Written on the Soul

I have said the words more than a hundred times: Books are tattooed on my soul. And I know what I’m talking about. You might not guess it by looking at my profile pictures, but I have gone under the needle nine times since I turned seventeen.

Have you read a piece of literature and said to yourself, “I will never forget these words”? Have you pondered the exact placement of this quotation or that image on your body?

I got my first tattoo at seventeen with a notarized note from my mother. I’m not even kidding. It was a birthday present from a considerably older friend, and the tattoo parlor in rural Ohio refused to even let me talk to an artist without legal proof that I had permission to be there.

People talk about how addictive it is to get one, and they aren’t wrong. There is something exhilarating about the sting and hum of the gun and the beauty of lines of ink decorating your skin.

My tattoos vary from literary-inspired to actually literary. I have the words from a poem in Little Women scrawled across my back, and a number of dragonflies fly around my shoulders from a story I read once. There is even a book worked into the design of one of them. At this point, I doubt any additional ink I acquire will not be distinctly literary in nature.

I have learned a few lessons over the years. If you want a quote, pick something short. You would be surprised at the actual realities of how much a reputable artist will shrink something to make it microscopic enough for your taste. It’s not because of their abilities or the bluntness of their needles. It’s because your skin is always changing, sluffing cells, and constantly exposed to the elements that damage it and change it. Over time, something microscopic and detailed – like script – will become distorted as your skin will be a completely different set of cells than the ones that the needle actually injected in a few years.

If you have a hard time wrapping your mind around the science of that, just think of the game Operator. It works the same way. A message may start as “Johnny ran around the block,” and by the end it gets back to you: “Jen and Dan are under the dock.”

There are some truly beautiful literary tattoos out there and some really incredible nerdy ones too. No matter what someone tells you, a tattoo isn’t going to ruin your life – unless you have the kind of family that will actually disown you for permanently marring your skin. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Some families are like that.

My tattoos number five now. The last few times I have let someone armed with a vibrating needle touch my skin have been consolidation art and reconfiguring of pre-existing art. I have one more in mind, but it will be a while before I get it. My skin and checkbook need a rest.

Some things to think about before you go off and get the words of your favorite poem or book inscribed permanently on your skin:

Yes. It hurts.

Yes. It’s permanent unless you want to pay a lot of money to have it lasered off. And getting it lasered off hurts even more from what I’m told, leaves scars and isn’t guaranteed depending on the age, color, size and location of your tattoo.

Do your research and find a tattoo artist you like. If you don’t even know where to start, ask a friend who has a tattoo you like where they got theirs done. If you have no friends with tattoos, get online, find local tattoo parlors, and go and meet the artists.

Don’t get tattooed on impulse. Think long and hard about what you have affixed to your body.

Save your money. Tattoos are expensive. I think, over the last ten years, I have spent, at minimum, $1200 on my tattoos.

Take the time to have a consulting appointment with the artist you choose so that you make sure you get what you want.

Look around the tattoo shop you choose. If you see someone obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol getting a tattoo, leave and go somewhere else. It is not safe to be tattooed while intoxicated as you are likely to bleed more, move more, and make bad decisions in general. Artists who tattoo people obviously under the influence aren’t good choices.

Check and make sure the artists are using sanitized instruments and single-use needles on the people they tattoo. For all the bad-assness of the burly and awesome men and women I have had tattoo me, they are deadly serious about the safety and health of their clients. Your artists should be too.

This topic actually came to me in the wake of Maurice Sendak’s death this week. Where the Wild Things Are is a book filled with imagination and characters that changed the way I look at the world. It is the kind of story that I would memorialize permanently on my body and not regret. That’s how you should judge the lines and images you think you want on your body.

And if that doesn’t stop you from inking your new boyfriend’s name on your shoulder, I can’t help you.

Image via Katrina Leno, used with her permission.