.
“What does it mean?” I almost whispered.
“The split-feather is the sign of a wounded warrior,” my dad said gruffly, rolling down the leg of his jeans. He cleared his throat, let out half a laugh, and shook his head. “I think that’s appropriate, don’t you?” Then he walked away, not giving me a chance to answer.
People always ask that question, it turns out. What does that tattoo mean? That and, Did those hurt? I hadn’t realized it at the time, but these are the questions I hear, now that I’m twenty-four and have my own tattoos. I think sometimes what they’re really saying is: I’m interested but afraid…how important must a tattoo be to get one? Can I handle how much it might hurt? I hope you’ll say it doesn’t hurt. And when I hear those questions, I say things like, Yes, they hurt. Anyone who says they don’t hurt is lying. And I point and show them what each tattoo is. But it’s difficult to discuss what they mean, and how that meaning might be divorced from what each image symbolizes.
Imagine you’re at the grocery store and in the line in front of you is a man with a scar disfiguring his face. Imagine how you’re trying not to stare at him. You’re purposely distracting yourself by reading the headlines of magazines. Of course you would never say anything to him, but you’re asking something in your head. Make sure you’re really imagining the store. The faint smell of frozen food and paper, the incessant beeping of each item being swiped, the sound of plastic bags being filled. The man is right in front of you, and the side of his face is made visible as he turns to glance at the chewing gum and mints. His skin appears to have been sculpted out of drying play-dough. You can’t stop yourself from looking. Now think. Think about what you’re asking in your mind. You assume that it hurt when he got the scar; that doesn’t matter to you. It would be ridiculous for you to ask what it means. What you want to know is this: What happened? How did he get that?
Perhaps this is a poor example, since most individuals with scars did not choose to receive them, but I often think that, when it comes to tattoos, this is the more appropriate question than asking what they mean. How did this person arrive at their decision to get this tattoo? What drove them to it? I know it’s the question I prefer. For some people, the answer is simple: They thought it would be funny, or make them more attractive, or somehow make them more unique. There are plenty of people who spend little or no time thinking about their tattoos before getting them, while others toil for years over the exact shade of pink, the precise fold of the petals, the placement of the flower that reminds them of their mother.
Now, if someone were to ask me how I arrived at the decision to get my tattoos, I would take them back to the same house where my father lived when he got his split-feather tattoo. It’s the same year, just a few weeks later. It’s sometime after midnight. I’m fourteen and sitting alone in my bed, in my room just next to the kitchen, eating a bowl of cereal. My room was like a hotel room; it had all the comforts one could ask for—a soft, queen-sized bed with purple pillowcases and a purple duvet, a dresser with a vanity mirror above it, a large television with a DVD player—and yet it didn’t feel like home. It was empty but for the furniture.
That night was cold. Even in my flannel pajama pants and sweatshirt I could feel the frigid air penetrating the windows and radiating inward like a small force field. The house sat on three acres of flat land and the wind moved past it like sheets hung out in a storm. Inside, in the living room, pornography shone from the big-screen TV, just as my father had left it. Food sat half-eaten on the kitchen countertops—some raw-smelling steak with dried up mashed potatoes and A1 sauce. A crumbled old breakfast sandwich from the freezer. A gallon of melted vanilla ice cream now turned thick as syrup. Cigarette ash and empty pill bottles lined the coffee table.
I was alone in the house. My dad, the wounded warrior, was out smoking crack with his friends. I didn’t care, I told myself, because it was fun being alone. I could do whatever I wanted. I could watch The Lord Of The Rings on the TV in my room, which I didn’t have at my mom’s house. I could be up well past midnight on a school night eating cereal in my bed. I understood that my situation wasn’t normal. I knew that I should feel scared or upset, but I was a teenager and, even though I did sometimes feel scared, I was mostly glad to have the place to myself.
Around one o’clock, I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway. Two columns of light swiveled into my room through the windows. I set my bowl quietly down on my bedside table and rose slowly to my feet. I knew the car wasn’t my dad’s—it wasn’t going fast enough. It could be one of his friends, looking for a place to crash; it could be one of the many girls he had over. Or, it could be one of the two reasons my dad had installed surveillance cameras—for the police and the people he’d fucked over. I couldn’t help but remember the last time it was the latter. Marc, my dad’s friend told me to stay away from the windows. The two of them roamed the house in their boxers, peering through the blinds. They screamed, red-faced, into their cell phones, spitting out their words. I heard my dad say, “Fuck you, cocksucker, my kid is here,” and saw the veins throb in his forehead. They watched for passing headlights on the surveillance monitors. I lay on the floor in my room next to my bed, on the side opposite the windows, listening to the television in the next room. That whole night felt more like I was watching a television show than actually experiencing real life. I wasn’t so much afraid; I was tired, annoyed, and somewhat curious, but mostly I was just naive.
As I set my cereal down and headed towards the door, I hoped those people—the “fuckers”—weren’t in the car crunching down my driveway. I moved in a crouched position from my room at the front of the house. I made my way back, through the kitchen, to a hallway at the side of the house. I crept down the hallway to a door at the end, which led out to the driveway. I lifted the smallest corner of the blinds and looked out into the night. The car settled to a stop just near the door and the red of its taillights flicked out. It was my mother’s car.
I went out and met my mom’s small figure as she triggered a motion light. Her face was furrowed and exhausted, her arms crossed against the cold. I had never seen her up this late. She had two young children from her second marriage; her husband was in the mortgage business. She taught co-op and water-aerobics.
“I know he’s not here,” she said, her breath visible as she approached me. “I just couldn’t sleep because I had this feeling. Why didn’t you call me? You can’t just stay here by yourself. How did you think you were going to get to school in the morning?”
“No,” I said, “Dad just went out to the store. He’ll be right back. Let me call him.” I don’t know why I lied for him. Maybe I wanted that lie to be the truth, or maybe I was just a young, selfish kid who wanted to be alone and free. I fished my cell phone from my pocket and dialed his number. No answer. I called him three more times in a row. His phone started going straight to voicemail. Didn’t he think that maybe I could be hurt or in trouble? I didn’t say anything as I dropped my phone back into my pocket. I didn’t know what to say. I was frightened and embarrassed.
“Oh honey,” my mom said. “Go get your stuff. I don’t want you staying here anymore.” I told her to go wait in the car. I didn’t want her to see what the house was like.
I went back through the hallway, which smelled like cat litter, through the kitchen, and back into my room. I didn’t have many things to gather. I got my backpack, some hair clips, my Lord Of The Rings DVDs, and my small bag of clothes for the night. I only stayed with my dad on Wednesdays, every-other weekend, and sometimes Thursdays, too, so I didn’t keep a full wardrobe at his house. I flicked out the light in my bathroom and glanced around my room for anything I might have missed before switching off that light too. There was nothing.
Mom drove us to an I-HOP a few miles away. Taking me out so late on a school night was something my mother would never do. It was a peace offering, a way of saying she was sorry for all this, and that I would still have fun even though things would be changing. I ate chocolate chip pancakes and drank hazelnut coffee. My mom sat across from me, watching through sad eyes, evaluating my happiness and health. On the way home I thought about my dad’s stupid tattoo, how he thought he was a wounded warrior. That’s not what a split-feather means on a white crack addict with a family too wealthy for his own good, I thought. In that moment, for the first time, I wanted to fight my father. I wanted to show him what being wounded really felt like.
Then somehow, in a strange paradox that I still don’t fully understand, my desire to free myself from my father collided with an immediate and searing desire to get my own tattoos, even though, in a sense, they would make me more like him. Perhaps, in that instant, I understood my father’s pain for the first time. How unbearable, unbelievable it was. Or perhaps I finally understood my own pain and my right to acknowledge it.
* * *
Four years later, on the day I turned eighteen, I went to get my first tattoo. I was dizzy with anticipation. I was not on my way to get a small tattoo, not one on my finger or foot. It was a giant phoenix that would rise from below my right hip up my side to the middle of my rib cage. I would be getting it in one sitting—color and all—over the span of about four hours. This way, I’d figured, if it hurt too bad I wouldn’t have to worry about getting up the guts to come back for another session. Leaving the phoenix unfinished was not an option.
There’s an irony here, of course, that I would choose a tattoo so symbolic, so full of “meaning.” The implied motivation behind my choice—that I viewed myself as a being that had risen from the ashes, that I’d overcome something as mysterious and difficult as death—was every bit as charged and perhaps ludicrous as my father’s assertion that he was a wounded warrior. But I decided on that image anyway, because I could call myself whatever I wanted to. I could, and my father could, and anyone in the entire world for that matter could decide to link themselves to a metaphysical or supernatural or exquisitely beautiful or deeply meaningful identity and perhaps, by the magic of permanent art, make that their reality.
My dad was in prison that year, so I didn’t have to worry about him being mad at me for getting a tattoo. He’d been locked up for pulling a gun on my step-mom (now, consequently, my ex-step-mom) and threatening to kill her in front of my three-year-old brother. The incident happened years before, but the case dragged on and my dad had only been recently convicted. I didn’t think he had done it. The prosecutor said they had video—my dad’s own surveillance video—proving that he did. I never watched the video. I didn’t think he did it. When I wrote my dad a letter to tell him I was getting a tattoo, he wrote back saying tattoos weren’t “lady-like,” but that he loved me and I could do what I wanted. My mom was sad but resigned. She knew I was going through with it.
I’d thought for eight long months about the first image I wanted to tattoo on myself. I ran my hands over the warm soapy patch of my skin in the shower, imagining where it would be. Each day, when I got out, I pinched my skin as hard as I could with my nails for as long as I could take it, imagining how much it would hurt. I researched countless tattoo parlors and artists’ portfolios. I practically interviewed everyone I knew who had a tattoo: Who is your artist? How much did it cost? Which is the worst spot? What does it feel like?
After weeks of relentless thought—comparing one portfolio to another, berating myself with endless questions and answers about the pros and cons of each—I finally decided on an artist named Caleb, who worked at a shop called Holdfast Tattoos. As I passed by the front window on my way to the door of the shop, I could see a man lying on a table resembling a stretcher. Above him hunched an artist, moving the gun quickly across the man’s chest, as if he was using a regular pen. Blood smears lined his blue surgical gloves. I felt like a trespasser. I wasn’t part of this community; I didn’t know its rites of passage. My hands shook as I opened the door. The bright smell of blood and sterilizer consumed me. I blinked into the fluorescent lights. A tall, thin man stood up to address me. He had a shaved, tattooed head, glasses with black, rectangular frames, and ear gauges the size of silver dollars.
“Hi doll, can I check your ID?”
“Yeah,” I fumbled with my purse, “I have it right here.”
“Alright. Do you have an appointment already?”
“Yeah…I’m here to see Caleb.”
He turned his head towards the back corner of the shop, where I could see a scruffy guy who looked to be in his early thirties drawing in a sketchbook, and called to him. As Caleb rose from his seat, the man turned back to me and said, “Happy birthday by the way.”
I followed Caleb outside while the apprentice set up his station. He struck a match and spoke through clenched teeth and cupped hands as he lit his cigarette. “So, you ready to get your first tattoo?” he asked. We had talked about it on the phone a couple days before. The phoenix was already sketched out and ready to go.
“Yeah,” I said, “I think so. I hope so.” The air around us felt clean. Light trails of smoke hung and descended in its crystalline stillness. I could smell the first wisp of fall; I could feel its breath graze the back of my neck, leaving me chilled and alert.
He laughed a little and let out his smoke. “You’ll do just fine, darlin’.”
Once back inside, I lay on my side on the tattoo bed, just as Caleb had instructed me. The blue stencil of the phoenix, the entire foot of it, was already pressed to my skin between where I’d pulled up my shirt and rolled down my yoga pants.
“Mmkay,” Caleb said, “I’m gonna do one line to show you what it feels like. Then we’ll just dive in.” He turned on the tattoo gun. It was louder than I thought it would be, like an enormous, metallic bee about to sting at any moment.
I braced myself for something unmanageable, something I would have to force myself, with every fiber of my being, to endure. I shut my eyes and clenched my sweaty fists close to my chest. After what seemed like an eternity, the gun finally kissed my skin. It was a quick line from what felt like a heavy, vibrating razor. There was pain, of course, but the pain felt old; it felt as if it was just being pulled to the surface. The needles didn’t hurt me; they didn’t make me a wounded warrior or a phoenix or any other thing. They only acknowledged my pain. They only made it tangible.
“Okay, that’s your tester. You ready for the fun?” Caleb said.
“Yeah,” I said. I was ready.
The gun went back to my skin. It whipped across it, back and forth, pausing every few moments for a rag to wipe the blood. After a time, the cool burn of the rag began to hurt more than the hot, familiar needles. Caleb’s hand rested heavy on my hip, holding it in place, keeping me from shaking. The pain was small and acute and relentless. It was ancient and steadfast and majestic. It was wholly a part of me. I settled into the warm hum of the machine, to the beautiful feeling of becoming something different, if only on the surface.
I imagined how, over the years, flowers would blossom from my thighs. How black bears and bobcats and skulls would split my skin, painting my arms, my feet, marking me forever. I imagined myself at the grocery store, standing in front of a stranger in line. I thought about how they would stare. How they might wonder what had happened to me.