Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia.
Oh Lydia The Queen of Tattoo.
On her back is The Battle of Waterloo.
Beside it, The Wreck of the Hesperus too.
And proudly above waves the red, white, & blue.
You can learn a lot from Lydia!
from the song “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,”
Music by Harold Arlen and Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
My first tattoo was acquired in the basement of a hospital, as I lay on an uncomfortable table, beneath this behemoth death-ray machine called a linear accelerator. A radiation technician, a very pleasant young woman wearing scrubs, jabbed an ink-laden needle between my breasts and another one under my armpit. Her purpose was hardly art or adornment, but to mark my body so that she could line up the tattoos in the cross hairs of the death-ray machine and accurately shoot my breast with poison. Accuracy is good when someone is shooting you with poison death rays. However, this was not how I’d planned things.
I’d planned to get my first tattoo decades ago, but never got around to it. Couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted, where I wanted it, etcetera and so forth. Finally, as luck would have it, a young friend of mine was going to be turning 21 the same week I was turning 50, and we thought it would be a dandy idea to go get our first tattoos together to celebrate our milestone birthdays. I had decided to get a simple yet tasteful Celtic knot of some kind, to celebrate some of my ethnic heritage. Deciding where to put it took a little longer. This is where it is not advantageous to be a physical therapist, because every day at work, I saw precisely what happened to bodies as they grew older and more saggy and acquired scars in places no one had planned on having scars. So, I had to pick a spot that I felt would have a better than even chance at not sagging too much as I aged, and also would be over a portion of my anatomy where I was least likely to have a surgical scar. I decided on the side of my leg, just above my knee, which was better than the front of my leg, because I could end up having knee surgery to fix a ligament or replace the whole joint — it could happen!! — and the scars are generally on the front of the leg and knee.
At this juncture, I would like to point out the tag line next to this blog’s title, in bright pink type at the top of this page. Ah, I see understanding is finding you, Grasshopper. You see, my young friend, I did not, in fact, get my 50th birthday tattoo as planned, because instead I had to have back surgery to remove a herniated disk. So, it was a very good thing that I had not set my heart on having, say, a Hello Kitty “tramp stamp” on my lower back. I was out of work for several weeks, and it took several more before I was fully functional. After that little detour, I forgot all about the tattoo plan for a while.
Fast forward four years, to July of 2008. I have yet to get around to the tattoo. And then I am diagnosed with breast cancer. And then in a state of barely-controlled panic and full-throttle urgency, I have a partial mastectomy (never, ever refer to this as a “lumpectomy” in my presence if you wish to retain all of your teeth), and get scheduled for radiation. And lo and behold, much to my surprise, I receive my first two tattoos from the above-mentioned radiation tech. They aren’t much to look at, just two dots — a little smaller than the o’s in this sentence, a little bigger than deer ticks — in plain black, not in any location I ever wanted tattoos or deer ticks.
Well, time doth march on and all that, and my birthday rolls around again this year, and I am now five years older than I was when I had back surgery, and I have obtained my first tattoos in a most ignominious, inglorious fashion. I am grateful to be alive, but I am not amused. I wish to even the score a tad. As it happens, one of my survivor comrades is something of a tattoo afficionado herself, lives nearby and has a few already, which she got at a good local parlor. So, she agrees to make an afternoon of it with me. I get online to find myself a Celtic knot and don’t find one I like, so I end up drawing one myself. I print this out, make an appointment with the tattoo artist and bring my design with me. It is a warm spring day, not rainy, and my girlfriend pulls up with the top down on her snazzy convertible. The tattoo artist Chris, who owns Electric Ink, pulls up and unlocks the shop. He’s about my age, a Boomer, and reminds me very much of a guy I knew in high school who also became a good enough artisan (of jewelry) to have his own shop.
We get the preliminaries out of the way, and he makes a transfer from my design. I chose a purple knot outlined in black. Would I like him to do some shading, he asks. Sure, I say. I lie down on his table, and he applies the design to my leg with a mimeograph transfer! I haven’t seen one of these since I was in Catholic grammar school, but apparently, they work quite splendidly for applying graphics onto skin, and tattoo artists scour old schools and office equipment shops and Ebay to find the old machines. Chris is quiet and businesslike, not at all brash or any of the other stereotypical traits one might associate with a tattoo artist. He has longish gray hair and wears glasses. He keeps a clean shop. He’s licensed. He chats amiably with his old customer, my girlfriend. I am not particularly nervous or afraid of pain at this point. This can’t be any worse than what I’ve been through since my diagnosis, so I’m teflon. Chris gets his machine ready, rolls up his sleeves, sits down and starts to work.
That’s when I notice his forearms. On each is a pair of familiar-looking Medieval figures, beautifully and accurately tattooed. “What are those figures on your arms?” I ask. “They’re from The Book of Kells,” he tells me. “Oh, yes,” I say, excited. “I thought I recognized them.” Compared to having the Four Evangelists from one of the supreme achievements of Celtic art inked on your arms, my little Celtic knot is very meager indeed, but we suddenly find ourselves in an animated conversation about our heritage and art and Ireland and music, and well, you know how these things go once the ice is well and truly broken. I hardly notice the modest sting-ey, buzzy sensation of the ink being applied through his needles as we ramble on.
It’s not hard to develop a feeling of intimacy when someone is tattooing your thigh. This happens to me with my patients when I’m busting a muscle knot from their necks or backs or somewhere. So, it’s not much of a stretch, as our conversation rolls around to what I do for a living, and to aches and pains, and middle age, and his health issues and my back surgery, to tell him that I finally came to be here in his shop because I had been involuntarily tattooed seven months ago while I was getting radiation after surgery for breast cancer. And before he responded, he glanced up and held my eyes a moment. And in that instant I felt that vibe that my cancer experience has tuned me into forever, the vibe of familiarity with the same rugged road I’d been on, the comprehension of what it’s like to live with the knowledge that you’ve acquired a stalker. The air changed. Chris changed. His regard for me acquired an instantly tender compassion and knowledge that only the initiated give off. “My sister had breast cancer,” he said. “How’d she do?” I asked bravely, knowing I could get bad news. “She died six years ago,” he said, looking into my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking back. “Breast cancer sucks,” I added, with feeling. At that point, my girlfriend, overhearing us, came into the room and revealed her own survivorship. The small room was suddenly full of terrible knowledge, infinite kindness, profound understanding. I wasn’t expecting my first official tattoo to generate an instant support group.
Time seemed to speed up after that. Suddenly, Chris was giving me aftercare instructions and taping gauze to my leg. I was very pleased with my Celtic knot. I gave Chris a generous tip and said I might just have to come back. My girlfriend and I went out to lunch afterward, and I confessed to wanting another tattoo, now that I’d finally baptized myself with this one. About a week later, when the peeling had pretty much stopped, I put on some red high heels and took a photograph of my legs with the tattoo showing, then used it to redesign my blog logo. Now, I’ve started putting the logo on T-shirts, which are already surprisingly popular. It just goes to show you what I figured out long ago as an artist, that the most personal things are also the most universal. Like having a tattoo. And knowing someone who has died of breast cancer.
I could do with a little less universality.
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