It’s not what you think …
It was a hot summer day when I first saw his tattoo. He was wearing a muscle t shirt and the colored ink was shining on his upper arm. I stared at it. Finally, I got up enough courage to ask about the image that had magically manifested itself on my uncle’s arm .
At the worldly age of 8, he was my favorite uncle. Unlike all the other adults in my life, he treated me as an adult , not as a subservient child. He told great stories . He gave great gifts. We completed puzzles together. He challenged me with riddles, brainteasers and logic games from the big Mensa book, he kept on the shelf for such occasions.
“What’s this”? I asked holding his beefy arm in my small hands, my fingers circling the image.
“That’s a tattoo” he replied dryly, studying me as he always did for the next 8 year old nugget of genius to escape my lips.
I traced my fingers over the iconic image . A large anchor , with a heart , a ribbon with the word “MOM” written on it . I was mesmerized, tracing my fingers over the letters. They didn’t smudge or erase.
“Tattoo” I repeated, “ like Fantasy Island ?” trying desperately to find a correlation to the word and my 8 year old knowledge. Until now, this skin art had not existed .
English was not my first language and the nuances and vernacular of every day were still new to me . English wasn’t logical, practical, or grammatically phonetic, the way Italian was , where the way you hear it , is the way you spell it and the word has one meaning.
“ Not quite “ he said , and then explained, that this was “A “tattoo , whereas the miniscule character of Fantasy Island , was “named “ tattoo, but wasn’t really “A “ tattoo. He compared it to someone with the name Dolly , who wasn’t really a dolly. Or someone with the name Candy , who wasn’t really Candy . My uncle had a way of explaining things so they made sense to me.
“I’ve never seen one “ I confessed, “where did you get it ?”
“In the Navy “, he said.
“Why ?” I continued, even though my mother threw me a menacing glance that meant “stop asking questions “.
“ Everyone gets a tattoo like this one in the Navy”
“Like Popeye the Sailor “? I ventured; Unable to think of any other person in the Navy.
“Yes,” he said ,” This is the classic , sailor , tattoo , an anchor -it means I served as a sailor in the US Navy, and I love my mother , so her name is in my heart “
My mind started reeling. I felt this might be a brainteaser or riddle.
Logically, I insisted , “You were in the Navy at 18, Now you are 42, that’s 24 years ago!!”
In my 8 year old mind , nothing lasted that long .
“That’s right, you smart girl” he agreed.
“Doesn’t it wash off?” I asked skeptically .
“No , “ he said.
“Why not?” I continued. It was a brainteaser, a riddle, I thought, and I needed to solve it .
“They make the pictures with needles, like a shot at the doctor’s office. The needles go in and out , over and over , each time they go in , they inject ink into the skin , and it changes the color of the skin. It never goes away .”
“How do they get the picture so perfect ?” I asked, still unconvinced he wasn’t playing a puzzle game .
“They drew it on my arm , then they filled it in with the different colors from the needles.”
“Like a coloring book ?” I quizzed.
“Very much ! They draw the picture on a piece of paper, then they follow the lines on the skin”.
I understood that much, having vast experience with numbered silhouettes in my coloring book. The images were unfinished and needed a black crayon to trace a line following the numbers in sequential order prior to being colored to completion.
“ How do you turn the page ?” I asked .
“What do you mean?” he replied .
“In my coloring book , when I’m finished with one picture, I turn the page and get a new picture. How do you erase this and get a new one ?”
He looked at me, solemnly , then replied, “ you don’t get a new one “
“It’s only one picture?” I asked, very confused now .
“It’s permanent “
Permanent , I thought ? Permanent was what my mother did to her hair to make it curly. What did that have to do with his arm ?
“It will never go away . Once you’ve been tattooed, you can’t remove it , you can’t change your mind, you can’t make it go away. It was the WORST thing I ever did. It was stupid and I will always regret it “
“It’s nice” I said, politely. I was a little scared by his response , but mostly saddened that that his disposition had changed from the joy of our conversation to a sorrowful haze.
“ Promise me something “ he said, taking my hand and pulling me to sit on his lap.
I loved him so much , I would have promised him anything.
“Of course Uncle Tony” I vowed , adjusting my skirt as I sat on his knee.
“Promise me , you will never, ever get a tattoo. Promise ! No matter what ! Even when you are all grown up . Never get a tattoo. Promise?”
Uncle Tony had never asked me for anything. I was elated that he felt I was capable of doing anything , in any way, beneficial to him. I remembered my mother’s lecture earlier that week about manners and politeness. When someone bestowed a kindness upon you, you were obligated to return the kindness in turn and then some.
I nodded .
He cupped my chin and tilted my head up to look at him .
He said “look into my eyes and promise me “
I looked at him for only a moment, before I said ,” I would do anything for you, Uncle Tony, I promise , I will never get a tattoo”.
He died three years later on a cold day in February. The tattoo was covered by the sleeve of his grey suit . I soon learned that like the tattoo, death was permanent.
I went to college at 16 and survived five years of term papers, work study, off campus parties and spontaneous road trips without submitting to whimsical butterflies on my ankle, music notes on my wrist or the infinity sign on the nape of my neck, hidden under my hair .
My post college years saw the explosive emergence of tattoos. The once exotic piece of skin art attributed to sailors, was commonplace now. Having one’s skin injected with a myriad of colors, images and words became readily available , and distinctly inexpensive. Almost overnight, tattoo parlors established themselves in convenient client locations; In city neighborhoods, neatly ensconced between nail spas and hair salons; In shopping centers where clients could browse the colorful displays in the parlor windows while sipping on a Starbucks Iced Latte ; Sharing a parking lot with a fitness center where bodies went to be their best ; In Suburban Malls where teenagers could escape to for hours.
It appeared to me that almost everyone in my circle of friends, neighbors and colleagues had at least one tattoo. Some people hid their risque images , only to be discovered in private and intimate times .
Others wore full sleeves of intricate and intertwining designs. A story of ink , completely unfolded on their arm.
It was an acceptable and expected rite of passage, like a driver’s license. It meant you were finally at choice to express yourself and voice your passions to the world, in bright, profound and hopefully unique symbols, that bellowed in complete silence.
After accompanying a friend to a local tattoo place , for another chapter in the tattoo book that would eventually cover her entire back, she insisted on my camaraderie and participation suggesting that , based on my love of words, I could get one of my favorite quotes written in cursive on my inner arm or shoulder”
Angry and betrayed, I retorted “I have my favorite poems memorized, I don’t need to inject cheat sheets into my skin “
She smirked but laid silent. She knew that there was a part of me, that was still eight years old. A part of me that was still mesmerized by the hypnotic images that brought ordinary skin to life. A part of me that admired the talent and the skill necessary to capture life and display its memories delicately on human canvas.
When I was 8 years old, my uncle made me promise that I would never get a tattoo.
Promises were meant to be kept.
It was an easy promise to keep, despite the large array of colors and artists available today; despite the existence of laser to remove unwanted tattoos and coverups to modify a design that no longer spoke to the owner.
It was an easy promise to keep despite the growing pressure from older friends who had reached the age of 40 and decided to celebrate with a “tramp stamp”.
It was an easy promise to keep after seeing the “Woman with the Rose Tattoo” that sparked a new trend among women who realized their sexual prowess for the first time.
Things change, and we are forced to change as well. We as humans are seeking permanence in a transient world; A reminder of where we’ve been and who we are; We want to memorialize the characters who helped us and the phrases that inspired us. On this journey, we remember who we loved, and who loved us in return.
For me, that love is permanent with a promise I made at the age of 8, when Uncle Tony’s name was tattooed on a ribbon and wrapped around my heart.