On the drive to the tattoo parlor (do they still call them “parlors”?) I had my usual second- guessing.
- What if it comes out bad? Really bad?
- Are tattoos a “need” or a “want”? (As my mother’s voice echoed in my head in chorus with my own voice when I spoke in the past with my daughter about her budgeting practices.)
- And ultimately, do I really want to do this?
The answers arrived at each stoplight.
If it comes out bad, really bad, I can wear high socks in the summer and long pants in the winter. (I was not clear on the line between a “bad” tattoo and a “really bad” tattoo; I would know it when I see it.) Since I had decided that the placement would be on my right calf, it would not be blatant. With that placement, it would not be obvious to people when we met. It wasn’t like I was getting it on my cheek where it would scream “Here I am! Look at me!” And since I wouldn’t be able to see it myself without some gymnastic contortions, I could pretend it wasn’t there. Disaster in the form of embarrassment and humiliation could be avoided if it turns out really bad.
Of course tattoos are “a want” and not “a need.” It’s a luxury item. It’s an adornment. It’s a statement, I guess, of some value, belief, some passion or interest that a person has. We can make statements in other ways. Write a blog. Post a FB rant or pic. Buy a t-shirt. Tweet or Snap it. Those expressions are fleeting, though, and the statement would have to be made repeatedly to “stick.”
“Well,” I said to myself at the stoplight at Forge Road and Garden of the Gods Road. “No need to worry about if this statement ‘will stick’; it’s what you would call permanent.”
A need or a want? I was in a place where I could financially afford it. And to answer my mother’s voice rattling around in there, I may have even said out loud in my car: “I’m 59 years old. And she’s not alive to witness it.” [I remember when I got my ear pierced and went over to her apartment. When she noticed the ear ring, she said “Vincent! I told you if you ever got a piercing or a tattoo, you were not welcome in my house!” (She was joking to make a point, sort of, about that.) I looked at her and said “Mom, I’m 35.”] Today, in this day of less stigma about and much greater acceptance of body art, I think she would say something like “you know, some of them come out very beautiful” and she might pause and then add “but some come out bad. Really bad.”
My second-guessing about “a want” was answered by the time I reached 30th Street.
The second-guessing question that remained, “do I really want this,” moved back and forth from the back of my mind to the front of my mind for the whole trip. The other questions were actually easier, so as they pushed their way to the front of my mind, I answered them. I had about seven minutes until I reached Redemption Tattoo Shop on west Colorado Avenue.
I had debated on whether I “really want to do this” for several years. My daughter, Jessica, who got her first ink on the day she turned 18, was now in a place where she rolled her eyes whenever I showed her a sketch of a tattoo idea or even mentioned it. She had heard it for years. Jannetta was the same way. If Jessica and Jannetta were in the same room and I mentioned my ideas or even my desire to get a tattoo, they would roll their eyes in perfect synchronization. They didn’t know why I had any hesitation; they attributed it to the anticipated pain of the needle. They attributed my lack of conviction to the whole idea of body art in any form. I didn’t even know why. Fears of really bad tattoos. Fears of not being able to go to my deceased mother’s apartment.
I had cried wolf before. Told them of my plans. I posted status updates on Facebook seeking recommendations for artists and parlors (or shops). People responded with names and locations but I never took that step of actually, you know, going to the shop.
For months, ok — years, I sketched out designs. I had random images that I had roughed out in my mind and on paper. I had images from the internet that I thought would be cool. I reached the decision that I would get a tattoo inspired by my passion for fly fishing. Yeah, that would be it. Some of the fly fishing guides that I hung out with had some cool fish and river and nature designs. I started to sketch out some ideas. I considered using a line from Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” or the line from Emmylou Harris, “I am standing by the river; I’ll be standing here forever.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. Jannetta gave me a look and asked me to pass the chicken.
To make matters worse, I started to see people’s tattoos of a simple yet sophisticated punctuation mark: the semicolon. I always have liked the semicolon. I didn’t know so many others shared my passion for it! Then I read about Project ;
Project Semicolon’s vision is to increase awareness and initiate honest conversation about suicide, mental health, and addiction. I sought out more information. And the need for this conversation is not lost on me. I have been in recovery from my own addictions for a little over 30 years. When I was 19, and again when I was 26 and only hours before I entered my own period of recovery, I had what they would call suicidal ideation. The recovery rooms have seats filled with those who have battled similar suicidal thoughts and fought wars with their own self-harm. If those battles aren’t tough enough, we usually fight them in silence and in isolation. We feel alone.
I have had very close friends, and friends of family members, and former high school students who have committed suicide. I have loved ones who, through some periods of their lives, battle the thought everyday. I won’t share their story here out of respect for the families and friends; it is their story to tell, in so many ways, and it is for them to decide the time to initiate any public conversations about their experiences.
I have come to hate it when people in recovery rooms say “I was going to suicide but I didn’t have the guts for it. I was too chicken.” We need to change the language. “I was going to suicide but for some reason, I still held onto an inkling of hope, a spark, something or some Higher Power kept me moving forward. I had enough courage to go on.”
So I decided on Monday morning, August 15, to get the semicolon tattoo. Tuesday morning, I messaged my friend (who also came highly recommended), Josh Heney, at Redemption Tattoo Company my idea for the image. He responded a little later, and I tweaked the design.
I had put the fly fishing idea and moved ahead with the semicolon project. I didn’t tell anybody I was going on Friday afternoon. I texted Jessica and Jannetta the mock-up of the art work that I designed myself. They expressed enthusiasm for the image, and I am sure they rolled their eyes that I would ever get it done.
As I turned right from 31st Street on to Colorado Avenue and saw the shop’s sign, I was confident in my decision. Josh showed me his design and then put the pattern on my right calf. I studied it in the mirror and we were ready to roll.
For the next 75 minutes or so, I lay face down, motionless, and speechless. I was not going to move and I did not want to talk to the artist at work. It’s my first tattoo — do not distract him with some sort of idle chit-chat! At one point, his fellow artist walked through, stopped and observed. “That’s cool. A different approach to the semicolon design.” I felt inspired.
When I drew up the design, I started with the semicolon. That’s the whole point. And then I thought of my own passion for and interest in writing. In fact, when I was 19 and battling my own depressive and suicidal thoughts, I would go home at midnight from the factory where I worked and I would write –poems, short stories, one-act plays. The writing, as far as writing goes, sucked. But it allowed me to get my story down, to get my story out, to begin to create a voice.
As I shifted to lean on my forearms, I thought of my own friends, family, and former students who have been impacted by suicide, mental health issues, and addiction. I thought of those who have not yet found a solution that they either don’t know exists or don’t believe they deserve.
And to them, I say, you are the writer, your life is your story.
Your story is not over; _________________.