Why I Got A Tattoo At 40

by Robyn Gearey
Originally Published: 
The exterior of the Paradise tattoo studio.

It wasn’t exactly a rash decision. I had been planning this for nearly a year, since my 40th birthday. It was part of a bucket list of sorts. Things I had put off for too long, worried about what others would think. Who was I to write a book? Do “good girls” get tattoos? But the Greek chorus in my head chanting “no one” and “no way” throughout my 20s and 30s had softened as I passed 40.

“Is this your midlife crisis?” a friend asked, half-joking, half-concerned, when I mentioned the tattoo.

“No,” I snapped back defensively. But what is a midlife crisis? Is it realizing that you’ve spent your life meticulously following some unwritten set of rules for successful adulthood only to have everything you planned for crumble? Is it putting others’ needs first for so long that you forgot you had some of your own? Is it looking back at the lost loves and closed doors and wondering whether there are any more to come?

Then yes, maybe.

I thought long and hard about what the tattoo should be, collecting images on a secret Pinterest board. Still, I delayed doing anything about it, and my 40th year slid away, calendar page by calendar page. As summer approached, I decided it was now or never. I found an artist online whose work I liked and fired off a request for a consultation.

When I walked into the shop in yoga pants, Starbucks cup in hand, the heavily pierced, inked staff turned to stare in amusement. Remember the old Sesame Street bit, one of these things is not like the other? I was the apple in a grid of oranges. But the moment Tara, the artist I’d selected, came to greet me, I felt at ease. Friendly and reassuring, Tara looked over the sketches I’d brought and listened to my ideas. Before I could change my mind, I put down a deposit, reserved a date a month later, and left confident.

My resolve faltered over the intervening weeks. For a person who holds her emotions close, a tattoo felt not only bold, but outright brazen. What if my family didn’t approve? What if it changed how my friends saw me? What if it gave strangers a glimpse into something about me I didn’t want to share?

And then I thought, so what?

The hardest-won lesson I’ve learned in 40 years is this: No one is watching. There is no club that meets to dissect my flaws. No academic is analyzing my mistakes. Most people are too worried about themselves to pay much attention to me. And if they do, and find me lacking, no amount of energy on my part will convince them otherwise.

So I suppose that’s how I ended up face down on a gray vinyl table, breathing ragged yoga breaths through the pain, in through the nose, out through the mouth.

“Is it worse than childbirth?” a fellow patron asked.

“Well,” I replied, “it won’t take as long.”

As I considered her comparison, I realized I had been thinking about this all wrong. A tattoo is a permanent mark, sure, but it’s not like my skin isn’t scarred already. Stretch marks from birthing and nursing two children. A smooth patch on one leg where I slid off a skateboard and down a hill as a kid. A triangle scar on my hand where a knife slipped. And those are just the marks you can see.

At least a tattoo is a scar I am choosing.

Tara told me about the oldest client she’d tattooed, a 76-year-old grandmother getting her first ink, an owl sitting on a stack of pancakes. She was called Grandma Owl by one side of her family and Pancake Grandma by the other. She surprised them all with the tattoo at her family reunion. I loved that story. If Grandma Owl could get through it, I could too.

Tara also confided that she would soon be giving her own mother her first tattoo. I hadn’t told my mother about mine, and I wasn’t sure how she would react. I always admonish my 11-year-old daughter never to do anything she wouldn’t want her mother to know about, advice she was quick to parrot back to me when I first told her about the tattoo, her tone more than a bit judgmental.

My son, 8, was more sanguine. “Fine,” he said, “but it’s going to hurt.”

A few days before my appointment, I tried again to win my daughter over. She looked at me thoughtfully. “You know, Mama, you’re going to get old and wrinkly and then your tattoo will look bad.”

I thought about that. Sure, it’s possible I will regret this. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few years, maybe, yes, when I am old and wrinkly. But I carry stacks of regrets already, filed away in neat folders labeled “people I have hurt,” “chances not taken” and “too much money spent on shoes.” I can’t change any of those, but the folder marked “things left undone” is slowly getting thinner.

So this is the answer I gave her, and one I hope she will remember as she ages: If, when I die, my biggest regret is a tattoo, it’ll have been a good life.

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