I got my first tattoo for my 30th birthday - a late start by most accounts, but when you see me, you know I quickly made up for lost time.
I had always wanted tattoos. I loved the look, the danger, the visible refusal of all the “morals” and values I was raised to believe as a good Mormon boy. Tangible reminders of my own difference - as a gay kid, as a feminist, as anti-racist, as everything that stood in stark contradiction to white, conservative, Mormon Utah. Not just as a reminder to myself, but evidence to all those around me that I stood out; that I was different. And I was proud to wear that difference. But I was scared. I was terrified. What if I didn’t like a tattoo once it was done? What if, years down the line, I regretted my decision? I spent 30 years wrapped up in fear and regret of something that hadn’t even happened.
It was much like the obsessive-compulsive disorder I also struggled/suffered with: spending much too much time obsessed over a possible negative outcome that may or may not ever come to be. Wasting away in the present moment in the hopes that sometime in the future, I could be content. The problem was, every hoped for moment was quickly eclipsed in each new present. Such is the movement of time. Each present traded for a past that could have been different; while each future pushes its way into the narrow confines of a new present. One exchanged for another. Everything stays the same.
So I waited. Always thinking tomorrow would be the day I got that tattoo I had been planning; insisting tomorrow would be day I really tried my best; always thinking tomorrow would be the day I finally went all-out for that dream I hoped to realize. After all, if you haven’t gone all-out yet, you can’t have completely failed. You still have another chance. And then I turned 30 - and I was still waiting. Saying tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…
In most regards, I wasn’t actually living until I turned 30. Until the needle hit my skin for the first time. Until all that pain that I had felt for years - for not being the “right” kind of person according to family, friends, society - was concentrated in points on my skin. People say tattoos hurt - but I think living hurts more. The needle was letting the pain out; replacing it with ink that mapped that pain. Opening my body up to the world; letting the hurt I had swallowed all those years slowly bleed out me. And there’s certainly a lot of hurt trapped inside.
There’s no advice to give about what finally made me sit down in the chair and go through with something I had wanted ever since I was young. I just did it. I just woke up one day approaching 30 and realized I could be a 30-year-old man and still a baby simultaneously. I’d been terrified of living, of trying - and so I spent 30 years just planning to finally be me. Maybe I would fail, but being truly me was worth a fucking try.
Now, my tattoos are metaphors. My tattoos are therapy. My tattoos are my way of letting go of control, planning. My tattoos are me embracing the moment. My tattoos are me changing. My tattoos are change. Octavia Butler wrote “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” And I want to change, I want to be change, I want my life to be a lasting truth. So I mark myself, I tattoo myself, and I let go.
Yes, most people find other, less permanent, ways to embrace the present moment. That’s fine. I choose what I choose. My choice is mixed with pain and reward because such is life. I get tattoos spontaneously because I like the lack of planning - it’s the only space in my life that I can relinquish a plan. It may be expensive, but so is 50 minutes out of every hour on the couch of a licensed professional.
I don’t love every single tattoo I have - but I love the moment that I chose to get each tattoo. More than the symbol itself, the moment stands out in my mind. I love each undetermined feeling of my broken skin letting out all that pain, not knowing what the healed version will look like. Because that’s all I am anyway: a work in progress. It’s what we all are. Puncture wounds waiting to heal. And maybe the healing will leave scars, maybe it won’t be pretty, but it will always bleed. It will leave its mark - visible or not. I choose to make that hurt and healing visible, over and over again. And maybe, if we’re lucky, the healed product can be beautiful, it can be art, it can be exquisite. And if any attempt falls short, there’s always more skin…