In June 2018, I got my first tattoo—at age 41. Less than a year later, I now have 10.
After spending months agonizing about the right font, the proper placement, and the perfect size, I got my first design from rock-star artist JonBoy—four tiny, block-lettered words in Spanish behind my left elbow: “Que no me manques.” It translates to “that you shouldn’t be missing to me,” a phrase my great aunt Fortuna used to utter reflexively like a mantra at the end of phone calls. I’ve always loved it for its brokenness and the way it sounds like it could be the title of a short story or an indie film.
I got my second tattoo a month later. This time, I went for a semi-abstract piece of flash art by Sarah Gaugler of Snow Tattoo that sort of resembles an evil eye surrounded by a heart surrounded by haphazard swirls and dots. Where I’d thought about every detail of my first tattoo endlessly, I picked my second on a whim—pointed to it in a portfolio booklet and surrendered my forearm without blinking.
I’ve fallen in love with tattoos because they are the physical reminder that my body is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship, and I am the one in charge.
Since then, I’ve made trips to downtown Manhattan celeb hot spot Bang Bang (where artist Eva Karabudak planted roses behind my right elbow and Dragon left some more on my right forearm); cozy-comfy Bushwick safe space Welcome Home Studio (I left with a tulip on my biceps, care of Evan Paul English); and the sleepy-Brooklyn apartment of hand-poke specialist Rosa Bluestone Perr (she stitched an abstract design into my finger and the word “bruja,” Spanish for “witch,” on my arm while we listened to Maggie Rogers and Fleetwood Mac). There are others—florals and one tiny “New York”—dotted up and down my freckly arms.
The speed at which I’ve collected ink probably seems a little compulsive; every new photo I post on Instagram garners a flurry of comments from friends and family that say different versions of “Another one?” I suppose it’d be easy to view my sudden addiction through the lens of a cosmopolitan midlife crisis, but I prefer to think of it as an awakening.
I have Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome. It’s a rare congenital vascular disorder, which means I was born this way, and “this way” means deformed. Chances are, you haven’t met somebody who has K-T (it’s estimated to affect 1 in 100,000 people), but even if you have, you may not have known it. It’s a shape-shifty condition, adapting differently to each person it afflicts. Some people have accompanying catastrophic health complications and some don’t. (I’m in that fortunate latter camp.) Most of us have the telltale port-wine-stain birthmark, but where it lands varies. Mine is very large—like a giant cabernet map of a made-up country—and slinks around my back to my stomach and ever-so-slightly down my right thigh, which is bigger than my left. It’s swollen-looking, dwarfing my kneecap. In fact, it’s fortunate that I’ve never aspired to be a criminal, because my mismatched legs would sell me out. I can picture Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni studying the mud of a crime scene to seal my felonious fate: “We find the gal with two different footprints, and we’ve got our perp.”
My back is a shapeless mass of overgrown soft tissue that I shorthand as “kind of like fat” when I feel I owe an explanation (right before a massage, when I’m dating someone new). There are also smaller signfiers, like spaces between my fingers that you don’t have, and manmade additions, like scars on my back that resemble insects, which are souvenirs from four liposuctions that started when I was 8. I’d been making trips to my plastic surgeon Dr. Strauch’s office since before I could remember, but it was the luck of the era, the 1980s, that made suction lipectomy an option. “They just suck out the fat like a vacuum,” my mom explained. “I’ll go get the Hoover!” my dad joked.
The surgeries were successful in revealing my previously obscured shoulder blades but not much else if you asked me (nobody did). Every surgery was more or less the same, and I didn’t see the point. If liposuction could have done anything truly life-changing—make me look like Alyssa Milano, for example, or just given me symmetrical calves—I might have been more amenable to soldiering on. But there were places on my body the doctor couldn’t safely operate (like my legs), and you could only do a little bit of lipo each time. At the rate we were going, I would never look in a way I felt to be “normal,” and the promise of looking just a little more normal didn’t seem worth it. By age 13, I had a say—and I said stop.
Before tattoos, my aesthetic rebellions against my body had always been of the reversible sort: green Manic Panic in my hair, holes punched all over my ears and in my nose. I used to stare enviously at people with tattoos, specifically lithe-armed women dotted in ink, and think, “Man, they look cool.” I longed for their style, but also the conviction with which they knew their style. But I couldn’t be like them; my sense of self had never been so fixed. I chalked it up to a fear of commitment, a fickleness I couldn’t shake. I even hid behind my Jewishness and that myth about not being able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, despite feeling the self-defeating prospect of planning one’s life around death.
In retrospect, it’s clear to me now that my body never felt mine enough to do something so permanent with—and why would it? Ever since I can remember, people with kind intent and malice alike have treated my body as if it were public property, open for business 24/7 when the business is curiosity or disgust: In kindergarten, my music teacher told me I had “too much fat” on my thigh to participate in a dance routine that required my wearing a leotard. When I was 10, my orthopedic surgeon let a group of med students into the examination room to study my naked body without asking my permission. At a Halloween party in my late twenties, a man dressed as a vampire engaged me in conversation and then a few minutes later interrogated me while two of his friends looked on and laughed: “What’s on your back?” he asked, then, “Turn around so I can feel it.”
Those are just a few examples. A lifetime of living with a deformity means a lifetime’s worth of trespass. But I’ve heard vampires can’t come in unless they’re invited—and I’ve invited them, giving away my power by answering their questions and allowing them to suck the life right out of me.
After that Halloween party was the first time I practiced what I guess you could describe as mental self-harm. I didn’t physically hurt myself but instead weaponized my mind, reenacting the verbal attack and fantasizing about enduring even worse. For years after, I would fall asleep at night imagining myself beaten to a bloody pulp—bruised, swollen, broken, in a hospital bed. Practically unrecognizable, my friends and family would gaze down at my tortured body, shaking their heads and sobbing. I don’t know how I came up with this, but it always made me feel better. You know, “better.”
Therapy, antidepressants, and time all helped me heal from my episodes of self hate. So did exhaustion. By the time I turned 40, I was so tired. Tired of waiting for people to notice my body, tired of arming myself against the inevitability that they would. Most of all, I was tired of fighting the only body I have. Though learning to love yourself and accept your body is magical in its own right, no light-bulby, coming-of-age moment made me feel finally ready to commit to a tattoo. Going through with it meant doing something I’d long wanted to do but never felt entitled to or worthy of.
As a child, I dreaded the needles that came with liposuction, a procedure meant to make me smaller and more palatable to others. Now I go willingly toward the needles for myself, and for a much happier reason: because you don’t adorn things you don’t love, and you don’t embellish that which you hope will disappear. I’ve fallen in love with tattoos because they are the physical reminder that my body is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship, and I am the one in charge.
I love all my tattoos and expect to get more of them. But I imagine that first one will always be my favorite: Do not go missing to me. Do not get lost. Do not lose yourself. Do not. It’s a nice reminder, even though its placement behind my elbow means I can’t actually see it. But I don’t need to see it to know it, feel it, live it.
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