(This was the pro-tattoo half of a pro/con article that appeared in SELF. To read the con portion, got to www.self.com.)
Anyone who tells you that getting a tattoo doesn’t hurt is either lying or lying. Or she may be so hopped up on Vicodin that although the process is torturous, she’s too loopy to care. Or it might be like childbirth amnesia: She’s so pleased with the results that she’s blocked out what it feels like to have an electric needle scraped back and forth over her delicate skin. Any of those would explain why people — like me — get more than one.
I went the Vicodin route when I got my third and most recent tattoo six months ago, popping one pill and then later another, which I had saved from my cesarean section a few years ago. This latest tattoo, two lush pink and plum peonies on my left inner ankle, hurt more than the C-section. (They don’t give epidurals for tattoos, after all.) But like I’ve never regretted having my twin girls, I’ve never regretted getting my tats or looked back and thought, What was I thinking? That’s because I knew exactly what I was thinking all three times.
I got my first tattoo — a small line drawing of one of Picasso’s doves — above my right shoulder blade when I was 25, right before I quit my job, packed up my life and moved to Seville to teach English. I’d felt so embraced by the city (and by a guy named Manolo) when I’d visited a few years earlier that I was sure it was my natural home. I didn’t wind up staying, but the decision was one of the best I’ve ever made. I learned that I could fly above life’s expectations and rely on myself for all my needs if I had to. (Oh, and that Spanish men who still live with their parents — i.e., most single Spanish men — are a wee bit immature.)
Nine years later, I got a second dove on the small of my back, right before my husband and I became engaged. It signified the calm, soaring feeling I had after years of searching for the right partner. It had partly to do with Paul, who made me feel safe and loved, but even more to do with the fact that I’d grown into a person who knew how to include people like Paul in her life. And the third tattoo, the largest and most painful, those dual-colored peonies situated above my foot? They represent my fraternal twin girls, Sasha and Vivian, two very different flowers growing on the same vine. Now they’ll always be with me, even when we’re apart.
Each of my three tattoos represents a major emotional milestone or epiphany and serves as a bodily reminder of the freedom I felt because of my new experience or bit of knowledge. They’re like signposts along the road to now, someplace I feel lucky to be. When I look at them, I can feel again the exhilaration of the life-altering shift that pointed me squarely toward personal peace and fulfillment. If I’d gotten Denzel Forever on my butt or Hello Kitty on my inner arm during a drunken moment, I might well regret it. In general, though, I’m not a big regretter. I tend to see even the dumbest decisions as learning experiences (“Google? What a stupid name for a company. No way am I investing!”), as opposed to evidence of what a fool I was when I was younger.
My reasons for getting my tattoos make sense to me, and that’s all that matters. There are as many reasons to get a tattoo as there are images to express people’s personal experiences, memories, emotions or even favorite band, if you feel that strongly about it. The best reasons have this in common: They please the person wearing the body art, not necessarily the person looking at it. One friend got a leafy cuff around her upper arm purely because it made her feel like a hot mama; another went with her best friend and got matching Japanese symbols for happiness, to give their friendship its symbolic due; still another got a C-sized battery on her hip, to remind her that she needs to stop and recharge.
Whatever the meaning, you’re more likely to be happy with your tattoo if you have a reason — or reasons, in my case — you can live with forever, like the tattoo itself. You can’t think of a permanent piece of skin art as a haircut that, once you’re tired of, you can let grow out. And even though it’s possible to have a tattoo removed, the process certainly isn’t easy. The few people I know who regret their tattoos say they liked them when they got them but now hate what they project to potential bosses or mothers-in-law. It’s true that you never know how radically your priorities or career goals (or the names of your lovers — I’m talking to you, Angelina) will change over time. (Case in point: I know a woman who, in her 20s, covered both of her arms in colorful mermaids and ivy vines. She now works with children; the kids think her tattoos are cool, but she wears long-sleeved shirts around the parents, mostly because she doesn’t want to lose clients.) But I like to think if I ever forsook writing for, say, holding public office, becoming a trophy wife for a prominent real estate magnate or even turning letters on Wheel of Fortune, I’d be so good at what I did that people would forgive my tattoos as one of the eccentricities that come with creative genius. Clearly I’m not that concerned, though — not least of all because I know many hard-driving female CEOs have secret ladybugs, hearts or lotus blossoms hidden under their posh, tailored suits. These days, Satanic pentagrams, swastikas and symbols of anarchy aside, most tattoos hardly signify rebellion.
Although I love my tattoos, I don’t plan on getting any more, mostly because I’m running out of spots on my body that will never droop, get stretched out or grow hair — all of which would ruin even the most beautiful, well-thought-out design. After getting the peonies, I told Paul of my decision to call it quits. He said he distinctly remembered my saying that the last time. And he’s probably right. So I never say never, except that I know I’ll never regret my tattoos.