Tattoos: Healthy, Diseased,Self-Mutilating, Expressive, Nuts, Fun…, What’s Your Opinion?

Everyone has an opinion on tattoos.

I have two tattoos. One was impulsive and the other one was very impulsive.

One is huge and on my lower back. The other one is half-done and on my right lower ankle.  The one on my back is two tiger lillies with music notes in between. The one on my ankle is of a shamrock with wings surrounded by a half-done sun. The half-done sun gives my ankle this sort of jaundice hue that makes me look like I have localized hepatitis, if that were such a thing.  I don’t have hepatitis and no, not all people with tattoos have hepatitis. (Myth One, busted.)  Still, I need to finish the tattoo, but I’ve been saying that for the last 5 years. It’s an unfinished tattoo because I remember it cost 250$, but I showed up with only 200. So that gave me a done shamrock, a done set of wings, but a half-done sun.  Now when people remark on my inability to commit to things, I show them my ankle and say, “No shit.”

Still my done tattoo and my half-done tattoo have gotten me a lot of attention. Some bad and some good. The good mostly revolves around compliments about my lower back tattoo. It is pretty magnificent, so much so that the artist asked to photograph it and display it in her tattoo parlor.  No one compliments my ankle tattoo, but why would they? It looks like a marking for White Trash.

The negative attention stems from many loud opinions and preconceived notions.  One day I was swimming laps next to an older woman who was obviously overweight.  I had no issues with her weight and in fact I was silently cheering her on for swimming laps and doing something healthy for herself. She, however, had beef with my tattoos. (Pun intended).  While I was paused in the shallow lane, adjusting my swim cap and wiping the fog from my goggles, she turns to me and says, “Ugh. Why would you get tattoos on yourself? They are not attractive. I would never put anything on me that I wasn’t born with.”

So I looked at her and said, “Well…,were you born with 300 pounds on you?”

She got pissed and paddled away… probably to report me to the lifeguard or something.

Later I thought about her comment and decided it was ridiculous. If we were to wander around earth only with what we were born with, we’d all be naked, half-bald dwarfs.

Another negative comment I hear often is, “You will regret that when you’re old.”

Those types of comments just make me laugh. Um, hello?  Like the ONLY thing that will look bad when I’m old are my tattoos! I’m sure everything else will look great,  and if it weren’t for the wrinkling, fading paintings on my back and ankle, I’d be Snow White well into my nineties.

A friend who forgot about my tattoos asked me recently, “Are tattoos something only lower class people get?”

I said, “Hmm. Maybe. Rich people don’t get a lot of tattoos.  You know, I have two.”      (And you can kiss my class!)

I don’t think tattoos are reserved for people of lower socioeconomic class. After all, a lot of wealthy musicians have tattoos. And having been in the military, I can say there are a lot of tattoos in the service. Of course, rich people don’t join the service, so that’s a bad example. I think that if someone did a study, he or she would discover that there are more tattoos in trashy neighborhoods than in wealthier ones.  More tattoos in trailers than in Mcmansions.  And more rednecks have tattoos than Wall Street executives. Why would that be? I don’t know. Maybe one’s fear of needle-born illnesses  is directly proportional to one’s social class.  You probably want to live longer if you’re super-rich and can afford everything.  Rednecks also play with more firecrackers than Wall Street executives…

A friend who works in medicine recently reminded me that tattoos are listed in the psychiatry bible, the DSM, as a form of self-mutilation. Some people might view tattoos as a great way to mutilate themselves, but I think most people don’t. Besides, if you’re going to mutilate yourself, there are far more easier and economical ways to do so: scissors; knives; cigarette lighters, walls to bang your head against… all things you can do in the quiet of one’s home.  Plus, how are tattoos more of a form of self-mutilation than the common practice of drilling holes into our ears? Sometimes multiple holes in our ears!  Yet you won’t see “ear piercing” in the DSM.

My lower back tattoo has also been called a “tramp stamp” like all lower back tattoos.  I will clear this up now.  I realize this might be shocking, but not every girl with a tattoo on her lower back is a tramp.  I’ve seen cloistered nuns with lower back tattoos.  (That’s a lie, but I’m trying to win this argument and that sounded good.)  But seriously, yes,a  “tramp stamp” is traditionally located on the lower back. However it usually comes in the form of  small Chinese characters. And the girls with the small Chinese characters usually think the Chinese characters stand for a deep, Diva-ish, philosophical  saying like, “To Love me is to know me,” when in fact they really mean something like “fire engine” or “cactus.”

Seriously, steer clear of the Chinese characters unless you know Chinese well.

Another word of wisdom? Avoid getting your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name tattooed on your body. It’s not romantic, it’s stupid, and by that I mean statistically stupid.  The minute you breakup, you’ll end up burning and hurting yourself with some internet-ordered, do-it-yourself tattoo remover kit.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, one of my tattoos was impulsive. I got it during medical school in an attempt to fight morbidity and mortality.  Morbidity and Mortality won, and will always win.  It’s much better to learn how to positively cope with all of life’s morbid shit, rather than tattoo your body or do whatever else it is people do to avoid life’s ugly side.  Take it from someone who knows. Ahem…that said, I devoted a portion of my “medical school memoirs” to my first tattoo adventure.  It is posted below if you care to take it in…


 Segment: How I Got My Tattoo: 


Thursday, eleven in the morning, and my final is tomorrow. I’m in the library, yet again, surrounded by big brains conquering the pathology of diseases. I inhale deeply. It smells like home-cooked leftovers, Taco Bell, stale coffee and body odor. I doubt some students stop studying to shower.

One o’clock. I haven’t done much. If I don’t pick up the pace, I may bomb the test tomorrow. My pen falls to the floor. A pink highlighter follows. I bend down to pick them up.

“Ouch!” I smacked my head on the way back up.

“Shhhh!” someone scolds. I wish I knew who; I’d hit them.

Three o’clock. I take a short break to eat lunch and play piano in the student lounge. I’ll have to get coffee soon, I’m tired. My eyes feel scratched and dry, have to get drops for those. Maybe I should go outside and smoke a cigarette. That might give me energy. I don’t have cigarettes, but I’m sure someone out there does. Someone always does. I remind myself that I don’t smoke, but maybe I should start.

Five o’clock. I’m struggling to memorize every liver disease known to man. My head feels full and stubborn. It can’t take much more. Death, death, death in every entry. Why is this so painful for me and not for everyone else? Antidepressants? I’m on one of those and clearly it isn’t helping. Maybe they’re sociopaths? The material is depressing. I want to slam my book shut and go for a run. And then to a bar.

I try to motivate myself. Stop it, Erin. You have to study. You’re too damn sensitive. Don’t think about what you’re studying, just learn it. If you fail, what else are you going to do? Mop floors? Clean hotel rooms?


Seven o’clock. Life is temporary. I can’t stop thinking about the impermanent nature of life. I shouldn’t be trapped inside a cubicle fifteen hours a day. I’m going to leave. I’m going to do something permanent.


Nine o’clock. It’s dark out, and I’m lost. I’m in my Jeep, ready to fight everything that is temporary. Then I find it. Cadillac Tattoo.

A rugged-looking woman mans the counter at the parlor. She’s wearing a wife-beater, camouflage pants, and her brown hair’s slicked back in a neat ponytail. Her dark blue eyes mean business and her playfully inked arms look like a child’s picture book.

“I’m Erica, one of the artists here. What can I do for you?” she asks in a no-nonsense manner.

“Well… I have this idea for a tattoo, with music notes and tiger lilies? For my lower back. Not sure how long it will take, or how much it will be…?” I’m nervous. I don’t know what I’m getting into, maybe I should wait. Tattoos are really permanent.

Erica slides a piece of blank, white paper toward her and grabs a pencil. “Ya know, sometimes it’s best to just draw these things out.”

While Erica silently sketches, I examine the display of tattoos inside the glass counter. Some are cheesy, some are tribal and trendy, the sort that young girls put on their backs to look sexy and snare attention.

“How’s this?” Erica finally asks, holding up the paper. It’s a curving ribbon of musical notes bordered by a tiger lily on either side. I think I like it, except I have no way of telling what it will look like on my back.

“Perfect,” I respond. “How much?”


I decide quickly. “Okay. Okay, I’m ready. Will you be doing it?”

“Yep. You want to do the whole thing tonight?” Erica asks with a wry smile.

“Yes. I can’t come back. I mean, I can, but knowing me, I probably won’t.”

Erica doesn’t comment on my confusing reply. Instead, she motions me to follow her to the back room. I instantly like her. She’s tough but cute, and all business.

She stands behind me and tells me to lean forward. I can feel her pushing up my t-shirt and lowering the band on my jogging pants.

Suddenly I wince as a whirring needle hits the tender skin of my lower back. I grip the sides of a table directly in front of me. Erica continues to work while I mentally command my body to adjust to the pain and discomfort. The needle spills color under my skin. Erica doesn’t say a word. I break out in chills. My pain tolerance is high, but each time the needle hits, I feel a new, excruciating sting. It hurts but part of me loves it. All I can think about is the growling device marking my back, and not the morbid sentences in my pathology book. The physicality is a relief.

An hour and a half goes by. I’m still bent over. Heavily pierced and tattooed men have been in and out of the back room, checking out my progress. I feel dirty, a little obscene, and alive.

I get light-headed all of a sudden. My fingers tingle. I shift my feet forward, and Erica notices.

“Hey, do you want to finish the rest another day?” Her voice comes from over my shoulder.

“No, I’m okay. Keep going.” I’m not ready to go back to the library. I want this finished.

“Tell you what. I need a five-minute break. I’m going to buy you a juice. Drink that, and we’ll start again.”

I nod and take time to stretch while Erica runs to the mini-mart across the street. As promised, she’s back in five minutes and hands me an orange juice. I drink it, take a few deep breaths, and then resume my position as a bent-over, living canvas.

Erica fires up the gun again. It still hurts, but less so with some sugar in my bloodstream. Another hour later and she’s finally done. She holds up a mirror for me to see the finished product.

“Wow! It’s huge!” I exclaim. Part of it drops lower than my lower back. I shrug. Nothing I can do about it now.

“Do you like it?” Erica beams.

The shockingly bright orange flowers, the dancing, lyrical notes. My skin is a poem.

“I do!” I answer enthusiastically.

“Can I take a picture of it and hang it up in the parlor?”

I guess I don’t mind my lower back on display, not now. “Yeah, sure!” I reply.

I thank her, hand her three-hundred and fifty dollars, and figure it’s not too late to get back to the library and claim an empty cubicle. And so I sit, studying, almost dozing off, when like lightening the fear of failure strikes bright and fast. That fear keeps me studying until one o’clock Friday morning, the day of my final. I drive home, rush inside my bedroom,  and fall into weary, endorphin-filled oblivion.


Here’s the conversation on Facebook:

3 Responses to “Tattoos: Healthy, Diseased,Self-Mutilating, Expressive, Nuts, Fun…, What’s Your Opinion?”

  1. Great story. I’m from Portland, OR and it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have a tattoo. It’s just another surface to decorate, another way of becoming the you outside a reflection of you inside. It’s not a class thing over hear at all.

  2. Great story. Tattoo as study aid has perhaps not mainstreamed it into educational institutions. I am amazed at the tattoos that NFL football players display and wonder if this influences youthful, impressionable audiences.

  3. Love the story!!!! I have several tattoos and find it humorous when people ask me about what they’ll look like when I get older. My answer…. a great conversation starter in the nursing home!!! I have also had people tell me that I am going to hell because it is against God. My answer…. well, save me a seat because if I’m not mistaken, your ears are pierced. I just love the reaction I get!!

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