Editor’s Note: Back in July, my friend Dana got a tattoo. She’d railed against tattoos for years, so I asked her to write up a story on why she changed her mind. Here is that story.
Sunday I got my first tattoo. This may not seem like such a big deal, but anyone who knows me will be shocked and confused at worst and amazed and confused at best. The thing is, I used to be a pretty avid tattoo hater. Okay, hater may be a bit strong, but I definitely had strong negative opinions about them and the people who had them.
As is so often the case, our first encounter or experience with something can significantly influence our entire world view regarding that thing. In my case my first experience with a tattooed individual was a guy named Mike when I was an impressionable and opinionated 17-year-old. His entire body was a solid tattoo of a dragon. I hated it. I thought it was ugly. He boasted that it took him seven years to complete and cost as much as a small house. He was also a drunk, a crack head and an abusive boyfriend to my sister. I hated his tattooed guts to my very core. Is it really any wonder that the culture and the man became one in my head?
Right, wrong or otherwise, there you have it. I decided that tattooed people had to be losers, lower class citizens who could never amount to much. After all, didn’t society in general dislike people with tattoos? But I had this tiny little problem.
Several of my dearest friends in the world sported tattoos. I didn’t find those tattoos repulsive. How could I? My best friends had them and they weren’t lower class citizens. How did I get around this disconnect? I ignored it most of the time and when I couldn’t, they became the exception that proved the rule.
Then about two months ago I went to England with my husband, daughter and 18-year-old brother-in-law, who has a rather crude tattoo on his wrist. I can’t remember what started the conversation, but it amounted to a thirty minute back and forth between the two of us, him demanding I defend my dislike and me ultimately unable to. With increasing frustration and growing irritation, I finally ended it by saying, I know it makes no sense and isn’t right, but it is what it is. Now give it up. We have to go catch a cab.
Now I had a real problem. The conversation kept playing in my head. Over and over again I would hear myself say ridiculous, biased things and picture my friends in my mind and the amount of discord was astonishing. I could no longer ignore the fact that what I thought and felt about tattoos and the people who had them was not only wrong but ugly and unwarranted. I didn’t like the person I was while saying those things. But how do you go about dropping 20 odd years of bias and discrimination?
Well, I started by looking at tattoos and the people who had them. I mean really looking at them. I tried to identify what it was about the tattoo I did or didn’t like and what that made me think about the person who had it. And what I discovered, much to my astonishment, was this really wonderful world of art I had so far ignored. Holy cow. Tattoo artists are just that. Artists. And the people who have tattoos are simply art fiends who love art so much they want to take it with them every where they go. Not only that, most tattoos have significance to the wearer, which makes the art they wear extremely personal.
It was like someone had taken a pair of glasses from my eyes and suddenly there was this rich, beautiful world out there full of people who are not only not losers with no self-respect but quite the opposite. It takes a great deal of self-respect to wear a tattoo. What a liberating realization. Now I could look at my friends and love them AND their tattoos without feeling conflicted and confused.
But it didn’t end there. The more I thought about it, the more the idea of getting a tattoo of my own grew on me. I had always loved this one tattoo my sister had of a cat face. It was small, at the nape of her neck and consisted of the eyes, nose and whiskers of her cat.
Remember, I made exceptions when I couldn’t account for my attitude. Add to the fact I am a cat lover to the bone and it isn’t hard to see why I liked this tattoo.
When I gave my husband the gift of a tattoo for his birthday, something he has wanted to do for a long time and never did because he knew how I felt about them, I decided I wanted to go with him and get one of my own. I told him what I wanted to do but he said a tiger would be more my style. I liked the idea and began to look around for tiger tattoos. In the process of looking at tattoo artists work, I ran across some very real-looking tigers and I was intrigued. As the idea grew and the image in my head of an ethereal kind of tiger face coalesced in my mind, I got excited about getting a tattoo.
I didn’t tell anyone else I was going to get one. Partly because I wanted to experience the shock factor (who wouldn’t, right?) and partly because I honestly had no idea how they would react. This was, of course, a complete reversal of my earlier stance. Wouldn’t getting one make me the biggest hypocrite?
What I didn’t expect was how I would feel when I walked through the door of 15th Street Tattoo in Edmond. I didn’t expect the sudden sense of discomfort, the overwhelming need to run away as fast as I could, the knowledge, the bone deep certainty that I did not belong here. What was I thinking? Wouldn’t I become one of those people? The very person I had looked down on for most of my life? It certainly wasn’t the shop. The people in it were friendly, it was very clean and tasteful, beautiful art hung on the walls. What I was feeling was full on bias confrontation. I had stepped into the heart of the world I had for so long disliked and my unconscious and conscious biases were surfacing with a vengeance. It was overwhelming and discouraging. I wanted to give up on the whole idea and slink away with my tail between my legs, pretend I had never been there.
There was just one small problem. My husband had no such inclination. He rolled right up to the counter and told the girl there he wanted to talk to someone about getting a tattoo. I had to stay. I had to face the bias. I had to listen to the artist, Matt, talk to him and them watch as he sketched out an idea. I checked my calendar to make sure the consultation appointment they set up would work with our schedule.
Then almost without realizing it, I was asking to talk to Grapes, the artist that had attracted my attention with the realistic looking tigers and the next thing I know, I am talking to the guy who wanted to draw his masterpiece on my back. The discomfort eased a little, I felt less uncomfortable, but still felt out-of-place and disjointed.
I told Grapes what I wanted and he said if I wanted something real looking, it was going to have to be bigger. Gulp. I wanted something small. Enough to say I had one but not too presumptuous. Nothing big or gaudy. He traced out how big he wanted to make it. It wasn’t too bad, but still three times the size I wanted. But I gulped down my anxiety about it and asked when he could make the appointment.
I did not expect it when he said he could do it right then. Until he found out I hadn’t eaten, that is. So we scheduled it for noon the next day. I spent the next 19 hours worrying that I had made the wrong choice. I wanted to back out, give it up as a fool’s errand. But I had no way to contact Grapes so at noon the next day, I was standing at 15th Street tattoo once more, only this time I was fully prepared to tell him, thanks, but no thanks. I had changed my mind.
That is, until I saw the design. It was gorgeous. It was alive. It was perfect. I wanted it on my back and just like that, the bias was gone. I let him put it on my back and when I came back two days later with my husband for his consult with Matt, I felt at ease. People were coming over to me and admiring the tattoo. My tattoo. Just like that, I became a member of the club. I get it now. I find myself talking to total strangers about first my tattoo and then theirs. We share stories, I get glimpses into total strangers personal space. I feel a little more connected to the human race and I find it a really amazing place to be. I suffered through the pain of the actual inking process and came out the other side a better person.
I wish I could share the sense of total liberation I feel at overcoming this bias. What a wonderful world we would live in if we could all get into an argument with an 18-year-old and come out the other side a better human being. Here’s to you, Andrew.