The front room of Glenn's Tattoo Service is walled with classic tattoo-shop imagery—naked ladies, square-rigged sailing ships, devils and skeletons. It's a hot Tuesday in July, and I'm just happy to be inside, out of the Carrboro sun. Cody Abell, tattooed from ankles to temples and wearing a perpetual half-smile, strides in from the other room, holding a small scrap of contact paper. He presses it to my arm, directly atop my first tattoo.
"Take a look," he says, pulling the paper away. I look in the mirror. For now, two images battle for the same patch of skin. One, a faded little circle with wings, looks like a poorly drawn airline pin. The new image is a Star Trek insignia that deliberately obscures the wings. When I look, I somehow manage to ignore the tangle of lines and see just the tattoo to come. I smile.
"Yeah," I say. "That's it." Then he dips his needle in a little cup of ink and goes to work on my first tattoo in ten years.
I'm like a lot of people: thirtysomething and stable, with a few faded tattoos peeking out of my sleeves, all relics of my early twenties. Granted, I'm happy with almost all of them. I like the shark jaw on my left deltoid, and I'm proud of the treble clef nestled within a stylized seahorse—my design—above my right elbow. The Anasazi petroglyph on the inside of my left arm reminds me of my late stepdad. It's based on a keychain he bought me during a Texas trip years ago (though I later discovered it's also the Teva logo—after I got the tat). I even like the breaking wave on the back of my right leg, though the art is pretty bad.
Yet there was the question of my first tat, the wings on my right deltoid. I didn't like what it represented, and it was the only one I had no good answer for if one of my daughters asked what it was. I had grown, I had changed, and it was time for me to enter the second phase of my tattoo-getting life. It was time to fix a mistake.
Alison McGhee knows the story well. In March, shortly before the release of her children's book Tell Me a Tattoo Story, she put out a call on social media: Send me a photo of your favorite tattoo and tell me the story behind it. McGhee got much more than she expected.
"Some of them, which I didn't publish, were about tattoos that they really regretted, either because the art was horrible or the sentiment behind it had changed," she says.
McGhee sounds winded when she picks up the phone. She's on one of her favorite hiking trails, a canyon path in Wilderness Park above Laguna Beach. SoCal is one of several places the nomadic author calls home. I've solicited her input because I respect what she did with Tell Me a Tattoo Story, a tender book in which a child asks his dad about his tattoos. The answers unfold like a tapestry of the father's life: Here's the one from his favorite book as a kid; here's the one from his military deployment; here's the one that reminds him of the day he met his wife.
"I thought it was a very traditional book about a family's love and a father and a child," McGhee says. Accordingly, I can easily identify with the dad in Tell Me a Tattoo Story.He's a believable person, and his tattoos don't signify toughness or danger or any of those other lingering stereotypes. They're just tattoos.
So, like others before me, I swallow my pride and tell McGhee my own embarrassing first-tattoo story. She listens patiently. I explain that, when I was twenty, I was briefly taken with the tinfoil-hat idea that an undetected planet called Nibiru was on a comet-like orbit and would intercept the Earth in 2012, heralding a new millennium, blah blah blah. A guy I worked with at the time had a tattoo gun, so I got him to tattoo a line drawing of a planet with wings on my arm, with the result looking like something a seventh-grader scrawled in a notebook. Revealing to McGhee that I had Chariots of the Gods-level unscientific nonsense tattooed on my arm for fourteen years was embarrassing, but nowhere near as embarrassing as seeing it in the mirror every single morning.
"What're you going to cover it up with?" she asks.
"The Star Trek insignia from the eighties movies," I say.
"I am a lifelong Star Trek fan," I continue. Tattoo talk gets personal fast. "It is my mythology and my philosophy. That actually means something."
"It's very hard to imagine that will ever change," she says without missing a beat.
When McGhee's son turned eighteen, he texted her to ask if it was OK to get a tattoo.
"Sure," she replied, "as long as it's a heart on your bicep with the word 'Mom' in the middle."
What her son chose was quite touching. When he was very little, McGhee explains, he had a hard time adjusting to the world and would scream unless he was being carried. He spent most of his time in a forward-facing carrier, and the two would read picture books together, Mom reading the words and son turning the pages. So, when he was legally old enough, he had the gentle, flower-loving bull from The Story of Ferdinand tattooed between his shoulder blades. It was his favorite book as a child.
Whatever preconceptions McGhee had about body art vanished. When she realized tattooed parents weren't represented in picture books, it compelled her to fill that void. The book all but wrote itself.
"I want to be an artist in the time I am living in now," McGhee says. "I don't want to deny the current world. I don't want to repudiate it. I just want to acknowledge that this is the world, and the world I'm in is full of tattoos."
Children's books simply haven't caught up.
The world my two girls live in is also full of tattoos. Their dad has them; other parents have them; the local children's librarians they love so much have them. My daughters don't view body art as a dramatic act—you get inked (I did) or you don't (my wife didn't). They like putting on temporary tats, and they know you have to be fully grown to get a permanent one. They've even seen that tattoos aren't final. There's laser removal, which Abell says feels like a muscle-bound dude repeatedly whacking you with a rubber band, and there's simply covering up that ill-conceived youthful passion with new ink.
That's what I did: For about two hours, I sat in Glenn's while Abell scratched away on my arm, slowly but indelibly paving over Nibiru and leaving behind something far more logical and meaningful. As people came and went, we talked about our families and the places we'd lived; the conversation ranged from Steinbeck to The Beatles to Deep Space Nine. If only I'd had a cup of coffee in front of me, I would have been perfectly content.
Later, at the supper table, six-year-old Sarah asks me what it feels like.
"It doesn't really hurt, not that bad," I say, pausing to figure out the best way to explain it. "It feels kind of like someone rubbing sandpaper on your arm."
Sarah thinks about this for a second. She and her four-year-old sister, Lucy, look at the new tattoo for another moment and then go back to eating.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Cover Up"