Lydia, oh Lydia

“What about you, Pandora?

“You seem like someone who would have a tattoo.”

I blush a shade at what I consider flattery.

A group of “cool kids” of eclectic ages, genders and apparent lifestyles are planning their next trip to the tattoo parlor. Each has an assortment of vivid renditions and eagerly compares notes on artists and techniques. Their only commonality is confidence, a swagger that says, “I have style and can tolerate pain.” These could be the same kids in high school who lined the halls and jeered when I blithely pranced by in my softer side of Sears and owl glasses; today they have mistaken me as one of their own. I look around to make sure my doppelganger is not slinking behind me in a leather jacket.

I ask to see their favorites, clothing gets lifted or pulled aside, and while admiring I finally admit to not having one of my own. They encourage me. “You get addicted,” they say, “You will want another and another.”

I have a flashback: skinny arms glistening with spit and Technicolor vegetable dye. I loved Cracker Jacks back in the day when they had lick ‘em and stick ‘em tattoos as prizes. I came along too late for toys like rings and figurines, but I am lucky to at least have been a kid during the temporary tattoo era. Cracker Jacks came in packs of three so I might have as many as six tattoos: cartoon characters, tiny boats or cars, “hip” sayings like Groovy! and Far Out! and my favorite, simple flowers or paisley swirls.

This summer at an amusement park I got a henna tattoo on my wrist—a delicate vine of ivy and day lilies. I tried not to use soap but as days passed, it faded from chocolate brown to auburn orange to faint dirt, more like a smudge of freckles than a pattern. A ghostly bracelet, slowly seeping into wrinkles and pores, then disappearing.

There is no doubt I love ink on skin. I am also intrigued by the passion and stories that surround the images.

I have known several men and women who have acquired elaborate Japanese style motifs over substantial parts of their body. Antique woodblock prints are perfect templates, the lines and color schemes translate and animate brilliantly on flesh. One of my colleagues has a Geisha with a layered kimono and parasol posing on her biceps and a fire breathing dragon emerging from her cleavage. Another has a carp swimming up her torso. Another yet has a tangle of chrysanthemums sprinkled in and around Hokusai’s wave like seashells.

I know people who have single drawings with significant meanings. A woman tattooed a butterfly on her hip for her fiftieth birthday, the year she also flew from an unhappy marriage. One of our own Great Whatsit heroes sports a Superman symbol on his calf. A bright green cloverleaf celebrates an Irish heritage, a palm tree on an ankle, a tiny Red Sock on a proud Boston fan’s pitching arm.

So if I like the idea of seeming like a person who would have a tattoo, if I love the look of color on my body and if I am intrigued by speaking a thousands words in the connotation of a picture, why am I not in the parlor chair right now?

The answer reads trite—commitment issues.

I saw a woman on a train once who had tattooed her entire shaved head with very realistic blue scales that also ran down her neck, disappearing into a tattered black scarf. She had an evil scowl that matched her markings. She scared me. I could not take my eyes off her. What if she ever came to Jesus? Wanted a job at IBM? Decided to grow out her hair? Curly hair rimmed in reptilian skin is disturbing in many future scenarios. Also confusing, the Betty Page twenty-something sitting in front of me on the Boston Common with the Vargas girl tattooed over both shoulders and down her back: a pin-up usually reserved for truck stop bathrooms or military barracks, three feet of the female form drawn through traditionally male eyes. Was she going to love this tattoo after her ironic phase and into her feminist phase?

I have often thought that I would want a tattoo of an origami crane, for peace, for loyalty, because they are such beautiful birds. But then I think, sure, I like the crane now, but five years ago it might have been a maple leaf, ten years before that it might have been the Tasmanian devil, and at some point back it might have been the purple Far Out! from the Cracker Jack box. All of us have made a mix tape (CD) (iPod playlist) that we labeled “Soundtrack to My Life” in black sharpie only to play it two years later and think, who was this person? We change, I change, obsessions, professions, beliefs, habits, friends, clothes, favorite colors, all the symbols and themes shift and reassemble. I feel raw most of the time, never cooked, never settled. Unless I expect to paint a museum mural depicting some epic journey across my body, how can I be sure that what is meaningful to me today will hold sway years from now?

I heard a story the other day about a woman, a surgeon, married mother of two, who like me, sort of entertained the idea of a tattoo but never actually did it. It seemed too permanent. Then she was diagnosed with melanoma. She is in remission, but the prognosis is unknown. She is getting a tattoo, a Maori design to commemorate a visit to New Zealand. Life, once constant, is now slippery, and when the expectations of time fail, the permanence of a tattoo is strangely comforting.

A close friend of mine recently tattooed a cluster of cherry blossoms on her shoulder. In Japan, “sakura” are a poetic reminder of the fleeting impermanence of beauty. Enjoy this flower in this moment, before the petals float away like melting snow. On her skin the ethereal is deep and tactile, the impermanent, permanent. The blend of nuance and corporeal spins in my head.

I wonder what a person with a tattoo seems like and why–individuals as varied as their illustrations. What they share is perhaps defiance, the decision to make a mark and live with it. Graffiti, art, vision, reading someone’s mind literally on their sleeve; it is a brave thing, to choose a totem, to represent, amuse and inspire, now and then.

21 responses to “Lydia, oh Lydia”

  1. bryan says:

    pb: hey, lady. you know my answer is you should just get the tattoo. you may regret it, but part of the fun is carrying around something that marks a specific moment in time. You can always alter them later if you want to add new meanings. I would probably advise against the Tasmanian devil, but who am I to judge? Personally, I think a groovy 70s crackerjack “far out” would be kind of awesome.

    In my limited experience (only 2 so far, but having carried the older one for over a decade) the best part is feeling a sense of creative ownership over your body that I didn’t really feel before.

  2. Rachel says:

    Bryan’s right. After 11 years of wearing a Keith Haring image on my left deltoid, I definitely have days when I wish it would disappear. (For one thing, iIt’s really going to mar the elegant effect of that strapless Armani gown I plan on wearing to the Oscars next spring.) But most of the time the tattoo serves as a nifty reminder of the many reasons I put it there in the first place. Some of those reasons are public; others are deeply private; a few have changed with time; all of them, like the creative self-ownership Bry mentions, are things I’ve fought hard to claim. My advice: if you really, really love the image, go for it.

  3. kate jones says:

    I was surprised by the literal interpretations of this post thus far. I don’t think that Pandora was seeking advice, answers, or justification regarding her personal tatoo ambivalence. I think these responses truly miss the essence of this post which I found to be a thought provoking, metaphorical musing on the deeper emotional, and psychologic issues that surround this topic—a topic that most often ignites passionate opinions on both sides. The rhetorical questions she presents will most certainly stimulate a cascade of unique answers and visceral responses within each of us, responses that have been shaped by our own history of personal experience….the same personal experience that is reflected in our choice to get a tattoo or not, and what, specifically, we choose that image to be. Thank you Pandora, once a again, for a well written, stimulating post. KJ.

  4. trixie says:

    i don’t think that it’s that surprising that people are responding to a “thought provoking post” about tatoos by talking about their own experiences with tatoos.
    i don’t get the sense that anyone is “missing the point” of pandora’s interesting essay by responding with their own personal experience on the matter.
    a discussion has been generated, and i imagine that this is the highest goal we can attempt.

  5. Lisa A says:

    I hate to play devil’s advocate here, but has anyone seen what happens to a tattoo 40-50 years later? I have seen many and, more often than not, when I query an elderly person regarding the story behind their tattoo, they merely shake their head and mutter something about being “young and stupid” or “that was a long time ago”. In the face of sagging, wrinkled skin, tattoos wilt and fade, often morphing into an unidentifiable smudge of ink….and not in an interesting, Salvador Dali kind of way. In addition, with time, skin, including the ink stained skin of a tattoo, becomes mottled with age spots and those ugly, warty-like barnacles of aging. So, instead of a tattoo commemorating some important moment in one’s life, it can become nothing more than an unattractive reminder of lost youth and the ravages of age.

  6. PB says:

    Bryan and Rachel–I love this notion of ownership–walking around in your own canvas, and in good Shaker ideology, a physical reflection of the spirit at that moment. As for the gown, when the time comes Rachel, that is what wraps were made for (gold and shimmery!)

    Kate and trixie, discussion is the whole point, thank you both for being honest.

    Lisa, it is interesting, most of the people I “interview” about their experience mention a copiuous amount of alcohol involved. hmmmmmmm, it makes one wonder, anesthesia or overcoming flashes of future ambivelence?

  7. kate: i’ve always thought of Pandora as a transcendentalist essayist in the Emersonian vein. She observes the material world, takes notes, then writes essays that are really about transcendental flashes of insight. Even so, her pieces are also about the material world her symbols are drawn from. (I think Pandora ultimately enjoys her literal body more than Emerson did his.) So you’re right: she’s not so much talking about tattoos in a literal sense. But at the same time, of course she is. Wondering about your capacity to commit (in an abstract sense)? Nothing remedies that metaphysical dilemma like a good painful scarification ritual you can carry with you for the rest of your life. I think Pandora’s day is coming. She is the kind of person who gets a tattoo.

    Lisa: Tattooing ink has changed considerably in the last few decades. Ours won’t bleed or fade like old Navy tattoos from WWII did. Colors will remain vibrant, lines intact. Even text will remain clear. That said, I love seeing old people with faded, blurry tattoos. I like to think about where they were when they made that decision and what it might have meant to them at the time.

    Rachel: your tattoo is one of my favorites ever.

    Pandora: I was stone sober both times. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  8. PB says:

    You, Bryan, are indeed a Superman with a capitol, Kryptonian S. xox

  9. Stella says:

    Clearly I’m catching up on a week of TGW reading here…

    Although I often feel ambivalent about the design of my tattoo, I think my moment of victory was enduring the pain. I tend to be perceived as femmey, so it’s gratifying to surprise people’s expectations. Yes, I have a tattoo, and yes it hurt, and I’ve used a chainsaw, and I’ve knocked down a brick wall. Surprise!

    The attention is also gratifying… tattoos give people permission to talk about and touch your body. It’s quite interesting to watch people cross these lines of intimacy so freely.

  10. Lisa Tremain says:

    Somehow this post slipped by me…but I’ve got one and don’t need to explain why. In fact, when people ask me about it, I usually say that I got it “to mark a time of transformation.” Which we’re always doing hopefully, so mine reminds me to keep going with the changes…

    My grandpa was a WWII vet with an anchor on his left fore arm. I loved that messy-looking thing, barely an anchor anymore at the time of his death, and I never got the impression that it was something he regretted.

    That said, should I or should I not hide the aztec-ian balanced butterfly between my shoulders when John and I get married next fall? It’s so hard to find a dress that’s not backless, but my mom will have a cow…

    Ah, fuck it, “transformation,” right?

  11. Stephanie Wells says:

    AHEM, you guys are getting MARRIED?????

  12. That’s what I thought, but I thought I might just be out of the know. So thanks, Wells.

    Congrats, L & J. I can only imagine the DJ setup.

    And as for mothers: they need to come to terms with tattoos at some point. I got my first one when I was in my early 20s and was a little worried. Eventually they just learn to keep quiet.

    xo — bw

  13. Scott Godfrey says:

    Speaking as someone who has, not one but two, Woody Woodpeckers (one under each clavicle), tattoos can be mildly regrettable.

  14. Lisa Tremain says:

    Yes, it’s true, as of September 1, we’re betrothed (?), engaged, scheduled to get hitched. Thought I’d drop the bomb on TGW crowd in as nonchalant a manner as John asked me.

    Y’all better come.

  15. ever seen an old dude with a cool tattoo? nope. that’s cause they all turn into green globs after a few years. the beautiful rose with Susie’s name in fine script around it is now sort of a bruise looking birthmark. the only good thing about that is the one you just got of calvin and hobbes both flippin’ someone off will look like a butterfly silliotte soon enough

  16. Tim Wager says:

    Yo, LT!

    Jumpin’ the broom! Makin’ an honest woman of yourself! Doin’ the matrimony mambo!


    I must say I approve heartily, both of the action in general and your choice of spouse in specific. Get ready for a different sort of year as you plan the event and prepare yourself for it. Oh, and would you be interested in about 175 settings of flatware? How about some tablecloths and runners? We also have hundreds of Ikea tumblers, cheap cheap. Lemme know.

    Oh, and as to the topic of tattoos: I don’t have one and am thrilled without it. I plan not to have it forever. I won’t bore you with the usual reasons here. Maybe sometime over a few beers.

  17. PB says:

    OK, I just want to say that I am honored to have an engagement mentioned in the comments of my post. Congratulations!!
    But please, do not depend Tim’s gracious offer for hand-me-down housewares items, I know a wonderful little shop were you can register . . .

  18. Lisa Tremain says:

    PB, I want you to know that I’ve been feeling guilty for somehow misaligning the commentary on this post to suddenly be about ME, but I guess I’m proving myself as a bridezilla. Where’s the registry?

    Tim and all, thanks for the good wishes. Do you think Jeremy’s mad that I didn’t tell him in person? But he doesn’t know that I’m also going to ask him to be one of my bridesmaids!

    And one more to PB: I love to read your posts.

  19. Tim Wager says:

    Well, the flatware, glasses, etc. weren’t for LT herself, but to use at the reception. Buying can sometimes be cheaper than renting, believe me. Gawd fuhbid I’d suggest Ikea tumblers for a wedding present!

  20. PB says:

    Lisa, Please, make it about you, make it about anything, I am a total comments whore, and the fact that it has all shifted to love . . . GRAVY!

    OK, so the joke is that I work for well-known housewares/ furniture company that I will email so as not to use sacred greatwhatsit space to shill. I just thought that any Ikea reference under one of my posts was ironic if not rather hysterical.

    But then I don’t get out much.

  21. WW says:

    this was on the MUG website today….