My daughter Molly's ankle tattoo.  (pictures by Marylin Warner)

My daughter Molly’s ankle tattoo. (picture by Marylin Warner)

Their house and former yard of trees after the tornado of 2008.

Their house and former yard filled with trees ~ after the tornado of 2008. Click on picture to see details.

Dear Mom,

You always understood that there’s something inside us that needs to write our words and create our art. After you wrote your children’s stories, even if they were just going to be filed away in a drawer, you also drew or painted illustrations. And sometimes you added music as well, singing songs and humming melodies as you typed the stories and created watercolor pictures.

Author Sylvia Plath wrote, “Wear your heart on your skin in this life,” but one thing you were never tempted to do was get a tattoo.  The only question I ever heard you ask of someone wearing a tattoo was when you smiled at a young man with a multi-colored dragon tattoo and said, “Did it hurt?” He returned the smile and said, “Yeah, kinda, but it was worth it.”

As a writer, I have many favorite words and quotes, but there’s never been a phrase or a symbol I wanted to wear permanently.  I am, however, fascinated by those who do.  In the spirit of last week’s post—asking WHY?—I admit I want to know both the What and the Why of tattoo choices.

One of my favorites is actress Susan Sarandon’s AND AND tattoo.  It means A New Dawn A New Day, and the way I heard her explain it in an interview, it’s a reminder that whatever happens, tomorrow is a new day and a fresh beginning.

Many athletes wear art and numerous messages and symbols. People of all careers and ages whose professions discourage tattoos, wear them on places they cover with professional attire.  Before the dementia, you would smile pleasantly when you saw a heavily tattooed person, but later you’d shake your head and ask  me, “Do you understand why they do that?”

Actually, Mom, in some cases I do.  And if you were free of the dementia and could see your granddaughter’s most recent tattoo, I think you would understand, too.  The WHAT: four hearts—one green, one orange, one pink, one blue—surviving a whirling tornado.  The WHY: the four hearts represent the favorite colors of the four members of their family, symbolizing their love for each other, and gratitude for surviving the devastating tornado that destroyed much of their little town in 2008.

Yes, Mom, I think you would understand the permanent art your granddaughter wears on her ankle. You’d probably want to know if it hurt to get tattooed, but you’d be grateful that her family survived the tornado, and you’d celebrate with them.

Author Jack London wrote, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”

I would add to that: “The same is true of a woman.”

I have some very interesting things in my past, Mom, but I don’t think I’ll get any tattoos. And that’s okay.  I’ll write about them instead, so I can edit, correct and delete…without pain.

Faith tattoo upside down for hope

On People's Court, this 'Faith' tattoo was under attack...

On People’s Court, this ‘Faith’ tattoo was under attack… If you turned it upside down, as in the first picture above, it should read ‘Hope’–but the i and t had a problem. Correcting or erasing a tattoo can be long, hard & expensive.



Filed under Chapman KS, Dementia/Alzheimer's, making a difference, special quotations, Things to be thankful for, writing

73 responses to “WEARING YOUR MESSAGE

  1. Hum…I like the reasoning of remembering, of giving permanence to a thought or sign…but I think a pin, watch cover, or necklace…maybe even a sweatshirt logo…. would be enough for me! Some of what I admired at one age changed a decade later.

    • I agree, Claudia. What I would have chosen a decade ago, I would probably be having removed now. But for those who choose tattoos to “wear their art on their skin,” more power to them.

  2. Don

    Wonderful Post Marylin. While I wouldn’t get a tattoo myself I can understand why people have them done. I suppose it has everything to with expressions of trying to make sense of life and of what has value them. I have know doubt that your moment would understand. I loved her response to that young guy – “Did it hurt?” 🙂

  3. I can understand the need to record something as momentous as survival but I would probably be too timid to have a commemorative tattoo. However, the tattoo, or marking of the skin, has a long and honourable tradition in many cultures and can be a rite of passage, an identity, a confirmation of one’s belonging to a certain history. In New Zealand, the moko, which is marking and scarring of the skin, is a treasure and sacred. http://www.newzealand.com/travel/media/features/maori-culture/maori_ta-moko-significance_feature.cfm

  4. Very interesting post. I’ve never contemplated a tattoo. One person I know had his done when he joined up at 16. After he left the military he discovered clients shied away from him even though his work was first rate – it simply didn’t look professional. So he’s having them removed over time and the work is flowing in! Same man, same quality work. But appearances matter, rightly, or more probably, wrongly. The tornado tattoo is a lovely idea that will surely stand the test of time.

    • Like you, I doubt I’ll ever get a tattoo, Andrew, but the tornado on my daughter’s ankle is beautifully done and means so much to her. It was a scary time for their family, and the rebuilding of their home and their town was a long, hard process, but they survived and she’s very proud of the tattoo and everything it represents.

  5. Great post! I was wondering till the end if you will show your tattoo or not 😉
    Keep writing here. I love to read it 🙂

    • 😉 Nope, I don’t have one. How about you?
      My daughter and son-in-law each have several, but they’re very nicely done. They both are in careers where they can’t have their tattoos showing, though, so when they’re at work they keep them covered. My son-in-law is a police officer, so his shirt and Kevlar vest cover all of his tattoos. It’s a whole new world for body art in our lives.

  6. As you might remember, I wrote about tattoos a while back – and I still don’t understand them – but I can understand your daughter’s need to commemorate such an event. I was thinking about how people used to mark occasions and it was simple really – they bought a piece of jewellery. It didn’t have to be extravagant – but it could be engraved. My Mum has a bracelet onto which are attached (quite a few now) discs, engraved with the names and birthdates of all her children, their partners and her grandchildren. We were having a conversation recently about how people don’t wear jewellery like they used to – perhaps tattoos are taking its place. The advantage with the jewellery option is that you can remove it easily!

    • I read that Angelia Jolie is still removing (or ‘fading’ and covering with other tattoos) the ink she had done when she was married to Billy Bob Thornton, and that was several husbands/partners ago. She has many long and complicated tattoos, and the first time I saw a picture of the numbers on her arms I was stunned–it looked like the numbers from a concentration camp. (It turned out to be the longitude and latitude of the birth places of all her adopted children.)
      I also have a friend who had a rose tattoo that started out really pretty, but the older she gets, the more it ‘hangs’ with her skin. She’s thinking about having a rose bud or two added…and maybe a couple of thorns!

  7. Gwen Stephens

    Tattoos have evolved into something chic, and the younger generation wears them well. They’re popular in my family – I’ve got 7 siblings, and I’m the only one who’s not tattoo’d. Great post, as always 🙂

  8. Hi Marylin, This is an interesting post. I am captivated by some tatoos, but others, like when they are all the way down an arm, just make me shake my head in wonder.
    When I was a young adult, I don’t remember anyone, except for bikers!, that sported tatoos….and wild women! Now it is a normal part of life. And quite the habit among young and old.
    xo Joanne

    • Oh, I know what you mean, Joanne.
      When I was 15, I was the first one in my family and extended family to get my ears pierced, and my cousin teased me by calling me Gypsy and Wild Girl. Now almost all the females in my family–including my mother–have pierced ears, and no one notices.

  9. I appreciate how you wove together the apt quotes, the photos, and your family’s story so neatly. But that’s what writer’s do!

    A few years ago my students urged me (ME!) to get a tattoo. I took it that they thought I was cool, well, sort of–ha! But I would never get one unless perhaps I lived in Australia.

    Great post–the reversible (neat pun!) tattoo is the perfect ending.

    • Thank you so much, Marian!
      I’m still smiling that you would never get a tattoo unless perhaps you lived in Australia! I once read a story about an Amish lady (not Mennonite, but you get my drift) who decided she would get a tattoo in support of her brother who’d been in prison and had tattooed numbers across his fingers. But her tattoo would have to be private, she wrote, just between herself and God, and in a private place.
      And then you write that you’d only get one in Australia–such a surprise response from what I was expecting–and I love it! Thanks for this comment.

  10. I can really understand special events like your daughter’s family survival and or recording the birthdate of a child, a marriage or something but I can’t understand full art over face, arms (and torso) etc if people expect to work in the service industries. Maybe it’s wrong but I’d hate to be served by people sporting some of the tattoos I’ve seen though I’m sure they’re nice enough kids.There’s a certain expectation by the public and tattoos can instill fear in the elderly. I’m sure your Mum would have liked your daughter’s tattoo and understood it.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • I’m sure she would have, too, David. If she understood what danger they were in and how they struggled to rebuild after the tornado, I’m sure Mom would be very proud of Molly’s tattoo. When Molly was 4 and my mom was 64, they went to the mall and both got their ears pierced together. It was a grandmother/granddaughter bonding experience, but I can say with limited certainty that although she would appreciate Molly’s tattoos, Mom would not get one, dementia or no dementia.
      Massive hugs to you, too!

  11. Jim

    Well, when something that is ‘repulsive’ to the older generation becomes the norm for the younger generation, it sometimes warrants a euphemism. It seems that tattoos have become ‘body-art’ these days.

  12. Amy

    This is a special tattoo, four hearts… surviving a whirling tornado!

  13. Nancy Parker Brummett

    I’m with you, Marylin. But I’ve often thought if I ever got a tattoo it would be a small hummingbird on my derrier just to amuse the people who care for me when I’m old!! 🙂

    • That would do it, Nancy. Your caregivers would be selling tickets!
      But the hummingbird would be cute…until it starts drooping and looking like a little vampire bat. Now, that would be a crowd pleaser!

  14. juliabarrett

    I love tattoos, not that I have many. I have two and I’m planning my third – yes, permanent memories or ideas or desires. I wear one memory and I wear one philosophic symbol. The tattoos mean a great deal to me. I quite sure if your mother understood she would have a tattoo.

  15. She might, Julia; I’ve learned never to predict what my mom will or will not do, as she’s full of surprises, especially with the dementia.
    So, are you doing to share your tattoo meanings and locations in your blog sometime?

  16. Great post Marylin. Like you I have no tattoos but Ishbel has two. A little devil on her shoulder and a hummingbird across her lower back. The latter took 3 1/2 hours and she says it was painful. My two questions, Why and if you can’t see it yourself, why?

    You get once and I’ll get one ……. LoL xxxxxx

    • You go first, Tom…and I want to see pictures! 😉

      I had a student whose friends took her out on her 18th birthday, and all three girls got the same tattoo of a Chinese symbol for “friends forever.” Later they learned it was just a jumble of artistic lines that really didn’t mean anything. My student said she was afraid it really meant something awful, and it took her three painful, expensive treatments to have it removed. Thanks but no thanks.
      Hugs, Tom!

  17. I’ve got a number of tattoos Marylin, including a couple of big ones. Don’t know if I can explain what the attraction is, but I always wanted one and once you have one, they can be quite addictive…The first ones I got just as I liked the way they looked at the time and I got one of those covered with another fairly recently. Tattoos were still less mainstream when I had my first done, but now, they’re much more ordinary so I think it will be interesting to see how the old prejudices against tattooed people change as time goes on.

    • I think you’re very right, Andrea. My son-in-law has a big hour glass on the back of one shoulder, with his daughter’s name, date and time of birth. On the back of the other shoulder he has a big multi-color lion’s head (to symbolize astrological Leo) and his son’s name, date and time of birth. And around his upper arm he has his wife’s name artistically tattooed. These are my daughter and grandchildren, and he’s proud of them, so I’m not complaining. Molly has a large Irish 4-leaf clover in the center of her back with each of their names in one leaf of the clover (her husband is Irish). Each generation has its own way of expressing what’s important to them.

  18. Hi Marylin, I’ve never really understood the tattoo craze, which seems to be growing with the younger generation. I fainted when I got my ears pierced, so this girl has no hidden artwork on her body. 🙂 Reading about your daughter’s tattoo, I can understand her motivation. What I don’t care for is when I see a lovely young woman or man, completely covered in tattoos…that, I don’t understand, but it’s their body I suppose.

    • I’m not crazy about needles, either, but getting my ears pierced wasn’t a problem, Jill. Our dentist was our neighbor and also my friend’s dad, and he used the same type of needle to deaden my ears and pierce them that he would use before doing dental work. After that, I wasn’t afraid of getting a filling in my teeth, and my ears were pierced!

  19. aliveatnight

    Not a huge fan of them personally, I just don’t see a reason for them. But if someone wants one than more power to them. I can easily see motivation for it…but I’ll never get one myself.

  20. To each his own is a good philosophy, especially when it comes to tattoos, I think. And like you, I can see the motivation, but I won’t be getting one, either.

  21. Hudson Howl

    I know it is more my way of thinking, but I do believe many of us have a tattoo. Ours may not be the indelible inked kind, instead we wear our distinctiveness, display our uniqueness or shout aloud our beliefs by being in someway or form -creative. The tat of the writer or poet or painter or philosopher or musician -it all comes down to making a statement. ‘Things I Want To Tell My Mother’ is your tattoo. Children stories in a drawer, has all the colour and lyrical lines. Seems your daughters tattoo is a tradition, ink runs in the family.

    • Thank you for so beautifully expressing that! Yes, ink does run in our family…just different kinds of ink.
      A friend once said that the scars on her body–the C-section that delivered her twins alive in an emergency; the mastectomy scar that reminded her she was a survivor–these were the ‘tattoos’ she was proud to wear.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      • Hudson Howl

        Your friend is wise, those scars if seen as triumphant and empowering is favourable over the stigma and emotional scarring. It goes to -it is the person and being that is important not the condition.

  22. I’ve seen some beautiful tattoos. A co-worker has John Lennon’s Imagine quote: “You may say I’m a dreamer …” written in rainbow colors.

    Many are really cool, but I’m not tempted to get one. I do love your explanations and examples.

  23. Wow! Your coworker’s tattoo sounds impressive. I saw a tattoo of Lennon-type eyeglasses, and below it the message: “I still see your vision, John!”
    It was on the arm of an older woman and very nicely done.
    I’m like you, Judy; I’m not tempted to get a tattoo. I have enough scars to speak for me, and I’m not a huge fan of volunteering for needles!

  24. My two daughters and I each have one tattoo that can be easily covered up with clothing. If I remember correctly, my oldest daughter was the first to get hers… a small group of jasmine flowers on her back.
    I got my tattoo in celebration of finally graduating from college at the age of 38. My tattoo is a small, orange daylily bloom (like the orange daylilies that grow wild along the country roads in Missouri). Each daylily bloom typically only lasts one day, but there are so many blooms that not many people realize how short lived they really are. Anyway, my tattoo means something very important to me… like the tornado on your daughter’s ankle means something very important to her.
    I’m not addicted though, and I doubt that I’ll ever get any more tattoos.

    • Theresa, the daylily bloom is a perfect choice to celebrate your college graduation at 38. Congratulations! Daylilies are short lived, but they’re wonderful, a perfect example of pure beauty in nature.
      My mom had several types of lilies growing throughout the yard while I was growing up. My favorite was the Tiger Lily, the deep orange with dark specks. I was the only red head in our family then, and my mom said the Tiger Lily was like me, the hair and freckles, and was one of her favorites, too. Now she also has a red haired granddaughter, grand-son-in-law, and two great-grandchildren! She doesn’t realize it, but her Tiger Lily tradition has continued.
      Have you ever thought of photographing your daughters’ tattoos? The small group of jasmine flowers sounds beautiful!

      • My oldest daughter, Jasmine, showed me photos of her tattoos a while back. I think that she took them herself, as she’s a photographer.

        Love the Tiger Lily tradition! We have a few red heads in our family too. When I was younger, my hair would turn red when I was out in the summer sun. Unfortunately, my hair is turning gray now.

  25. Molly

    Mom, I loved reading your post…and all the comments from your friends. As you know, I do have a total of 4 tattoos…the tornado that you shared, on the opposite ankle a chinese symbol that means “strength to strive,” the big shamrock with my family members’ names and then my giraffee. Each one symbolizes a difficult – perhaps even a potentially devastating even in my life that I came through…and came through better and stronger. These tattoos, as much as they may have hurt, didn’t hurt nearly as much as the events that prompted them! I love wearing the reminder on my body, so that I can always remember, in an artistic way, the event and how I overcame it. The only down side of my “ART” is that it does change with my body, so after two, hard, back-to-back pregnancies my poor giraffee looks a little more like a donkey!! But, that is ok, it is all part of the story!

    • Your tattoos do have very important life messages, Mookie, but the poor giraffe really is losing its shape. Ah, another joy of motherhood, but look what you got instead!
      The meanings of your tattoos are your stories, and at some point you might write those stories. But until then, we’ll just enjoy them for their art!

  26. Talking of tattoos: just heard this being thread out on the radio and looked it up ….

    • Amazing, Tom! Some of it was funny, some poignant, but all very true. I’m still laughing at the woman who had a tattoo for a lover who later she hated, and she’d had the tattoo in a private, painful place. When the writer asked her where that was, she said, “Liverpool.” 😉
      Thanks for the link, Tom.

  27. Marylin, Molly was brave in getting tattoos.

    • I think so, too, Tracy.
      And she was even braver going through–and surviving and triumphing over–the things that symbolized in the tattoos.
      If the fog of my mother’s dementia, she’d also be very proud of her granddaughter.

  28. Marylin, I haven’t visited your blog in while and I know I missed some great posts. I plan on catching up with my reading.
    Yes, your mom would understand why her granddaughter chose the body art.
    When I was about 17, I wanted a tattoo, but it was a fleeting thought. 🙂
    Have a good balance of the week~

  29. Surprising subject and loving it! Your writing style is very entertaining Marylin. Although not so in favor of getting needles and ink stung into my body I do find tattoos have evolved artistically well over time. And this, in some cases is an understatement. I particularly like the traditional tattooing of the ‘Maori’ people of New Zealand, with lots of curves and swirls. In this case a reflection of their cultural identity and heritage. In much the same way, I see tattoos as ways of self-expression and validation of one’s values & beliefs..so yes, why not.

    • There are so many ways to look at and appreciate tattoos, Karin. I found the Maori traditions fascinating, and now that I understand the symbols and significance behind many of our tattoos, I’m appreciating them more, too. There are so many forms of creativity and methods of self-expression that I’m glad we’re learning to understand and appreciate this new ‘art’ form. Thanks for your comments, Karin.

  30. This is beautiful. What a lovely idea for a blog for the both of you.

  31. I’m not one for pain either, but I can understand how people want to use one to remember a victory like surviving that tornado. I also survived one that tore through my town (and damaged the roof of my apartment building and several others in my complex).
    Thanks for this lovely post.

    • Thanks for sharing that, L. Marie. I grew up in southeast Kansas and was familiar with the changes in ‘feeling’ and sky colors, and waiting out warnings in basements. We had some tornado damages, usually in open fields and small buildings at the edge of farms. I was totally unprepared for the devastation an F-4 could do to my daughter’s home and entire community in such a short time. Molly’s tattoo is a tribute to what they survived as a family and also as a community that worked together and helped each other rebuild. Her tattoos are her theory that we are defined and strengthened by what we survive.

  32. Marylin, I love how your mom wrote books for the sheer joy of it and did not feel they had to be published. I suspect they were all the better for it.

    My only concern with a tattoo is that the person may change their mind about it after a few years. I admire the gracious attitude both you and your mom share.

    Have a lovely weekend ~ Wendy

    • She would appreciate that you understand why she didn’t have the need to submit, publish or even show others every story she wrote and every illustration she drew or painted. The act of creating was most important for her. And a lovely weekend to you, too, Wendy!

  33. I remember chatting it up with the two school nurses on an inservice day asking them if they had “teacher” meetings to attend as we teachers did. “Yes, came the response. We have to learn about hepatitis C.”
    “What’s that?” I asked.
    “Well, with all the young people and their tattoos, it seems we’ll be seeing it.”
    Not only can I not commit to one image, word or quote, there’s just something man made about doing something to this body not made by me.
    Still, it seems, everyone has one. hmmmm…I don’t think I’ll be getting one.
    Another thought provoking post.

    • Thank you. And I agree, there’s something about having something permanently inked on my body that…eeew. But I’ve been assured that Molly and her husband use only licensed, certified professionals. Still…
      As a teacher for 30 years, I remember those inservice meetings, and I even remember one that included the rise in hepatitis infections among our students. Tattoos weren’t the only problems.
      Please join us again. I appreciate your comments.

  34. So, in catching up I at last get to read this wonderful post! Very interesting too. I am with you Marylin, I don’t have any tattoos nor intend to just because I haven’t felt the need to put anything permanent on my body. Other than feeling very rebellious when I was 18 and got my ears pierced, wow, don’t fall over with the shock or anything 😉 My rebellion took other forms, ha!

    My daughter insisted when she was 15 that she was going to have a skull with wings tattooed on her neck and chest. I told her not under my roof!!!! Still, I prayed that by the time she was ‘of age’ she would come to her senses and thank God, He heard my prayers! She did, however, go on and have various piercings, most of which are gone now 😉
    Both my boys have tattoos on their arms, Nicky is sleeved on one arm with a Japanese dragon. He wants to get the other arm done at some point. My other son has three small musical and writing symbols on one upper arm.
    No doubt about it, tattoos are considered so much more the norm these days.

    I love that your mom asked ‘did it hurt?’ I’m sure she would have asked her granddaughter the very same 🙂 The story behind your daughter’s tattoo is very touching and quite profound. To have survived a tornado like that certainly puts so much else about life into perspective. I can certainly understand her need to have a permanent record of this ever with her as a reminder of not what they lost but what they were saved from. Thank God that your prayers for your family were heard that day too and that they came through it. I hope that they got their home back together and are settled once more.

    • They did triumph, Sherri, and grew closer and stronger to each other and their town. Their 130+ year old house has been beautifully restored, and though the trees in their yard will never in their lifetime reach the grand size and shelter of the former trees, the family grateful for them and enjoying the new growth each year.
      You children and my daughter and son-in-law are part of the generation of wearable art statements. I was 15 when I got my ears pierced, and some of my mom’s older friends probably thought I was doomed. But when my mother was 64 and my daughter was 4, together they had their ears pierced. Ah, and that was quite a big deal!

      • What a wonderful story of resilience and family love, thank you Marylin for sharing it here. And wow, I love that about your mom and daughter getting their ears pierced together at 60 years apart, a very special day to remember for you all indeed 🙂

  35. Great way to get some thinking and pondering started, Marylin! I happen to not mind tattoos on men or women, but have none. I admire your daughter’s conviction to have a representational tattoo done on her ankle. I had a father who grew up in a rough neighborhood and once he started on a path to get out of there, he insisted we help others who needed it. We tried to look and act the part of ones who were ‘regular, hard working folks.’ He did not want us to be snobby nor worry about what others thought about us. I was a hippie with dresses and skirts that were batik-ed and other things like turquoise jewelry and ankle bracelets could all be removed. I wish I could say I would get a tattoo now, just to make a statement. This was a fantastic and diverse response for this post, commenters are so nice! Take care, Robin

    • Thanks, Robin. Your father’s plan for you–and your hippie attire and its statement–these would make a terrific post. I think many of your readers would relate to the “statements” we make when we’re young!

  36. Wow! Lots of messages/comments here! I enjoyed this post! I forgot to share my daughter’s and her friends all have “Believe” on their inner mid-arm area. It is cursive and that singer from Lady Antebellum, Ms. Nettles has one, too. I like it, since my maiden name and my youngest daughter is using it, too is…
    Oldrieve. Now, she can point to it, say, this is how you spell the ‘dreeve’ sound! It is an Old English name, and since her Dad left her years ago, I changed her last name back to my brothers’ and parents’ name! My reo stands for Robin Elizabeth Oldrieve… Just a little extra message here… Robin

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