Two years ago, I was shaving my 7-year-old’s hair in our master bathroom when Tristan asked, “Do tattoos hurt?”
I was in gym shorts and no shirt, and Tristan was sitting on a step stool in his underwear. This was the first time Tristan asked about my tattoos.
I have one on each shoulder and another on my right calf — a blue sun, an abstract face with headphones connected to a bomb that was on the back of my favorite punk album, and (sadly) the Grim Reaper.
When Tristan was 2, I remember sitting in the living room after taking a shower, a towel around my waist. Tristan was standing next to me on the arm of the sofa, his face level with my shoulder. He reached out and touched one of my tattoos. Then he leaned in with a curious face. He didn’t say anything, but it seemed clear that he was noticing that my body was a little more colorful than his. It was then that I knew this conversation was coming.
My first tattoo was the Grim Reaper on my leg. I was 19. When I showed it to my mother, she started to cry. “Do you know how hard I worked for that body?” she said.
I rolled my eyes. I thought she was being ridiculous. I thought she was being overly conservative and stuck-up. But now, when I look at my tattoos, I am reminded of a time when I was miserable. I am reminded of my father’s death (that’s why I got the Grim Reaper). I’m reminded of someone I’m not anymore: an anxious and depressed teen with a missing father and an obsession with underground punk bands no one remembers anymore.
When I got my tattoos, “forever” didn’t seem that bad. I once listened to a TED Talk from a psychologist about how people imagine the future. Many people, when looking forward, assume that they will basically be the same person they are currently, just a little fatter and a little more wrinkly. But looking back, they can see how much they have matured. Now my tattoos are these ghosts of a rebellious youth that do not match who I am now as a 30-something father of three who works at a university.
And perhaps that’s the really hard part about tattoos. I know there are many people who really love their tattoos because they remind them of some happy time, perhaps a child’s birth or a carefree trip or some other wonderful memory. But for me, that isn’t the case. And that’s the slippery slope with something like a tattoo. Most people get them when they are young and carefree, and then they change, but they still have these markers from a person they aren’t anymore.
Like most parents, I want my children to be better than I was. I want them to not make the same mistakes I did, and I don’t want them to be reminded of bad times, mistakes, or heartache because they got a tattoo to remember the occasion.
“Yes,” I said to Tristan. “Tattoos can hurt.”
“Why?” he said.
I removed another swath of brown hair with the clippers, and then I held them out for an object lesson. I told him that just as the clippers move side to side, a tattoo needle does something similar, only up and down.
“It’s not nearly this big, but basically it pushes ink into your skin. It doesn’t hurt that bad at first, but after getting a tattoo for a few hours, it can really start to sting.”
“Will they ever go away?” he asked.
“I could get them removed, I suppose, but we really don’t have the money for that. So most likely, they will be on me forever.”
Tristan opened his eyes real big. His face seemed to say forever is a long time.
“Yeah,” I said. “As long as I’m alive. You know, Tristan, unless things really change, some day your friends are going to get tattoos. And they are going to try to get you to get tattoos. At least that’s what happened with me. Tattoos are tricky that way. I want you to know that I don’t like my tattoos. In a lot of ways, I regret them. I’m tired of looking at them. Sometimes it feels like I have a shirt that I can’t take off. Every year, they get a little more faded and a little more outdated, and yet they will always be there. And getting them removed seems like time and money that I can’t afford now that I have a family. I didn’t think about any of that when I was 19.”
“19 is kind of old,” Tristan said.
I laughed, “Yeah. I used to think that too.”
Tristan looked a little confused, but he was still making eye contact, so I knew he was listening.
“I want you to know that I will always love you. If you come home with tattoos one day, you will always be my son. I hope you understand that. But I also want you to know that I hope you don’t get them. Not because I think they are wrong, it’s just that I don’t want you to share the same regrets that I do.” Then I thought about what I was saying. I thought about what I wanted for my son and added, “But if you do get them, make sure they are about something happy in your life.”
Tristan was silent for a while. I started cutting his hair again, and as I did, I looked at his pale little body. I placed my hand on his soft skin. It was so perfect. I thought back on that moment with my mother, and I realized why she wanted to keep me scar-free. She wanted me to be that perfect soft-skinned little boy she always knew, same as Tristan. For the first time, I understood why my mother cried when she first saw my tattoo.
“Does all this make sense?” I asked.
Tristan looked up at me with blue eyes and half of his hair cut and said, “Not really.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m still figuring it out myself.”
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