tattoo in three answers.

by Michael King

There are three questions I’ve gotten, often, since getting a tattoo. Here are my answers:

I. “What’s it feel like?”

Walking into a tattoo parlor feels a bit like crossing the perimeter into a culture I’m not part of. On the walls, undoubtedly, there will be skulls and bones and flowers and swords and flames, and similar symbols will emblazon the limbs and necks of most people already within. The atmosphere is actually quite peaceful, quite warm, but there’s an adjustment period for me, the newcomer. Will they wonder why I’m here?

Describing the tattoo and its location to the artist feels strange. I’ve kept it secret, mostly, because people offer suggestions when they find out what I’m planning. ‘Why not this word?’ they might say, or, ‘I heard that spot can be painful.’ As I tell the artist, I wonder if he thinks it’s stupid. But he smiles, says ‘okay,’ and I take a spot on the couch.

Waiting on the tattoo feels like a community. There are other people in waiting, and they belong to two categories: (1) those who have already gotten tattoos, and (2) those who are getting our first. Category 1 people are resident experts, and they are eager to shed light on their experience. Category 2 people, we are mostly quiet. Our minds are busy. We are excited, nervous, unsure.

The time between choosing the tattoo and getting the tattoo feels like a rollercoaster just over its first apex. What if this is stupid? I wonder. What if I get it, and I look at it, and I think, ‘I hate it’? For a moment, certainty is gone. What if I go on a date, and I like him, and he sees it and quietly decides against me? What about job interviews? Soon, it’s my turn.

Getting a tattoo feels like people say. The tattoo artist cleans the spot, wipes it with cold alcohol, and impresses a printout of the tattoo on the arm. Once it’s dry, he asks me to extend my forearm across the bench. With one hand, he gently holds my arm down, and I can feel my fingers shaking. The first strip of the outline feels a little bit like a fingernail scratch. The entire outline stings a little, like a deliberate scrape. As he works to fill it in, it feels like a less focused scratch. It’s an annoying feeling, maybe, but not terribly painful. Watching my arm change, however, feels surreal.

Looking at it the first time feels impermanent. ‘I like it,’ I say, with little alternative. The honest answer is that I don’t know if I like it. I know I will need to wake up, to find it anew, before I will know.

Discovering the tattoo feels beautiful. Having forgotten it happened, I extend my arm to do something trivial, and it catches my eye. I smile. This happens several times over two weeks. Soon, I look at it and feel as if it was always here. Like it was waiting there, the ink, an inch beneath my skin, until finally ready to emerge. An internal self manifest, it is akin to the process of falling in love; ‘were you not always here beside me?’

II. “What’s it for?”

A tattoo is not an act of rebellion. (At least, not for me.) They are viewed sometimes, I think, as a means of resisting culture. Of expressing some lack of belonging to the norm. (This is probably generational, to some extent. Millennials rarely blink twice.) I got my tattoo with no desire to bother, harm, or annoy anyone. There could be some rebellion, I suppose, to the decision to get one despite knowing some would be bothered, harmed, or annoyed. But, then, that means there is some rebellion to living with honesty.

A tattoo is not a cry for attention. (At least, not for me.) The day I decided to get a tattoo, some months ago, an ex told me that people get tattoos for attention. Though I didn’t believe him, fully, his lack of support did give me pause. What if he thinks it’s stupid? I thought to myself. What if it is for attention? Today, I can tell you that I am surprised when people comment on it. I am happy to answer questions, grateful for compliments, but it feels similar to being complimented for a birthmark or the color of my irises. Usually, the most I can manage is, ‘Thanks.’

A tattoo is, for me, a reminder. An expression of that which matters most, of a meaning so firmly entrenched that it must be documented. It is here, on my forearm, on skin that is – at most times – visible. It catches my eye.

III. “What does it mean?”

As I reflect on my life thus far, everything that has truly mattered has required me to be brave. The process of learning to run, of breathing through those early stretches of pain and pushing past limits, required me to be brave. The process of writing, of baring my scars and finding the meaning in my pain, has required me to be brave. The process of coming out, of speaking myself into existence and sharing myself authentically, has required me to be brave. The process of loving, of pulling my heart out and handing it over and hoping to have it held joyfully, has required me to be brave. The process of healing, of sitting with my brokenness and scouring it for meaning and learning to stand and run again, has required me to be brave. Processes of listening, of caring, of learning, of changing the world for the better – they all have a prerequisite of bravery.

Five letters, in bold font. Visible from a distance, and striking up close. Located on the left forearm, underneath which runs a tangle of veins rushing blood throughout my body. BRAVE.

Since getting it, I’ve had this moment several times: Something big up ahead, a head full of doubt and heart full of worry. Am I good enough? Will I stumble? Can this make me feel small? And I’ve turned to see it there, waiting. Reminding me.

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