Why I got a tattoo: this raven stands watch

I was born before the generation for whom tattoos are a part of everyday life. As a college English teacher, though, I’ve been exposed to many, many students with tattoos, piercings, and creative haircuts, including the young woman who used three Bic pens (red, blue and black) to “tattoo” her own arm, from wrist to shoulder throughout the semester.

She spent some days just tracing over faded images and others creating new images. It was sort of mesmerizing, truth be told. I had so many questions. How did she decide what to draw? Did she have a big picture already sketched? Was this a form of doodling, and, thus, a cure for boredom? How long did the images last?

Was it a cry for help? I asked her to stay after class more than once to check in with her. “Are you okay?” I’d ask. She replied, pretty damn perkily, “Yes, ma’am.”

She stopped coming to class one day in April, but I’ve never forgotten her. Sitting on the back row, seeming to listen and participating in group work and writing exercises. But in between busy with black ink, then with blue and red.

This was in the early 90s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and most definitely long before tattoos were common among kids. She seemed admirable to me. She let her freak flag fly. She was impervious to the stares of the frat boys and girls who watched her out of the corners of their blue eyes.

Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder if this was performance art. Not so much about the images laid down on her flesh, but about the process of inscribing them on herself while the polo-shirted kids around her stared.

All I know is that then, and now, I’ve thought of tattoos and piercings and haircuts to be deeply about the self and control of one’s own body.

Losing control is a scary thing and it’s a defining feature of the cancer experience. I remember sitting in the ER, being told that I had to be admitted, looking at the IV and realizing I was no longer the one calling the shots. I couldn’t get out of bed and walk around or wear my own clothes. I couldn’t go to the bathroom when I wanted. I was wheeled down hallways and pushed into rooms with equipment I’d never seen before.

When you’re in the hospital, other people make decisions for you. They decide when and what you eat, when you sleep, what socks you wear. People talk to you differently, or, rather, they talk as if you’re not there.

I’ve never before heard so many conversations about myself in which I played no part. “Is she having an ultrasound?” “No, a CT I think, Doc said at 2.” “Maybe the ultrasound is first and then the CT. Not sure. I’ll call down there.”

Coping with cancer, for me, involved finding ways to take control of my life. I remember the feeling of empowerment I felt the day I cleaned out the pantry. Every box or jar containing processed food went into a bag. The crackers, cookies, pancake mix, jam, pickles. All gone.

The binder I kept with all of my test results and prescriptions was also empowering. I printed off dozens of articles. I took notes, recorded questions, filed everything according to date.

Controlling what I ate and knowing about my disease were antidotes to powerlessness early on.

This past December, I decided to get a tattoo, a raven, on the inside of my right arm, that stands watch over me as a testament to my ownership of my body.

I don’t think I would have said this five or six years ago, but tattoo artists are, indeed, artists. And Luke at Tainted Skin was mine for a few hours.

I brought him images and he explained why they weren’t quite right for a tattoo. And then he went to work on a sketch and a plan, studied botanical images, and produced a raven sitting on a branch. Its mouth is open, and I imagine it’s making a racket.img_0160-1

I trusted Luke to translate this image into ink on my arm. I remember the sting of the needle as the image emerged. Throughout the hour it took to get the tattoo, there were moments when that needle really hurt. So, I breathed and got curious about the process, watching Luke wipe away extra ink, watching as he sometimes pulled back to look at the image, immersed in his process.

Getting a tattoo was not just about the image that remains on my arm. Tattoo is a verb, a process. The image is what remains after the process. The pain of getting a tattoo and watching it heal were crucial aspects. Especially after cancer, when my body betrayed me and when doctors and nurses have done so many things to my body that I didn’t understand and that scared me, I needed to be the one calling the shots.

This tattoo was my choice to do something painful and beautiful to my own body. It represents the “me” that is emerging after cancer. I’m not a better person since cancer, and I’m not courageous. Cancer hasn’t been a gift for me.

But I am different. I am more like that young woman in the preppy 90s at the University of Tennessee. I’m willing to let my freak flag fly a little bit. Thanks to Luke Farkas for helping me get there.

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