17 June 2014

On Having a Tattoo

Rose recently wrote a post musing on the exact tattoo she would get, should she ever break the promise to her mother (the one where she swore to never get a tattoo). She knows what it would be, where it would be, and why it would be significant to have engraved on her body forever and always. But a promise is a promise, so rather than ink it up, she blogged about it. And my response to her beautifully written post is to blog about my own foray into my life as a tattooed Jewess.

Here I am in high school, sporting a very classy fake tattoo
I have long been afraid of needles, not to mention I have some strange commitment issues (saddled with a massive fear of change). For most of my life, I was known as a biter and a kicker should you approach me with any sort of skin-breaking device. Elementary school mandated TB tests, nope. Blood work to check my high cholesterol having genetics, as if. Novocain, are you kidding me with this? So why it occurred to me to allow someone to slowly drag a needle across my skin for more than 10 minutes comes as a surprise to many of my friends and family.

Senior prom, I was all about the Virgin Mary fake tattoo
But what comes as an even bigger surprise, outside of me being terrified of anything that is classified as mildly painful, is that culturally speaking, I should not have a tattoo. I was born and raised of the Jewish faith. I attended Sunday school (yes, we have Sunday school too), Hebrew school on Tuesdays (or schul as some folks call it). The year of 2001 was spent being carted from bar and bat mitzvah, to bar and bat mitzvah party, as well as spending a grueling amount of time studying the Torah. While most kids my age had their Walkmen playing Savage Garden, Robyn, and the Backstreet Boys, I toted around a barely-retro cassette player of my Torah portion, sung and recorded for me by my synagogue's cantor. I practiced, I toiled, I even had to call my cantor from overnight camp for my weekly bat mitzvah practice session because that is how important this event was to my family.

Here I am repping the Jewish Club table my freshman year of college. 
And in terms of Jewish doctrine, our traditions are sacred, as are our bodies. The human form is in a way, the likeness of G-d in the form of man, so it is strictly forbidden to deface the body in anyway. Piercings are a sort of gray area, since they can be removed and healed. Tattoos are off limits, and so permanent in fact, that a Jewish person with a tattoo is not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Me dressed as Bjork in the swan dress, with her tattoo drawn in Sharpee on my arm.
So here I am, a Jewish girl with two millennia of religious doctrine to follow, a familial cultural history closely tied to these ideologies, and a fear of needles. Why on earth do I have a tattoo?

Truth be told, I went back and forth on the tattoo front for years. While I was raised with a religious faith... nothing was ever forced on me. But deep down there was an unspoken truth that we just didn’t have tattoos. Then my parents divorced. My whole sense of family, my idea of wholeness was fractured and suddenly I started to think of myself as an autonomous unit. I could continue to live at home, following unspoken rules, remaining a dutiful daughter. Or I could do what I wanted.

My tattoo in healing mode
A year (to the week) after my parents formally decided to split up, at the age of 23, I tattooed ))<>(( on my left shoulder, at the tattoo parlor in my college town where so many of my friends got their “big mistake” tattoos. I remember it hurting just a little, but that the point of the tattoo was that it was a signifier for me. It meant I’d gotten through a shit year. That rules are meant to be broken. That marriage isn’t forever, neither is the idea of the nuclear family. It meant I was doing something to my body that I could control, and the best part was, it was symmetrical. It looked the same to me in the mirror as it did to my outside viewers.

T-shirt caption via Redbubble
There’s a scene in the movie my tattoo is from, Me and You and Everyone We Know, in which the mom, who is going through a separation, is brushing her teeth in a giant t-shirt with the following words written on them backwards:

I am a precious, wondrous, special, unique, divine, rare, valuable, whole, sacred, total, complete, entitled, worthy, and deserving person

Her soon-to-be-ex-husband walks in and marvels at how he always hated the shirt, because he couldn’t read it, to which she replies, “It’s self-affirming.” And that’s what my tattoo is for me. It’s self affirming. It’s a reminder of the pain I pushed through, emotional and physical - especially during the year of my parents' separation and subsequent divorce. Of how I would “never get a tattoo” but then I did, and it’s still there frontwards and backwards, keeping me company always. Back and forth, forever.

1 comment :

  1. I love this. Your perspective on tattoos is very interesting to me, and those pics of you in high school.... dying.

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