It began in a high-rise shopping mall in Thailand, in a booth specializing in designer knock-off purses, Hello Kitty swag and tattoos. We were 22 and eager to assert our independence and hipster edge, belied by the fact that we selected nearly identical images. My traveling companion chose the Japanese Kanji character for happiness while I settled on the similarly shaped character for sea turtle. With the help of a dual-language dictionary, I politely confirmed in stilted Thai that the teenaged artist was using new needles and sterilizing his tools. Back in our apartment, we took a series of fresh ink photos with our film camera and waited impatiently for an overnight Kodak shop to develop prints of the very tats we could observe at any time on our right ankles.
Damn, we were cool. And I was hooked.
Next up, I stuck to my original sea creature concept with a large starfish on my upper arm in celebration of my 24th birthday. I was living in Washington, D.C., and my best friend — ostensibly along to hold my hand and comfort me — instead spent the entire session flirting with Fatty, the non-rotund and surprisingly charming tattoo artist. Afterwards, we drank Blue Moon with orange slices in a dive bar and, once again, I reveled in feelings of reckless grownup-ness.
Eight years later, I left what I thought would go down in history as the most miserable job of my life. I drove home from my final day in the office, cast off the mandatory business suit that had always made me feel as though I were dressing in drag and headed for IronBrush Tattoo Parlor. “Give me a ladybug,” I said, “right here.” I pointed to my wrist, a location of such prominence, I reasoned, that it was difficult to conceal and would therefore keep me from ever again accepting a position in which I couldn’t be my authentic self.
The year 2009 delivered a stylized bee on my other wrist, a memorial to my lifelong best friend who died of leukemia in my 31st year. She collected bee-themed decor and somehow, through dumb luck and no small amount of hangover-induced laziness, had managed to ace her college Beekeeping elective by producing a hive overflowing with award-winning honey. (I still remember her explanation, something about how neglecting your bees just enough made them overproduce. That was Sarah in a nutshell; she flourished without even trying.)I wanted to permanently record my delight, and so sketched a procession of origami animals, each representing a member of our immediate family. The sting of the needle was sharper on the thin skin of my forearm, but the pain felt like happiness.
Flash forward nearly a decade. After battling infertility and a sense, for years, that my family of three wasn’t complete, our miracle child Otis was born. I am not one to use the word miracle lightly or, frankly, at all; it’s not my thing. But this kid conjured himself from my corpselike ovaries, and for that I will always be grateful as hell. I wanted to permanently record my delight, and so sketched a procession of origami animals, each representing a member of our immediate family. Papa Bear for my gruff and protective husband, a sea turtle for me, a tree frog and an otter for my little dudes—their first Halloween costumes. The sting of the needle was sharper on the thin skin of my forearm, but the pain felt like happiness. Completion.
I thought I was done until I met Alberto, a ridiculously good-looking artist in Athens, Greece. We stumbled into his shop after ten days of intense work with arriving refugees at the city’s bustling port, seeking a reminder of the people we had met and this transformative time in our lives. My new soul mate, Devin, and I opted for matching tattoos, olive branches twined with the Greek phrase “Solidarity with Piraeus.”
Three months later, I was back in Alberto’s shop, accompanied by members of my second humanitarian team and possessing no real agenda. This would be my first tattoo born purely from my desire to decorate my skin. Approaching middle age at an increasingly breakneck pace, dissatisfied with my round middle and graying hair, I wanted to celebrate myself physically. Give myself a beautiful new gift. It took shape as a quartet of Sandhill cranes, a migratory bird from my home state of Nebraska but also a symbol of peace, of flight. How better, I decided, to give myself a lift and also to honor in a tiny way the refugees I’d worked with who had flown, in dark of night, across borders and oceans in search of freedom.
Twenty years on, my Kanji sea turtle is showing its age. I rub coconut oil into it now and then to bring its shape into sharper relief, and in doing so I never fail to transport myself back to that ridiculous mall in Thailand, screechy pop music blaring, the fragrance of steaks frying at Sizzler — the city’s first Western dining import — a few floors below. I remember careening through the old city on my purple motorcycle, Cathia sitting behind me and squealing at every close call, feeling a million miles from home. Independent. Wild.
My starfish has been refined and colored in, in part because when we began dating John teasingly referred to it as my prison tat. In hindsight, perhaps Fatty was not an artist at the height of his craft. I don’t care, and really I can’t. Tattoos by their nature are for keeps, and in my mind there is no room for regret. They mark a moment in time, a relationship, a mood. They are impermanent in their perfection but permanent in their significance.
Our values change. Friendships come and go. We promise to return to places we fall in love with, and then we don’t because we have kids or we can’t afford it or we simply forget what we once loved. We lose our best friends in fluorescent-lit hospital rooms. We give birth two years later, two floors away. We gain scars; we gain wisdom. I feel fortunate that many of the greatest moments of my life are documented in ink for all to see but, most importantly, for me to see and to remember. I was young once. I was reckless. I was stupid. I was compassionate. I felt love deeply, and I recorded it on my skin — forever.