On Tattoos

I read a post at Knocked Over By A Feather called Taboo Topic #7: Tattoo’s where Merbear said:

“The family who tattoos together, stays together.”

This sentence is amazing to me. As I commented over there on the post, I can’t even imagine getting tattooed with my mom as Merbear did. My mom does not approve of the fact that I am tattooed, at all, in any way. When I got my first tattoo, the look on her face when she saw it was similar to the look she would have given had I just told her that I’ve decided to give up my graphic design job to become a prostitute. The disappointment and near anguish on her face was clearly visible. My mom has a terrible poker face and her face then was screaming “I do not approve.”

No one else in my family, from a hundred generations back to now, has tattoos. At least, not that I’m aware of. I am the only one. This being the only one business is not new to me. I’ve always been the only one to do this or that. I am, in essence, the black sheep of the family. I don’t have many tattoos, but the ones I have are big and/or visible. I don’t have any that are hidden.

Words and Flames

My right arm is covered from shoulder to elbow. There are actually two tattoos there. One is Arabic writing and the other is flames going over it.

The Arabic writing was my first tattoo. It was translated into Arabic for me by a Saudi Arabian princess. Even people who speak Arabic can’t read it since it’s in a rare dialect. I’ve only run into one person who was able to read it. It looks something like this, although the following is just regular Arabic that I pulled from Google translate:

من الأفضل أن تعيش يوم واحد أسد من ألف سنة كنعجة

It wraps around my upper arm in a spiral. Arabic is the most visually beautiful language in my opinion, which is really the only reason it’s in Arabic. I got it done long before the September 11th attacks when Arabic became a curse instead of a thing of beauty.

When I got it done, I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship. I wanted something to mark the end of that chapter of my life, to remind me not only of how far I had come, but to never end up there again. It means:

It is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a sheep.

When I moved to California, when that chapter was well and truly over and it was time for a fresh start, I got the writing, not covered, but surrounded by flames. The one lady who was able to read it, confirmed that it basically meant what I wanted it to say, which was nice. Honestly, even if it said “Haha, stupid American wants Arabic writing,” I wouldn’t care since a) not that many people in the world can even read it and b) to me, it says what I want it to say. It’s more symbolic than literal.

The Anchor

The next tattoo I got was a ridiculous anchor on my inner ankle done by my boyfriend at the time who wasn’t even a tattoo artist, but a piercer. We were sitting around in the tattoo shop where he worked one very slow day and I let him tattoo me. It is my least beautiful tattoo, but I still love it. It’s the only tattoo I have that is a piece of flash ripped from the wall instead of custom. It looks just like this without the rope and stars:


I’m not sure what prompted me to get a spur of the moment tattoo by someone who wasn’t even a tattoo artist, but I love the spontaneity and imperfection of it. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of how fleeting life is and how one moment can change everything. It reminds me to “Charge!” and not just sit back and let things happen, which is ironic since that’s the exact opposite point of anchors. Generally, when charging by boat, you don’t want an anchor anywhere near the water.

The Octopus

On the same leg as the anchor on the outside of my leg, I have a huge tattoo of an octopus that was based on my own drawing. It takes up almost all of my outer calf. My grand tattooing plan was, and still is, water on one side of my body and fire on the other. I have flames on the right and water-themed tattoos on the left. This is a picture of the tattoo right after I got it done, so it’s still very raw:

2008-01-09 06.35.23

Nowadays, the tattoo is all placid blues and greens, but I love the fiery red of this picture. It fits the octopus’ eyes. He is fierce. It is my favorite tattoo. Strangely, I’ve never given him a name, but I suppose he already has one.

This is also a symbolic tattoo. There is a Samoan creation myth of the octopus-god Na-Kika creating land. His many arms shoved up the earth from the bottom of the sea to form the islands, the beaches and the rocks. He is the son of Na Atibu and Nei Teuke, the first beings.

I am not Samoan nor do I believe in god(s), but I like the story of the octopus dredging up useless muck from the bottom of the sea and creating land with it for people to live on. If you know me at all having read any of this blog, you’ll understand the symbolism of taking worthless things from the bottom to create something useful and beautiful out of them. If you don’t understand, read this.

Plus, there’s the added bonus that I’m a Detroit Red Wings fan and it never hurts to have an octopus in Detroit. This is the Red Wings’ mascot:


The Knuckles

I have my knuckles tattooed. A long time ago in a state far away called Massachusetts, I had a soul-sucking corporate job. I had a beard. Are you familiar with this term? A beard is basically a fake life story to cover up your real life. Lots of gay people, before gay was even remotely socially acceptable, had beards to cover up the fact that they were gay.

My beard consisted of a normal life with a happy relationship, a great job, and just generally being normal (can you imagine?). At work, I pretended to like music and movies that I didn’t like to fit in. I hinted that I was Republican, although I never came out and said it. I pretended that I was just another happy cog in the big wheel that was the extremely conservative corporate environment I worked in.

As an example of just how extremely conservative the extremely conservative company that employed me was, they just abolished the corporate rule that women weren’t allowed to wear pants before I started working there in the mid-1990s. The one piece of flair, the one tiny part of my real personality that I allowed myself to show, was my fingernails. I used to paint them blues or greens or purples. One day, I was told that my choice of nail colors was unprofessional. Only pinks and reds were acceptable from now on. How can a color be unprofessional? It’s color.

I stayed at that awful, demeaning job for four years, hiding my true self. It was the height of my abusive relationship, too. I used to wear scarves around my neck to cover up strangulation marks. It was a terrible few years and I’m not proud or fond of any of it. I am ashamed that I stayed there so long, suppressing who I really am.

In order to positively ensure that I would never be lured by money into a job like that again, I decided to get my knuckles tattooed. I smile when I think of what those extremely conservative corporate types would have to say about that.

I had no idea what I wanted to have on my knuckles for a very long time until, one night, I was shooting the shit with a friend. He said, “if I ever get a tattoo, I know exactly what I want, but I can’t because I’m a teacher. If there’s one person who should have my tattoo, it’s you.” He picked up a pen and drew letters on my knuckles that said:


I got them permanently tattooed the next day. A couple of years ago, I was out with some friends downtown and we got talking to some Finns. One of them had the same knuckle tattoos as me. Neither one of us had ever seen someone else with the same tattoos before. We took a picture to commemorate it:


I want more tattoos. I always want more tattoos. I never have the money to make getting more tattoos a priority, otherwise I’d have a lot more of them. All the tattoos I have mean a great deal to me, whether they were spur of the moment or planned for years. They remind me of things I don’t want to forget. They remind me of things I do want to forget, while remembering the lessons I learned from them. They mark milestones and remind me of how far I’ve come and that I never want to be there again.

I hate it when complete strangers ask me what my tattoos mean. You don’t know me; how could I possibly explain? I usually just say, “It’s personal.” My tattoos are personal, even though they’re there for the whole world to see. Tattoos should always mean something to you, not necessarily anyone else. My tattoos remind me of something every day and that is the whole point. It’s not about beauty or art, or being cool or rebellious; it’s about wearing the things that are most important on the outside.