Body Modification

NAVA BRAHE: Getting inked is something I’ve given a lot of thought to for a very long time.

I’ve done the usual material forms of self-expression over the course of my life, starting in the 6th grade when designer jeans were all the rage, and we all had to check out each other’s rears on a daily basis, to see which brands we were wearing. I had the typical array: Sasson, Jordache, Sergio Valente, Carabine; which were all purchased at the Avenue I flea market in Brooklyn, and dry cleaned after two wearings at my mom’s insistence. It was really stressful for me, having my ass checked out so often; if you didn’t have the right jeans, you didn’t fit into the “right crowd”. Even though I did have the right jeans, I never felt I was part of that crowd.

When I started working in Manhattan in 1987, the uniform of choice for women was the “Working Girl” look that involved twice yearly trips to a store called Forman’s on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, I procured an array of tastefully conservative business suits in which I commuted, wearing socks and sneakers, until I got to the office. It was a pretty homogenous time for me; the suits all looked the same, as did those of my co-workers. But, they were deemed professional and appropriate; therefore, acceptable.

It wasn’t until I discovered a tiny palm tree tattoo on the shoulder blade one of my conservative female co-workers , that I’d even contemplated getting inked. I am a Jew, and my father was a Holocaust survivor. He didn’t have the typical tattoo on the inside of one of his forearms, but other relatives of mine, who were survivors of Auschwitz, carried that mark, and its sinister connotation. Besides the obvious biblical implications, I’d always felt that getting a tattoo was verboten; my parents would have freaked out, and quite possibly disowned me. By defacing my body, I would not only betray the horrors my father lived through, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery when I die. Those were some major deterrents as far as I was concerned; until I spotted that blasted palm tree.

The owner of said palm tree was a woman you wouldn’t think would have a tattoo. Today, those are the women who probably have them. This was 1992, when ink on women was far from a common sighting; so when I spotted it, I couldn’t help but inquire about it. It was a casual summer Friday, and the top she wore fell below her shoulders, giving her blue-and-green palm tree prime exposure.  I told her how much I liked it, and asked what prompted her to get it. She responded that she loved palm trees, and that she’d had a handful of pre-cancerous moles removed from her back, which left behind unsightly scars. She said she wanted something back there that was pretty, since to her, her back was now disfigured. Her explanation reversed my entire thought process. Instead of viewing tattoos as negative, indelible, disfiguring marks, crudely carved into the arms of Jews by their Nazi captors, I began to view them as something positive: an indelible mark that could actually make a person feel better about themselves.  It was then I decided: one day I will get a tattoo of my own.

So, here I am 18 years later and I still haven’t pulled the trigger. For me, it’s no longer a question of “if”, rather than “when”. I shelved my tattoo plan for a long time, while dealing with some larger life issues. My career-girl Manhattan days gave way to a more casual suburban office job, along with the trauma of losing my parents: my dad to cancer in 1996, and my mom to complications from diabetes in 1999.

Shortly after my mom died, I returned to academia to resume my education. I didn’t give much thought to clothes during that period, so my material forms of self expression progressed to purses and shoes. I was happy to have trendy designer purses dangling from my shoulder, and many pairs of the funkiest casual shoes I could lay my hands on. Alas, those forms of self-expression have run their course (who the hell can afford a closetful of thousand dollar purses?). Now, the final frontier, is finally acquiring some ink.

I’ve done the research; I’ve chosen the designs, the places on my body and have the establishment picked out. I even have a $20 deposit on file, and three cancelled appointments.

I need someone to hold my hand. Jillian? When are you available?

I’m not scared of the pain or the consequences; I’m just…scared. Was it cowardly to wait for my parents to die? Will I meet up with my mother in the hereafter and get lambasted for betraying my heritage and defacing the sacred vessel that is my body? Will my father hate me? Then I think: it’s my body dammit, I can do with it what I want. That thought seems to trump the rest. I will have my ink…eventually.

JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY: I got my first tattoo at age 19 from a man named Bear who worked at a shop on Venice Beach.  Once I returned home to New Jersey, my mother cried for three days.  That’s not an exaggeration.   Three days.

Was my mother’s reaction enough to stop me from further modifying myself?  Absolutely not.

With a full back piece, work on both feet and one ankle, something on my left side, and Bear’s tramp stamp, one could say that I’m more than a casually tattooed person.  That said, with a day job in public relations, I am not a heavily tattooed person, either.  Which leaves me in a strange place, in tattoo culture limbo.  People without any modifications see me as something “other,” but people with many often discount me because my work costume, the business casual garb, covers my modifications.  I’m truly neither here nor there.

Not that I started getting tattoos in order to belong to something.  Quite the contrary.  I got my first tattoo on a complete whim, out of curiosity and rebellion.  It wasn’t particularly well thought out.  But I enjoyed the entire process, and I still do.  It’s a ritual, and one that I love.  I love the feeling of trepidation, walking into a place to make an appointment, and the anticipation of going in.  I love wondering if it’s what I really want, and then the empowerment that I get from deciding, yes.  I love talking about and tweaking the design with a competent artist, and the co-mingling of ideas that follows.  I love the chit-chat that happens while getting tattooed — you seriously run the gamut of topics in a big way.  The whole thing’s an experience, and the pain’s secondary.  It’s not fun, by any means.  I’m not one of those people who gets off on being tattooed.  It’s vaguely unpleasant, but certainly not unbearable.

And furthermore, I love that my tattoos are something of a social litmus test.  They’re a great ice breaker, and I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people that started with them asking about my work.  They also serve as a deterrent to the types of pearl-clutchers that I generally try to avoid.  They’re an opener, and they’re armor.  I realize that certain people judge me for having them.  I don’t mind, because I’m judging them right back.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Do I want to order burger for lunch, or a chicken sandwich? Or maybe the pulled pork, that looks good too! But I should just get a salad, they’re cheaper. No, I definitely want a burger. Or maybe soup?

Welcome to the mind of someone who should never get a tattoo. I am chronically unable to make decisions or to stick with my decisions once I’ve made them. My fear of commitment makes it difficult for me to make choices both large and small—from where I want to live, to whether or not I should bring a sweater to the movies in case it’s cold there. Do I want to be the red checkers or the black checkers? Skim milk or 1%? There are just too many choices in life without consequences—I can’t subject myself to making more choices that have lifelong repercussions, like a tattoo.

I don’t know how I got this way, but to me, not making up my mind is as natural as breathing. I can remember standing in the aisle of a drug store as a six year old, trying desperately to decide whether I wanted to spend my $3 allowance on crayons or colored pencils. The crayons were so pointy! But the colored pencils came in more colors. I probably debated the pros and cons of each for over twenty minutes. Bless my parents for their patience. Or maybe they should have just dragged me out by my hair and I would have learned something.

When I was a senior in high school and it came time to design our yearbook pages, I was one of the only students whose page was devoid of quotes. Just a bunch of baby pictures and my name. When people asked why I didn’t have, say, a line from one of my favorite songs or a quote from one of my favorite authors, I shrugged. “My favorite band right now probably won’t be my favorite band in ten years,” I’d say. “I don’t want to define myself with something that may not always represent who I am.”

The idea that a yearbook page is more like a time-capsule; a way to freeze yourself in time so you can always look back and remember the way you were, clearly did not occur to me. Why I somehow thought it mattered if I had a stupid quote on my yearbook page, as though it would somehow haunt me for the rest of my life, I also can’t explain. Not to mention the fact that that if I HAD chosen a quote, it probably would have been a Beastie Boys lyric—and over ten years later I still like the Beastie Boys, and plan to continue liking them for the rest of my natural life. Still, my fear of somehow branding myself with an image that I might not always like has clearly been around for some time.

To this day I can’t think of a single image or phrase that I feel strongly enough about that I am comfortable committing to wearing it on my person for the rest of my life. Which doesn’t mean I have a problem with tattoos at all—I’ve seen some great ones. But clearly, if you’re like me, and you have trouble choosing a nail polish color when you get a manicure, permanent body art is not for you..

SARA WELSH: I have wanted to get a tattoo since I was very little.  I was constantly drawing on myself, though I had to stop drawing on my pants for fear of mom’s wrath.  I always thought the “punk” girls with their wacky colored hair, piercings, and tattoos were cool.  Unfortunately I come from a southern, born again Christian family and getting modified was generally frowned upon.

I got my first (and only thus far) tattoo a couple of years ago after moving in with my then boyfriend (he’s now my husband).  Being part Cherokee, I really felt close to my spirit animal, the bear.  I got a solid black bear paw print (my own design) put on my left thigh to express that connection further.  My experience in the chair was incredibly dull compared to others- my artist was good, but barely talked and I didn’t care much for the death metal music playing over my head.  It was clean, hurt a bit, but was not the best experience.

Is it a public tattoo for everyone to see?  No, but it means a lot to me.  I see body modification as an expression of yourself, bringing forth parts of your personality to the forefront.  That may be harder to argue with modifications like piercings, but any modification can serve as a reminder for something.  Would I get more tattoos?  Absolutely… once I had more expendable income.

As for my mom experience, she’s seen the tattoo once (my wedding day) and still swears I draw it on with sharpie every morning.

KRYSTEN OLIPHANT: I have two tattoos. One has a story, the other doesn’t. It’s funny, really.

After getting my ears pierced very young (they closed up and I had them pierced again when I was in fourth grade), I didn’t get another modification until I was 20 years old. I got my navel pierced, then my nose shortly afterward, and I loved them both. I still miss my nose piercing, which I had to remove when I got a job at a newspaper in a conservative little Mississippi town. Man, I miss that thing.

Anyway, the first tattoo was on a whim. It was St. Patrick’s Day 2007, and as cliche as it sounds I had had a couple drinks. I had wanted a tattoo for years but had always chickened out. And thank God for that — my ideas ran the gamut from words to cherries to hearts to crosses, although no names were involved. But this time I finally got up the nerve, picking out three stars the put on my shoulder. The minute I got it done I thought, ‘Hmm…how am I going to tell people that I just got three random stars?’ So I came up with a story about how they represented reaching for the stars or some crap like that.

That was then, though, and this is now, when I can proudly say, ‘You know what? I got a tattoo on a whim. And I like it. A lot.’ It’s easily covered if I want and easily shown if I so choose, and I really do enjoy it.

The second one is a bit different though. It’s two dog paws in the center of my back between my shoulders, and the paws have hearts drawn in negative space in them. They represented the two dogs I’ve lost, basset hounds. One I had to put down because of a genetic disease we found after adopting him from the SPCA. The other died of cancer a year later, a basset hound I adopted from a rescue organization. I spent an unbelievable amount of time in veterinary offices, an insane amount of money from my very meager journalism salary (of which I’m still suffering the credit card debt), and their deaths, so quickly in succession, took an emotional toll I still feel today.

So when I wanted something to remember both dogs by, I knew I wanted a new tattoo. It took about a month for me to decide what I wanted, how I wanted it and where. I finally had the right design down pat when I went to get the tattoo, but I went with someone who — well, let’s just say I’m no longer a fan. And while I love the design, it’s a bit too large for what I wanted and where. It’s in a place that’s often more difficult to cover than you would expect, and it’s not exactly inconspicuous.

The thing is, I love the tattoo. I love to show it when I want to, and I like to tell people the story of why I got it. But I also dislike its location and its size. I hate having to buy dresses with high backs (it’ll be real inconvenient if I ever get married) and I can’t count the number of times someone has told me a dog has been walking up my back as if that’s the most original comment I’ve ever heard.

While I don’t necessarily regret the fact that I have the tattoo, I wish I’d have given it a little more thought before I committed to it permanently.

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6 Responses to Body Modification

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  4. I have a friend who is an amazing person. Among other things, she’s on the Long Island Rescue Squad, and with her expertise basically spent the summer of 1996 identifying Flight 800 victims. After that, she had her navel pierced, because she wanted to have something readily identifiable about her body.

    That always resonated with me, but I didn’t have the body for a piercing. When I was turning 40, though, I wanted to do something, so I got a tattoo. It’s a rose and it’s on the outside of my ankle. It’s there, but it’s subtle – it doesn’t jump out at you.

    Fast forward to two years ago; I was on Weight Watchers, and beginning to recognize the possibility that I’d actually achieve my goal weight. I was doing Weight Watchers Online, and staring at that logo on my computer every day. At some point the logo became a motivation to me; if I got to my goal weight, I’d get a tattoo of it. The day I got to goal weight I had it done – it’s very small, and it’s on the inside of my wrist. It’s my reward and my reminder; a reward for a job well done, and a reminder not to pull a Kirstie Alley.

    Oh, and now that I have the kind of body I didn’t have in 1996, I got that piercing!

    I have kept my modifications very small and in places that are easy to show off when I want to but are also easy to hide. That works well for me; my general appearance is conservative, but when you get to know me you see that there’s more to me than the first impression.

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