I can’t stop my leg from shaking. The needle hasn’t even pricked my skin, and even though the tattoo artist in front of me is probably annoyed, he smiles.
“This is never going to look like a fleur de lis if you keep that up,” he jokes. My friend Britteny from work sits on the other side of me. She smiles, trying to reassure me. Everyone’s nervous their first time, she tells me with her pale blue eyes. It shouldn’t be natural to want to permanently imprint an image onto my body for the sake of art and beauty, for the sake of remembering where I came from.
I always wanted a tattoo, but because of its permanent effect, it took me four years to figure out where and what I wanted. I decided on a fleur de lis, a symbol of my hometown, Louisville, KY, named after the French King Louis XVI. Britteny encouraged me to use color so I chose my two favorite colors: blue and purple.
I finally calm down enough so that the tattoo artist can begin his work. He’s big with a short, gray beard, but a gentle touch. He outlines the French symbol on my ankle; I wince every time he nears the bone, but I do not cry. I never cry in public. I refuse to show weakness. It takes longer than I expect, but time passes quickly as Britteny tries to keep me calm, and I watch mesmerized by the needle.
It is April 2010. A year ago, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. When I first showcase my tattoo, people ask if I will get a tattoo for my diabetes. I’d never thought about it. If something ever happened to me, it might help clue medical providers about my condition.
I love my fleur de lis so much, I know I want another one. This time I decide on the back of my left shoulder. The right side of my body already has a tattoo – it only makes sense to put the next one on my left side. I am one of those people who likes to give equal attention to both sides of my body. When I exercise or stretch, I make sure to stretch both sides equally. At one point in high school, I tried to teach myself to write with my left hand. I practiced writing the alphabet every day during chemistry, my least favorite class. But then after a semester, I gave up. I didn’t have the patience to teach my left hand something my right hand had been practicing for 10 years.
It’s May 2011. I don’t tell my family about this one either. My dad found out about my first tattoo by accident. He was furious. In his religious mind, a tattoo is a mark of evil, a slight destruction to the body as a temple. Apparently, when I was a kid, I had promised him I would never get a tattoo. I broke that promise and therefore his faith in me. Maybe when I was eight, I thought tattoos were the devil’s mark, too? But then I grew up and saw them as a thing of beauty, a work of art, and my body the canvas.
No one in my family particularly liked the idea of me getting a tattoo, that is until they saw it. It wasn’t a skull and bones. It wasn’t black and white. It was beautiful, and like I told them, it reminded me of where I came from – it reminded me of them. But my dad took a little longer. My mom said he wrote me a letter out of anger, but she made him tear it up before he sent it. My mom didn’t approve of the tattoo either, but like she said, no matter what she thought, it wasn’t going to change my decision so she went along with it. Better to keep me in her arms then push me away.
When I visited for the Kentucky Derby with my new tattoo in tow, my dad brought me into his computer room, what we called his “lab” growing up. “Where’s Dad?” we would ask our mom. “Oh you know, geekin’ in his lab,” she would say, and we laughed. My dad sat in his desk chair while I stood near the door. I was ready to bolt if this turned into a lecture. I was 22 – I didn’t feel like I should be subjected to lectures anymore. Little did I know no matter how old I got, he would always be my dad.
“Tracy, I know this has been difficult for me to accept,” he said. “I still don’t know why you did it.” He looks down at my fleur de lis. I step back towards the door.
“But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over these past few weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter what, I don’t want to lose you. You are my daughter, and I will love you no matter what.” He has tears in his eyes when he looks up, and I run into his arms. I’ve never heard him say anything so beautiful, and without me having to fight with him.
So when I consider my second tattoo, I think of him. I know it would be too much for him if I get a tattoo that represents him, but I also cherish the relationship I have with both my parents. Even though it took a few weeks for my dad to realize it, my mom has always been there, no matter what, without judgment. So I decide to get a rose in honor of my mom. Her name is Sharon (“I am a rose of Sharon” from the Song of Songs).
Now regardless, my mom doesn’t like the idea of me getting a tattoo in her name. But when she sees it, the vivid red colors on my pale skin, she smiles. It is the favorite of my two tattoos. It was the artist’s own design, and its beauty equally signifies the beauty of my mom’s presence in my life.
It’s been almost three years, and I’m still considering my next tattoo. In that time, I decided that I would never get a tattoo for my diabetes. We’ve come a long way, and though realistically, there will probably never be a cure in my lifetime, I still have hope. For 22 years, my life was not marked by its existence so I like to think it doesn’t make up who I am. It only makes me stronger. I’m already reminded of it every day – why would I want to see it on my skin? The bruises from my insulin injection points and fingertip scars from checking my blood sugar 6-8 times per day are enough.
If I ever do get another tattoo, it will mean I have overcome it.