We’d talked about it, mentioned it in passing. My aunt got her first when she was 15 on vacation in Mexico. Carlos at Big Daddy Tattoo tatted my dad a few months previous. To me, ink kinda felt like a rite of passage into adulthood, and regardless of how I would think about it later, I knew my decision would always be a great story at parties and whatnot.
That fateful day was almost a year ago exactly.
I am swimming in the Caribbean, half a mile offshore. Looking down at the blue jello colored water, I watch fish scuttle around 30 feet below me as clearly as I would have observed them in an onshore aquarium. For those 45 minutes, I believe I am engaging in the coolest activity I will on that day or maybe even during that year or possibly in my life. Little do I know another activity awaits that will either surpass my afternoon Caribbean Sea swim in awesomeness, or at least come in a close second.
After riding back on a dinghy to Grand Cayman’s shore, my family goes shopping for souvenirs, upholding all sorts of American vacationer stereotypes with our sunburned faces, jean shorts and flip flops. As we walk along the beach, a shop’s name catches my eye: Blue Dragon Tattoos. My heartbeat becomes irregular.
“Mom, can I get a tattoo?”
Okay, so quick background on my parents. They’re pretty chill, but they’re quite the conservatives–definitely not the kind to let their only daughter get her first tattoo on a whim at age 16.
“Yes, but I’m not paying for it.”
That’s not word for word what my mom says to me in that moment, but that’s the gist of it.
Okay, so quick background on me. I’m pretty chill, but I’m quite the over thinker–definitely not the kind to get my first tattoo on a whim at age 16 in a foreign country.
But for some reason, in that moment, my parents and I are uncharacteristically accepting of my outlandish idea.
As I clasp the cool metal handle of one of tattoo parlor’s double doors, I notice how hot and sweaty my palms are. Stepping inside, a smell similar to that of disinfectant tingles my nose hairs. Thousands of tattoo examples cover the white wall. I am close to hyperventilating I think.
I shake hands with Chaz the tattoo artist. She’s a hip Scottish 20-something. Grand Cayman is a British Isle, so people speak English, drink tea and pay with pounds. Chaz has a couple small tattoos and piercings, but I find them tasteful and not overdone.
My parents fill out the parental consent forms, and I shakily draw out my design: an interlocking mustache, bow tie and monocle. My tattoo has no deep meaning. My reasoning works like this: I am 16 years old. If I feel strongly about something now, who’s to say I will feel that way in 40 years? I don’t want to get a tattoo that means something to me now and possibly won’t later, but getting a tattoo with something that will always matter like “family” or “love” feels cliché. Since I created my own design, and I like it, why not just get it? It’s meaningless now, and it will be meaningless in 40 years. The tattoo itself is a memory, not a memorial.
Chaz gets to work sketching out a better version of my pathetic attempt at art, and I shell out 80 American dollars to her assistant. The only annoying part about Grand Cayman being a British Isle and also being a well known money laundering capital is their currency’s worth much more than the dollar, so prices are highway robbery.
After 10 minutes, Chaz shows me her take on my design. She and I agree her drawing is much better than mine and I would much prefer to have it permanently etched in my skin than my original idea.
Chaz points me to a large black chair, shaped and reclined like one at the dentist’s office. As I sink into it, she prepares her needles. Fun fact about tattoos: the closer the desired tattoo location is to a bone, the more excruciatingly painful the inking will be. I decide I want my ink directly on my hip bone on the lower right side of my stomach, so as Chaz repeatedly injects me with color, I chew on my sunglasses to keep from crying like a little girl.
Getting a tattoo reminds me of getting a cavity filled without any lidocaine. Lucky for me, after she finishes the outline, Chaz numbs me up so the remaining 10 minutes feel like getting a cavity filled with lidocaine.
After wiping away some blood, Chaz invites me to look at the completed life decision before she tapes some gauze over it. As I sit up, my heart beats faster than the its current rapid pace, and I feel my shorts grow wet. I am thankful to find I didn’t pee myself. I’m still wearing my bikini from my earlier dip in the sea, and the prolonged sedentary position has allowed the moisture to soak through my exterior clothing layer. I explain this to Chaz and my parents at least three times.
After thanking Chaz for letting me do this to myself, I exit the tattoo parlor and continue shopping with my family. I keep sneaking glances at my bandaged tummy. After about 15 minutes, my parents seem to have lost interest in my new tat. I can’t understand how. I feel like I just grew an extra arm or something, but no one seems to care.
When we get back to the States, people seem to care, at least for a while. The problem with getting a tattoo on my stomach is people don’t just see it on a day-to-day basis. Unless I am swimming or changing, my tattoo stays hidden under my t-shirt, forgotten. I don’t go swimming that often, which is a major bummer.
One year later, my tattoo is still a good conversation starter, and I have no regrets.