My Shitty Kanji Tattoo and Growing Older Better

When I’d just turned 17, I was working third shifts at my local Steak ‘n’ Shake, which is still to this day probably the best-paying job I’ve ever had, which is sad, but fine, because everything was magical in the 90s. All my friends at the restaurant were older than me, and they all had piercings and tattoos, and I was dying to get a tattoo, just dreaming of exactly the right one that would complete me and wouldn’t hurt at all. In my head, it was the most perfect unifying symbol of who I was and who I would be, because I was sure as fuck never going to stop wearing eye-blinding red lipstick and charcoal eyeliner dialed out into a fuzz a half-inch round my eyeballs, and I definitely wasn’t going to stop cutting my own hair to look like The Cure’s Robert Smith, and wasn’t going to ever–never ever–take off that braided hemp choker wound around a black nylon cord, nope.

And because my older sister is an Irish twin of mine, and had just gotten her new 18-year-old ID, I’d gotten my chance to make all my wildest tattoo dreams come true one night after I’d pulled a third shift followed by a first shift and a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, along with half a bottle of sleeping pills that nulled my ever-present anxiety.

When I got to the tattoo shop, which was conveniently located just above a smoke shop called something like Purple East, my eyes were bloodshot, I was still wearing my shake-base-and-mayonnaise-caked apron from work, and I had an ID proclaiming my legality. The first question they asked me was, “Is this your ID?” I said, “Why, yes, of course,” because I generally answer questions like a character from an 18th-century British novel when I’m really guilty. Then they said, “What’s your sign?” I had no idea what my sister’s zodiac sign was. I’ll credit the Mike’s Hard Lemonade with my blazing thought process on this one, because I said, “I don’t really believe in that stuff, ya know, it’s all just useless symbols that don’t really mean anything.” After a moment of eye-rolling, they relented and finally asked me what I wanted. My reply? “Uh, can I get this kanji symbol on my upper back?”

It was the 90s. I was seriously dating a guy who’d gotten a tattoo of a giant gold chain around his neck with a tattooed amulet featuring Charles Bronson’s face (love ya, Adam!), so a kanji tattoo was relatively tame for my crowd, but it was my entryway into a culture. I got my tattoo, went home, thought about it and smiled every once in a while for about the first year it graced my back, and then…I forgot I had it. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I did. I mean, how often am I looking at my own upper back? Even if I am, my longer hair often conceals it. Anyway, I went on to get another tattoo (this one an accidental Alcoholics Anonymous tattoo, which is a whole other story; thanks Mike’s Hard Lemonade), then another and another, though the older I got, the more pronounced and visible they were–my arms–where I could see them. I’ve got some on my arms that I love. They’re all wolves and birds, and if you know me, you know why that’s a good thing. But the one tattoo that arguably means the most to me is the one I never see and often forget I have.

When I was a teenager, I went through deep depressions followed by too-high highs. Manic episodes ruled my life, and the choices I made were extremely questionable, which is why I never should have kicked that cop in Detroit and why I’m definitely glad I lied to my first serious ex-boyfriend when I told him I would totally come pick him up from prison on his release date. My first semester of college, I was still working third shift to put myself through school, foolishly thinking I would go back to my dorm room and pass out for a couple of hours before class instead of going home, turning on a succession of History Channel Nazi documentaries and writing long essays about the theory of time in the notebook I often used for ripping out pages to roll up resin ball joints. School wasn’t easy for me. Life wasn’t easy for me. Relationships were the worst. My most vivid memory of years 16–20 is a melded image of me standing in the shower, crying, too drunk to cut my arms properly.

In the years that followed, however, somewhere around my three-year mark of wearing flair and waiting tables at the TGI Friday’s, I changed. I’m not even sure where it came from, but like most things in my life, it wasn’t some huge turning point necessarily, but a realization that had been cooking for a long time that I didn’t want to be the “punk rock waitress” at the TGI Friday’s. In actuality, the two pieces of media that most affected my life at that time were Jesus’ Son and Office Space. For so many years, I’d been living as though there were no future. I’d been living like a shitty Mini commercial, burning myself out because I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be here for that long, thinking and doing like the regular folk. But after your 400th birthday song request and too many Jack Daniels Ribs orders, you begin to realize that you may have many more lives to live, and you can only hope they will be better than the first.

I’m turning 32 this month. It’s not a nice, round number like 30 or 40, but it’s something that makes me think differently about the next phase. Earlier today, I walked down to the Hollywood Von’s to pick up some fixings to make vegan sour cream, and in the winter heatwave, I’d decided to wear my hair up with an off-the-shoulder t-shirt. I stopped at a light, waiting for the walk sign to turn, humming that terrible “Call Me Maybe” song in my head, when I turned my head and saw a car with two hip, young guys staring at me. Well, not me, but my upper back, where my kanji tattoo peacefully lies. They giggled and pointed and drove on, and for a second I thought about turning back, going home, putting on a different shirt, or putting my hair down, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked on, shoulders back, crossing Santa Monica Boulevard, where far crazier people than I traverse. I was, however, truly embarrassed. And I’m OK with that.

I don’t seek to erase my past or pretend I was one of those people who had it all figured out from an early age. I still don’t have it figured out, even though I’m doing pretty well for myself right now. When the chance came for a tattoo artist friend of mine to cover up my kanji tattoo for free, I actually turned it down. Maybe it’s some sort of Catholic self-punishment thing ingrained into my feminine brain, but maybe it’s just me trying to remember. I think a lot about flaws and scars and the tree rings that mark the dead or dying years just as brightly as they mark the ones of good rain and soil. This tattoo I have is a tiny punchline to a million jokes, but I’m keeping it, because that was a dead and dying time, and I’m still alive.

Incidentally, the character is supposed to mean “pearls.” There are only a handful of people who call me by my old childhood nickname Pearly, but when my mom inevitably mails out her homemade birthday card to my home in Los Angeles later this month, I absolutely know it’ll say what it always does: “Dear Pearly, Happy birthday. Love, Mom.” And I’ll remember I have this shitty tattoo, and it’ll be pretty great.

Wrinkles on my face; kanji on my back. Like the fucking Scarlet Letter.

Wrinkles on my face; kanji on my back. Like the fucking Scarlet Letter.

4 responses to “My Shitty Kanji Tattoo and Growing Older Better

  1. You are such a great storyteller; this one made me think about my own tattoos…I, too, have a shitty kanji, and it’s faded and slightly stretched (kids – don’t get tattoos right above your bikini line if you ever plan on being a woman in her 30s…), but when I look at it, it totally reminds me of a certain time in my life and the people I was with and the things that mattered. Same goes for all of them – some are better than others aesthetically, but I wouldn’t get rid of a single one.

  2. Thank you for this, April. Your revelations are so profoundly comforting to me. There are lines here that I’m sure I will think of and be guided by often, like one from an earlier stoey–’too light.’. Thank you.

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