Life Doesn't Fit in a File Folder

The Terrible, Beautiful Tattoo

Sacred  Heart
Image by slurv via Flickr -- NOTE: This is not a picture of my tattoo. This is gorgeous!

It was out of character for me, but I showed up without a plan.

Just a little scribble on a scrap of paper.

I asked a few million questions about the needles.

“Lady,” said the man at the counter, “we ain’t interested in spreadin’ diseases.”

Jed, the newest apprentice, was available.

I agreed. Jed would be fine.

What did I know?

I wanted a tattoo.

So I dropped my pants and allowed a stranger to drag needles across my skin.

As I laid on the table, I listened to the rain that pummeled the tin roof over our heads.

And through the open door, I watched the rain sweep cigarette butts into the sewer.

Any other day, I would have been sitting cross-legged on the futon in my apartment grading student papers. Lying there, I was grateful I didn’t have a dog that needed to be let out at any particular time. I remembered how – before I was a teacher, a role model — I liked a little spontaneity.

Eventually, Jed finished.

I couldn’t wait to see it.

I had shown Jed that initial sketch, but he had taken some liberties.

And he left me with a permanent lopsided heart.

I paid seventy-five dollars in cash for my little act of rebellion.

Initially, I was annoyed by its wrongness.

But I quickly grew to love it.

And twenty years later, each time I look at my tattoo (that has become even more crooked over time), I remember a lazy day in New Orleans. An in-between time, when I was neither wife nor mother but dangerously free.

My tattoo reminds me of a place I love fiercely. It reminds me how love without patience and care can become unbalanced. Most of all, my tattoo reminds this Type A control-freak that when a person acts impulsively, sometimes the results can be pleasantly imperfect.

What do you think about tattoos? Art or self-mutilation?

• • •

I so rarely have time to do the fabulous prompts from Red Writing Hood, but this week, it spoke to me. The assignment: Write a piece in which a tattoo figures prominently in 300 words.

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

72 thoughts on “The Terrible, Beautiful Tattoo

  1. Definitely not a fan of tats – for men or women, but particularly women, and especially a “tramp stamp”. They’re too white-trashy for my tastes. My former girlfriend wanted a small Jewish star for her ankle, but she chickened out.

    You asked for our opinions. That’s mine….

  2. I don’t have any tattoos but i think of them as art. Some of them are quite beautiful. I don’t have any because I am too chicken. I have piercings. All in my ears, but I have a lot. 7 in one ear and 5 in the other. I don’t know why, I just felt inclined to do so.

    1. Hi Maire: I tend to be quite liberal about body modification, and when I was young, I always loved and appreciated those pictures from my yellow National Geographic magazines where they showed people from other cultures. I am fascinated by the question of “What is beautiful?” and how very different this idea is interpreted across the globe.

      People have done piercings and tattoos since the beginning of time.

      I bet your piercings are fabulous. 😉

  3. I LOVE this piece! In this piece sound you sound so much like me, except that I don’t have a tattoo. Coming from Japan where the only people with tattoos are yakuzas (Japanese mobs) I haven’t felt comfortable enought to get one. My spontaneous moment was when I pierced my ears when it wasn’t very common to have holes in the ears, even in Tokyo. I felt strangely free when my mother called me “a barbarian.”

    1. Rie! I love this so much! It is difficult to go against our parents — even when we are adults. I was brought up in a modern Orthodox Jewish synagogue where it is forbidden for Jews to get tattoos. It is still forbidden among more observant Jews, and I’m not sure I can be buried in a Jewish cemetery anymore. Only people with tattoos from the Holocaust are allowed a pardon since the tattoo was forced upon them and not a choice.

      Getting a tattoo was a HUGE act of rebellion. In choosing to do so, I was going against my religion, and I knew my parents would be furious! (Hi Mom!) Still, I wanted one. And I have never really regretted it. Maybe for a brief moment, but it was fleeting, and then I recognized its profound symbolism which has grown more powerful for me over the years. Next time I see you, I will appreciate your earrings more. 😉

  4. Definitely art. I’ve wanted to get a tattoo for 16 years now (my family crest). Unfortunately, life has gotten in the way and I haven’t been able to get it done. Other priorities have taken over for now. I think I will get it done either this winter (for my birthday) or next summer (after completing my first triathlon). I’m 90% sure I want it in the middle of my back, but may want it wrapped around the top of my shoulder. Yes, I know both locations will hurt. So what. You’ve got to suffer for your art.

    1. Hi Eric:

      Well, it will be like your triathlon, right? That training hurts, right? But you are doing it anyway. Pushing through the pain to do something that you want to do. It will be symbolic of all of that. And all your life’s struggles. And as someone once said to me: “Anything worth having requires enduring a little pain.” 😉

      Just pick a great tattoo artist.

      No offense, Jed, wherever you are. I’m sure you are very good twenty years later.

  5. This is incredible! My favourite line: “So I dropped my pants and allowed a stranger to drag needles across my skin.” So raw and almost reckless. I’m getting one tomorrow and you’ve pinned the stage of life beautifully:

    “An in-between time, when I was neither wife nor mother but dangerously free. My tattoo reminds me of a place I love fiercely. It reminds me how love without patience and care can become unbalanced. Most of all, my tattoo reminds this Type A control-freak that when a person acts impulsively, sometimes the results can be pleasantly imperfect.”

    Art, expression, freedom, belief.

    1. Hi Aletheia:

      I think I have always been very body conscious and having chosen and paid to put something imperfect on my body was — for a moment — like: What did I do?

      But then it felt sooooo right.

      We are all so flawed. We have to look past our lopsidedness to find the love we all possess on the inside.

      Do I sound like a dork?

      I think that sounded dorky.

      But you know what I mean, right? 😉

  6. C’mon, no pictures?!?

    I have no problem with tattoos. I don’t have any and likely never will, but in some cases I think they look pretty neat. I think people just need to understand that if you get a giant tattoo across your neck or whatever that your chances of certain kinds of employment vanish. Then again if you’re covered in tattoos, your probably not applying for an “office job”. If you’re a rock-star, have at it… I’ll admit here to having a little bit of a man-crush on Adam Levine of Maroon Five, with all his cool tattoos and stubbly beard. Don’t tell anyone though! #moveslikeJagger 🙂

    1. Of course you would want pictures, Steve. 😉

      You are so naughty.

      Trust me — twelve years post-pregnancy, it isn’t so pretty.

      But, honestly, it never was!

      And you are right, people who put their marks out there all over their necks and arms are definitely making a statement and possibly limiting their choices in some professions, but they are becoming so commonplace these days, I have a feeling that will soon change, too. And we’ll have tattooed bankers and lawyers and doctors.

      Personally, I’m glad mine is in a secret spot. Between me and the people with whom I choose to drop trow. You can’t even see it when I am wearing the skimpiest of bathing suits. How’s that for discreet?

  7. I have a thing about needles. I don’t like them very much. Ahem.

    Still, I like the idea of having a tattoo. There’s so much we don’t get to choose about our bodies, but art? Art is the ultimate choice. If anything for me, I think it would be panty-line paw prints.

    Great post!

    1. Bobbi! I am TERRIFIED of needles! Isn’t that the craziest thing?

      When I get flu shots, I have to sing Fleetwood Mac songs.

      Or the ABC’s.

      Whatever comes out.

      But I chose my location carefully.

      And my tat is small.

      And I love the idea of panty-line paw prints.

      Maybe you just need a black Sharpie sometimes. 😉

  8. I’m a big, big fan of a little spontaneity, but not when it comes to tattoos – too permanent. Mine, I came in, talked to a few artists, found mine, made an appointment, came in, talked, discussed, created.

    Made another appointment, and he drew it on me in marker.

    Then, we inked.

    But, it sounds like the spontaneity in your own experience worked out well 🙂

  9. Great story, Rene! I’m no fan of tats but I realize it’s a generational thing–we geezers connect them to drunken sailors or folks who have “do-it-yourself” markings of old flames. My daughter got a little winged foot on her ankle as she is a runner but that’s all so far. I REALLY hate the big ones women have just above their butt that you see when they sit down–TMI!
    Actually, I have tattoos–on my thinning eyebrows (“permanent makeup) and I love it!

    1. Ermigal! You are so not a geezer! And I think tattooed eyebrows totally count. Needles near your eyes? Um, yeah. Brave.

      It also sounds like a great idea.

      We might need to chat about that.

      Read: I think I should probably consider that since my brows are disappearing as I get older.

  10. I have had two tats covered up and redone, I LOVE the one’s I have now, though they are substantially bigger than what I started with 🙂 The one on my shoulder is about my rebirth as well…me. It has grown as I have, and I love all of it…my other is a cover up, that is amazingly beautiful but doesn’t hold any life lesson or real meaning other than I love having it 🙂 and the small one on the inside of my arm is my boys names 🙂

    I have never really had a drawn plan for any of them, I go in with ideas and my artist tries to make me cry (he can’t) we have a great arrangement 🙂

    1. Fascinating that you had tats, covered them and then went back for more! They are so expensive; I can hardly imagine doing that!

      I would like to get another tattoo, but I would be much less spontaneous about it now. I would research and go in with a clear vision. I would make sure that we drew it on first. Before ink.

      Oh, and I wouldn’t just take any old artist.

      I love how free-spirited you are.

      I tend to be a little more controlling. Normally.

      Read: always.

      That day was an anomaly for me. Maybe that’s why I love that tat so much.

  11. I love tattoos. I’m determined in my next life to have full sleeves. Currently I have three, and each one means something different to me. You’re so right in the experience bringing meaning to it to. I got my first one a month after turning 18, and it’s already faded looking, but it was created in an act of uniqueness, spontaneity, and friendship. I appreciate all my tattoos, and I’m glad you do too. Thanks for sharing this story.

    1. Jess:

      Yes yes yes! I find that when people talk about their tattoos they generally are all connected to a memory: a time, a place, a person.

      I don’t think Westerners have much in the way of rites of passage, and I wonder if this desire for piercings and tattoos and other forms of body modification somehow speak to a larger cultural desire to connect our personal journeys (of mind and spirit) to our bodies.

  12. I’m not a big fan of the tat. My father had one and told me it was a mistake to get one and I always tried (cough) to follow my father’s advice. I truly liked this post but I thought it would have been poetically perfect if you told us that Jeb spelled something wrong…maybe next time. I will one day find the perfect insignia to permanently mark my body, but I’m content for now just trying to find my statement.

  13. I love your imperfect heart!

    My favourite part of my body was a scar I had on my stomach, about 3 inches long. I have a flat stomach naturally. Then I gained 60 in 4 months while pregnant with twins. Although I lost all the weight, I did not lose all the skin. And my original scar is misshapen and lost in a sea of other, less beautiful, scars. These are harder to love, but I try. 🙂

    1. Leanne:

      I heart your scars.

      We would not have Vivian and William without the skin that had to stretch to make room for them.

      And, like you, I have a flat stomach.


      And by that I mean when I suck in really hard. 😉

  14. I am not a fan of tattoos. I do have an extra piercing in my ear that I look fondly on. I did it in my kitchen while my college boyfriend cringed in the corner! Hahaha!

  15. I love the tattoo. Also, this is another of those posts I wish I could “Love” instead of “Like.” And then repeat, a million more times.

    For most of my life through law school and my early months in Japan, I was extremely impulsive. I was so impulsive, I once said that I was going to become a nun in a dangerous region overseas; no one batted an eyelash. Seriously.

    After I came back from Japan, I became really rigid and structured in how I liked things done. Since having Li’l D, that’s been tempered by the joy of seeing all these little unplanned graces unfold around him. I need those reminders.

    I don’t personally want a tattoo, but Ba.D. got a tattoo of the number “16” inside a little TV on his arm at one of his Survivor weekends. I didn’t feel one way or another about the idea of his getting one when he was debating it, but I have to say I liked it when I actually saw it. Every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of it and think, “Hot!” No idea where that comes from, though! :p

      1. Deb! Thanks for your super kind words.

        Scary, but I actually knew exactly what you meant about Ba.D without the explanation. He was on SURVIVOR for 16 days.

        I so want to be on SURVIVOR.

        Every time you mention this, I am so jealous. 😉

        And I love that he got a tattoo to commemorate what, I’m sure, was a life changing experience for him.

        1. Every time I mention it, I feel like a tool for having mocked him about it for so long. *headdesk*

          I’m better now! And still pushing him gently toward writing that guest post. 0:)

          I went through his TwitPic feed to see if I could find a picture of his tattoo. No go, but I did find a number of other pictures that make me smile and make me feel less gloomy. Like this conversation! ♥

  16. Like John, I don’t do spontaneity for my tats either. Any in our family (the hubs and I) have taken months…years…to plan. the spot, meaning, and artwork all have to blend somehow.

    It is art. I mean, even on paper it’s art.

    But it’s something else. Mutilation? Yeah, it’s part that too. you are irreparably disfiguring yourself.

    But is it BAD? well, i think that is just a matter of taste. 🙂

    1. As I said before, I am a control freak, so this was a crazy thing for me to do.

      But it was also liberating.

      If I were going to get a new tattoo, my process would be completely differently.

      I would find an amazing artist and really make sure we had an understanding.

  17. I remember the story of your crooked heart from this summer when I was contemplating my tattoo.

    I still haven’t moved forward with it. For a few reasons.

    One of them is that it hasn’t been “right” yet.

    I need to be ready to embrace the lopsidedness of it all.


    1. Hi Julie:

      I figured you would remember my story.

      Yeah, you have to be prepared to relinquish control when it comes to getting a tattoo. And you have to be willing to endure some pain.

      Which we also discussed.

      Much depends on the location you choose.

      That said, your time will come.

      Or not.

  18. I’ve got a tattoo, though I’m planning to get it altered soon. It’s not that I don’t like the previous one, but it’s a symbol of a meaning that has grown since I first got it. I want to reflect the changes in the meaning with changes of the physical representation. That’s what tattoos mean to me. The only thing I might have done differently was to choose a different location, only because it’s in the middle of my back (just above the bra strap) and I can’t see it without a mirror. I’m not sure where else I would put it, though. I wanted it centered and hidden, but there was no good option for the front of my body. I didn’t want a belly tattoo and I’m certainly not going to have a cleavage tat! 🙂 And the tramp stamp is also not my style.

    I like the way they look and kind of wish I was more comfortable with visible tattoos, but I know whatever I get done to this current one will probably be the end of my inking.

    1. Hi Leonore!

      I’m exactly where you are. I’d like to add on to my tattoo — to adapt the old meaning of who I was to the person I am now. My tattoo came before I was married, before I was a mother. I am so different now.

      I think I need more ink.

      But I haven’t thought enough about it yet.

      And this time I would be much more thoughtful. 😉

  19. I love that you can see the silver lining, that you are courageous enough to admit your flaws and see the beauty and balance in imperfection, if there even is such a thing. I wish we could have seen a picture!

  20. Nancy at Not Quite Old recently had a post about tattoos (she has some hilarious, and strong, opinions on the topic)! I commented that I didn’t really get it either, although I do get it from an artistic, free-spirited perspective. All of my friends have tattoos, and none of them regret it. At 18, I went as far as getting an eyebrow ring, but I’m way too fickle for a tattoo. (Meaning, my tastes change too often for something so permanent!)

    Love this post! Wish I could see the tattoo, LOL Wow. Just realized how pervy that sounds. Pssh too late to start caring now. 😉

  21. When I was 14, I knew I wanted tattoos. I am just old enough to remember when tattoos were “trashy.” I suspect tattoos were trashy for a bit longer in the rural South than they were anywhere else.

    Then, one day I was 30. Nothing in my life had worked out. I hated my job (receptionist with a college degree). I hated…well, everything. I had always done what I was “supposed” to do, only none of it had made me happy.

    All that time, I had wanted a tattoo. But I somehow thought getting one would put me on the highway to hell. The thing was, my life was so dismal it didn’t matter. So I got a tattoo.

    It’s this gorgeous custom drawn job that uses a sun, moon, and stars to represent the duality of life. Then, I got another tattoo. I repeated this process until I had 12 tattoos. Yes, really.

    In the end, those tattoos did change the direction of my life. I realized this life is the only one I get, and I’d better do the things that are important to me. I realized I had to be willing to take chances. I realized conventionality didn’t matter all that much. That’s how I grew up to be Catie.

    Sorry that got long. Great blog today. 😀

    1. Yay for Catie Rhodes!

      Where is the like button on your response?

      That is kind of it for a lot of people, I suspect.

      Our bodies are really our only canvas upon which we can forever leave our mark.

      Well, and I guess there are books.

      But mine is taking so dang long.

      So tattoos. Yeah. 😉

  22. I think tatts can go either way. There are many tragic tatts out there these days but to me the reason/meaning is what counts. I have reservations against some kinds of tattoos myself (and some reasons for getting them – I hope that I’d be able to remember my child’s name and date of birth without having to have that info tattooed somewhere on my person, for example) but I try not to be judgemental.

    My first tattoo was done on impulse as well and I don’t regret it. I know that I can be quite impulsive. My second was done after more thought and even though I wanted it to be a little different, the artist convinced me to do it his way. I’m glad I did – the meaning is really conveyed in a much better way than if we’d done what I wanted.

    The next one is in the works now, I’m still giving myself a cooling-off period but I think it’s time for me to mark another significant time in my life with permanent ink.

    I’m glad that you love our tattoo; even moreso that it has significance in your life rather than being there because it was the fad of the day.


    1. Hi Christian!

      Every time you show up I think: Blackouts. Power failures. 😉 I promise I have the story. I just have to write it.

      I do love my imperfect tattoo, but — like you, I am ready for more ink.

      I just have to think about what I would want.

      At this point in my life, I am less impulsive and I want to get it right. 😉

      1. Hahaha, there’s absolutely no rush Renée, you know that. One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that it comes in its own time. 🙂

        Good luck with the next tattoo, I’m sure it’ll be great! If you need any further inspiration once you have an idea, I’ve found that deviantART has some amazing artwork.

        I look forward to hearing about the new tattoo; maybe this one might go in a place that allows us all to get a look? 😉

        1. Ha! Probably not. I’ll likely stick to the same area. I think I’m inadvertently building myself a tattoo-bikini. I like my tattoos to be secret.

          For me and the peeps with whom I feel I can drop trow. 😉

          You understand.

          1. Totally. Oh and I hope you get your pages back without too much drama. I wish I knew more about WordPress to be able to help properly but all I can do is say that if they’ve been moved to your Trash you might be able to restore them if you haven’t emptied it yet.

  23. Good tale – I’m so glad it’s true and not an imagining.
    Although the actual tatoo would be better than the stand-in heart up top.
    I haven’t got one – tat that is – but don’t rule it out. Just the one though. A harp.

  24. Lovely memory! I love quirky tattoos – I recently got blackbirds on my wrist that scarred horribly…and I like it that way.

    1. Even scars can be beautiful. I think the key is to expect the unexpected.

      “Blackbird singing in the dead of night
      Take these broken wings and learn to fly
      All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive…” <3

  25. I think tattoos are a form of self expression. I have life tattoos in the form of scars. Scars on my face and body from getting hit by a drunk driver, scars on my belly from carrying my daughter, and scars on my hands and arms from mountain biking accidents and follow up surgeries. Every scar has a lesson attached and I wouldn’t trade a single scar for unmarred flesh.

    I like your crooked heart and it will serve you well as you age. At some point ALL tattoos become crooked. Such is the law of gravity. If for some reason your tattoo was to be exposed, say in a locker room, those around you would whisper, “Doesn’t she look GREAT for her age?” ;}

    Some of my scars are getting buried in droopy skin. I may have to get filler in my face so I can revel in the brilliance of the street cred exposed scars give me.

    1. Hi Teresa:

      Ha! I love the idea of getting Rejuviderm so that you can make your scars show up better! 😉 You are my kind of woman.

      When I meet you in real life one day, we can compare scars. I have a nice deep one on my leg where I tried to do a glide kip on a bunk bed during summer camp.


      That didn’t work.

  26. OMG, I love this! I can so relate to that betwixt and between time and especially that feeling of extra Responsibility once becoming a teacher.

    Also? I love that its lopsided, and that you embrace that!

    Well done! So happy that you wrote to this one!

    1. Hi Galit:

      Right? I remember feeling like I had to be so perfect and good and controlled during my earliest year of teaching. And it was so hard for me because I used to be the crazy, impulsive girl!

      Going and getting that tattoo on that day, well, it was about going back to that girl. And so I just did it. I can hardly imagine doing it like that now. But I’m glad I did.

      Thank you for your kind words.

      It sounds like you totally understand that feeling of between-edness.

  27. In college I thought I wanted a tattoo but I could never decide on what to get. Then it seemed like everyone was getting tattoos and the more people got them the less I wanted one. So NOT getting a tattoo has been my rebellion. 🙂

  28. I love this story. I can imagine you laying there waiting, with the rain drumming over head. Beautifully written and I absolutely agree with the sentiment. And no I don’t think they are trashy at all. I think most are beautiful. I think some people could show a little restraint sometimes.

  29. I wish I was brave enough to get a tattoo. The moment has passed now, but there was a time I very nearly got one. And then I bottled it at the last minute. I’ll have to look back at photos to remember those days when I was “dangerously free”, although most of the time I was too busy enjoying myself to remember to take a camera. Bummer.

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