The story of my tattoo

In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s a little gem I wrote when I was 20.* I am itching to do a rewrite, but for now, here’s a little glimpse of my sophomoric heart.

I had wanted a fish on my ankle. One of those ichthus-I’m-a-Christian-and-drive-a-Honda fish like I wear proudly on a James Avery bracelet and draw aimlessly in the sand when lounging at the beach. I had always wanted a tattoo, and it seemed to me that the only way to reconcile that desire with my conservative upbringing and—according to Cosmo and emode.com—my classically practical style would be to decorate my ankle with a stylish, dainty fishlet of the traditional Christian variety.**

That was, of course, until the summer I was nineteen, when I decided I was actually going to go through with it. My aunt, the same one who took me to get my first perm when I was eleven, told me that she’d be more than happy to take me to a reliable looking tattoo parlor while vacationing in California. Doodling in my journal several nights before the much-anticipated day, I deliberated over my choice of placement. Suddenly pictures of old ladies running with wrinkly, tattooed ankles flashed through my mind. Continuing to stare at my soon-to-be-inked skin, I wondered if perhaps my foot wouldn’t be better. My best friend down at Baptist-central Baylor University told me that it was “totally hip” to get an ichthus on the top of your foot, kinda like the Dixie Chicks and the chick tracks over their sun-tanned tootsies. I imagined a little fish, tickling my toes, pretty in sandals and hidden in tennis shoes, ready to be seen when I wished.

But a fish? I began to think it might look like a cheddar cheese goldfish cracker or a key chain you would find in Family Christian. I needed to spice things up a bit, but how?

Shouldn’t a tattoo be something personal? Determined, I flipped my Bible open, skimming the pages for traces of highlighter and pencil rather than relying on my faulty memory (I didn’t exactly ever make it up to Bible Quiz at summer camp). Maybe I’d find some little verse that I could squeeze inside my tiny fish to make it look fatter and filled. What I found – or should I say what found me – jumped out as I hit the end of Proverbs. It was a verse that I had underlined and starred and highlighted several times, part of the “Wife of Noble Character” section that a mentor had assured my Bible study group had less to do with being a wife than being a deliberate woman of God. I stopped, feeling goose bumps jump up and down my arms. Proverbs 31:25. Perfect. Frantically I set my pencil back to paper and for the next half hour traced circles and squiggles and signs. Smiling, I snapped my journal shut.

“We don’t do feet,” the pierced, purple-haired girl behind the counter explained to me. “When you tattoo feet the ink bleeds, and besides, one day you’ll get lots of wrinkles there.” Drat. My wrinkled-old-lady-with-pristine-feet plan was foiled. I handed her my folded slip of paper and tried to remember the last time I had seen my grandmother’s feet. As she looked it over, the buff, pony-tailed artist who would be handling me came over and shook my hand. When he saw my kindergarten sketch, he smiled. “Cool. Give me fifteen minutes and I’ll see what I can do.” When he returned, the sketch had not only been artistically rendered and dramatically improved, it was also three times bigger than I had intended. Doe-eyed and sweaty palmed, I told him I couldn’t possibly put something that huge on my ankle. “Then why put it on your ankle?” he asked.

Why put it on my ankle? The ankle seemed less offensive somehow, as if a passerby could rest assured that it might just be something temporary picked up at the drugstore, a pretty little picture that could be covered, if necessary, by a quick cross of the leg. Not like a Popeye the Sailor-strongman arm tattoo or those tacky lower back tattoos that scream when you lean over, “Look at me! Look at me! I have a tattoo!” Of course I didn’t tell him this. I went back to the large books of patterns available to customers, and a few minutes later came sheepishly back to the counter. “Here,” I said, showing him the tiniest cross in a corner of a laminated page. “I want this instead. On my ankle.” It reminded me of the logo on camp brochures that I had seen every summer in the San Bernadino mountains. Sure. That was personal. Memories of friendship and commitment were surely more meaningful than a little cracker goldfish. Not to mention smaller and less painful than my own creation. He gave me a knowing smile and told me to think about it for a few minutes. “However long it takes,” he said. “I like your design. You’ve obviously thought a lot about this; don’t give up on it so easily because you’re scared.” He glanced back at the cross. “ I don’t like to stamp people with something easy. We don’t stamp here; we create art.”

So I sat. And thought. And sat. After fifteen minutes had passed I decided that I needed to excuse myself and go to the one place I knew I could always think clearly: the restroom. After squeezing past artists, gazing wide-eyed at the pictures plastered over the walls of particularly daring men and women, I shut myself inside the tiny room and began to pray. What on earth was I doing? Could I really go through with it? Why did I even want to do this? I took a deep breath, and as I did the walls of the restroom faded away.

A flash of burning orange and yellow-beamed clarity struck me senseless as the water quietly lapped the shore. Exhausted, disgusted with my own frailty and inability to recognize the futility of my pursuits, I was sitting dejected on a spider-webbed dock leaning out into the lake. My freshman year of college was drawing to a close, and nothing was certain. The seniors that I had idolized were graduating. My roommate and I were at odds. My parents were thinking of moving. Projects and papers were coming out of my ears, and my carefully constructed plans were falling to shambles. “God,” I muttered, half plea, half curse, as the calming water reached out to me ever so gently. In silence I waited as summer blew in gently on the breeze, unwrinkling my brow and softening my face. I belonged here. I had known that if I came outside, to the wind on the water and the sun in the sky, I would find peace and strength in the stillness. Be still. The pink of the clouds, that pink moment that Grammy used to call me out onto the porch to drink in when I was small, trickled its way inside to that hollow place I had locked so tightly. Be still and know. Through the tears, the sighs, the broken prayer, I knew. How could I have forgotten where to place my trust?

My brown eyes stared intently back as I looked hard at myself in the mirror. I whispered, “She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” So I laughed. And with strength and dignity I marched out to the artist and handed him the sketch of my tattoo. “I’m ready,” I announced, “and I want it on my lower back.”

There is a work of art that colors my body. Orange and gold, the sun shimmers as it sets into the cool blue green water, reflecting its rays on the surface and into the depths where it reads Proverbs 31:25, and illustration becomes reference. Placed so keenly out of my sight and only occasionally in the view of others, it often surprises me when someone else mentions it. One night of my sophomore year a freshman lit up when she realized who I was. “So you’re the one with the tattoo!” she exclaimed. I straightened my Ann Taylor blouse and tried to listen as if I was used to being identified by my body art. She told me her roommate sat behind me in a class first semester, and had seen my tattoo when I leaned over. One night she came home and asked to borrow a Bible – a book that she had never been interested in opening in her life – to figure out what so important to me that I had it inked on my back.

I don’t know if a Body Art Ministry movement would ever take hold. All I know is that without even looking at my tattoo, I know it’s there. Like the hand of a protector on the small of my back, I feel it gently nudging me forward, ever reminding me to laugh, to let go, to drive out to the lake and watch the sun set.

*This post originally appeared on www.rightnow.org in the summer of 2002.

** Fun fact: while we were dating long-distance, my husband secretly went to the tattoo parlor one day and got an ichthus tattooed on his bicep. It is hands-down the sexiest tattoo I have ever seen.

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