Jason Zenobia recalls the day a woman asked him about his tattoos, “What happens when you regret those?”
It was a simple misunderstanding. Or was it? She was a slim, gray-haired woman in her early 70s. She was well-groomed, with everything about her properly tucked in, pinned down, and otherwise under control. Her posture was impeccable and as she came through my lane in the grocery store where I work, I remember thinking that she reminded me of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. She might scold me for hiding a toad in her bed, but then we’d have to burst into song.
As I scanned and bagged her groceries, she answered my questions crisply.
“My day is going very well, thank you.”
“Yes, I found everything on my list.” Of course she had a list.
From her tone, I guessed that she had something on her mind other than groceries and as I opened my mouth to ask her if there was anything else I could help her with, she cut me off.
“May I ask you a question?” It sounded like a challenge and it was at this moment that I noticed she was staring at the tattoos on my arms. She nodded at the poison dart frogs crawling up my left arm.
“What happens when you’re my age? What happens when you regret those?” Her tone implied that she was hoping to be there. A preemptive I-told-you-so.
I had known since I was in my 20s that I wanted tattoos, but it wasn’t until I met my husband that I considered large-scale work. He was just starting the months-long process of getting a back piece. Up until then, I’d only thought about the kinds of work I was familiar with. Small pieces on ankles, wrists, and backs. A Chinese character here, a tribute to a frat house there, a “tribal” wristband. But a back piece? That took time and planning and I knew that that was the kind of art I wanted.
It wasn’t until I had gotten my own back piece that I started to think that I wanted a full-body suit. The commitment of time and money was daunting, not to mention the pain and the tedious healing process. The constant use of moisturizer, the inability to soak in a tub or go swimming. But as long as I stretched the task out over many years, the whole thing seemed doable.
Fifteen years and hundreds of hours later, I’m covered from neck to waist and all the way down to my wrists. As of this writing, London Bellman, (the same artist I started with) is finishing work on my left leg. We’re starting at the ankles and working our way north.
So there was her question. “What happens when you regret those?”
I’ve seen some truly regrettable tattoos. The portrait of your grandmother unintentionally depicting her as Henry Kissinger by way of Bozo the Clown. Marijuana leaves on your forehead. The Chinese characters that you thought meant, “Longevity and Peace,” but actually say, “Urinal Out Of Order.”
I thought for a moment before answering. This didn’t have to be an argument.
“I haven’t regretted them so far,” I said as I loaded her groceries into her shopping cart. “Why? What happens when you regret things?”
She didn’t have an answer for me.
If my biggest regret when I hit my 70s is that I’m covered with art, I should be doing pretty well.
Since that day, I’ve had many conversations with her. She chooses to come through my check-out lane and she always asks how my tattoos are going. Like a proud Mom. She seemed a little disappointed when I told her that it would probably take me another ten years to finish my suit.
“Hurry up!” she said. “I want to see how this thing turns out.”
Photo credit: Clarke Galusha
Tattoo credit: London Bellman, Atomic Art.