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Learning to breathe

I am older than the average person getting tattoos these days--though I'm far from the oldest. But here, chronologically in middle age, I find getting tattooed a powerful and immensely satisfying means of expressing the fact that a life is a work of art, a sculpture not in three dimensions but in n dimensions. Powerful life experiences get inscribed on our bodies one way or another--whether by scars, wrinkles, changes in posture, or a hundred other means. It seems to me profoundly human to take that process into my own hands, to design small pieces of art to ritualize that process of maturation as it marks the body. My tattoos are icons and emblems--they could not be decoded by a stranger. But each has at least one layer of meaning I can describe to a stranger who asks about them--and they do ask--and I am happy to. Only my most intimate friends know every layer of any of them. Indeed, I still discover layers of meaning I hadn't appreciated at first. To me, that's the beauty
of a good tattoo: you don't fully understand what it means when you first get it. Another benefit of getting tattooed late in life is that when I'm in my late 50s my tattoos will still look fresh and crisp! Eat your hearts out, twenty-somethings.

So, a year ago I got, in a state of some desperation, a small tattoo of a fermata for my birthday. Conceived as an emblem of past pain and as a cry in the wilderness, over the course of the past year it became a talisman. It came true, in a sense, and magically so. Prior to that, a mandala of dotted quarter-note rests went on the same arm--my right forearm--as a reminder to be patient, to wait a beat and a half before reacting. My right arm, then, is filling up with musical references to and symbols for goals of my emotional growth.

As my birthday loomed this year, I began thinking of another musical/emotional tattoo. Some weeks ago, I hit on the notion of a comma, the musical symbol to take a breath, for the wind and brass instruments. I am spending a great deal of effort lately on breathing. Most urgently, I forget to breathe when in a stressful situation. My martial arts training has brought this out most vividly, but it's made me realize that I forget to breathe almost any time things get stressful. When I began sparring, I would go into panic mode and be terribly out of breath in a minute or two. I can now spar for several minutes with a formidable partner and only get normally out of breath. I'm handling other forms of conflict in my life better as well. There's still a long way to go, but I'm far enough along that I can acknowledge breathing as an achievable goal.

I began with a comma on my wrist as the basic concept. But tattoo ideas have to steep and simmer. I usually spend weeks or months thinking about each one. One comma evolved into seven, to add the layer of "make every decision within seven breaths," as a statement of decisiveness and living life passionately.

"So how are you going to arrange them?" asked my friend Darth. I'd been thinking of a straight row of commas across my wrist, but she jogged me suddenly into thinking in two dimensions. I played with various arrangements--a sine wave, a pyramid--but none quite worked with seven elements. A V shape had a simple, elegant look. I played with various orientations of commas--all straight, 45 or 90 degree rotations, mirror image rotations, etc. All this playing with designs is delightful, as long as one remembers to enjoy it--to not get impatient about wanting to get that ink poked under your skin NOW. In short, to breathe, and to take one's time.

Then I saw on BME a tattoo that made me think of morphing a central comma into seagull-shapes. The tattoo had nothing to do with commas or seagulls--I don't even remember what it was, now. It was a metaphorical leap. The birds were for the freedom of movement that comes from breathing, from being in flow--obviously with the connecting theme of air.

I played around with this for a while and a week ago I took my rough sketch to the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. I did not intend to actually get the tattoo that day, but the guy behind the counter said, "So are you looking to get this now?" I took seven breaths and said, "Yeah!" So he introduced me to Chris, who redrew it for me--and redrew it again with my corrections until I liked it. In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea to take his drawing home and study it and mull it over--I might have tweaked it slightly. But I am by no means unhappy with the result. I say this just to underscore the importance of lots of reflection in getting inked.

Chris was quiet, lacking the banter some artists have. He didn't ask about the design or anything about me. But the shop and his technique were clean, he was professional, and I have enough hours in the chair now that I don't need my hand held. He was very patient with me while I spent a good 10 minutes on placement of the stencil. The tattoo itself only took about 40 minutes. As Chris applied it, I focused on my breathing. I was surprised to find that the parts that went directly over bone were less painful than the central comma on the center of my wrist. Tattoo pain is, I find, overrated, but that one comma smarted a bit. Breathing definitely helped. Looking at the final product, I was impressed with the steadiness and sharpness of Chris's line. I tipped him $20 when he was done.

The tattoo wraps partway around my lower forearm, with the comma at my wrist and the birds being about even with the fermata--cradling it, in a way, and thus linking intimacy and affection with breathing and freedom. The connection between the tattoos is actually one of the deeper and more important layers of meaning. The themes of my life are beginning to merge, both on my arm and in my life itself. Another nice and unexpected aspect is that when I rotate my arm, one bird and the image before it come up to the top of my arm. As I rotate back and forth, the tattoo moves, with the other images coming into view. The lower forearm is a very tricky canvas, because it shifts so dramatically with normal movement. This movement immediately became an integral part of the tattoo, for it's not about breathing while sitting still and meditating; it's about breathing while I am going through life--the conflicts, challenges, and surprises.

Finally, because it begins only 2 inches from my wrist and is therefore visible if I roll up my sleeve at all (which I normally do) the tattoo is relatively difficult to conceal. And I'm not bothering to. So the birds taking to the air on my forearm become a symbol of my increasing sense of liberation at the very fact of being tattooed. Getting comfortable with telling the world, yes, I have tattoos, and yes, you damn well have to take me seriously. Listen: if you're interested, I'll tell you a story.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 28 Sept. 2008
in Tattoos

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Artist: Chris
Studio: Baltimore+Tattoo+Museum
Location: Baltimore%2C+MD%2C+USA

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