“Tattoos mean that you’ve been through a lot,” he declared.
I can’t find my notes about the conversation that dominated our dinner conversation that night, but I’ll never forget those words or the certainty with which they were spoken. Don’t misunderstand him, as I did, that a little lady bug on the ankle or a butterfly on the lower back or a dragon on the shoulder means someone has suffered in life; he meant serious tattoos and probably lots of them.
My husband has two tattoos, and if we had the money he’d have a couple more. On one bicep he wears a cross with sola fide scripted by an amateur hand; the other bicep is covered with a scull, some flames, and John 15:13. At one point he was a firefighter, so you might say that he’s “been through a lot.” (He waited until after we were married and had given up on being a firefighter to tell me how near death he had actually come.)
With those words I started to see the offenders parading past my door and sighing into their desks with new eyes. What had they suffered? What were they thinking when the needles penetrated their skins? Some tats clearly meant nothing, some were graven reminders of a hard life. I stopped being intimidated and started being compassionate toward the names, tear drops, symbols, and the unmentionables.
I wanted to know more about this, but I didn’t know how to ask. Then I got my wish several months later.
A couple months ago I was helping someone write his college essay. I suggested he write about his tattoos, thickly applied across the top of his forearms along with some numbers on his fingers that a long sleeve shirt couldn’t hide. In the course of his writing, I also learned he had one more image across his back.
In his essay he wrote about joining his gang and how the tattoos marked him for life. Even if he were able to have them removed, there would be dim shadows left in their place where the lasers would lighten his swarthy skin. When he got the tattoos there was no hiding from the world who he had become, and the discrimination he experienced because of them was palpable. He didn’t care, he said, because he hated everyone in return.
Having changed since then, he imagined living without these signs, walking through a crowd unnoticed. He imagined making friends–or being friendly at least–with those who would have mutually snubbed him before. He wonders now why he ever dreamed about this when the reality is that his tattoos “are in his blood.”
We think that tattoos are only skin deep and that with recent technology they can be painfully removed. Can they be? I used to have strawberry-blonde, straw-straight hair. Even though five years ago it turned auburn and more wavy than straight, pictures of myself surprise me. I still see myself with blonde streaks. I also forget that a scar along my cheekbone has since become indiscernible, and before that a crease along my nose disappeared. I believe that it must take some time to get used to the absence of a tattoo, and until that time has passed one might act like they are still visible.
Tattoos or no tattoos, my student-offenders have been beaten, have beaten others, lost their families, said adios to their dreams, and buried countless friends. They’ve been through a lot.