Wednesday, August 23, 2017

#242: "Permanently Cool: A Tattoo of One’s Own" by Alice Lowe

~This essay previously appeared in Soundings Review (2014).

January: The idea worms its way into my head as I start anticipating—you might even say obsessing about—my October birthday. While I accept my senior status and its dubious benefits with appropriate aplomb and all the grace I can muster, damn it, I won’t go down without a fight. I want to do something symbolic, something tangible and visible, something out of character. A tattoo—that’s it!—I’ll get a tattoo. And I’ll write about it.

February: It’s a dramatic undertaking for me. Once it might have been thought radical or subversive—foolish for an old broad, maybe—but not now. I read about the recent proliferation of tattoos on women in Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women & Tattoo, which traces the phenomenon from a Native American captive in 1858 with a chin tattoo to the explosion of popularity over the past 20 years. Until recently tattoos carried a stigma of tawdriness for most women, although they became a fad in late 19th-century European and American elite society (usually tucked away in places that could be covered by clothing). Winston Churchill’s mother—the infamous Jennie—had a snake eating its tail, the symbol of eternity, inked on her wrist. Janis Joplin was one of the first celebrities to display them—a bracelet on her wrist, a tiny heart on her chest. Now they’re a fashion statement across age and class, and in 2012, for the first time, women got more tattoos than men. A political statement too: Mifflin sees women’s tattoos as “badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.” Right on, sisters!

March: The only people I’ve told are my husband and my daughter, Jennifer. Both were incredulous but enthusiastic. Jennifer has two tattoos, a small flower on her ankle and the Chinese symbol for strength on her wrist. “What’s with the number 4?” people asked when she first got it—that’s what it looked like—so she added a leafy sprig to soften the image. Sara, my good friend and former colleague of nearly 20 years, tells me at our monthly lunch date that her daughter and son and their spouses went to Las Vegas for the weekend and came home with new tattoos. Her daughter has several—I remember Sara’s horror at Kristin’s first one, more than 10 years ago—and she still doesn’t like them. Can’t understand why anyone would do it. How will she feel about it in 20 years? Yadda yadda. So how can I resist? I tell her my plan. She looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind, then starts firing questions and making suggestions. Shoulder? Hip? Ankle? Cat? Flower? Book?   

April: Buju Tattoo is just a couple of blocks from my house. It opened last year and doesn’t look like a stereotypical tattoo parlor. Seedy, bikerish—you know. Other neighborhood shops, with provocative names like Sailor’s Grave and Sinister Ink, display photos of bare-chested or Harley-suited models touting skulls, snarling beasts, big-breasted women. Potted succulents line the front window of Buju. An antique bench sits out front, and Victorian parlor furniture graces the reception area. The walls are painted aqua and hung with eclectic bric-a-brac. A dog, a real one—the eponymous Buju, a mild-mannered pit bull—roams the shop. The tattoo artists are dreadlocked young women with decorated limbs—walking works of art advertising their trade. I make a reconnaissance visit and introduce myself to Meg, look at photo samples of her work. The shop is clean and neat; I like the ambiance and Meg. She’s in the midst of producing an intricate, multi-colored pattern on a young woman’s ample thigh, buzzing away as we chat. I say to her patron, “You don’t look like you’re in pain.” “I took a Vicodin before I came,” she tells me; “I always do.” She has several elaborate designs already; this new one will take several hours over two appointments. Meg suggests I come in for a consult if I want to discuss ideas or contact her when I’m ready to schedule. It’s starting to feel real. So is my essay—I’m taking notes along the way, inkings about my inking.

May: What’s it going to be? I’ve been pondering this since day one, and a protracted process of elimination narrows the field. No quotations (not even from Virginia Woolf), no new-age slogans or pithy proverbs. No images representing love or peace, Elvis or Paris. I scrutinize tattoos, inspecting arms and legs, necks and behind ears, bared midsections. Many come with stories. A young friend, Sandy, back from two years in Micronesia as a Peace Corps volunteer, tells me how the memory of swimming with the parrotfish evokes the sights and colors, smells and sounds of the island. On her upper arm, a big bright blue-green parrotfish—copied from a 19th-century scientific illustration—pays homage to her experience. Years ago, before tattoos were trendy, I met a woman who had a disfiguring gouge in the back of her calf, the result of an injury. She was embarrassed by it until she had it transformed into a shark bite with the predator’s open jaws wrapped around the indentation. “Tattoos for the Terrified” is posted online for people who worry that they’re not cool because they don’t have a tattoo. Suggestions include a heart inscribed with “Mom” and “contact in case of emergency;” a mermaid wearing a life preserver; the Chinese character for regret. Anne Fadiman, one of my favorite essayists, wrote that after 9/11, the Macdougal Street Tattoo parlor in Greenwich Village gave free tats to nearly 500 World Trade Center rescue workers. Lots of flags, no doubt, and “God bless America.”

June: The winnowing down continues. I consider images from nature, but no cats or roses, nothing too cutesy or common. I like the symmetry and symbolism of lotus blossoms but learn that only roses are more popular among flower tattoos. I garden and I love my cats, but that’s not what I want to say about myself—I weed out all flora and fauna. Slogans are big: tattoos are the new bumper stickers. “Life will go on” runs down the arm of a restaurant server; my grandson sports “The sky’s the limit.” On the cover of Vogue or Vanity Fair a couple of years ago, Angelina Jolie brandished a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas on her arm: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country.” Jolie’s much-publicized inkings include a Buddhist prayer, Arabic script, a Latin phrase, Roman numerals, a Bengal tiger. She had a dragon emblazoned with the name of her second husband, Billy Bob Thornton. After they split up it took five sessions to have it removed, and Jolie said, “I’ll never be stupid enough to have a man’s name tattooed on me again.” Who am I? I’m a reader and a writer, but I don’t want words, any words, in any language. I scan literary tattoos. One site claims, “Couples break up, ‘YOLO’ goes out of style, but the literature you love is forever.” After I look up YOLO (“you only live once”—am I the only one who doesn’t know?) I scroll through images from The Great Gatsby and The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter, Kerouac, Hemingway, Austen. I’m an ardent Virginia Woolfophile, and sites abound with Woolf photos, book covers, and quotes (many from A Room of One’s Own).

July: I have it—an elegant image that pays tribute to my avocation and my muse. My blog heading has these lines from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: “For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Not the quote, of course—I’m going to have a quill pen and inkpot. Maybe on a sheet of parchment or an open book. I ask Meg what she thinks. “That would be so cool,” she says. “Send me some examples of ones you like.” There are hundreds, maybe thousands of images online. Pick a feather, any feather. I choose several with simple lines but lots of texture, and a clean, no-nonsense inkpot. I drop the book and paper—too busy, too many metaphors.

August: I’m ready. I scrap the inkpot, scaling the design down to the utmost in simplicity: just the quill. I coordinate dates with Jennifer—I want her with me for physical and moral support. Like when I took her, at 13, to get her ears pierced, only now the roles are reversed. “It’ll hurt less on your shoulder,” she tells me, but I envision the distinctive vertical image at my ankle. I make an appointment and put down a $60 deposit—a major investment for me, so there’s no backing out. I give Meg a page of images, and she makes a stencil, her own take on it, which I approve.

September: On a Saturday afternoon, four weeks before my birthday, I lie face-down on the table, toes sticking over the edge. Like when I get acupuncture on my feet, which I’ve been doing for the past year—I make a mental note of the similarities. As Meg starts in just behind my ankle bone I feel the pinpricks of irritation, like buzzing insects. “Doing OK?” Meg asks me a few times, and I assure her that I am. Jenn and I chatter, and after about 20 minutes that seem like five, Meg says “You’re done.” We admire it and Jenn takes a photo: a perfect plume with a squiggle of ink trailing its nib. Black with soft shadings to give it a feathery look, about three inches high. Classy. Cool. As we’re leaving the shop, one of the other tattoo artists asks, “Is this your first?” I say yes, and with a broad knowing smile, he says, “Permanently cool.” There’s the title of my essay, I think as I walk proudly out the door.


As soon as I made up my mind to get a tattoo, I knew I would write about it. I kept notes along the way to capture the progression of my thinking along with actual events. The symbolism of the act—thumbing my nose at impending old age—was of key importance, yet I didn’t acknowledge until the essay was completed and published that I had evaded what was most significant about it—the fact that it was to commemorate my seventieth birthday. I mentioned a momentous birthday, my senior status, my advancing years, but I didn’t disclose my age, left it to the reader’s imagination to figure out, maybe to assume that I was turning sixty. I believed I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I admitted my true age. A new essay, not yet published, confronts my ambivalence about aging, my evasion of it in past writing. No regrets about the tattoo—after three years I still take pleasure from it and what it represents.

Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, Adelaide, The Baltimore Review, Brevity, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, Room, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at

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