Getting a tattoo to celebrate life events - Good idea or not?

Disclaimer: Before I get down to my views on this topic, I have to say this first: while getting a tattoo for many is a rite of passage, it is not for everyone – especially not for all cancer survivors. Frankly, getting a tattoo can be downright dangerous if one is just coming out of treatment, not to mention it’s a bad idea getting one during treatment. Always, always, consult your medical oncologist before making any decisions if you are considering getting a tattoo. Even if you already have some. Always!

Butterfly on shoulder blade

Getting a tattoo to celebrate significant life events might not be for everyone, but it is for me. If you are considering getting a tattoo for the first time, here’s my take on the experience and, hopefully, some “sage” advice for you to consider before you expose that favorite body part to the artist’s needle.

I have no artistic skills – I can just about draw a straight line. I blame my parents. My mother was a wonderful artist – not even a tiny bit of creativity passed on to me. My father was a talented engineer – I got the ability to draw that straight line the honest way, but that’s it.

So, it’s a wonder that I have had a long and obsessive love of tattoos for as far back as I can remember.  I can spend hours happily trawling through pictures of tattooed bodies, and I am filled with a respectable envy when I examine the lines and intricate designs that truly reflect an artist’s creativity and style – not to mention awe at the person getting inked sustaining some significant pain.

This obsession of mine was guaranteed to result in me getting one – or a few – someday. I was so determined to do it; I never wanted to regret it. It had to mean something before I marked my body for life and I took my time making the decision. Being obsessive about lists and organization, I compiled a trusty list of pros and cons to help me along the way.

I started this ever-evolving list a few years ago and updated it as my circumstances changed. As each year passed, I committed only to getting a tattoo when the pros outweighed the cons. In 2010, that list adopted a very big con – chemotherapy. That crappy treatment, while it saved my life, put a damper on a whole lot of shit that I really liked doing.

Dealing with that had to be a priority. And when it was no longer the priority, the pros finally won!

The list: health, cost, regret, and significance. Yes, this short list took a number of years to see me finally lying on the tattooist’s table.

Health: As someone who had gone through a series of medical treatments that compromised my immune system, I had to wait until I was sure I was at a lower risk of getting an infection. I researched the heck out of tattooists to make sure that I was going somewhere that prized hygiene as part of their standard business.  And then I watched close to twenty different videos about tattoo aftercare, and learned more about the signs of infection to look out for. I bought multiple aftercare products and used the ones my artist told me would work best. I knew I couldn’t remove the risk of infection, but I could minimize it by taking care and keeping the tattoo clean. I had also chosen locations on my body that I could comfortably look after each tattoo without needing help.

Cost: Expense was a consideration, but I made sure I could pay for each tat without going into debt (very important – if you really want to get a sense of accomplishment, don’t spend credit on a tattoo – it feels so much more real and empowering to pay for it outright).

Regret: Before I made the first appointment, I thought about how long I had planned for this. I was fairly sure that I was not going to regret the tattoo. But what if I did? What if the artist I used was not as experienced as I expected, and didn’t do a great job? Was I was prepared to go through it all, and then consider removal or a cover-up? Or, could I live with a tattoo I hated?

On my trusty list the regret factor weighed heavily on the con side for a number of years.  It was important to me that my ink had real meaning – so much meaning that it would never bring on any feelings of sadness or anger at my own decision. So, when I finally had true significance for each tattoo figured out, and where regret couldn’t possibly enter the equation, then that is when it shifted to the pro side.

Significance: Each of my tattoos directly relates to my late mother. My mom was my universe. I wasn’t always the best daughter, but she was always the best mom.

So, my tribute to her is to have a reminder of her on my body that I can see every day. A reminder, if you will, that will bring forth her voice and her laugh because I’m terrified of forgetting them.

On the foot - this location hurts!

The tattoos: The first is a cactus cowboy on my ass. No photo of that, sorry, but people I work with may read this, and they already know far too much about me as it is. The second is a beautiful butterfly on my shoulder blade inspired by Maori tribal art; and, the third is the name “butterfly daughters” on my foot. Each piece represents my mother in all of her forms (even the cactus cowboy): strength, survival, reinvention, and internal beauty of spirit.

Now, I know my mother would have been horrified at the thought of these tattoos on my body. Thankfully, she will never know. But, had she known she would have accepted my choice. She would have known that they stand for what she and I both fought for, and what I strive to make my life’s mission: to spread the message that the price of survival is often very high, but that everyone can brave their worst demons and still make a difference in this world.

So, if you decide to get a tattoo, or two, or three or more, go well and enjoy the hell out of it. You only live once and if you are a survivor, you will know that better than most.