I was shaving my 7-year-old’s hair in our master bathroom when Tristan asked, “Do tattoos hurt?”
I was in gym shorts and no shirt, and Tristan was sitting on a step stool in his underwear. This was the first time Tristan had asked about my tattoos.
I have one on each shoulder, and another on my right calf: a blue sun, an abstract face with headphones connected to a bomb, and (sadly) the grim reaper. When Tristan was about two, I remember sitting in the living room after taking a shower. I was wrapped in a towel, and Tristan was standing next to me on the arm of the sofa, his face level with my shoulder. He reached out and touched one of my tattoos. Then he leaned in with a curious face. He didn’t say anything, but it seemed clear that he was noticing that my body was a little more colorful than his. It was then that I knew this conversation was coming. Honestly, I dreaded it. I didn’t really know how I planned to approach it because, frankly, I regret my tattoos. My first tattoo was the grim reaper on my leg. I was 19, and when I showed it to my mother, she stated to cry.
“Do you know how hard I worked for that body?” she said.
I rolled my eyes. I thought she was being ridiculous. I thought she was being overly conservative, a stuck-up Mormon. But now, when I look at my tattoos, I am reminded of a time and place that was very miserable. I am reminded of my father’s death (that’s why I got the grim reaper). I’m reminded of someone I’m not anymore. They are these blotches, these ghosts of a rebellious youth that do not match who I am now.
“Yes,” I said, to Tristan. “Tattoos can hurt.”
“Why?” he said.
I removed another swath of brown hair with the clippers, and then I held them out for an object lesson. I told him that just as the clippers move side to side, a tattoo needle does something similar, only up and down.
“It’s not nearly this big, but basically it pushes ink into your skin. It doesn’t hurt that bad at first, but after getting a tattoo for a few hours, it can really start to sting.”
“Will they ever go away?” he asked.
“I could get them removed, yes, but we really don’t have the money for that. So most likely, they will be on me forever.”
Tristan opened his eyes real big; his face seemed to say, “Forever is a long time.”
“Yeah,” I said. “As long as I’m alive.”
When I got my tattoos, forever didn’t seem that bad. I once listed to a TED talk from a psychologist about how people imagine the future. Many people, when looking forward, assume that they will basically be the same person they are currently, just a little fatter and a little wrinklier. But looking back, they can see how much they have matured. When I got my tattoos, I made that same assumption. I was going to be the same person I was when I was 19. But looking back, I know that I’ve grown into someone completely different, and my tattoos are like sun-faded mile markers of who I was.
“You know, Tristan, unless things really change, some day your friends are going to get tattoos. And they are going to try to get you to get tattoos. At least that’s what happened with me. I want you to know that I don’t like my tattoos. In a lot of ways I regret them. I’m tired of looking at them. Sometimes it feels like I have a shirt that I can’t take off. Every year they get a little more faded, and a little more out-dated, and yet they will always be there, and getting them removed seems like time and money that I can’t afford now that I have a family. I didn’t think about any of that when I was 19.”
“19 is kind of old,” Tristan said.
I laughed. “Yeah… I used to think that, too.”
Tristan looked a little confused, but he was still making eye contact, so I knew he was listening. He does this a lot now. He seems to be very interested in adult conversation. In moments like this, when he shows a real passion for what is being said, it feels like I am watching him grow from a boy to a man.
“I want you to know that I will always love you. If you come home with tattoos one day, you will always be my son. I hope you understand that. But I also want you to know that I hope you don’t get them. Not because I think they are wrong. It’s not a moral thing. It’s just that I don’t want you to share the same regrets that I do.”
Tristan was silent for a while. I started cutting his hair again, and as I did, I looked at his pale little body. I placed my hand on his soft skin. It was so perfect. I thought back on that moment with my mother, and I realized that she wanted to keep me scar-free. She wanted me to be that perfect, soft-skinned, little boy that she always knew, same as Tristan. For the first time I understood why my mother cried when she first saw my tattoo.
“Does all this make sense?” I asked.
Tristan looked up at me with blue eyes, half his hair cut, and said, “Not really.”
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