Invisible Tattoos: The Stories Beneath Our Skin

Katie Mauro Zeigler

I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket a few weeks ago; when the woman in front of me dropped her wallet and bent down to retrieve it. And in the action of bending down, her pants dipped down on her hips, revealing an enormous tattoo of the words “Together Forever” written across the topmost part of her fanny. Huge, scrolling letters accentuated by little stars, hovering around the words as if to animate them. And I’ll admit, I was surprised. Surprised, perhaps first, to see a stranger’s bottom. But then, surprised by the utter size and scope of this gigantic billboard of togetherness on her bum. Now, before you get upset with me, I have nothing at all against tattoos. I know many people with tattoos. I love people with tattoos. I admire people with tattoos. But there was something about the size, shape, font — the utter permanence of these words that took me aback. And I wondered what those words meant to her. Who is together forever? Was this tattoo inked to herald her love for her partner? To immortalize a deceased loved one? A tequila-popper induced Spring Break souvenir? I wish I had asked her, but that seemed odd. As if seeing her bottom art wasn’t intimate, but asking her about it was. And I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve continued to think about it even weeks later. I think it’s the fact that this woman goes through her days with a tattoo that she can never see without the help of a mirror, but that the world might see if she drops her wallet at the supermarket or drops her pants for some other more romantic reason. Her tattoo is, for all intents and purposes, hidden from most of the world. And it got me thinking about other hidden tattoos I’ve happened upon. The sock inadvertently pulled down to reveal the sorority letters. The hair swept up for a moment in the heat to reveal a heart at the nape of a neck. The wedding ring removed to reveal initials.

I’ve never had a tattoo. And I don’t think I’ve ever wanted one, really. When friends in college were getting dolphins on their ankles and flowers on the insides of their wrists, I supported them in their endeavors, but never felt the pang of joining in. I have nothing against tattoos. I actually think they can be quite beautiful, but I’ve always struggled with two things. One, the pain involved. I’m just not an elective pain sort of person. Getting my ears pierced at Beadazzled at the mall in 1986 was an act of sheer will that I’ve not wanted to revisit. Two, the permanence doesn’t work for me. What word or symbol do I love enough that I could place it on my body forever? I’m not sure. And, at times, I’ve felt badly about this. Why don’t I love an animal or quote or symbol enough? I feel strongly about things. I love animals and quotes and symbols, but just not one thing so much that I know I want it on my skin forever.

But I have noticed that quite a lot of people without tattoos have a definite idea in mind should they ever get one. As if there’s just one small door sitting between them and the parlor chair. I’ve asked around and I’ve gotten a lot of names, names of children, partners, loves, long-lost relatives. I’ve also gotten a lot of animals. Like spirit animals, for lack of a better term. People who identify with a hummingbird for its inability to commit to one place for too long. A woman who, upon first glance, would never be the one you’d think of to dream of a tiger on her left shoulder. And lots of words. Words like “forever” and “listen” and “imagine” and I’m often envious of those people who, in a moment of need, can glance at their wrists or ankles and be reminded of what they need to do. A good friend of mine from college once told me she wanted to get the word “kumquat” on her wrist because the word itself made her laugh. And she thought it’d be a kick to glance at it and automatically giggle a little for the rest of her life. I’m not sure if she ever got it. Perhaps if she’s reading this, she’ll let me know. And subsequently let me know if she’s still laughing.

I grew up in a town where it was not uncommon to see men and women with tear tattoos next to their eyes. And the meaning of those tears always made me stop in my tracks. For those of you not familiar with the context, tear tattoos can have a number of different meanings, ranging from signifying the number of years spent in prison, the number of people killed by the tattooed individual, or worn in solidarity for a loved one behind bars. I’m sure they have other meanings as well, but those were the ones I was told about as a kid. I think it was the women I saw with the tears that affected me most. Particularly the ones who wore it in recognition of a husband or boyfriend in prison. That they were willing to sit in a chair and have someone permanently draw tears on their faces as a symbol of loyalty for their lover was, and continues to be, something mysterious and fascinating to me. For it implies a commitment to never stop crying. And as mysterious as the actual tattoos themselves are, the sentiment, the motivation is as familiar to me as any other. For I think that many of us wear those tears and those words and those symbols, but we wear them on the inside.

I have this image in my mind of a machine, much like a security scanner at the airport that would show not your metal objects and forgotten pocket change, but the tattoos that each of us wear but have never chosen to put on our skin. Like an x-ray for hurt and love and friendship and all of the things that we carry around with us in our daily lives that, perhaps, some of us just aren’t brave enough to show the world. I know I have plenty of them, sitting there just below the surface of my skin, as if you could feel them written there like braille.

I have the words my grandmother Deedles always said before I went to a party, to school, to a friend’s house…”Dance with everyone!” she’d say, waving her long arms and smiling. She meant “have a wonderful time” and “enjoy yourself”, but I always pictured the world dancing, like in one of those surprise musical numbers in the movies where people on the street suddenly break into a Fred Astaire-inspired number. To this day, I say that to myself before every social function and I smile for her and the memory.

I have tears for the loss of Deedles and my father. So many of them that I’ve often thought they’re starting to show through in the form of my freckles. So many of them that I wonder why no one stops me on the street to ask me about them. “Why do you have those tears on your face?” they’d say. And I’d tell them I wear them to remember and to forget all at the same time. There are different kinds of tears for each of them; different colors, different shapes, and I can tell the difference even in the dark.

Not all of my invisible tattoos are sad. On the contrary. I have e.e. cummings’ “i carry your heart with me” right over my own heart to honor the man who changed my life and shares my every day with me. And I have my own fantasy of Charlie Brown triumphantly kicking the football out from Lucy’s grasp to remember to never give up. I have the song “Little Wonders” from the Meet the Robinson’s soundtrack because my older son and I truly believe that is our song. And I have the number -1/12 for my younger son because we learned from a science program that if you add up all of the whole numbers to infinity it miraculously and surprisingly adds up to -1/12 and that is how much I love him. To infinity and then just around the corner.

And, yes, there are other, perhaps more melancholy ones. Mostly of the literary sort. Virginia Woolf, her pockets filled with stones. A large, even mural-like, scene of the moors from Wuthering Heights. My favorite quote from Jane Eyre: “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” And maybe even a little bottle of raspberry cordial in honor of Anne Shirley.

I think if I were to put all of my invisible tattoos on the outside, there wouldn’t be enough room on my skin to make a mark with the tip of a pencil. I’d be swirling with words and pictures, and keep adding to them, through each moment of grief and hilarity, until I’d become a walking picture book and you would see me and read me and know who I am and where I’ve been. But I’m not quite brave enough for that. Nor do I think I ever will be. I applaud those of you who are brave enough, or hurt enough, or happy enough or drunk enough to make your truth visible to the world. And even though the woman at the supermarket revealed her words to me inadvertently, they meant something to me. They inspired me in their own magical way. And I’m grateful for that moment of surprise and clarity.

As for me, I am content, happy even, to wear them underneath the surface, away from stranger’s eyes until I feel ready to share them. Some I will always keep secret. But just knowing that they’re there and that my invisible book is still being written is one of the great wonders and joys of my life. Others, I’ve shared and I will share, taking someone’s hand and pressing their fingers against my skin, as if to say, “Can you read that?”

Katie Mauro Zeigler

Written by

Katie M Zeigler is a writer and professor living in Walnut Creek, CA. Zeigler holds a BA and MA in English from Stanford University.

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