Monday, December 5, 2011

What Do You Ink?

"The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have tattoos, and those who are afraid of people with tattoos." ~Author Unknown

Back when I was teaching, I often gave my students free-association writing assignments.  Sometimes they were completely limitless, the only instruction being "just let your mind go wherever your pen takes it."  Other times it was more guided, with a given starting point to see where it led them.  Every time it was entertaining, and led to some great discussion afterwards.

Once, I asked them to begin by choosing a color, and then writing whatever came next.  I asked for volunteers to read theirs aloud, and got some very ... interesting responses.  Of course, there were some of the typical associations.  Yellow: sun ... sunshine ... summer ... warmth.  Blue: sky ... clouds ... having the blues ... sad.  Green: grass ... nature ... money ... envy.  Red: blood ... tattoos ... freaks.  Wait ... what?

Upon hearing that, I casually took off my jacket, revealing both the tattoo on my arm and a hint of the one on my shoulder blade.  As I told her that I enjoyed her piece, my student embodied another association with red: embarrassment.  After having a little fun with her (ok, a lot of fun), I assured her that I was not offended, and she was not in trouble.  She was just doing as she was told - writing whatever came to mind, without stopping to analyze or filter anything that came out.

When there is time to analyze the thoughts, though, it's very interesting to see how differently people react to tattoos.  Some look at them and see rebellion.  Some see art.  Some see sin, and by extension, a sinner.  Some see pain, while others see beauty.  Some see a mistake that will bring regret in the future.  Personally, I don't think you can see much if you're only looking at "tattoos" in general.  Each one is different.  Each one must be looked at individually.  I am always interested in not just what the image is, but in the story behind it.

A year ago, I started this blog and told my Buttahfly story.  This tattoo became symbolic of that transformation.  It was the reward for reaching my goal, the tangible reminder of all that I'd gone through and what I had become.  As I've regained weight over the years since then, I've had mixed feelings about that.  At times I feel like a hypocrite: I am no longer floating on the wings of success, and this image on my ever-growing stomach seems to mock me.  Usually, though, I'm able to remind myself that my metamorphosis was more than physical, and the meaning still holds true.  We all have value, no matter our size, our age, or our limitations.  We all can fly in some way ... and the more we believe in ourselves, the more we can achieve. 

This was my first tattoo ... and my second ... and it's going to be my next one, too.  Originally, I wanted to keep it simple.  I liked the idea of a name bracelet around my arm, and though it didn't come out quite the way I'd imagined, I was very happy with it ... for a while.  Soon enough, I felt it was too simple, and not meaningful enough.  I wanted to honor the person who had always been there for me, so I added the two irises (her name is Iris, so this was more subtle than writing MOM across my arm).  Years later she honored me in much the same way, getting my buttahfly tattooed on her shoulder.  For years I've wanted to add more to it, starting with a lily for Gram. I've got a few other ideas that I want to incorporate as well, so it might just be an eternally evolving piece.  After all, it started as simply Kerry ...  but as it turns out, I'm not that simple.

My next tattoo is my least personal and, not coincidentally, my least favorite.  On a purely aesthetic level, it just was not done well.  The size, the coloring, the detail ... all just ... wrong.  What I learned from this one, of course, is how much more specific detail and direction I have to give to whoever is working on me, rather than just letting him/her do the work.  While a friend of mine once said he wants people to be able to look at his arms/back/legs and recognize the artist, I would rather they look at my tattoos and see me.  I have always liked Mickey Mouse, and this image (in my head, at least) represented so many childhood ideals that we would all do well to hold on to: innocence, magic, happiness, dreams, inspiration, creativity ... a simpler time, when anything was possible.  Then again, maybe it still is!

This next one is really part of a package deal, and its significance comes only when combined with its counterpart (my husband has the other half).  The yin yang symbolizes the complementary opposites that join together as a whole, a more spiritual version of Jerry McGuire's "you complete me."  We added my Hebrew name to his and his Chinese name to mine, and got them done on the left side of our chests. With these, we literally have each other's names written over our hearts.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been wanting to add a lily to the tattoo on my arm, in honor of my Gram.  I'd thought about doing that for years, and always said I didn't want it to be a memorial tattoo.  When she died I was devastated (and so upset that I'd waited too long), but I wasn't ready to add the flower then.  I'd learned from previous experience how careful I had to be, how much detail I had to work out, and how much time I had to take to find the right artist to do the work the way I want it ... and this lily was not to be rushed.

Still, I needed to do something ... and then this came to me.  I wanted something simple but meaningful.  I did a bit of research to make sure I got everything right, and spent hours on the computer adjusting the font and size.  Finally, I was ready to print it out ... and get it printed on me.  I went directly from the shiva house to the tattoo parlor.  From top to bottom, it's Gram's, Mom's and my Hebrew names.  Again, location was important: everything I do goes from my heart to my hands by way of Gram and Mom.  

It's kind of funny: I first thought of writing a piece about my tattoos months ago, and I finally sat down to write this piece a week ago.  I got this far, and thought ... what's the point?  Yes, there's a story behind every tattoo, but why tell those stories now?  So I saved it where I was at but didn't post, hoping that a conclusion would come to me.

The next day, I was in a store and a woman approached me when she saw  the tattoo on my arm (her primary question was "did it hurt?").  She had been diagnosed with cancer, gone through treatment, and was now cancer free.  She wanted to get a tattoo to symbolize her journey, her strength, and her survival.  We started talking about my job, what we could do for her, and how many others we knew who had been affected.  I gave her my card, and I now look forward to seeing her again.

Over the following week, conversation with a new coworker led to tattoos as well.  Though hers were covered by clothing, we talked about what they were and when she'd gotten them.  Not surprisingly, that led to the stories behind them, which led to stories about life, about family, about who each of us really is and what matters most to us.

Yesterday, my cousin sent me a picture of his latest.  We'd talked about getting lilies after Gram passed, and I knew he had gotten the outline for his done recently.  Not only was it now in full color, but he added an iris for my mom (his aunt), and said he wanted to add a butterfly sitting on one of the lily petals.  I literally felt the warmth in my heart as I read that text message.

With all of those conversations happening in just the past week since I started writing this piece, I realize that I was wrong earlier.  I said I don't think you can see much if you're only looking at "tattoos" in general, but I realize that's not true.  Though the specifics may be different every time, there is one thing that I see whenever I see tattoos: a connection.