I laid down on the table as instructed, and stretched out my left arm. I felt myself growing a bit hot and my pulse quickening, and observed that I was getting a bit chatty, a nervous tactic of mine.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, but I’m still a bit nervous,” I admitted.
“That’s normal,” she assured me. “Are you ready?”
I nodded my head, and heard the buzz of the needle as it touched my skin.
I have four tattoos now. All of them are on my upper arms or legs, places that are easily concealed, so if you were to pass me on the street you might not even be aware of their existence. While many employers these days are more open to such outward displays of self-expression, in my line of work as an English teacher teaching in foreign countries there are still many places where visible tattoos are unacceptable, and so I keep mine hidden most of the time. I’ve been told that at some point, one passes a threshold and starts getting tattoos just for fun, collecting them on one’s body like Pokémon. I have yet to get to that point. All of my tattoos have a story to tell, and a significance that’s deeply personal to me.
Although I’d been contemplating getting a tattoo for years, I didn’t get my first one until I was 28. I had so many reasons not to get one: tattoos are expensive, I was afraid of the pain, I didn’t know what I would get, my boyfriend didn’t like them. But then I broke up with that boyfriend, traveled around Europe, and took a job in Japan, a country I’d never been to before. Suddenly, none of those other reasons mattered that much anymore, and it was clear to me that the biggest thing holding me back was a fear of the unknown. Between the breakup and leaving for Japan, I was staying with a friend in San Francisco who has a lot of tattoos herself. She answered my many questions, we checked out a tattoo shop, and made an appointment for that weekend.
For me, that time was such an intense period of change, and the tattoo marks it well. It’s a tarot card design: XIII, Death. Now, it doesn’t mean what you think it means. It has nothing to do with death itself, but rather, with things ending and things beginning, and the continuing cycles of our lives. At that moment, I had just ended a huge chapter and was about to begin one that would be even more pivotal, and thinking about it now I can’t picture a more perfect design to capture those feelings. To make it even more personal, the design is taken from the Death card in my own tarot deck that I’ve had since I was 17.
That first tattoo experience revealed a lot to me about the fears and hesitations that I’d had. Yes, it is uncomfortable, and at times painful, but those moments are brief and passing, and afterward you are left with something beautiful that will stay with you forever. Sure, it’s not cheap, but you are paying for artistry and materials and labor and since it’s on your body for the rest of your life, cheap is probably not a good thing. Most of all, I discovered that not knowing what’s going to happen isn’t reason enough not to experience something new.
I got my second tattoo on my 30th birthday, when I was back in Los Angeles for a visit. At that time, I’d been living in Kanazawa, Japan for six months, and was absolutely smitten with the city. I wanted to get a design that would pay homage to that place, perhaps something incorporating cherry or plum blossoms. On vacation while in a fancy hotel in a nearby mountain town, I spied a round lacquer plaque with a motif of tree branches and cherry blossoms. I took a picture on my phone, and ended up sending that to the artist to use as a reference for the tattoo.
I’ll admit that out of all my tattoos, this one might be my least favorite. The linework is rather thick, it was a bit more painful than the first, and I didn’t really care for the shop or the artist either. The experience just didn’t feel as personal and friendly as the other times. But I’m happy that I got a tattoo to mark my time in Kanazawa, a place that is quite precious to me and that I consider my Japanese hometown.
If those years in Kanazawa were my springtime in Japan, with all the freshness and newness that spring brings, then my time spent in Tokyo was my autumn. It was fitting then, to symbolize this period with an autumn motif. I had long been obsessed with higanbana, the delicate red spider lilies that appear on riverbanks and in cemeteries throughout Japan for a few short weeks in autumn, and decided that this was the perfect thing for my Tokyo tattoo.
This is the only tattoo that I’ve gotten in another country, and it was a great experience. I found a Swedish artist at a shop in hipster Kichijoji, and was impressed at how professional and clean everything was. Magnus’ artistry turned out to be high-quality, and I’m so glad that I decided to do this one in color, as his shading on the petals is exquisite, and I continually get compliments on it. I was also surprised by the fact that this tattoo didn’t hurt or feel uncomfortable at all, due to the thin, sensitive needle that he used and that I got it on my outer upper arm, one of the least painful places for tattooing.
I’d been contemplating getting a fourth tattoo ever since I got back to LA, but I figured it would be something I’d do at the end of my time here. However, this summer it dawned on me that once again, I was entering a period of intense change and transition by starting grad school, and so, one Friday in October, I found myself laid out on a table in a cute tattoo shop in the trendy LA neighborhood of Echo Park, a buzzing needle pricking my skin. I wanted something that would remind me of my own strength and fortitude, but also be beautiful and feminine. I settled on the Sagittarius constellation, delicately rendered in thin lines and punctuated with twinkling stars.
In the past few years, as I’ve moved around and gotten away from organized religion, I’ve found myself falling on more spiritual practices as ways to organize my universe, and both astrology and tarot fit into that. I strongly identify with being a Sagittarius, and indeed, I embody many of the key traits: independence, wanderlust, optimism, honesty. Plus I think we’re just fucking awesome. I adore the way this tattoo came out, it’s just as I had imagined, and I know that when things get tough for me down the road, I will be happy to have this reminder of my own awesomeness.
With this fresh ink, maybe I’m good for a while on tattoos. Then again, maybe not. I’ve already got ideas for the next one: another tarot card tattoo. Who knows, perhaps I’ve finally crossed that threshold, and I’ll begin collecting new pieces to my growing gallery with joy and abandon.
Safe and Happy Travels,