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Tattoo made its mark on this mother


Last summer, at the age of 42, I decided to get a tattoo -- a cluster of violet grapes and green leaves and tendrils just above my right ankle.

Inscribing on my body a colorful, permanent symbol was a way of branding, claiming, possessing myself, with a certainty that whatever ravages time and age and fate have inflicted on my body, there is one two-by-four inch plane of my own skin that I unreservedly consider beautiful.

When my daughter was 15, she experienced a violent trauma and immediately afterwards began begging for permission to get a tattoo on her chest. I didn’t insist that she articulate her reasons, and I think her desire for a tattoo had begun months earlier. But as a mother I would at that moment have given her anything -- a ticket to the moon, my own right arm, anything at all.

As a professional bodyworker, I believed that instinctively, intuitively, she was making an attempt to reclaim her body as her own, to place a protective talisman on herself, an eminently wise response to the experience of being the victim of a crime. The tattoo she chose was simultaneously bright and dark, whimsical and forceful, and impossible to ignore. A strong young woman stood firm.

Now, four years later, I was single for the first time in my adult life and up to my eyebrows in midlife restructuring. When my daughter asked what I wanted for Mother’s Day, I answered that I didn’t really want anything at all anymore. “But someday,” I said, “when I’m thin, when I’m stable, when I know who I am, I’d love to have a tattoo.”

She looked at me with that penetrating no-nonsense gaze of untarnished youth and said something like, “That’s stupid. Do it now.”

A few days earlier, we had just met a 35-year-old woman whose teenage sons had surprised her with a navel-piercing for her birthday. Ah, the wisdom of the young -- leaping over our resistances, our scars, our self-consciousness and weariness. “Do it now,” they insist, knowing something about time we have forgotten.

I asked an artist friend to design my grape cluster. Then my daughter introduced me to the young man who had done her tattoo. Since my own children are in their young adulthood and I love them wildly, unquestioningly, I am positively prejudiced toward young people. It was not difficult at all, really, to place my health, safety and aesthetic future literally into the hands of this thin, waifish, tattooed, pierced person barely past boyhood. I trusted, and it was true, that he was a skilled professional. His touch was gentle and accurate; he frowned with concentration and over the course of 40 minutes paid utmost attention to the intricate details of piercing flesh and inserting dye.

I lay back on the reclining chair and willed a steady release of endorphins into my system, while I gazed around at the oddest decorating scheme I have ever seen. A large, unlit fish tank held a lone, possibly lonely angel fish. On shelves were masks of screaming monsters, and on the walls were posters in that heavy-metal angular, anguished style that must have some meaning beyond my capacity to understand.

Incongruously, over the door was a very ordinary picture of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the kind any grandmother would have had on her bedroom wall or in her living room shrine. It occurred to me that she represents, along with similar images of the Sacred Heart or the Crucifixion, something not so different from the knowledge and feeling people seek in these various forms of body art -- the pain, the union, the transformation.

When my tattoo was finished I floated outside in a state of mild ecstasy and for the next few days did the usual dance of babying it, marveling at it, showing it off. What a high it was to have done a completely superfluous act, to have identified myself in a unique way and at the same time to have become linked through a shared physical experience with other beings. Mine is now part of the huge collection of decorated human bodies, including those of prisoners and gang members, adolescents initiating themselves and each other and adults of all ages, classes, races and professions, all making gestures of self-expression.

I also feel a dark connection to the past, a solidarity with the millions who were involuntarily tattooed, numbered, in Nazi concentration camps. And I know I am bound also with animals, our fellow creatures whom we so blithely brand and clip and tag and label.

I, who avidly avoid fads of all types, who shun pop culture, have taken my place among the marked multitude. Yet I am more myself, more singular than ever.

There is an exhilarating power in the belief that every act of self-possession moves the whole project forward, frees everyone a little. The ultimate point of individuation is service to the whole: We rise so we can submit. We separate so that we can rejoin the collective in a more conscious state.

The pursuit of the elusive, impermanent, ever-fluid I leads again, always, into the eternal, universal We. All the sparks return, in the end, to the original flame.

Mary Vineyard writes from Albuquerque, N.M.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999