When you’re a writer, it’s impossible to choose the right words for a tattoo. So many options, so little skin.
I’ve been keeping an “Ideas For Great Tattoos!” notebook since I was 19. Before then, I had never liked the idea of tattoos, because I was under the impression that only two kinds of design were permissible: an anchor, which was what Popeye had on his forearms; or a heart with the word “Mum”. There were no other tattoos. Just those. I did not want either of these, because I’d only just left home and getting a tattoo with “Mum” on it seemed unnecessarily backwards-looking and regretful. Like a baby having one that read “Womb”, or a daddy longlegs having “Grub”. Additionally, in the Eighties, all tattoos seemed to take place exclusively on the upper arm and, due to fatness, this was an area I considered wholly private, and to be covered at all times. A tattoo there would be an unseen tattoo and, therefore, pointless. If no one’s going to see your expensive and painful piece of self-expression, you might as well just lie by telling people you’ve got one, under your jumper. Then the Nineties happened and, with it, some manner of tattoo deregulation, because they started appearing everywhere. At the top of your bum; on your ankle. And they could be anything. Butterflies! Antlers! “I Hope This Means Something Profound”, in Chinese! Basically, the body became one gigantic whiteboard onto which you could scribble anything, and I liked the idea. How cool is it to add words to your body? Far more pleasing than jamming in extra tits, or lips. I was going to soup up my lower arm with some words. I was going to be a word-monument. It was decided.
But which words? There are so many! I had a list of my favourites - “Uxorious”; “Shagreen”; “Mercury”; “Cathedral”; “Zoo” – but they would all look wilfully random on my lower arm. I feared inquiries from uncomprehending strangers: “Are these ... internet passwords? Or ... the names of dead cats?”
A sentence, then – a lyric from a favourite song. I had pages and pages of these, which I narrowed down to either, “Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful”, from
Rock’n’Roll Suicide, or “Love is a verb/ Love
“A tattoo with ‘Mum’ on it seemed unnecessarily backwards-looking.”
is a doing word”, from Massive Attack’s
Teardrop - because I found both to be profound, moving and truthful. But then I had a long, dark night of the soul, where I realised that I’m just not a “having something profound, moving and truthful on my arm” kind of woman. An arm can be many things – a place for a watch; half of a hug; the top bit of the “Y” in a line of people spelling out “YMCA” – but I do not believe that, on me, it can be profound. At the end of the day, it’s an arm, not a self-help book. I didn’t want to do anything contrary to its primary attribute: looking a bit like a sausage.
So for a while I gave up on my arm and considered my finger, instead. I was tempted to have the word “No!” tattooed onto the middle finger of my right hand, because the middle finger of my right hand always seemed to be in the thick of it during the ordering of gin or the rolling of a cigarette.
“No!”, I figured, would work by way of a simple Post-it Note, on my finger, from my Sober Daytime Self to my Idiot Night Self, to cease and desist all self-ruination.
Unfortunately, when my Sober Daytime Self heard that the finger was one of the most exquisitely painful parts of the body to tattoo, it said, “Screw Idiot Night Self – I’m not going through finger agony to sort out her poor impulse control. She can sort it out herself,” and that was the end of that.
Similarly, pain was a factor when I thought about tattooing some significant names. Before I had children, I considered having their names tattooed, Beckham-style, after their births. However, after they had been delivered, I felt quite strongly that my body had already permanently and arduously acknowledged their existence – via a csection scar and 27 stitches – and that any further tribute would be both lesser and unnecessary. And I couldn’t have my husband’s name – Pete – because I only call him Pete when I’m annoyed with him, or when his mother is around. The rest of the time, I call him by a nickname that would dump me right back into “Password or dead cat?” territory. That’s right. I call him “P4ssw0rd”.
So here I am, aged 42, with a whole notebook with ideas for tattoos – and no tattoo. I’d like to think it’s because, as a writer, I have a heightened sensitivity when it comes to words: my standards are far, far higher than those of people who just use words on an amateur basis – hence my admirable delay.
Ultimately, however, I suspect it’s that other aspect of being a writer that’s come into play: of not writing anything until 10 minutes before deadline. Which, in this case, is, obviously, literally dying.