Why I get inked.

I have three tattoos and I love them all. No regrets, no embarrassment, no bad experiences. I just got my third one a week ago and I’m already gunning for more!

Part of why I love getting tattoos so much is the process beforehand. The masochist part of me also enjoys the pain but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable…

Who am I kidding? I don’t care. But I will talk about that later.

I have been fascinated with tattoos since I read this as a kid:

And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.  ~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

My tattoos aren’t like makeup, an augmentation to temporarily change the way I look and then wash off at the end of the day. My tattoos are a part of me, an extension, amplification, of my being. My process for getting tattoos is this: pick something that is both meaningful and beautiful, and then find a way to portray it to the world in a way that represents who I am. 

Dove Tattoo

Exhibit A: First tattoo (right ankle).

*Note: All photos are right after I got the tattoos (before they healed).

This was my first experience paying a stranger to permanently etch something into my skin so I went with a script, which I highly recommend for other needle virgins. I found the dove from a design I saw on the web and the script says “Shalom” in Hebrew. The tattooing only took twenty minutes and was the cheapest kind of tattoo to get. It only hurt a little bit (I tell people it felt like scratching a sunburn), and it was something I could easily hide and wouldn’t be very noticeable (obviously not something I care about anymore). I chose the word “Shalom” because I admire the word’s meaning and the intricate beauty of the Hebrew script. Make sure you have a reliable source (in my case a professor at my university) check your translation. You don’t want to end up with a tattoo in Chinese you think says “Peace” that actually means “Prostitute.” I was currently studying Conflict Resolution and on my way to Rwanda and Uganda to study peacekeeping and the Rwandan Genocide for a semester. I cherish the ability to “wish peace” on others through actual words and actions. I am a people pleaser, what can I say?

My next tattoo was five years later, mostly because I knew I wanted something more complex and needed to save up.

Peacock tattoo

I wanna see your peacock cock cock… (left shoulder).

I chose a peacock because they are bewitchingly gorgeous. It’s in the “art nouveau” style which is my favorite; all whimsical and flowy with jewel-like colors. I wasn’t initially looking for any type of symbolism. However, in early 2012 I was discovering the meaning of beauty and dismantling my distortion of its definition within myself. It took me five months to decide on this tattoo. I was about to turn 27 and feeling pretty great about my life. I don’t remember ever feeling as confident or secure with myself and I wanted to celebrate it by putting a stunning animal on my shoulder where it will be seen when I feel my hottest – in a strapless dress or tank top. After I got the tattoo I read that the peacock is a symbol of renewal and resurrection and it only made sense.

2012 turned out to be a shitty year for me and in October I started planning my next tattoo. I call 2012 my “year of reckoning and discovery of what resilience feels like when it counts.” So, a willow tree it is!

Willow Tree

Whimsical foliage is the best kind of foliage (right forearm).

There is a lot about willow trees I love. They are gorgeous, their roots run crazy deep so they are a symbol of strength and resilience (ask any home owner who’s had to have one removed from their property), and they also symbolize feminine intuition and grasp of sorrow. I have been re-discovering and studying womanhood and feminism so an owl (my favorite animal and symbol of feminine wisdom) was perfect to stick in there on a branch. There are also kodama faces hidden throughout the tree as tribute to my love of Hayao Miyazaki films. In my favorite, Princess Mononoke, they are a symbol of health and happiness in a forest or a particular tree.

The choice to permanently mark my skin is a big one and I don’t take it lightly. I spend a lot of time planning and designing these guys. Shauna at Grizzly Tattoo did my peacock and tree (the guy that did the dove no longer tattoos) and is crazy talented but I definitely did my homework before finding her. You should only go to licensed/certified tattoo parlors, not only because it still allows you to continue to donate blood to the Red Cross, but it’s just sensible and safe. Letting a drunk friend lurchingly etch your girlfriend’s name on your bicep probably isn’t a good idea; this isn’t either:

Make sure you choose something that will be meaningful to you 20-30 years down the road. You might want to rethink tattooing your boyfriend’s face on your chest, or anyone’s face for that matter. Also, look at the portfolio of the artist to make sure your styles match. Part of the reason why I went back to Shauna is not just because she’s super cool and hilarious while putting you at ease throughout the process, but because she gets me. She actually understands my style and vision. I took pages of images and drawings in to Shauna and spent about a month just consulting with her before even making an appointment. Give yourself time to get ready and make any last minute changes before you seal the deal.

Also, maybe run spellcheck on your script.

Also, maybe run spellcheck on your script.

Tattoos do hurt, but for me it’s a “hurts so good” kind of pain that makes me feel alive. Okay, less cliché: it makes me feel infinite, yet mortal. I have the ability to feel pain because I’m a human being and because I can feel this pain I am able to distinguish between good and bad; I am capable of recognizing what I do or don’t want to experience. My shoulder tattoo hurt a bit where she had to go over the end of my collar bone, and then my willow tree was testing my limits toward the end, but the throbbing, raw feeling of that needle etching into your skin, and then watching it heal afterward into an exquisite manifestation of your essence makes the experience complete. When I am an old lady with baggy veiny skin and these images don’t look as awesome as they do now, yes, I may consider them a mistake and feel the need to cover them up, but I will also look back at my youth as a Bright Young Thing and remember the pain and how beautifully fresh they looked with fond nostalgia. I’m a big fan of nostalgia. Isn’t part of life learning how not to regret your past mistakes but learn from their reminder?

I am already planning my next tattoo. I will not give any spoilers, but I will say that it will be awesome, beautiful, and with a sense of humor.

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4 thoughts on “Why I get inked.

  1. I recently got a tattoo for someone very close to me who passed away. Since then I’ve been thinking did I do the right thing but reading your post has made me feel like someone else has meaningful reasons for getting a tattoo and it’s a good thing to celebrate it as part of who you are 🙂

  2. Hey Sarah, thought I’d drop a line to say that this is the best articulation of the appeal of (and I’d think the best possible reason for) getting a tattoo that I’ve ever read. That last paragraph especially blew me away. It’s a great articulation of what it means to be human, in general!

    And your newest tattoo looks really cool. 🙂

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