People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons. Some use body art to memorialize important people and events in their lives. Some want to share aspects of themselves with others without having to say a word. Others view their bodies as blank canvases to paint and decorate with designs, pictures, and words that appeal to them. This is the story of why I got my tattoo.
Back in the nineties, I belonged to a writer’s club along with my good friend, TQ. Although we named the club the Heineken Writer’s Club after our favorite adult beverage, we were serious about our craft and held each other accountable, giving brutally honest critiques on our pieces. We attended writer’s workshops and classes throughout Manhattan, and challenged each other to sit down to write every day. With that kind of drive and commitment, we knew it would be just a matter of time before we left the corporate world to write full time. We often dreamt about how freeing and exhilarating that day would be. It was always about when and never if that day would come.
One day, I commented on the striking tattoos on a coworker’s sleeve and she told me that they were all her designs brought to life by Andrea E., a talented tattoo artist in Alphabet City. Coincidentally, the subject of tattoos came up in the writer’s club several months later. We decided right then that we would get author-themed tattoos to serve as both inspiration and reminder. I recall saying at the time that I didn’t want to be an old man who when his grandkids ask about the tattoo, would have to tell them that he used to dream about becoming an author. He would have to try to explain to them how he let that dream slip away so easily, while still encouraging them to always hold on to their own dreams. No, I wanted it to be crystal clear why I would have a writer’s tattoo.
I decided that it would be a combination of a scorpion, my sign, and a fountain pen representing my dedication to writing. I imagined the scorpion’s tail morphing into a fountain pen, with one drop of red ink to signify sacrifice. TQ chose the ancient Egyptian ankh symbol with the tip forming into a fountain pen, and we met with Andrea to discuss the designs and schedule appointments to have them done. She was extremely popular and booked out six months in advance, so you know we really wanted those tattoos to wait like that.
When tattoo day finally came, Andrea showed me a drawing she’d mocked up. I made a couple small tweaks and she did her thing. Two hours later, I left fired up and motivated by my new ink. I felt like a writing superhero, churning out pages and pages of the good stuff. I was not going to be that old man. Still, I never took that next step to totally commit to writing as a career, and instead continued to treat it like a hobby. Over the years, my role and responsibilities at work grew, and so did the amount of time I spent working. Twelve-hour days weren’t unusual. I also had a young family that moved 3000 miles away from their family and friends for my job. So when I wasn’t working, there was no shortage of family activities and obligations. Something had to give and that something was the time I spent writing.
At first, I often heard a nagging voice reminding me that I hadn’t written in a long time, and urging me to get back to work. As time passed, I heard from that voice less and less, until it stopped altogether. I earned a great salary leading a team of awesome people, many of whom I considered friends. We set challenging goals that we worked hard to achieve, and it checked a lot of boxes for me professionally. Sure, I wasn’t writing creatively, but I was churning out some amazing and riveting emails and memos to staff. At some point, I started to believe that striving for that next promotion and growing my 401k until I was able to retire would be enough for me. I allowed myself to forget how vital writing was for my soul. Perhaps it was a way of giving myself grace.
Time flew by. Five years became ten, and then twenty, and thirty. My title, salary, and 401K grew. I was executing Plan B perfectly. I told myself that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and to hold on for a few more years. If my younger self heard me talking and thinking that way, trying to hold on until retirement, he would have grabbed me and shook me until I came to my senses. And in a way that is exactly what happened.
One morning, in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, with nonessential businesses shut down and everyone under some kind of lockdown, I remember stepping out of the shower and walking by the large bathroom mirror. During lockdown, while working from home near a fridge filled with my favorite things, I put on more than a few pounds and developed the habit of not looking too closely at the mirror until I had a shirt on. But it was different that day.
As I walked past the mirror, I caught a glimpse of my tattoo. It struck me that I hadn’t really looked at it in years. I stopped and walked towards the mirror to get a closer look. As I stared at my left arm, I thought about that kid who got the tattoo that day. I remembered why I chose the fountain pen, and although the one drop of red ink had faded over the years, the memory of what it represented was as vivid as ever. I stared at that tattoo in the mirror for more than a few minutes. In a way, I was having a conversation with my younger self, who couldn’t understand how I convinced myself that I could ever be truly happy and fulfilled without writing in my life. My younger self couldn’t believe that my new career goal was toiling until I was old enough to retire.
Life has a way of helping us to forget our dreams. It allows us to be okay with being less great or less special than we set out to be. Maybe it’s out of kindness, so we don’t bound ourselves to regret. My tattoo reminded me of a time when I still dreamt, and it inspired me to dream again. I am thankful for that because it is never too late to dream. If you come across this post and ever find yourself in the same boat, try your hardest to remember the version of you that still dreamt, and what you dreamt about… and dream again.