The needle carves into the skin. It stabs deep into those cutaneous layers you learned about in science class and lays the ink down. Bits of blood bubble up and out. First comes the awful sensation — a shard of glass dragging across you — then, the “why am I doing this?,” followed by the warm intoxicating whirring of hot pain. Steadily vibrating, the pen darkens each line. The artist dips into her tiny buckets of paint. Your jaw clenches and you breathe through your teeth. You feel alive. Your skin is both map and terrain.
I got my first tattoo after my cousin Irene died. Two blue swallows flying on my back, partly traditional in style (meaning of the old-school sailor look) and partly old-timey cartoonish. You see the traditional in the simple forms and color scheme. You see the cartooning in the birds’ button toes, their eyes shaped like little pies with a slice cut out. In sailing culture, swallow tattoos recognize and commemorate the milestones of the journeyer — one who travels far from home and comes back again. One who is both anchored and free. The bird in ink marks the number of miles, how far one has gone, tallying the math in bodily hieroglyphics.
Irene was/is my cousin. A diminutive Mexican woman with soft stubby fingers and eyebrows drawn on in fawn pencil. She lived the spare life of a nun — if nunneries allowed drinking, smoking and soap opera watching after daily mass. Raised by my grandmother and great aunt, she was/is bound to our family more closely than the bloodlines express. She showered me with gifts—toys in those plastic bubbles from quarter machines, packets of sugar-water in wax soda bottles, jokes written on napkins tucked away in her purse. These things were precious tiny treasures. Small like me, the child, and her, the teeny old lady, these trinkets bespoke an inversely huge care. A woman with nothing always had time and money to give me little somethings. Always, always, without fail.
Everything in Irene’s tiny apartment was brown and beige, dusty-colored and small as if to forever remind one of the Depression she lived through. One spot of blue perched above her chair always caught my eye: a jewel-eyed turquoise ceramic bird, beak smiling toward the sky, a counterpoint to the crucifixes and woe-eyed idols protecting each wall. When she died it was the only thing of hers that I wanted.
In the tattooing you’re perforated. You sit with an artist and (re)make and (re)build and (re)situate yourself.
I wear my heart on my sleeve, El Corazon in image and text on my arm. The veiny center of this heart is the interstate highway I traveled so many times. The artistic style is borrowed from a Mexican Bingo card — a kitschy reminder of childhood, place, and play. I’ve written my (New)Mexicanness there where my white skin forgot to write it. Home and family, humor and beauty. A choice long in the making, this tattoo is my favorite and feels the most mine. People want to know what it means. They stop me wanting to look more closely.
The art is a wound you wear on your arm, your back. It bleeds, exudes, scabs-over. Your skin prickles and itches. Sprouting — something is emerging. You gently wash it and protect it — why aren’t we always this careful with ourselves? With others?
On my left arm a sailor (a pirate?) woman sits. Resting at the dock in folds of fabric, her hair extends in such a way that her waves become the sea. This ink came on a whim. Sometimes I think it’s ugly and completely wrong. Why didn’t I think about it longer? But I did this, I craved this, and I can’t deny it. This image and my ambivalence toward it represents the me behind the thoughtful, respectful , perfect heart. Here, is the restless loner. The meek(?) little girl covered in tattoos. The ever-attractive ruiner of things. The waiter, the worrier (warrior?), the lazy dreamer.
Some of the pain you control. Some of the pain you get used to. All of the pain pours into the gestalt of the inscription.
I’ve been told I’ve destroyed my “temple,” marred a God-made, God-given thing. Tongues have tsked their spit at my beautiful back, my altar to Irene and myself. Some only began to see me when the pictures appeared, as though my presence only became real when colored in. A few know that the pictures and the colors and the pain and the art have been there all along — that I am written and I write myself.
After the skin has healed, you’ll get that urge for the needle’s bite — that feeling, that sealing — again and again and again and again.
Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.