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Forum: The tale of my tattoo

Sandra Collins explains why she -- a middle-class mother of three -- had a work of art etched into her left leg

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Tattoos are funny things. Little pieces of body art that suggest a person's desire to make a statement or attract attention, they range from the obscure little flower tucked inside a bra to an entire arm-length of writhing, scowling serpents in reds, blacks and yellows. For some of us, though, they aren't about exhibitionism; they are simply our desire to memorialize something in a permanent, symbolic way.

  Sandra Collins is a writer living in Ben Avon (collinss@duq.edu) 

I recently got a tattoo. It's not my first one but it has certainly elicited the most responses simply by merit of the fact that it is visible -- a small vine crawling around my ankle bone and up the back of my left leg.

"Hmmm . . ." mused a co-worker. "I didn't think you were the type."

Not the type? Did he mean something about my socioeconomic class? Or my education? Or my morals? No, I don't live in a trailer court. I married the father of my three children long before they were born. And I've never even ridden on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I have all my original teeth except for a cap in the back lost to a filling gone bad years ago.

Conversely, the young man who did my tattoo isn't some chain-smoking hippie-type in a dark, smoky den of iniquity. He has a degree in graphic arts from a local technical school. He works in West View next to a now-defunct Foodland, in a clean shop where he does only tattoos. He's a graphic artist in the Army Reserve whose medium happens to be body art. He doesn't do piercings or body mutilation of any sort (although he can recommend good, clean shops, if you're interested). He doesn't do drugs and doesn't sell drug paraphernalia. He is happy to show you his autoclave and all the necessary items that mean he runs a hygienic, sterile shop.

He has a pit bull for a companion, but she'd just as soon roll over and have you rub her belly than anything else. She might look like a scary Charbydis but she's really a poor excuse for a watchdog.

"Oh, I see you got a tattoo," said another friend. "What is that?"

I should have said something risque. I should have further shocked the suburban sensibilities of my companion by claiming it was symbolic of the twining fingers of hellfire and condemnation, pulling sinners to everlasting damnation. Or a metaphor on eroticism and the Garden of Eden, the vine representing our carnal instincts. Or worse yet -- goddess imagery to represent my initiation as a black witch. But I didn't.

"It's scrollwork from a 14th-century French illuminated manuscript depicting Delilah cutting off Samson's hair." For some reason, I always feel compelled to add, "And I've loved this piece of artwork for years and have wanted to do this for a long time. I just finally found the time to do it," in order to assure others that I'm not operating under the whimsy of fad.

"Well, as long as you like it." (Meaning: Dear God, I think it's ghastly! Thank heavens it's on you and not me.)

Tattoos have been discovered on mummies going back thousands of years. One such cadaver -- a female shaman from Siberia -- was recently found, skin still intact owing to the cold, covered with beautiful scrollwork of deer and mythical animals running up and down her arms. Her elite status was marked not only by her grave goods, which were considerable, but also by the elaborate markings on her body. She was seen as among the most powerful and revered members of her community and had the marks to show it.

In our day, marking the body is seen as aberrant. Why in the world would anyone want to do something so permanent to themselves? Why not just accept yourself as you are?

We recoil from such an overt show as mine. Yet, sitting around the community pool this summer with my kids, I noticed women (and men) with dyed hair, hair extensions, hair weaves, hair plugs, pierced ears, navels and eyebrows, fake nails, chests, tummies and chins and tans that came from anywhere but the sun. Derm abrasions, diamond peels and other such dermatological wizardry kept more than a few mom friends out of the sun as well.

For such folks as these, one doesn't mark the body as a sign of affluence or power -- they acquire. And part of that acquisition is the evidence of our elitism, told through the manifest ways that we alter our aging or imperfect bodies to stay the same. New chins or noses or skin reveal one's not-so-hidden aspiration after perfection. They celebrate the body the same as the Siberian shaman, only it's for different reasons -- not to mark or change, but to manifest stasis, to postpone alteration.

My tattoo -- about Delilah shearing Samson's locks in order to steal his power -- has resonance for me because it evokes the beauty and power of passion. The biblical Delilah, dressed in a 14th-century red French frock, clips the slumbering Samson's curls while the vine coils around the edge of the text like the lies she told to entrap him. He hardly seems to care; he is entranced.

He rests, languidly, upon her lap, unaware that all that defines him as a hero is about to be taken from him, knowing on some level that he has been tricked, but seemingly not caring. She has bewitched him. Strength, machismo, bravado -- all are gone in a moment. The Philistine guard, garbed in French military dress, wait outside the door for the end of the haircut and what will soon be, the end of Samson's life.

Fleeting, too, in this life, are the moments wherein we might claim or, by contrast, throw away who we are. Precious are the instances when we are bewitched by our existence, entranced by those whom we cherish and who, in return, cherish us.

We stand in the aftermath of many such defining moments, the most recent and horrifying being Sept. 11, 2001. And it was late in the day on a September afternoon last year that I betook myself to the West View tattooist. Because, I decided, if I was to die soon, if the world that I knew was to end, I would mark myself, like the Siberian shaman, with the totems of my life -- passion, beauty and the precious remembrance of adoration evoked by this little piece of twining vine and brightly colored leaves.

For, what woman among us wouldn't fancy being Delilah, if only for a moment?

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