New Featured TIR Tat Tale - Tattoo Transformations
by Jamie Amos, Writer - Blogger - Recovery Warrior
My first tattoo found me when I was only fifteen years old. I'd checked out a book from the library about world religions. In the glossy middle pages lay a flat line drawing of a lotus, its outer edges curling over into the next petal, making an endless circle. The drawing was simple, like something that might be carved in stone. Below it the caption read, "Lotus flower: Hindu symbol of purity."
I wasn't raised with notions of eternal sin or damnation. We were the kind of people who had babies young and worked grueling jobs and drank a case Busch by a campfire. But even as I didn't understand a formal idea of sin, I felt at my deepest core all wrong. My insatiable desires were something that could not be contained.
I wanted more like most people wanted love.
More candy, more risk, more devotion, more of everything I could stuff into myself, gorging on what could not fill me. That need pressed against other children who could sense both my danger and desperation. It compelled me into the arms of boys for whom I didn't feel attraction. It pushed me ever forward and farther, into parties and kegs and needles poked into my teen veins.
When I came across that simple line drawing of purity, I sliced it from its pages and returned the library book. Three years later, I took the drawing to a new tattoo parlor where sinewy boys in black eyeliner smoked cigarettes on a bench out front.
"This," I said as I slapped the picture on a glass case containing obscenely large gages of jewelry.
"I want this."
Bad Tattoos Are Like Your Teenage Poetry
Like everything for me, my tattoos swing from two extremes: I thought nothing about them or I obsessed over their meaning for years.
For the simply decorative ones, I loved the idea of transforming my skin. I couldn't change my face, my family, the types of jobs I seemed destined for. They served as a beacon to others like me, a code carved in lines and shaded in vibrant color—my chameleon cells, camouflaging myself with wherever I walked. Covered, a more professional self walked around in the world, filled out job applications, blended in with middle-class people going about their days; revealed, this self shrugged a sleeve upward to expose its blue-black lines, a suggestion of something we might share.
I have some horrible tattoos. Like, blue and blurry lines that take up whole portions of my body.
"You could get that covered" is always the first reaction.
Okay, actually the first reaction is, "What is it?"
Because who would want an inkblot smudged on their bodies forever? Once, I got drunk in a hotel room and told my cousin to blow up a squatting moon fair to fill my entire back. Despite all the beer, I twitched and squirmed, ticklish as hell, a permanent tremor beneath his tattooing hand. I don't think my fairy has eyes. Her head is more like a greasy fingerprint right before your mug shot.
I used to hide this one. I've got a couple others vibrant with color, and I'd preen under the praise they elicited. Like I'd drawn them myself. But the one on my back has faded to that melancholy industrial blue we paint prisons and middle schools. Its design emphasizes that I am genetically apple shaped, a bluish orb with its equator at my waistline, just in case you were about to think I had one.
I also got that devil-girl side silhouette you see on trucker mud flaps.
You know the one: calling card of artist, Chris Cooper, but also the chosen symbols of hotrods and hillbilly trucks.
Because you can take the girl out the poor, but you can't take the poor out the girl.
Tattoos . . . Like Meditations
My second tattoo I picked from the plastic sleeves in a poster case. A Chinese dragon on my right shoulder. I thought the dragon might equal ferocity and force, an embodiment of the strength I so desperately wanted to feel. The boy who agreed to tattoo me must have been apprenticing because he dug into my skin, the dragon healing into patches of blue-black vitiligo.
But this is my favorite tattoo. I was freshly 18, bone thin, harboring dreams of writing in my working-class heart. I had already made sure I couldn't go away to college by getting drunk and skipping the ACT my school had paid for. I was working at McDonalds and going to community college for a trade on which I couldn't yet decide.
This tattoo artist, with his lumbering frame and frizzy hair, talked the entire time his needle scraped my flesh. He talked of writers and artists and vision, all as if I deserved that kind of conversation. He snapped his rubber gloves from his hands to write down Rainer Maria Rilke, the first time I'd ever heard that name, and reduced my tattoo price in exchange for the promise I would leave immediately and buy his book. I did. And in Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, I found that other people longed to write like I did. With my dragon tattoo came the strength to finally admit out loud my greatest longing. Every time I glimpse that patchy dragon, I think about art and longing and purpose.
Tattoos are like meditations for me. I've spent the last 20 years contemplating my own purity, my original, simplistic ideas evolving into something more complex and actionable, because I wake up and see that tattoo every day. My back piece - that glorious blue smudge - is practice in body love and acceptance. It's there, it's not going anywhere, so why hide the truth of it? With each new piece, a new meditation begins, tattoos both like a map I follow to my past, and also a daily practice I access to remember the person I wanted to be.
Their enduring ideas have surprised me. I still think about the idea of purity and what it's come to mean. Rooted once in the shame I felt for insatiable desires, it has transformed into living with integrity, something made possible through recovery. I've long been attracted to religious symbols I didn't grow up with. I even covered mud-flap girl with an immaculate heart ringed in peonies.
What began as a vague appreciation of beauty has transformed into an appreciation of spiritual connection.
All of these things made possible by years of contemplation sprouted from that moment I wandered into a tattoo shop and demanded more ink.
About the Author
Jamie Amos works in marketing for higher education. Her fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Cold Mountain Review, and storySouth, among others. Articles about recovery have been featured at IntheNola and Klen & Sobr. She lives in New Orleans, blogs at The Neutral Ground, and photographs her pit bull constantly on Instagram.