The year was 1999. I got my first tattoo only a few days after I turned 18. Bee took me to Spokane for the big event. I wanted Celtic thorns and fire in an intricate knot pattern. The apprentice tattoo artist at Lady Luck Tattoo, which burned to the ground a few years later, told me the design would have to be massive to be detailed and told me to find a simpler equivalent from the examples on the board. As I looked at all the designs, I was drawn toward a tribal fire design. While it did not contain the intricacy of my original plan, it did represent the fire and independence I felt the tattoo would symbolize. For the next hour, it felt like a pocketknife being carved into my lower back. By the time it was completed, my body was in shock. The tattoo was $80 and I gave him $100, expecting him to keep the $20 tip. I was so confused when he gave me the $20 back that I dumbly took it, not understanding that I needed to insist it was his tip money. I felt bad for years that I didn’t give him a tip for his work. Bee took me back to his place and helped me wash my tattoo, soaking the back of my jeans in the process, and put Lubriderm lotion on the raised skin. Back then, Lubriderm was the go-to healing action for tattoo care at the time.
The next day, I prepared to tell my mother. Although I was 18, I still had a Spanish class trip, Senior Prom, and a rafting trip with Bee that my parents could cancel. As I sat in my bathrobe, thinking about the poor timing of my rebellious body art project, I felt nauseous. When I approached my mother, I must have been extremely pale, telling her I needed to speak with her, because she immediately sat down with me.
She started asking if I was pregnant. No! No, I’m definitely not pregnant.
Did I sneak off and get secretly married? Uh, no. Never even thought of that one.
Was I still going to college? Was I still going to graduate high school? Yes and yes.
By the time I got her to stop assuming the worst and hear I had only gotten a tattoo, she exclaimed, “Thank God! I’m so glad you’re not pregnant.” My mother then compared me to a new car on which I had just placed a bumper sticker.
Her next line was, “Well, let’s go show your father.” He was sleeping after a swing shift at the mine.
Upon being woken up and told what I had done, he cracked one bleary eye at the tattoo across my lower back and asked, “It’s the size of a battleship. Why didn’t you put it on your chest?” He then went back to sleep. That’s my dad, never one to pass up the opportunity for dry humor.
While the tattoo is on my lower back, the term “tramp stamp” wasn’t popular until 2003. Urban Dictionary says that my generation will be calling it the “glamp stamp” by 2050. I can live with that.
I did not get my next tattoo until my 2nd year of college in Butte Montana. I was lost in a party-girl world without Bee, making decisions that would not end in a college degree. By the time I finally pulled out of my self-destructive spiral, I had lost my college scholarship and did not have any real direction for my life. I had begun attending a local church and felt hope again for the future. To help remind myself that I was not lost in the chaos and depression that had been such a struggle, I had a Christian fish symbol tattooed on my right hip. That fish was a reminder, and sometimes a guilt inducing symbol, of the difference between the positive and negative choices in my life. The last positive choice I made in college was the decision to leave and join the Army Engineers.
My next tattoo was motivated by my first deployment. While mobilizing out of Fort Lewis, Washington, much of our training was focused on how to evade and survive capture in Iraq. In both fear and determination, I went to a small tattoo shop just outside of the base. I had the word “faith” added to my Christian fish so that my religion was literally tattooed on my body. My young Soldier reasoning was as such; If I am captured and tortured, I may denounce my very existence because the body is weak. If it is tattooed on my body, my faith cannot be ignored. Like a talisman of protection, my faith fish would be on me at all times. Neither war nor religion always make sense. I am reminded of mentally preparing as a warrior for that first deployment every time I see this tattoo.
In 2014, my specialized Army Engineer Detachment was deactivated. I had such pride in all we had accomplished, and it was like losing a family. While I had thought about a tattoo to commemorate the unit, it was not until the Army announced a ban on tattoos that I felt motivated to get it done before the ban took effect.
A friend with a beautiful back tattoo introduced me to Charissa Vanderbroad, who worked out of a clinical home studio. Charissa has since joked with me about people who force her to tattoo bad art on their skin and that is exactly what I did. I use the word “bad” lovingly here because I combined an Army Engineer castle with the grim reaper (our mascot for my deactivated unit) into a sizable calf tattoo. Unless you know the meaning of each, I’m sure it looks like a mistake. My pride in both the Army Engineers and my family of the 748th makes it beautiful to me. If tattoos were about what others thought, we’d all look like billboards.
As I grew older, I expanded both experiences and views. As a military leader, I learned that often the hardest workers are also the most fragile. These treasured people cannot be abused or taken for granted. I was reminded of the bumblebee, working to keep the world’s population fed by pollination, yet still slapped and feared by many. I found a design on an old flour sack and asked Charissa to design The Humble Bee tattoo. The wreath incorporated pansies for my Grandma Trumbull and a fuzzy bumblebee in the center. You could even say that it expresses my love of Bee himself. Love you, hunny. Because it is on my back, it is easy to forget that I have a large back tattoo. Like the overlooked bee, I only admire it when I happen to notice the beauty hiding back there.
The mermaid added to my calf is surrounded by soft waves and the phrase, “She who is brave is free.” She holds a paintbrush and colors the seahorse in front of her. This playful piece, also designed by Charissa, took several 4 to 6-hour sessions. I love that her tail flips as I run adding to the mermaid magic. Upon my return from my last deployment, we added a giant red octopus surrounded by raging waves, to tie the mermaid piece and engineer castle together around my calf. Although each part is vastly different, representing a different part of my life, they are all tied together. That’s life, unplanned, barely connected sometimes, and never how we pictured it to be.
Not every tattoo has a deeper meaning, but the link to that time and place in your life’s journey does.
My mother once asked me what I think I’ll look like as a wrinkled, old lady with these tattoos. “A badass, old lady,” is my firm reply.
Whether your journey is written in permanent or invisible ink, safe travels, my friends.