On Tattoos

I’ve thought that tattoos were cool for a long time–probably since I was a teenager, when I first started noticing them on people. There are lots of reasons to get a tattoo: as a memorial for a lost loved one, a reminder to live your life by a certain principle, or just to have a cool piece of art that you take everywhere with you.

Part of me always wanted to get one, but I held back for a couple of reasons. The first is the standard reason: I didn’t want to get something I wasn’t totally sure about. A tattoo, obviously, is on your body for the rest of your life (that commitment, by the way, is the whole point: If tattoos weren’t permanent or painful, everyone would get them, right? It’d be like changing shirts), and nobody wants to see himself turn up in a Google search for “awful tattoos.” (One funny thing about the internet: Because I typed that phrase, this post will now show up in exactly the Google search I’d prefer to avoid. Oh well.)

The second reason I put off getting one for a long time is more complex and personal. My grandparents, as I’ve written about from time to time, were Auschwitz survivors, a fact that has always haunted me. My grandfather had his numbers tattooed on his left inner forearm; my grandmother didn’t have any numbers–and I prefer not to think about how she avoided them. When I thought about getting a tattoo, I wanted it to be something personally meaningful, and the thing I always returned to was a tribute piece for them. But would it be appropriate for me to pay tribute to them by marking myself using the same method that the Nazis used to dehumanize Jews? The number of remaining Holocaust survivors is dwindling, and in the last few years a trend has arisen of young Jews getting their survivor grandparents’ numbers tattooed on their arms. I almost certainly would have done this, but my grandfather died when I was seven, and neither my father nor my uncle know what his number was.

So I went back and forth on what I would want to get, and on whether or not it was even right for me to do it. As a result, despite my sister and several of my friends getting ink through the years, I made it all the way through my twenties without getting one. It’s a good thing, too, because 18-year old Justin absolutely would have done something stupid like get a “Thug Life” tattoo. (A cool piece if you happen to be Tupac–not so much if you happen to be me.)

Then, the month before I turned thirty, the only girl I’d ever really loved died.

I knew I wanted to do something for Lara, one of the three or four most influential people in my life, and I knew exactly what. Sunflowers were her favorite kind of flower, and when we lived together in Portland I had bought a print of a painting of a couple of sunflowers from an artist, Christopher Bibby, at a street fair.

Lara's print

Lara’s print

After she died, her sister returned the painting to me, and I took it to an artist, Kevin Pulido, at Diamond Club in San Francisco. He had done a nice lotus flower tattoo for my sister, and he agreed to do a re-creation of the painting on my upper arm. It’s not huge, but because it was complex and had lots of color in it, over the course of the next three months it took five sessions, each around two or three hours, to complete the tattoo.

Session 1: The outline took around three hours

Session 1: The outline took around three hours

Session 2: The blue took another two-plus hours. Think of it as a really intense paint by numbers activity

Session 2: The blue took another two-plus hours. Think of it as a really intense paint by numbers activity

Session 3: A lot more color gets added

Session 3: A lot more color gets added

Session 4: The flowers are totally filled in at this point

Session 4: The flowers are totally filled in at this point

Session 5: Added the background to complete the tattoo

Session 5: Added the background to complete the tattoo

I thought it was a nice tribute for a lost loved one, and it was suddenly a piece of my body that I was really proud of. Also, I had removed the taboo–since I’d broken the seal, I figured why not just go ahead and do the tribute for my grandparents. I still felt a little ambivalent about the choice of a tattoo as a tribute, but I thought about it like this: Why should I allow the Nazis to decide what’s an appropriate tribute? Why should they get to own tattoos? Why couldn’t I take that back from them?

And so I got something to say I’d never forget my grandparents and what they’d been through: a bouquet of forget-me-nots with a coil of barbed-wire running through it. Kevin knocked this piece out in a single session that took a little more than four hours.

My memorial piece for my grandparents

My memorial piece for my grandparents

An aside: If you look closely at the bottom of the photo, you’ll see a small blue dot. That is not a part of this tattoo. It’s actually a separate piece, done by my friend Katrina Chamberlin as part of a large performance art project (she learned to do tattoos and has given similar dots to 162 other people–a living art project you can read about here).

So I got two fairly large tattoos within a year. You may have heard the expression that tattoos are addictive, and it happens that I would get another one fairly soon after, but I thought I’d briefly address the topic. It’s not that the process of getting a tattoo is addictive. I mean, maybe some people like it–people are into all sorts of weird shit–but I personally don’t find it all that pleasant. It hurts–not a terrible pain, but a steady, burning sensation, and even if you have a tattoo artist who’s interesting to talk to, as Kevin is, it gets boring sitting there for hours on end. What’s actually “addictive,” for lack of a better word, is that once you have a tattoo, you start to look at your un-inked skin as a blank canvas, or as a gallery wall on which you can add more pieces of art.

Still, I would never get anything without thinking long and hard about it (my sister’s rule is she has to think about a tattoo for at least a year before she gets it), and I wouldn’t get anything that didn’t have a personal significance. My next major piece was my sister’s idea: Since we each already had flowers on our left forearms, she suggested we each get flowers on our right forearms. Specifically, she suggested that we get matching rose tattoos, as roses are our mother’s favorite flower. I liked the idea, especially that she and I would have matching ones, and the last time I was in San Francisco, I got mine.

The boy with the rose tattoo (I'll update once my sister gets hers)

The boy with the rose tattoo (I’ll update with another photo after my sister gets hers)

That’s all the ink I have now. I’m sure I’ll get another one sometime in the future, but I have nothing planned for the moment, and I’m in no rush–after all, I’ve got the rest of my life. Tattoos aren’t for everyone, but I’ve enjoyed making some art that I think is beautiful, and meaningful, a part of my body.

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3 Responses to On Tattoos

  1. Ariel Goldman says:

    I had a vision of your next tattoo and decided I will draw it for you. I think you will love it!

  2. Pingback: On the Value of Colin Kaepernick | From a Brooklyn Basement

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