I have a confession to make: I’m not completely out of the closet about my tattoos, specifically the ones on each forearm. There are some friends and family members to whom I haven’t revealed them. Instead I wear bracelets and long sleeves and try not to complain if it’s a hot day.
My reluctance to come clean with certain people about my ink shows that I have more work to do on the adult integration project I’ve been attending to for decades now. I love the idea that what other people think of me is none of my business, but honestly? I can’t always manage to detach like that. My tattoos are altars to certain spiritual truths I want to remember, and I don’t feel ready to share these with everyone, much less field a discussion I imagine would go along the lines of “How could you do this to your body?”
‘Course, where I live, flashing ink is normal. There’s no shock value to it. At least half the people I see on the street in my neighborhood have some body art: a dragon peeks out over a shirt collar, a lotus flower opens over a bicep, a tank top reveals a whole sleeve of delicate cranes. Walking up Telegraph Avenue I feel like I’m part of the tribe, the one whose members etch permanent designs on their skin. When I got my third tattoo, a written phrase on my left wrist, the guy next to me in the shop was getting a cobra on his neck. He looked gangsta, with his wife-beater and sagging jeans and old-school Pumas; I looked WASP, with my blouse and skirt from REI and my Birkenstocks. But we were both submitting to the same ancient physical ritual. (Tattoos go back at least 5,000 years, surely more: Otzi the Iceman, who lived in 3300 BC and whose body was discovered in 1991 in mountains bordering Austria and Italy, had 57.)
So with the tattoos I explore being different and belonging, from both the “tattoo tribe” and the “wife and mother” angles. I want to be able to push against the stereotype of white middle class soccer mom if I feel like it, but also to hide the tattoos when it’s appropriate. Does this position lack integrity? Does it keep me compartmentalized? Or is it more like tailoring a piece of writing to a particular audience? I haven’t decided.