To properly tell this story, I must first make a few confessions:

1. I find most tattoos to be “velvet Jesus painting at the truck stop” type tacky.

2. I took the Grey’s Anatomy Quiz to see which character I was most similar to. The result: Cristina.

3. I have no sympathy for the man on Main Street whose every gesture bleeds blue ink in the faded scroll of a now-obsolete woman’s name.

4. I did not ask my mother to pack fiddleheads in my bag lunch for the 3rd-grade class trip to the Boston Museum of Science because I wanted a green vegetable.

Despite No. 1 and in part, because of No. 4, I recently found myself at Behind the Lines picking out an ink color as though I was choosing frosting for a cake—seriously, but not with the attention one might offer for a permanent tattoo.

“What do you think?” I ask the man with “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees” tattooed on the side of his neck.

I have fingered the tattoos of lovers, found charm in the lines I came to know intimately.

How can a writer not love ink?

Except I am a chronic revisionist.

There are stories I have never uncloaked, for fear I will not like them in a year.

I never trusted myself to even contemplate choosing a tattoo I might love, or even bear, in old age.

But during the last year, that image of myself as Miss Rumphius, with a tattoo, began to permeate my pores.

However, I did not like the idea of the pain.

I hate bee stings, and Novocain shots, and stubbed toes.

Four scars.

The promise of more: a predisposition to melanoma, they say.

That is what made me crave a tattoo.

It is what made me think I could tolerate the pain.

Now, I was still left with the dilemma of how to choose a tattoo.


At Behind the Lines, the tattoo artist makes the transfer, shaves my hairless back, and I lie on the table, belly down, head turned to the side so I face the man on his red vinyl chair that sparkles in opposition to the white linoleum.

Within minutes, in summer heat and nerves, my body begins to stick to the plastic table.

It causes my ear to suction to the surface.

I am the girl who insisted her mother pack a Tupperware container of fiddleheads (i.e. unfurled ferns we picked down by the river) for my bag lunch the day our class toured the Boston Museum of Science.

My mother thought this was wonderful; her years of canning vegetables and cutting out sugar had finally paid off.

I didn’t reveal that my request had nothing to do with a hankering for greens, but instead, I wanted to be a little different than the kids with coke cans wrapped in tinfoil and peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

I wanted a few stares.

Thus, a flower for a tattoo simply would not do.

Nor would a tribal or a trendy Chinese character.

Latex snaps as the tattoo artist pulls on black gloves and mixes the ink.

I am still trying to decide how he interprets the phrase on his neck—whether he’s talking about war, or religion, or just the general philosophy on living.


My friend Amy and I decide the black gloves are much better than condom white.

“Yes,” he replies. “It shows that you aren’t coming in here for a nice doctor’s visit.”

He peels back the packaging on the needle.

Good. Clean needle. I think.

I brace myself for the pain of a shot.

When the computer spelled out “You’re Cristina” the day I took the Grey’s Diagnosis quiz, I immediately e-mailed Amy.

“Guess which one I am?” I asked.

She guessed right.

Offended, I asked, “What does this mean?”

I could not believe I was hard-ass, unemotional Christina. Or, as the quiz told me, “You are a modern woman who doesn’t buy into the whole puppies and flowers side of life.”

(I also cannot believe I am writing about guilty television habits.)

Her reply: “It means you want to be free.”

(This was, if you care, just after Cristina bolted from her impending trip down the aisle to wed Preston Burke.)

“Maybe you should tattoo FREEDOM on yourself.”

She was only joking.

It turns out, she wasn’t too far off the mark.

The buzzing begins, black glove presses on my shoulder blade.

I can feel the vibrations of the machine through the heel of his palm.

I brace with long, slow exhales.

Breathe, I tell myself.

I wait.


A steady vibration.

I wait for the needle.

For the pain.

Twenty seconds later, I realize, this does not really hurt in the sense of pain as I have known it.


So I lie there, ear suctioned to the table, slightly disappointed I will not have 40 minutes of breathing through pain, of testing myself, of earning this art.

Instead, as ridiculous as it seems, I hope that it does not end.

A week later, my mother and her husband think they are joking when they suggest I disguise my most recent surgical scars on my forearm with a tattoo.

Reportedly, I turn three shades of red.

I look to my sister for some sort of lead in; she used to jump at confessing my sins (or embarrassments) for me.

She only raises her eyebrows.

As proof that, at 30, I still like to shock my mother, I unzip my sweatshirt, peel down to a tank top as I turn my back to them.


“I already have one.”

They did not see this coming.

They did not know that this last excision of skin would make me realize I could meet pain halfway.

Or that I wanted a voluntary marking—a beautiful one—to offset the lines of a scalpel. Or that, at 30, I suddenly felt as though I could make this decision without regret.

My mother grips my shoulder to get a closer look.

Her mouth keeps moving without the accompaniment of sound.

“Do you know what it is?” I ask.

“It looks like … the things from maple trees.”


“The phrase means ‘She flies with her own wings.’ Carol designed it.”

I owe my one-of-a-kind tattoo to my cousin Carol Ann and her husband, Andy, both artists.

I gave them the Latin phrase – Alis volat propriis – and plead for help.

We decided irony was the best tactic.

They came back with the seed pods of maple trees as my wings.


Instantly, I knew this was the tattoo I wanted.

In my mind, these seed pods are synonymous with one tree at the house I grew up in—the same tree where my father constructed a wooden swing.


The tree where my sister and I, and often Carol Ann, would toss the seed pods into the air, watching them helicopter to the ground.

It is the tree where I came closest to flying, first physically, then in the tangents of daydreams.


It is where we buried our first dog.

It is where I made the decision to move to Chicago when I was 22.

It is where I return still, nearly every spring, to boil maple sap with my father.


This tattoo is the acknowledgment that I am free.

And yet my wings carry seeds, roots.

It is my confession that I can no longer find a contradiction in rooted wings.

TAGS: , , , ,

JENNIFER DUFFIELD WHITE is neither a flower child nor a wild child, merely a hybrid of the two. She was born in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, lived for several years in the Adirondacks, and she now resides in Montana where she field-tests mountain life and the writing life. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in publications including Narrative Magazine, Drunken Boat Journal, Witness, and Terrain.org. You can find her nonfiction in places such as Adirondack Life and Women's Adventure. She is a contributing editor to The Nervous Breakdown. Her website is here and she tumbles pretty photos here.

3 responses to “How I Got My Tattoo and Why It’s Way Better Than Yours”

  1. Jennette says:

    I am 36…and have no tatoo’s…but then I read this..while searching for a helicopter tatoo(to honour a friend who died in a helicopter accident last month)…I believe I’ll choose one such as this..

  2. Daniel Doughty says:

    Very pretentious.
    I was thinkng I wanted a unique tattoo (which doesn’t exist), and thought a maple helicopter tattoo would be cool.
    then I read this.
    I like the article, but the title makes the author seem as if they have some sort of insight into a deeper tattoo experience than the average joe.
    this is not the case. Everyone has their own thoughts, ideas, and explanations for tattoos. Yours is not cooler because you wax poetic. Or have whatever attached to it…it’s just a tattoo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *