I was 28 when I got my first tattoo.
That’s not exactly young, dumb, and broke, as those who oppose tattoos might believe is where all bad ideas begin. I was almost 30, a teacher with just shy of ten years’ experience, a mother of two little girls, and living a smidge above “broke.”
I had been waiting and planning for this for years and years, always knowing what my first tattoo would be. My friend Lauren coached me through exactly what to expect and we got to the shop, where a boy-child no older than my first batch of students started to draw out my description.
I was looking for the simplest two letters, as tiny as could be, initialing my daughters’ first names. Boy-child tattoo artist drew out the letters far too big. “Now is not the time to stay quiet about what you want,” Lauren said. She knew me well enough to know that in any other circumstance, I would have declared it “good enough” to avoid hurting boy-child’s artistic feelings. I worked up the courage to ask him to shrink it down smaller, and he—most shockingly—was not offended by my request, although he did say that I would probably wish it was bigger later on. Why don’t you just worry about yourself, boy-child tattoo-er.
I sat on the chair and laid my arm facing up so he could begin his work. Not once did I question my decision or worry that I shouldn’t be doing it. I remember Lauren asking me on the way to the shop if I still wanted to do it, and being completely calm and confident—which is pretty out of character for my anxious, wavering self. I remember the boy-child tattoo-er asking if I was ready and feeling no rush of nerves or hesitation.
So he began. It was over in five minutes.
I told you it was small.
But in that five minutes, everything changed.
I mark that five minutes as the very first time I did something that I knew people wouldn’t agree with, but did it anyway, because I knew it was right for me. I knew it was something controversial that I would not be able to hide, and I did it anyway. I knew it was something that may be frowned upon in my line of work or my line of family (sorry Dad), and did it anyway.
I had spent much of my 28 years bending and merging with the ideas and opinions of those around me. You like this movie? Ah, so do I. You hate this music? Yes, me too. You’re a fan of this artwork? Indeed, I love the way the artist did that thing.
I was tired of that.
I’ve always felt super connected to Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride when she realizes she doesn’t know what eggs she likes for breakfast because she’s been eating them the way each of her fiancés choose and she has a huge awakening where she lines up all the types of eggs and decides what she likes for herself. This was my breakfast egg awakening.
And it felt so much like “me” to have that tattoo. I felt like I was wearing myself proudly for the first time. I felt like I was giving people an insight into who I was. Tattoos are beautiful like that: every size, shape, color, font, bend, curve, line—all details are decisions that were made to reflect the owner. When you look at a tattoo, you get a glimpse of the deepest bits of the person wearing it. Very few other parts of us reflect that immediately to the world. That’s bravery, right there. And quite a gift, on behalf of the tattoo-wearer, to share with you.
Since then, I have added two more tattoos. After a brief but scary health issue, I had the phrase “It is well” etched into my wrist where I can see it daily. I recently added the word “shalom” to be reminded of the work necessary to move this world to wholeness.
As I keep uncovering more of who I am, I keep finding more bravery to share those parts with the world. I certainly don’t think I’m done with tattoos (…sorry Dad). But I am certain that whichever I add next will be full of meaning and purpose and life and me, and absent of regret or shame.
I march forward fully invested and I never once regret these pieces of me.
The only regret I do have? I wish the first one was bigger.
Kelly Cheney is an eighth-grade English teacher, mom of daughters, and major nail polish enthusiast. She would love to hear from you via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow her on Instagram @kncheney–as long as you’re strictly interested in pictures of aforementioned daughters and/or nail polish.