(a self-portrait challenge)
At sixteen, I told my mother that I was going to get a tattoo. She turned her face away from me and said, "I think that's ridiculous--but when you're eighteen you can do whatever you want." I knew where it would be, my left hip...but I didn't yet know what it would be. I was full of ideas and possibilities, but I had already seen girls in my junior class who all went out and got matching Snoopy tattoos on their ankles which they flaunted proudly (at first) then started covering with taller socks as reality set in--I already knew what I didn't want. Two years quietly passed and I'd remind her (and anyone who would listen to me) every so often of the ink yet to be...I read about symbolism and myth and found myself circling over one delicate creature, whose long history and multiple meanings I appreciated. Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday, I found a slim volume in the library about Celtic folklore and when I saw the superstition from Ireland forbidding the killing of butterflies (especially white ones) because they were believed to be the souls of dead children, it was finalized. My brother had passed away some years before and this loss, in my mind, abruptly ended my childhood. A butterfly it would be...to show my transition out of my past, to honor life after death , and to remind myself about the nature of change.
My friends and I went three weeks after I turned eighteen to a little shop with graffiti on the walls, boys who sneered with pierced faces when we came in and fierce looking girls who ignored us, all sunshine and nervousness. I knew what design I wanted, while they were just going to look around. So I went over to the smallest guy, the one whose face was neutral and blurted,
"Look, you'd probably rather do something else, but I want a tattoo of a butterfly on my hip and it isn't just to be cute."
He cracked his knuckles and leaned over the counter top, his full-sleeves of tattoos distracting me from what suddenly seemed like incredibly silly ideas. I talked to him, I explained what Greek myths said about butterflies and what I intended it to represent...then I rambled on about the old Irish story and he suddenly laughed. I fell silent and decided to go somewhere else, looking for my friends who'd become enamored of a shelf of body jewelry. My face was hot--two years I'd been waiting and thinking and planning only to be laughed out of the tattoo parlor.
"Hey," he said sharply and I looked up. He pulled down the ragged collar of his shirt to the curve of his chest. There, in the middle of a sea of fire and stark skeletal tattoos was a brilliant purple butterfly. "Come on back."
Later on, everyone tried to tell me how I'd regret it. A few mentioned pregnancies, stretch marks, and widening hips and smiled politely when I said I didn't plan to have children. Just two years later, which I didn't know then--my eldest girl would decide to make me change my mind and would test out exactly what would become of my purple streaked butterfly. It grew as my belly did--looking more like a bird in the last months--but, it (mostly) resumed its shape as I (mostly) did. Add two more trips through pregnancy, and yes--it has shown a bit of wear, but this only makes it more significant to me. Years have passed, other ink has been imprinted on my skin and I continue to make plans for the next one...right now I know where, and I pretty much know what. Once again, I've cracked books and fallen into Celtic myth and meaning. This time, though, I'll walk into the tattoo parlor nervous because I am older than some of those tattoo boys and fiercely beautiful girls...but I now believe that I'll meet up with another artist who wears a design speaking to the common human experience hidden somewhere on the story of our skin.