Tattoos have always interested me. Growing up, I was fascinated by the colours and designs that covered peoples’ bodies. I began to see myself in each person I saw with tattoos, be it on television or in pictures, as I dreamed that one day I would have my own to show off. The image I had of myself, the version I wanted to present to the world, was brooding and quiet — a mysterious guy in the corner who was dangerous yet attractive.
Admittedly, the first time I saw a tattoo in person, I thought it was stupid. My friend’s older brother had a ‘1-Up’ symbol from the Super Mario Bros. games on his forearm. But now, years later, I’ve come to realize that I probably shouldn’t judge him for it.
I contemplated getting tattoos for at least five years before finally deciding to get one on my left forearm and one on my right tricep at the same time shortly after turning 18.
Looking back three years later, I didn’t quite achieve the aesthetic I was going for. I have the tattoos, but at age 21, I’m only brooding and quiet 10 per cent of the time. I’m generally loud, smiley, and downright flamboyant. Not exactly the way I thought I would end up, but my tattoos have become a part of my story and literally part of who I am physically.
“Make it mean something”
The first time I told my mother I wanted tattoos, she laughed and told me I could go to the tattoo parlour when I no longer lived under her roof. “Fair,” I recall my 13-year-old self saying. This became our routine: me asking if I could get tattoos, and her giving the same response.
My parents separated when I was 14; my father and I didn’t get along. When they separated, I decided it would be a great idea to exploit this strained relationship and try to manipulate my mother into letting me get a tattoo. I told her that my father, who wasn’t around, would let me get a tattoo and pay for it.
“Go for it,” she replied, toying with me because she knew there was no way I’d do anything with my father. She was right.
I dropped the subject for a couple of years. Close to my 18th birthday, I asked my mum again, expecting the same answer I had received years prior. “Make it mean something,” she said.
As I had grown older, I guess she figured I had enough life experience to choose something that I’d want to look at 50 years down the road. I thought long and hard about what I wanted and decided on two symbols that I felt were representative of me.
Sitting in a parlour, trying not to scream
I was standing outside of a tattoo parlour in my hometown, just steps away from where I’d taken swimming lessons as a kid. I felt this was my coming-of-age moment, and I was unable to resist the urge to juxtapose kid-me to adult-me.
I headed into the parlour with my designs in hand and met with Phil, the artist who did my tattoos. We talked about the designs and what they meant to me, and he stenciled them onto my skin. He had to redo the one on my right tricep, a symbol called an awen, which means ‘poetic inspiration,’ because he had stenciled it upside-down thinking it was supposed to represent an explosion. That would’ve been cool, but I’m still glad I caught it in the mirror before we got started. The tattoo on my left forearm is an Aquarius symbol, two zig-zagging lines meant to symbolize waves.
I expected pain. I expected to be incredibly uncomfortable, but when Phil started on my first tattoo, it wasn’t that bad. I got cocky thinking everybody who had ever complained about getting a tattoo was a baby and that I was impervious to pain. Boy, was I wrong.
As he moved to the inner part of my arm, a jolt of pain seemed to run through my entire body and left me seeing stars — I thought I was going to pass out. I got nauseous and had to take a break. Everyone was telling jokes to keep me laughing.
Three hours later, I was finally a tattooed man. I felt on top of the world. Sitting in the chair was awful, but afterward was indescribable. There was something about being prodded with a series of tiny needles thousands of times that left me invigorated. I could have climbed a mountain if it weren’t for the bruising on my arms leaving me essentially helpless. I’ve never had a high like that since, so I understand why people might get addicted to tattoos.
I went home and showed my mother the new additions to my body once I was allowed to take my bandages off. Tattoos had become our inside joke, and my mother, not one to get emotional, simply told me that I had better not regret either of them. I don’t.
Ask any of my older relatives and they will tell you that tattoos are for sailors and criminals. It took a long time to convince my mother that having tattoos wouldn’t affect my family’s perception of me. I wasn’t allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts around my grandparents for about a year for fear of judgement.
My tattoos are an outward expression of who I am. I felt awkward having to hide them — a part of myself that I not only wanted to share with the world in action but display on my body for all to see. As a teen, I wasn’t especially confident in myself; I was anxious, lonely by choice, and I allowed my insecurities to control my life. Looking back, my tattoos were my way of reclaiming myself, making my body my own, and showing off.
I’m not ashamed of my tattoos, and neither is my family. It’s a bit of a joke now — they often poke fun at my Aquarius tattoo, because to them it was obvious that I would have gotten such a ‘basic’ tattoo and that I embody all the personality traits of an Aquarius, whatever that means, but that’s okay, I love them anyways. Maybe someday I’ll convince my mother to get a tattoo with me. Maybe.
Every time I experience something meaningful, I want to honour it by putting it on my body. Some of my tattoo ideas are basic, like getting a diamond on my chest. Some are downright stupid, like getting a pizza slice on my forearm.
No matter what they are, though, I want my tattoos to say: ‘I am who I am, and that’s pretty cool.’