I made the decision to get a tattoo at the age of 20 and got one, 10 days later, at the age of 21. 3 days after my birthday, a permanent gift to myself. I was living in Wellington, studying law and serving coffee and walking everywhere. I had perfect hair and a cheap wardrobe and a face full of foundation the wrong colour. I had a Sri Lankan boyfriend and a bookshelf full of old Sweet Valley High books.
When I booked the tattoo, a tall bald man with flames licked up both his forearms asked me what I wanted. I pointed to the small bronze bird I wore on my lapel always, a tessellated Escher design of a bird in flight. I unpinned it so he could photocopy it, and create an ink outline to needle into the skin of my left wrist.
I turned 21 and came back, so nervous I couldn’t eat. My friend Ally came with me, who’d always talked about getting a tattoo but came with me anyway when I jumped ahead and demanded mine first.
I’m not great with pain. I can tolerate it, but it makes me ill. I’m an easy fainter, giving into the black spots easily. She distracted me by holding my right hand as the same tall bald man transferred a temporary tattoo of what would be my permanent tattoo onto my skin. It faced the wrong way, the opposite to my bird, because it had been photocopied and mirrored, but I didn’t say anything.
“You have to relax”.
My left hand was clenched in a fist as if I was ready to fight, when in fact I was bordering on flight. The tendons stood out hard against my white skin.
“I can’t tattoo you like this”.
Ally grabbed my attention like she can grab anyone’s attention, with wide eyes and an animated face like a cartoon, like some artist has carefully drawn out each expression her face can make. “Tell me something”, she said, as he took the needle to me for the first time and I felt that first pain of permanency.
I told her about getting a text from Family Planning, where I’d been a few weeks before to get a standard STD test done. They do them once a year until you’re 21 and then they stop, making it your responsibility to fear, and deal with, the possibility of disease. That’s when they stop paying for your birth control too, figuring, I suppose, that making a baby at the age of 21 is acceptable, or even a good idea.
“I got my test results back,” I said, “and they just read “Your test results were OK”.
I stopped and looked at her. “I do not have an “OK” vagina! I have a great vagina! My vagina is better than a C grade vagina”.
The pain stopped.
“You’re going to have to talk about something else,” said my bald tattooer. “I can’t concentrate while you’re talking about that”.
Ally filled the rest of the gaps in the conversation. Five minutes and it was over, and I inspected his work while bald man looked on, and I wondered about the hours and hours that had gone into catching his arms on fire. He moisturized it and wrapped it.
“It’ll itch. Don’t pick it”.
We left and ate pizza and drank wine. Later, I participated in a legal debate as part of the requirement for my law course, clad in a black skirt and a white blouse with greasy cling-film sliding around my wrist.
Byron, my little bird, is six years old now. Most people get tattoos as mementoes or rebellions or reminders or art. Byron was never intended as any of those things, but he does remind me of Ally, with her wide eyes; and of flames that don’t burn. He reminds me of a girl in Wellington with a bird pinned to her breast. And he reminds me of my own A+ vagina.