To Tattoo, Or Not to Tattoo


God doesn’t want me to have a tattoo. I found this out the summer that I graduated from high school, at age 17. I sat down with the tattoo artist and had my tattoo sketched up: a tiger’s face hidden within a purple rose. It was going to go slightly off-center on the left side of my chest, so that I could cover it up or show it off, as desired. The artist quoted a price that was a little more than I had on hand. I promised to come back on Friday, after I cashed my paycheck.

That night, I went to work at my summer job at Wal-Mart. I looked glamorous in my blue smock, white shirt, and black pants, let me tell you.

My third customer of the night was a dirty, smelly, ugly construction worker. Defying the rules, he wore no shirt and no shoes. And there, on his right shoulder, underneath the grime, was my tattoo.

Stunned, I pointed at it. It was black and white, not purple. It was a lion, not a tiger. But it was a feline’s face in a rose, no denying it. I tried to recover and said the only polite thing that I could. “Nice tattoo,” I croaked out.

“Ah, are you into Santeria, too?” he asked with a smile. He was referring to a religion that includes animal sacrifice, trances, and medicine men.

I smiled politely and shook my head. Nope, I don’t sacrifice goats or chickens.

Then I wondered at the timing. If that man had come through my line the following week, it would have been too late; I would already have my tattoo. If he had worn a shirt, I wouldn’t have seen his tattoo. If he had gone through someone else’s line, likewise.

I raised my eyes heavenward and said, “I heard you, God. I won’t get that tattoo! Thank you!”

Fast forward a few years. Now my daughter, Sally, is 17 and shopping for a tattoo. She and I discussed it during our trip to San Francisco.

“Mom! We should get matching tattoos!” she said. “It’ll be great—our first tattoos together!”

I would give that girl anything to make her happy, so I immediately said, “Awesome!” At the time, I meant it. The fact that my daughter wants to have anything matching with me, is very touching.

We sketched out designs and discussed the symbolism.  She wanted two stars: a larger one to represent me and a smaller one for her.  Swirlies had become our thing, so those would go on there too, a la Van Gogh’s Starry night.  The swirlies would come to represent dark matter, one of the topics that she that she wants to study in college.  After the vacation, we both went home and sketched some more, texting each other the pictures. (She has lived with her father in another city since 2010. I’m the fun weekend parent.)

Later, I had a stern talk with myself. “If she asked you to jump off a bridge, would you?” This was my mother’s was of saying, “Are you succumbing to peer pressure?”

My answer was, “I would consider it.” Oh, man, am I wrapped around her little finger! And I laughed at her dad for all the times that he gave into her whims!

“That is just silly. You shouldn’t do something, just because someone else suggested it,” my inner Mother scolded.

I was right. After all, did I really want a tattoo? No. But I did want something in common with Sally; I wanted to be part of a First for her. But needles HURT! And what if the tattoo looked like something unintended—like a woman’s body part, or a bruise? What if someone mis-interpreted the tattoo as being Santeria?!

After about a month of this type of conversation playing and replaying in my head, I finally broke down. I admitted that I don’t really want a tattoo. If Sally wants to match, I’ll buy us matching necklaces. I found a place that will make custom jewelry. I haven’t checked out the prices, but then again, tattoos aren’t cheap either.

I psyched myself to talk to Sally. Every time that we talked on the phone, she told me that she was looking forward to getting the tattoo. Several times, I wussed out telling her. Finally, tonight, I fessed up.

“Sally,” I said, “I don’t want a tattoo. I just don’t. I thought about it, and I don’t want one.” I held my breath. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting: tears, maybe, or angry words.

“Ok,” she said. “Then you shouldn’t get one.”

I let out the air that I had been holding in my lungs. “Really?”

“Ya,” she said. “It’s your body, do what you want.”

That was it. No tears. No screaming. Just, “Do what you want.” I have the coolest kid ever.

Now let’s hope that she never asks me to go bungee jumping, because God didn’t say anything about that. Yes, Mom, that involves jumping off a bridge. I sense another internal discussion coming on.


I received a text from Sally later that night, “Wow, um, called the guy to tell him that you weren’t coming and he told me that state law prevents anyone under 19 from getting a tattoo, even with parental consent. Glad you decided that you didn’t want it.”