By Jude Walsh
I was nine when I saw my first tattoo. It was July in northeastern Pennsylvania and the first week of Saint Aloysius’ annual two-week church summer bazar. I was with my dad in the beer garden, a lattice work section decorated with swags of plastic greenery and potted plastic plants, located just a few steps away from the food tent. It was sheltered by a large tarp and had long counters set much higher than normal booths because their sole purpose was a place to rest your elbows while you stood while having a beer or two or three or ten. This section was for drinkers but in the early 1960’s there was no problem with a little girl being there with her dad.
The art I spied was on a man who in my memory had big arms, what I now might call bulging biceps but then just thought of as big arms. It was deep blue and in the shape of an anchor. I could not stop looking at it. Dad noticed me staring and said, “That’s a navy anchor.” I knew it was an anchor and now I knew it was a navy anchor. What I did not know was how it got on his skin.
“Who drew it there?”
My dad laughed out loud, “It’s not drawn on his arm, that’s a tattoo.”
A what? My dad went on to explain that it was inked on his arm by punching little holes in the skin with a needle and then filling the holes with ink. I was horrified and fascinated. My father anticipated the horror and knew his little girl’s curiosity would result in further questioning.
“Didn’t that hurt? Can he get it off?”
Dad went on to tell me that it hurt like Hell, a pretty daring word to use on the church property but this was the beer tent, and that is why most men were drunk when they got a tattoo. He said sailors got them while they were at port.
By then, the man was aware of my staring and caught the end of the conversation. He leaned toward me and his beery breath billowed into my face.
“Want a closer look little girl? Watch this!”
He then began to flex his muscle and the anchor moved.
“I have another, a girl that I can make dance.”
He tipped a bit as he began to open his shirt to show me. At that point my father said that was enough and hustled me out of there.
“Daddy, you were in the Navy, right?”
I only knew this about my dad because every Memorial Day he marched in a parade with his American Legion Post that ended at the Veteran’s Memorial. It was thrilling to watch the honor guard march onto the grass and be called to attention, hear the commands Ready, fire! and then the thunder of the 21-gun salute. As I remember it, there were only three or four guns and they shot the usual three times so maybe it was not the traditional 21-gun salute but it certainly impressed me. Then Mom and I would go to the Memorial, a huge granite monument etched with hundreds of names and find my dad’s. She would tell me that Dad was in the navy and we were lucky because many dads did not come home. My dad’s name was on the part of the monument that listed men who served and not on the part that listed men who died while serving. That was pretty much all I knew about it because my father, like many WWII veterans, never ever discussed the war. But he was in the navy.
“Why don’t you have a tattoo?”
“Because I am not an omadhaun.” *
This was said in a firm voice that brooked no further questions. And being a daddy’s girl, I absorbed the judgment that folks with tattoos were somehow weak or flawed.
I was almost fifty when we interviewed the woman who as secretary would become the lynch pin of our school office. I was first impressed by her buoyant smile and effervescent personality. But a close second point of interest was the bit of tattoo peeking out from the neck of her shirt on her left breast. I thought it might be an animal head but wasn’t sure. After the interview concluded and we were chatting privately I asked, “What is your tattoo?” She pulled over the neck of her blouse revealing Tigger, and just below him to the left, Winnie the Pooh. She said, “Winnie was first but as my boobs dropped, I added Tigger. Before I die I may have the entire Enchanted Wood!” She let loose a bawdy snort at that point. I was mesmerized. I knew few people with tattoos, even fewer women, and could not imagine baring part of my chest so casually. Do tattoos on women make them brave?
Today’s millennials have an incredible number of tattoos. I see them with inked sleeves, their entire arms from shoulder to wrist covered in multicolored designs. At a recent wedding, the bride had a huge butterfly on her back, a wings spread Monarch in the deepest blue ink that warred with the thin crisscrossed straps of her wedding gown. New moms have their baby’s name and birthday inked on their arm or over their heart. I go crazy trying to read what people have inked on their legs. I saw a hostess in a very posh restaurant, with a line of words up the back of each leg in lettering I did not easily recognize. When I asked her what they said she was delighted to share with me that it was in Thai and that one leg was a statement about living peacefully, a message to all, and the other she would not divulge because it was a message just for her. I was not sure how she could read the message on her leg. Even if she used a mirror wouldn’t the words be distorted? Maybe it was enough for her to know it was there.
I am always a little puzzled by putting something on your body to attract attention and then withholding information about it when asked. She clearly relished the attention and maybe the power of not telling. She attracted scrutiny and then managed it to meet her needs, her whim. Maybe the secret part of it was what she liked best? Maybe it was being able to dangle the message but then refusing to decode it?
Presently there is a huge tattoo industry; it is an accepted art form. You can find a tattoo parlor almost everywhere. The designs available are incredibly detailed and wildly colorful. And wildly expensive, an across the back tattoo can cost more than $1,500. There is another industry developing around removing tattoos. When I Internet searched how to remove a tattoo, I got 125,000,000 results in .39 seconds. That boggles the mind.
I have two tattoos. I got them both when I was 59 and I gave permission for neither. I had been diagnosed with Paget’s Disease of the Breast, an uncommon form of breast cancer. It shows up on the skin of the nipple and is usually mistaken for eczema and therefore not diagnosed until it has become invasive, often stage four. My surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic told me that my stage zero was the earliest diagnosis she had ever seen. She removed my nipple and the front third of my right breast. They found some stray cancer cells in the edges of the tissue removed so I needed a second surgery to take just a bit more, another strip of skin. Not to worry she said, I could have reconstructive surgery to reshape and augment the breast and they would tattoo the skin to resemble a nipple. I found the two surgeries problematic enough and was not going to have a third just so my breasts would be the same size. And tattoo on a nipple? The thought gave me the shivers.
At that point she shared with me that they had also found some underlying DCIS (ductal cancer in situ). She said if my cells had been biopsied anywhere else they might not have identified those stray cells. Her recommendation was to have a series of radiation treatments as a precaution. I reluctantly agreed. I had been so pleased to think that my cancer was at stage zero and the surgery ended any chance of further spread. But, as the single parent of an adult son with disabilities, meaning life-long parenting, I could not allow a risk, however small, that those cells might cause more cancer.
I went in to meet with the radiologist, a lovely young woman who was so happily enthusiastic about, and proud of, the radiation protocol she shared. She designed it to reach precisely the targeted area and only touch a small section of lung in the process. She said they would mark my body to insure that the exact radiation protocol was administered each time, reducing the risk of collateral damage.
From her I went to the technicians to line up the marks. I was on my back on a table with my chest exposed. The tech had a pen and was making dots on my chest and then flashing a light from an overhead machine, checking the placement. She did this several times, adjusting the dots with each turn. Suddenly I felt a spurt of pain. “What are you doing?”
She had tattooed on the first mark.
“I am making your radiation guideline marks.”
I knew that is what I was there for but thought they would use a Sharpie or some other kind of permanent marker. No one had said anything about tattooing the marks.
There are two. Both are in the center of my chest, one about two inches above my cleavage and easily visible if wearing an open neck top, and the other about three inches below my bra line. The marks only stung for a moment, the physical pain fleeting but the emotional pain reverberating throughout my body, mind, and spirit. I held it together while I was in the office but as soon as I got to the privacy of my car I broke down and wept.
This was not something I asked for or desired. I was slowly becoming used to the way my breast looked. I had decided against reconstruction because I did not want further surgeries; I was not ashamed of my breast. I was grateful to my body for the early warning. My father’s words came back to me. I had always been a bit judgmental about tattoos, perhaps because of his omadhaun remark. It was strange that after all I had been through with the diagnosis and two surgeries that two tiny tattooed dots would do me in. Maybe it was the disfigurement without my consent? Maybe it was another way my skin was violated, first by cancer now by ink?
I am at the magical five-year post cancer mark. I find myself thinking about tattoos and aging. I wonder about the few remaining WWII vets and think of their now wrinkled arms and chests and if those anchors and hula girls can still dance in any way. I wonder if our school secretary, now retired, has completed her version of the Enchanted Wood. I think about that young woman’s still firm calves and wonder how those legs will show under a wedding dress and if, maybe then, she will share the secret message to herself with her partner.
I now regard my two tattooed dots with affection. And I realize that might be just as true for each of the folks I’ve written about. For those of us who are keeping and honoring our marks, tattoos can carry a tinge of regret or sadness or can be talismans of joy or wisdom inked into our skin. We are marked not just for life, but of life.
* a fool, derived from the Gaelic amadan
Jude Walsh writes memoir, personal essay, fiction, and poetry. Her work has been published at Mothers Always Write, Indiana Voice Journal, Flights Literary Journal, The Story Circle Network Quarterly Journal, The AWW Collection (2014 and 2015), the Story Circle Anthologies, and in The Magic of Memoir. She is a writer at The Good Men Project and Telling Herstories. Her blog, Writing Now, can be found at her website www.judewalsh-writer.com. Based on her essays, she was awarded a Bill Baker Scholarship to attend the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. Jude lives in Dayton with her son and three lively dogs.