A Map of Tattoos

I have a general fascination with and an affinity for tattoos. I cast sideways glances at any that I notice and wonder about their placement and if they represent a deep meaning or story, as mine do, or if they were done on a whim and spark regret. I wonder these things out of a general curiosity for fellow humans, but also because over the years I have tried to hide behind different personas and I wonder if people get tattoos to hind behind the way I’ve thought of doing but thankfully never did.

My first tattoo was born from grief. It was a way to honor and remember my friend Jarrod who was killed in a car accident a week after we graduated from high school. At the time, I was very much into the spiritual ways of the Native Americans —one of the stops on my journey to finding God. Therefore, the tattoo is a combination of two drawings of turtles from a book on Native American art. The lines of its shell are done in purple, Jarrod’s favorite color. Like many first tattoos, it is not very good and I have debated for many years about covering it up. The reason I have not is I have honestly worried that covering it up would be perceived as disregarding Jarrod’s memory. I’ve worried I would offend his mother and some of our mutual friends who I am still close with. My wise mind knows these are irrational and foolish thoughts, yet they persisted until the summer of 2019.

My other tattoos include a tribal design my brother drew and had on his right calf. I got mine in the same place around the time he shipped out to the war in Iraq. Somehow I felt it brought me closer to him. I was also afraid that he was not coming home. I have the first two lines of Psalm 49 on the inside of my right bicep, the words humble courage written in my father’s hand and hold fast as if typed from my typewriter are both on left forearm. My love of words extends to my body art. The boys’ footprints, in their original size, have been “imprinted” on my left arm and a tree on a cliff overlooking the sea and a rock cairn cover most of my right.

My tattoos spark joy, they remind me of where I came from, who I was, who I am and who I need to be. This, however, does not mean that a tattoo cannot be changed or covered up–as I would like to do with the turtle. The night Jarrod was killed I walked out of the ER after seeing his body and sat down next to my dad and told him I no longer wanted to do search and rescue. Up until that moment I had had a vague plan to move west and become a professional rescuer, maybe a wildland firefighter. I abandoned that dream sitting there that night. At one therapy session, after concluding it was ok to cover up the tattoo, I tried to talk to the part of me who was that horrified kid sitting outside the ER. But a protector part blocked my way. It told me I was not ready to deal with that moment. Maybe I’ll never be, or perhaps I will when I finally cover up that tattoo.

This essay started with the idea that my tattoos were a way of reminding me of my journey–a map of sorts. I never imagined that the map would lead me back to a galvanizing moment in my life that nearly twenty-four years later I am just realizing forever altered my trajectory. Not the moment Jarrod was killed, as I’ve always thought, but the moment after seeing his body that I spoke to my dad and abandoned the thin plan I had; and then floated unmoored in the sea of life until I found my ballast in Erin and the love of family.