The other morning on the bus, I stepped out of character and spoke to a stranger.
He was probably in his 30s: D.C. Friday-casual in a striped polo shirt and khakis, with a conservative haircut, a fit but not overly muscled build — and a tattoo of large-leafed green vines trailing down one arm like the tendrils of a houseplant.
As tattoos proliferate, there seems to be an unspoken code not to speak of them, even among those of us who have them. You don’t stare; you glance, absorbing the images judgmentally or not: a mandala on a forearm, a glimpse of something (a fleur-de-lis?) under a collar, a tapestry covering a back. You move on.
This isn’t to suggest that the inked deserve adulation for what is a very personal undertaking. Even if we thought we did, we’d be disappointed since body art seems as reviled among the general population as it is admired. A while back, my partner and I were sitting in a cafe next to two young women who were talking somewhat skeptically about another friend’s beau. “And he has a tattoo on his chest,” one of them said. “I find that troubling.” (The line has become a joke in my household: Netflix DVD hasn’t arrived? “I find that troubling.”)
Nevertheless, a taboo against talking about body art, particularly among the tatted — as you might note someone’s eyeglasses or shirt — strikes me as odd, even as I’ve fallen into line with the etiquette myself.
So often “tattooed” is used as shorthand for everything from lowlife to criminal to hipster — the last one a demographic for which, at age 52, I definitely don’t qualify. At the risk of validating those stereotypes by appearing to distance myself from them, let me say you might be surprised at the people you know who have tattoos. And they have them for myriad joyful, sexy, contemplative or utterly private reasons.
I got my first one, a Celtic knot on my calf, seven or eight years ago, having evolved relatively quickly from indifference toward ink to fascination. Forging a new identity after a breakup might have had something to do with it, as could caring for elderly parents. This tattoo was etched on Mother’s Day, after an afternoon of sorting pills and changing hearing-aid batteries.
For a couple of summers, I wore only long pants around family, until I couldn’t take the discomfort anymore. Reactions ranged from silence to “you?” to my dementia-afflicted mother’s query: “Is that a Band-Aid?” My father said nothing, though I always wanted to tell him the symbol was in honor of the Irish heritage he gave me. After his death, at the end of his own road graveled with memory loss, I had a tribute to him, a linguist, and my still-living mother, a onetime language teacher, tattooed on the inner bend of my arm: the Latin word memoria merging with two leaves of a ginkgo, that ancient tree.
My most recent marking, intended as a nudge to use my time more productively since reaching my mid-century, is simply the word “recreate” on the crest of my bicep. All I have to do is look down from whatever I’m doing, or not doing, to be reminded.
My other tattoos don’t have deep meanings; they’re simply images that appealed to me: a tribal abstract, a turtle (a creature I liked as a kid), a retro bird in the style of the famed tattoo artist known as Sailor Jerry. No one in my family has seen any but my first.
Tattoos aren’t, as the common charge goes, a desecration of the body for those of us who like them; they’re a celebration. We decorate to honor (Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day); we decorate to show pride. I’ve yet to meet anyone who regretted a tattoo, the other criticism being that you’ll rue the day.
In fact, one of the appeals is the permanence. A tattoo is among the biggest commitments you’ll make. Knowing you carry that on your flesh — that you’ve withstood the ritual, the challenge and intimacy of it and often the pain — is an empowering feeling.
So why do I fear judgment? (One tattoo is fine — you’re allowed that little adventure — but six?) Why roll my shirtsleeves more cautiously than casually, 20-odd years since coming out as gay and meeting near universal acceptance?
I’ve been asking myself that for a long time — had been, I’m sure, when I noticed the guy on the bus with leaves on his arms. Just before getting off at my stop, I said something I’d never before said to anyone and hadn’t prepared for at all: “Nice tat.”
He didn’t hear me at first. When I said it again, he replied, seriously and maybe a little surprised himself: “Thank you.” Then I was off the bus and on my way.
William O’Sullivan is an editor and creative-writing teacher.