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Like most responsible procreators, my parents imbued me with a lot of important skills and values when I was a kid.

They included:

  1. Work hard, and you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
  2. Toys “R” Us is a store for spoiled, rich kids.
  3. Tattoos are trashy.

For the most part, I took these life lessons to heart. I didn’t set foot in a Toys “R” Us until I was nearly 35, and even then it was only because they were going out of business. Take THAT, rich kids!

And when it came to tattoos, I was so on board that when I got temporary tattoos in a goodie bag from a birthday party, I’d throw them away before I got home because I didn’t want my parents to see them and forbid me from hanging out with my trashy, corrupting friend.

Clearly, nothing says low moral standards like a stick-on Ninja Turtles tattoo.

But as I got older, my family’s no tattoo agenda became increasingly difficult to reconcile.

I became enamored with punk rock, the creators of which were often covered in ink. It was very Shakespearian—my only love, sprung from my many hates.

As my friends turned 18, they began emulating our punk rock heroes by getting tattoos of their own. My friend Wayne got a tattoo of the Philly skyline above his heart that looked just like one Tom Delonge from Blink 182 had. The first time Wayne showed it to me, I felt both envy and horror. Oh no, I thought. One of my best friends is trash.

Not all of them were jealousy-inducing, though. My friend Tony bragged for years about how when he turned 18, he was going to get a “badass demon” on his back. When the day came, the result was a gray and black smear that looked more like a gargoyle from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“What do you think?” Tony asked when he got out of the tattoo chair. “Totally badass, right?”

“Totally badass, Tony,” we agreed, secretly annoyed that since it was on his back, WE were the ones who’d have to look at this monstrosity.

As the pressure mounted for me to join the ink club, I needed to find some way to justify my abstinence.

Because when you’re 20 years old and your friend needles you to join him at the tattoo parlor and “just get something small,” the last thing you want to say is, “Sorry, my parents won’t let me.”

I began telling people the reason I didn’t want a tattoo was because I didn’t like the permanence of it, which wasn’t a lie. I felt like if I was going to brand my body with something for the rest of my life, I wanted it to mean something. And in my twenties, I couldn’t fathom caring about something enough to wear it forever.

So I took comfort in this kind of anti-trend, superiority complex. It’s cool if you get a tattoo just like everyone else—I don’t need to because I’m better than you.

This mindset carried me all the way into my thirties, when I was presented with my greatest moral dilemma.

I fell in love with this girl. She was perfect in every way except for one: she had THREE tattoos. And like, how do you walk around all day thinking you’re better than your future wife?

Fortunately by this point in my life, I was good enough at moral gymnastics to twist my way through.

I sat Melinda down and explained that while I thought tattoos were ugly and trashy, I wasn’t mad or judgmental about the ones she had.

“That’s good,” she said.

“Right,” I said. “Your tattoos are just mistakes from a past life, and I know you’ve grown SO much since then. They don’t represent who you are NOW, so it’s okay.”

I get it. I also want to punch myself in the face.

To her credit, Melinda took it in stride. She said she understood this no tattoo thing was important to me, and she agreed she wouldn’t get any more, even if she wanted to. So for the next few years, I played my part, looking the other way when one of the three symbols of her trashy past entered my eye line.

My little matchstick house of morality came crumbling down one summer afternoon when I got a text from my dad.

Check it out! it read. The next message that came in was a photo of my dad’s upper arm, covered in a blue and gold military crest—a tattoo of the outfit he’d served with in the Navy. I’ve always wanted one, and I figured why not? he wrote.

I wasn’t crushed or angry. It was more confusion, like waking up one day and the sky is green instead of blue.

What do you think? he texted.

What do I think? I think my life is a fucking lie, Dad. What else have you been hiding from me? Is Toys “R” Us actually not just for rich kids? Could I have shopped there this whole time?

Needless to say, I relaxed my stance on tattoos pretty quickly. I told Melinda I’d been a controlling asshole, and that if she wanted to get more tattoos, she didn’t need my fucking permission.

“Do YOU want one?” she asked.

I said I really didn’t, leaning on my old line that I didn’t care enough about anything to permanently ink it into my skin. But the seed was planted, and not long after, when Melinda and I were on vacation, it sprouted.

“What do you want to do today?” she asked.

“I want to make a tattoo appointment,” I said.

“You DO?”

“Sure. Fuck it.”

“What do you want to get?”

For all of my thoughts to the contrary, there WAS one thing that meant the world to me, something I would never stop loving.

I pointed to my inner bicep. “One word here,” I said. “Write.

I spent the morning of the appointment pacing the hotel room. Part of it was the fear of the unknown, but the other part was that I have this tendency to invest a stupid amount of emotional energy into new experiences. It’s like, I’ll try a new flavor of Doritos and start blubbering like an idiot.

It was a 10-minute drive to the shop, and my heart jackhammered against my ribs the whole time. On the exit ramp, I leaned over and puked into a Dunkin Donuts bag.

My artist was a short, olive-skinned girl named Cherry Rose. I started to ask if that was a family name, but I got distracted by the tattoo on the back of her hand, a cartoon of two My Little Pony characters 69ing.

Cherry led me to the chair and propped my arm on a little stand—how cute, an ottoman for arms, I thought—and without a word, started her machine.

I felt the warmth of the gun, the needle like a safety pin dragging across my skin.

“Are you okay?” Cherry asked 30 seconds in.

“I’m great,” I replied.

“Okay, you’re just not breathing.”

Right. Breathing. Apparently a thing I have to remind my body to do in times of stress.

Three Imagine Dragons songs later—apparently Cherry Rose’s preferred tattooing soundtrack—the buzzing stopped. She wiped my arm. “There you go,” she said.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

I checked it in the mirror and nodded that it was great, but even if it wasn’t, what was she going to do, erase it and try again?

I collected my goodie bag of aftercare lotions and soaps, disappointed to find there were no Ninja Turtle tattoos. Because I mean, if there was one occasion for me to keep them, this would’ve been it.

I was so full of adrenaline that on the way out the door, I gave the next guy in line a double thumbs up like I was the fucking Fonz.

Recently, I was on a Zoom call with a client, and I stretched my arms above my head in a way that exposed my tattoo.

“Not to distract,” she said, “but could you tell me more about your tattoo?”

I listened to myself construct this narrative about how years ago I’d made a commitment to write every day, and instead of writing it on my to do list every day, I decided to just tattoo it on my arm. It was utter bullshit, because I’d never thought about any of that stuff at the time I got it. All I’d been thinking about was my parents, and how forbidden the idea of getting a tattoo had been for so long.

The late writer Joan Didion has this great quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And over the course of my life, it’s absolutely been true. In this situation it’s about tattoos, but it could be about a number of things I supposedly feel. Why do we feel the things we do? Do we really have solid opinions about anything?

I know why my parents said what they said all those years ago. They were doing their best to mold me into a good person, giving me this list of rules for the game of life. But what that list can’t ever account for is the 90 percent of life that’s lived in the gray.

I know that in raising my own son, I’ll make those same mistakes with the best of intentions, and it’s my hope that eventually, he’ll understand why I did what I did.

And I think I’m okay if he grows up and wants a tattoo.

But I swear to Christ, if he comes home with a badass demon on his back, I’m going to be pissed.

Sam Hedenberg

Sam Hedenberg is a humor blogger living in Northern Virginia. When he grows up, he wants to be a writer or quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

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