Defy The Trend
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Tattoos: Rituals of Control?

“Are you Nicole?” Josh Drew, my tattoo artist said as I walked through the door of Lasting Impressions, the Des Moines, IA tattoo shop that would become my home for the next several hours. My stomach was doing slightly nervous flip flops even as I walked breezily through the door. “Yes, I am. I’m sorry we are a little late,” I said.

Original Art by Sandra Gustafson of Nestcraft Studios inspired my tattoo. This original adorns the wall at Shakti Yoga Shop, Des Moines, IA.

He brushed off my apology and got to work. I gave him the artwork I wanted to inspire my second tattoo. Soon he was hunched over a table, sketching the lotus flower that would adorn my right ankle. While I and my stalwart friend waited, we flipped through the photos of his stunning portfolio of work. We gazed upon the walls covered in art created on more “traditional” canvases. We were surrounded by beauty.

In what seemed to be record time, he came over with a sketch of my tattoo — far more detailed and far more beautiful than I had ever imagined. When he placed the sketch in roughly the spot where it would go. I must have looked a little reluctant, because my friend reassured me. “I think it’s a good size,” she said.

After the requisite paperwork and payment, we got started. I laid on the black vinyl reclining chair that would become my home base for the next 2 1/2 hours.

Josh seemed unaware of his resemblance to Jesus’ washing the disciples feet while he wiped my leg down with rubbing alcohol. I took the opportunity to ask him the question that had been on my mind all week: “So why do you think people get tattoos?”

Josh Drew, Lasting Impressions Tattoo Shop, working his artistic magic on my new tattoo.
Josh Drew, Lasting Impressions Tattoo Shop, working his artistic magic on my new tattoo.

His head popped up from his focus on my ankle in front of him. “That’s easy,” he replied quickly. “It’s about control.” He went onto explain that our bodies are really the only thing in life that we can control. So body modification is one way to do that. And, in the case of tattoos (unlike makeup or haircuts) they remain permanent. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it was a good one.

A friend of mine asked me earlier in the week why I was getting a tattoo, rather than just buying a good piece of art to hang on the wall. I had told her that it was the ritual of it — it was a way of permanently marking what I see as a significant life transition (turning 40, losing a lot of weight, getting a new job, moving to a new city, etc.).

In many ways, tattoos and piercings and have culturally replaced religious ritual. At one time, people would have always gone to faith communities to mark significant transitions — births, deaths, marriages and other rites of passage. That just isn’t true anymore. But, people still have the innate need to make meaning around these transitions — perhaps even control these often uncontrollable events, as Drew suggested.

The finished product.
The completion of the ritual.

When he put the needle to my skin and drew the first line, my mind was reeling. “I’m really doing this,” I thought. “I can’t go back now.” The ink, the pain, the blood all make it real. Not just the tattoo art, but the life experiences it represents. I can’t go back. What has changed in my life has changed. The lotus flower has bloomed out of the muck of stagnant water. Now it is time to watch it grow.

What are some of the ways that you mark milestones and rights of passage — both inside and outside of religious ritual?

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