Getting a Tattoo for my 36th Birthday: The Eco Risks Versus The Rewards

“My tattoos represent much of the pain and suffering I have endured. They are part of me, just like my scars, my fat, my eternal struggle with gravity. None of our bodies are ‘perfect’. We live in them. They aren’t supposed to be ‘perfect’.” – Margaret Cho, who got her first tattoo in her mid-30s.

Did I really need to get a full color tattoo the size of my hand three days before my 36th birthday?

By the grace of God I was wise enough to avoid tattoos in my teenage years. So many people I know have ill-advised butterfly tramp stamps that cause them to grimace apologetically. A girl I knew in high school – and still know today as a fellow Philadelphia mother – impulsively got a tattoo of the sun and moon on her left buttcheek. It was, unbeknownst to her, the sign of Islam.

At 26 I decided to take a shallow plunge with a tattoo I had always wanted – the astrological symbol for Leo on my left shoulder. It is small, black, and easy to cover up with a well-placed bra strap. And ten years ago I still like it, and feel secure in the decision I made as a 26-year-old woman – not quite who I would fully become, but old enough to have a semblance of self awareness.

The O.G.
The O.G.

And for a long time I thought that would be it. I was never impressed by tattooed arms and chests, massive portraits and “sleeves” of winding images that clash with the wrong color dress. A simple quote, a tribute, a small image with deep meaning – those were the tattoos I liked. And around the time of my 35th birthday I developed a secure sense of what I wanted to do next.

Tattoos are about using our bodies as a palette to tell the story of who we really are. And who we really are typically isn’t evident until after we have lived past the age of college partying and relationship hopping. I am now closer to 40 than 30, I have had my children, and I know what my true passions are. After a year of dallying, I was ready to tell my story.

My story is simple: a rose for my June baby girl and an aster for my September baby boy. And the words “Nothing But Flowers.”

The quote is the title of a Talking Heads song that talks about taking back the earth from over-industrialization. And it’s lyrics are the intro to my book, which David Byrne’s people kindly gave me permission to use.

The meaning is many-fold. Obviously, these flowers are my children. But all children are flowers. Nothing else matters.

This ink represents my children, my writing, my work, my passion. And even more meaningful to have it done just miles from the pristine Pocono mountaintops I am fortunate enough to have the strength to hike.

Ironically enough, there are eco implications to getting a tattoo. A furious Google search days before my appointment had me more confused than ever, coming across articles that pan the inks used in some tattoos as toxic and laden with heavy metals. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea?

I continued to weigh the risks and rewards and decided to use the safest pigments I could find. I sought out a highly accredited artist who used one of the recommended brands of vegan inks that had a transparent MSDS sheet available. I also decided to stay away from red ink, which is generally the most worrisome, and tone the rose down to a more muted pink.

Overall, I decided that since I am so cautious to minimize my general toxin exposure, I could afford a little flirtation with mercury. I’m no longer breastfeeding or planning pregnancies. I was willing to take a calculated risk.

I was really not concerned with pain – I had gotten a (small) tattoo before, gone through several hours of unmedicated labor, and do my own Brazilian waxes. But I’m not going to lie – those two hours were pretty rough. I just put on my headphones and tried to breathe through it.

I literally incorporated my stretch marks into this hip tattoo
I literally incorporated my stretch marks into this hip tattoo

The result is beautiful. Sure, it is a bit muddled by the stretch marks on my hip, but that just makes it even more poignant. I know who I am and I know what my story is. It may evolve and it may expand, but I can confidently say that there will never be anything but flowers.

“(Nothing But) Flowers”

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
you’ve got it, you’ve got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you’ve got it, you’ve got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I’d pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it’s nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we’d start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle


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