The Girl with the Arrow Tattoo

In the court of public opinion, the topic of tattoos is deeply divisive. Thankfully I think that the general attitude towards them has improved dramatically since I got my first one 14 years ago.

When my father first discovered those Chinese characters on my lower back (don’t you dare call it a ‘tramp stamp’, don’t you do it) he responded with a kind of ‘the sky is falling’ melodrama. He told me that good guys don’t want to marry girls with tattoos and that I’d have difficulty finding employment. The more tattoos I collected, the more this argument reached fever pitch. But, as most of you know, Vin and I have been happily partnered for more than 6 years, and I work in management for a growing national consulting firm.

My exploration into body modification started 3 years before that first tattoo when I got my belly button pierced at 15 years old. Because I was a minor, I needed a parent to accompany me and sign a consent form. My parents immediately rejected the idea. I fired back with extensive research and a compelling argument: if I was allowed to make serious decisions about my health on a regular basis, why couldn’t I make this decision about my body? Eventually, they relented.

Seventeen years after that first body modification, I now have 12 tattoos. That probably sounds like a lot, but many of them are small and easily concealed. I’ve worked with colleagues for years before they noticed the tattoos on either of my inner wrists. My most recent addition is my largest visible tattoo: an arrow fit for a warrior on the outside of my forearm, but even that isn’t immediately noticeable. Two days after getting it we met up with friends for the 4th of July, and not a single one of them acknowledged it. I assume that they didn’t notice, or if they did they’d already seen it on Instagram. Or maybe they just didn’t care. That’s perfectly fine with me. I don’t get tattoos for anyone other than myself.

When you have tattoos people will always ask “what do they mean/represent/symbolize?”. I hate this question. It’s almost impossible to explain such deeply personal decision, nor do I owe anyone an explanation. If you don’t like/have any tattoos, no answer I can give you will ever satisfy your curiosity.

My passion for tattoos is much bigger than the art form itself. Living with a chronic illness means feeling like you have no control over your own body, and, in large part, your future. Over the years I found ways to rebel against my body and exert control over it. That first time I was on Methotrexate I was on a dose twice what I’m on now and lost most of my hair. At first, I kept cutting it shorter and shorter in an effort to make it look fuller. Then one day I went into the bathroom and dyed it Manic Panic magenta – I figured if I was losing it anyway it didn’t really matter what color it was.

Choosing to mark my body with that first little piece of metal in my belly button wasn’t much different than dying my hair pink. I was in between hip and knee surgeries. I’d recently recovered from a bleeding ulcer as a side effect from one of my medications. Another medication gave me a migraine so severe that it took a trip to the ER and Toradol injections in my neck to get relief. The pain and recovery from a little piercing paled in comparison to anything else I was going through at the time.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more selective in how I adorn my body, and today I collect my tattoos like talismans that will protect me from my illness. My left ribs prominently feature the Goddess Athena wearing her helmet for battle. Inscribed on my right shoulder are the words “I must become a lion hearted girl” tattooed in one of my dearest friend’s handwriting. My newest arrow tattoo could be shot straight from Athena’s bow. I got all of these tattoos during times of great adversity and/or uncertainty with my health.

When I look at them today I think of what I was going through when I got them and how far I’ve come since. They make me feel strong and brave and powerful – not unlike Athena herself. Side-by-side with my surgical scars, they tell my story. And not only do they give me some semblance of control over my body, but they remind me of that feisty 15-year-old girl rebelling against this insidious disease. I’d like to think that I’ve still got that kind of fight in me, that I can still win a few battles in this much larger war.

10 Replies to “The Girl with the Arrow Tattoo”

  1. I absolutely love hearing the stories behind tattoos, because I love talking to people and getting to know them. See, I love that you shared what you did here — I find it awesome and fascinating, so thank you!

    I live in southern CA, and it is pretty well accepted to have tattoos here. I think they are awesome.

    1. Hi there!

      Thank you so much for reading!

      I live in Boston which, despite being very socially progressive, can be on the conservative side when it comes to tattoos. Still I think that with their growth in popularity in recent years they’re not as “shocking” to people as they once were! That said, sometimes I think I was meat to be a California girl 😉

      Hope you’re feeling well today!

  2. I absolutely love this post! I also suffer from a chronic illness and got my first tattoo at the ripe old age of 29. I also had my belly button pierced at 15 but it took me a lot longer to get the courage for a tattoo. But, I reached a point where I thought that if I can cope with daily pain, what’s a little tattoo?! Now 30, I’m plotting my third and totally relate to the feeling of control over your body. Love your tattoos and your thoughts behind them.

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Thank you so much for reading! I love that you waited to get your first tattoo until 29 – my mom waiting until 39 before getting her first (she ended up with just 2)! 🙂 Not to mention I do have a few less meaningful ones from my younger years that I will probably have covered up at some point. Such is life!

    The pain of getting a tattoo is a very strange thing to me – mostly because I find that I am able to go into a very zen state during them so that it doesn’t bother me at all. Sometimes I wonder why I can’t do this to cope with pain all of the time! More than that though, I find the act of getting one to be a very cathartic experience – especially when my health and everything else around me feels so out of control.

    Thanks again for reading and for sharing your own experience. I hope that today is a good day for you!

  4. I love your tattoos – your arrow is so beautiful! Does your rheumatologist ever say anything cautionary about the actual process of getting them? I’ve toyed with the idea, but have never settled on what to get, so I’ve never even brought it up with my doctor. After hearing the medication-infection-risk talk so often since 13, I always assumed anything involving needles that aren’t used to deliver meds would be met with cautionary tales. Heck, I even dithered about getting second holes pierced in my ears.

    I love the way you explained your impetus behind getting tattoos. Finding ways to win back control feels great. Thanks for writing.

    1. Hi Kit,

      That’s so much for reading. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never asked about or discussed anything tattoo related with my Rheumatologist. Perhaps a little irresponsible on my part, but I have never had any issues with infections, healing, etc. That said, my rheumy can clearly see that I have several, and she has never commented on them either so take that for what it’s worth. Even though I’m not always good at taking my own advice, I always think it’s important to talk to your doctor about these things! If you do let me know – I would love to hear what he or she says.

      Thanks again for reading! Cheers!

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  6. I really enjoyed reading this. I discovered your blog via A Life Less Physical. I do not have RA but I do have a different autoimmune disease, systemic lupus. It gives me comfort to read about how other people tackle life and it’s challenges. I think your tattoos are a way of showing that you fought that particular battle and you won! You go, girl!! 🙂

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