“You really don’t want to go any smaller than this,” she says as she looks at the tattoo print-out. “Any smaller and you’ll lose definition.”
She says something similar about the second printout: “At this size, some of these closer lines will start blending together in about 5 years’ time.”
“Neither of those are to scale,” I had warned in my ultra-cautious, nauseatingly-meek voice. “I was actually thinking of something smaller?”
Two tattoo ideas — both meticulously researched, although one way more so than the other. For one tattoo, I spent hours on a design website, agonizing over the perfect cursive font for the words. The other tattoo had been mulled over for the last 8 years. One is a line in a Spanish language poem. The other is a variation of the Celtic trinity knot. But both shared the same theme: small, subtle, unassuming.
And both were met with the same answer: that’s really not an option.
For both, the random printout size is roughly as small as it can go. The poem line will have to be about one and a half times bigger than planned. The Celtic knot variation will easily have to be twice its planned size. Maybe bigger.
well this was a fun experiment it’s time to go home now sorry to waste your time guess I’m never actually getting a tattoo.
Instead, I press forward. I’ve wanted the Celtic knot variation ever since my summer in Belfast — a tattoo idea I originally (and whimsically) dreamt of getting upon returning to some part of the Motherland again (which, for me, meant Northern Ireland, or Ireland, or Scotland, or even England). As the years wore on, such a plan received an asterisk at the end of its statement:
Return to the Motherland*
*or before I turn 30, whichever comes first.
Now, here I am, 4 weeks away from turning 30, my stomach dropping over being told how big my tattoos need to be in order for them to work — and still confirming an appointment date.
No, but it was supposed to be small. Like, a square inch small. Tiny. Like it’s not even there. Nothing crazy. No bold statements.
I’m deliberately pushing myself out of my comfort zone. When we get home, I cut out the Celtic knot’s printout and place it on my back, in between my shoulder blade and spine — the planned location for the tattoo (after wanting it on my ankle, then my shoulder, then the opposite side of my ankle, then back to my shoulder, then maybe on the hip, but, no, definitely on the shoulder). I use my hypermobile shoulders to place the cutout printout on my back, careening backwards at the mirror to see what it will look like.
I smirk. It actually looks pretty badass at that size.
“Now, I know I’m basically calling you out in front of people, but, remember, if something isn’t right, this is your time to speak up. This is going to be on your body forever.”
“I know. I definitely know. And it’s something I’m already telling myself,” I respond.
My husband is keeping a watching eye out for me as the stencils are applied to my back. His statements are not unfounded. I have a nasty track record of just dealing with things. Forever the Cool Girl, even when it’s a really stupid idea to be the Cool Girl. Forever fearing making waves, so pretending I’m just going with the flow instead. Never speaking up or advocating for myself. Never putting my foot down. I already know far too well that things have to be outright unbearable before I even dare do anything. And — even then — I would circumnavigate and rebel in the shadows.
“This is definitely the time to be fussy,” says the tattoo artist.
I look in the mirror at the tattoo stencils. They are so incredibly close to the location I want, but ever-so-slightly too low on my back.
This is not a time to deal with it. Take that energy you usually spend on figuring out how you can live with it and apply it to actually saying what’s on your mind.
I turn from the mirror and make a slight grimace, as if it hurts me to actually ask for something different.
“If both could be moved up by, like, a half centimeter, that would be amazing,” I say.
“They’re really close to hitting the mark, but just a little bit too low.”
Without any trouble, the stencils are cleaned off and reapplied. I look in the mirror a second time. They’re exactly where I want them to be. For a split second, I panic and am tempted to just back out. This is it. Those stencils turn into ink in about 2 minutes. No going back after that.
“Let’s do this,” I say.
It forced me bold. That’s how I explained it to my best friend after the initial meeting. I was told my little square inch tattoo was going to be an impossibility with such an intricate and interwoven design. I was told the lines in my lettering would need to be bigger and wider or else they’d lose distinctiveness before the decade was out. Forced me to go from small and subtle to what felt like a bold statement.
(Although, now that they’re on my back, they seem so tiny and adorable.)
And because we both speak in metaphors and analogies, similes and symbolism, I quickly see the parallel between my tattoos and the last couple of years. I don my best Maureen from Rent impression and yelp out, “It’s a metaphor!!”
Because, really, if I could sum up the last few years in three words, it would be: “force me bold”.
Force me bold. Pry me away from all comforts of routine. Throw me in the deep end. Make it necessary to reevaluate everything, because the safety net is gone and there’s nothing for you to fall back on. Create a trial by fire so that everything that needs to be burned can be burned. Be told in no uncertain terms that there is no going back to the old way of doing things, that the only way forward is to carve out a new path.
Because I’m the perennial Cool Girl. Because I’m the girl who’ll let herself drown before she makes waves. Because I’m the girl who couldn’t leave a job no matter how terrible it was unless she had a sneaky excuse like moving away or returning to school. Because I’m the girl who wouldn’t leave a profession until her burnout was so severe that it took a solid month after leaving before she could even find her footing again.
I will always need to be forced bold, because there’ll always be reason enough to deal. Deal with a toxic environment, a toxic person. Deal with less than desirable circumstances. Deal with a scenario that wouldn’t exist if I had just a little bit of spine, a little bit of assertiveness.
I got my tattoos in the midst of yet more family shakeups. More death. More dying. More pain. More muddled & confusing uncertainty and the paralyzing anxiety it causes. More reason for me to throw my hands in the air and go, “I am done with this phase of my life.”
But these phases force people bold, if they can let themselves be forced bold. If they can let life pry away what it was going to take away from you anyway and be ready to stand on both feet. To say what needs to be said. Reach out when you need to reach out. Do something that feels like going against character, only to realize you were simply going against outdated programming.
Be bold, be bold, and — yes — too bold. Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.
Getting inked up becomes a great practice on focusing outwards. When I’d feel a little antsy. When the needle would hit an area without much muscle. Time to look around the room, observe and perceive and make note. I became very familiar with the tattoo artist’s books, her postcards for tattoo artist conventions, her sketches taped to the walls.
After a while, I notice the clock in the far back. My eagle eyesight is starting to soften as I close in on 30, but I can still make out the 12 motorcycles in lieu of numbers, with the Harley Davidson logo in the center. It might seem like obvious kitsch: a Harley decoration in a tattoo parlor, but such a discovery reassures me. On that bench, hunched over as my designs became a reality, I was not even 24 hours out from my 3-day job with Harley Davidson. And now I’m staring at 12 motorcycles arranged in a circle.
Even if it’s blind reassurance, it’s still reassuring me that I’m on the right path. It’s a perfect coincidence. It’s one of those little synchronicities that gives hint to the bigger plan for all of this.