|Grim Reaper tattoo|
I was chatting with on of my students about tattoos. I work at a university, in a program that helps under represented students, and this conversation happens more than I’d like to admit. I don’t look like the kind of guy that would have tattoos. I’m more of a nerdy, fatherly, academic type, with thick-framed glasses and slacks. But I haven’t always been this way. I was, at one time, well… cool.
Or at least I thought of myself as such. (Actually, most people described me as white trash, because of my long grizzled hair and neck beard, but for the sake of this essay do you mind if we just say I was cool? Thanks.)
The students name was Neco. He’s a bright kid, Hispanic, from Portland, Oregon. The tattoo conversation came up after Neco saw me at the gym. I was wearing shorts, and on my right leg (get this) is a large tattoo (6 inches by 3 inches) of the grim reaper. He saw it, as students always seem to, and asked about where I got it and why. Then he wanted to know if I had more, which I do. Then he wanted to see them, so I showed him the blue sun on my left shoulder, and the abstract face on my right arm. Later that day, he stopped by my office to ask my opinion about the tattoo he was planning to get.
This happens at least once a term.
“I’m thinking of getting a Pokémon dragon,” he said, his eyes lighting up with hope and aspiration. I could see a younger me, age 19 (same as Neco) pondering how boring my body was, and how much cooler it would look with the grim reaper on it.
“Hmmm…” I said, “I don’t know. I mean, really think about this. How serious do you think employers are going to take you with a Pokémon dragon tattooed on your forearm? You graduate in a year.”
He thought about it for a moment. Then he said something idealistic. Something I might have said when I was young enough to assume I could change the world. “People need to stop judging because of tattoos.”
“Yeah… I get that,” I said. “And I agree. But the fact is, they do. They always have. And I worry that they still will once you get done with college.”
I went on, telling him that the forearm is a tricky place to hide a tattoo, and he said he didn’t care.
He wanted everyone to see it.
We went back and forth for some time, and I all I could think about were the people who tried to talk me out of getting a tattoo. I thought about how my mother cried when I showed her the one on my leg. And how she told me that if I got another, she’d take me off her health insurance. This was a strong threat at the time considering I was struggling with depression and anxiety, and meeting with a therapist and psychiatrist. I thought about the retired plumber I worked with at Lowe’s who, after hearing me mention that I wanted a tattoo, pulled up his shirt and showed me his large round pale hairy gut. On it was a stretched out misshapen something.
“It used to be a pirate ship,” he said. “Now it looks like a grease stain. You sure you want a tattoo?”
And I thought about the overweight woman who worked in lighting and electrical. She showed me her thigh after the plumber showed me his gut (we were all in the break room). At first it looked like a dirty drier screen, but after she pulled her skin tight, I could tell it was a spider web.
People told me I’d regret it. They tried to show me examples of their regret, but I pressed forward. I tried these same clichés with Neco. I told him how the abstract face came from the back of some old punk album. The band broke up years ago, but I still have their logo on my arm. I told him how the grim reaper made so much sense after my dad died (that’s why I got it), but now it just reminds me of a person I’m not anymore, and a very sad moment in my life I’d rather not be reminded of.
“When I got these tattoos,” I said, “I never thought I’d regret them. But now, I’m tired of looking at them, and I’m tired of people judging me for them.” I told him that I never thought that one day I’d be a scout master, and I’d wind up telling my boy scouts that my tattoos were birth marks in a silly attempt at getting the boys to stop asking about them. Or that I’d feel compelled to wear pants around my future in-laws, and avoid family trips to the pool for a year so they wouldn’t see my tattoos and tell me I couldn’t date their daughter (knowing what I know now, I didn't have anything to worry about, but at the time I was terrified that my tattoos would ruin my chances with Mel). I didn’t realize that one day my four-year-old daughter would stand next to me as I sat on my bed with no shirt on, rub her small hand across the blue sun on my shoulder, and say, “This is pretty, daddy.”
Then she’d smile, and I’d look at her perfect little body, the one that her mother worked so hard to grow, and worry that she would one day come home with one of these things, and it would be my example that led her to it.
Most nights I look in the mirror, and don’t pay my tattoos much attention. But sometimes, I just stare at them, and think about how sick I am of looking at these faded images on my body that remind me of something I was, but am not now. They remind me of a time when I was very depressed and confused and struggling with the death of my father.
A time I’d rather forget.
I know that some people don’t regret getting tattoos, but I do.
I have friends who are very passionate about changing the way tattoos are perceived. And I agree with them. I don’t judge others for getting tattoos, but I’m not going to advocate for them either because I dislike the ones I have.
Not surprisingly, Neco came by a week later to show me the Pokémon dragon on his forearm. I told him it looked cool (there was no changing his mind now). As we chatted about the shop he went to, and how it didn’t hurt that bad, I wondered if he’d ever, one day, feel the same way I do.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley