At first, I hated my tattoo — here’s why I don’t anymore

I was on vacation in an unfamiliar city, with free time on my hands and serious case of tattoo fever. I’d been too nervous to ever actually have one done, but suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge and clarity of purpose.

I already knew exactly what I wanted. I’d been thinking about it for years, ever since I had read East of Eden by John Steinbeck for the first time. The tattoo is simple — it’s just one word, seven letters: timshel, the Hebrew translation of the expression “thou mayest,” found in Genesis, or rather, “thou mayest rule over sin.” In East of Eden, Lee, a servant to one of the main characters, shares his discovery of the phrase’s translation as a means for understanding and reclaiming human will.

I’m not religious, but neither is Lee. “This is not theology,” he says. “I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed – because ‘thou mayest.’”

As a writer myself, I was struck by the beauty of transcending generations of language and culture to find the truest meaning of a single phrase. Cultivating an ongoing understanding of humanity gives my work purpose. And the book itself reminds me of a particularly difficult period in my life – a time when I desperately needed an inner peace to guide me. East of Eden continues to grant me wisdom, no matter how many times I read it, but timshel is the thing that has stuck with me most – my path is mine to choose. And I wanted a reminder of that with me always.

So, after a few hours of research and filled with adrenaline, I got in the car and drove to the shop I’d selected. I asked if they had time for a walk-in. They did, and so we got underway. I texted a photo of myself with the shop’s sign to my boyfriend. He called me, surprised, and I told him that I felt like it was the right moment.

I wanted the word in Steinbeck’s handwriting, and I had found that someone else had already gone to the trouble of standardizing his handwriting into a font, so I had an exact photo ready to go. All we had to do was print it out and make it into a stencil. Easy peasy.

The difficulty began when we were trying to place the thing on my wrist. It’s less than two inches long, but I underestimated how much my skin actually rotated when I moved my arm. I think we tried at least 18 different placements — the tattoo artist’s hands were purple with the stencil dye. I could tell her patience was running thin; she was expecting an appointment soon.

Eventually we tried a new spot altogether, and it was a marked improvement. Without an adjustment or fuss, I said, “Let’s do it.”

After that, the whole thing took ten minutes. I watched as my the author’s script sunk into my skin. When we finished, the tattoo artist wrapped my arm straight away, and told me not to remove the bandage until that evening. I gave her a handsome tip for taking a walk-in and going through the many unsatisfactory attempts at placement, and I was on my way. I peeked under the edges of the tape throughout the day, but for the most part, I behaved.

Later, reunited with my boyfriend, I undressed my wrist, eager to show him my prize. I reacted instantaneously as the gauze fell away: “It’s crooked.”

It’s crooked.

I pulled at the flesh on my arm, trying to correct its positioning. It was just millimeters off. It was almost imperceptible, but it was slanted. It is slanted, right? And it would be there forever. I stood in the shower, holding my arm up, staring at it for 15 minutes before washing. For the next few nights, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming about my crooked tattoo, sweating. At 3:00 a.m., I was Googling “laser tattoo removal” and looking at successful cover-up stories. I was a mess.

It’s been over a month now, and despite all of the reassurances and positive feedback I’ve received from friends, I still am one thousand percent certain my seven little letters are off. But I’m no longer spending every other minute pulling on my skin. I even roll up my sleeves to make sure it’s showing a bit, and I’ve stopped hiding it in selfies.

So what changed?

First, it’s really only crooked if you look at it from my perspective. I can make other people see what I’m talking about if I twist my arm a bunch, but for the most part, I’ve made peace with the fact that the angle I’m seeing can mostly be attributed to the way flesh works.

I’ve also done a lot of reflecting on what a crooked first tattoo can teach me in the long-run. You know, since I’ll be spending the next several decades looking at it. I was hasty. Not only did I go in on a whim (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but I let the artist’s busy schedule and our mutual exasperation cloud my judgment about my body. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I consented to have the thing permanently etched into my arm anyway. It’s a good representation of my need to slow down and put myself first — and I’ll never make that mistake again.

And finally, I’ve tried to focus on the meaning of the tattoo itself. After all, the word comes from one my favorite texts of all time, and represents a long history with working to better understand who I am and want to be. I have zero regrets about the content of the tattoo. It’s beautiful and meaningful, and besides its slight slant to the left, it looks exactly how I wanted it to. Keeping that in mind, I can see it peeking out from under my wrist while I type or catch it while talking with my hands, and not be ashamed that everyone can see it. More than anything, it makes me smile.

So this first experience didn’t necessarily go as planned, but all said and done, I know it’s going to be okay — I have a choice to love my tattoo just the way it is.

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