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Tattoo Beginnings


November 2008: I walk into a southern Indiana tattoo parlor and ask the spiky-haired, mildly pierced young woman behind the counter to ink – for all eternity – three black, 3/4” high, Torah-font, Hebrew letters on my right forearm.

The idea of getting inked first occurred to me almost a decade ago when my I.U. students started turning up to class tattooed and weirdly pierced. Dolphins, starbursts, flowing Sanskrit – my knee-jerk distaste quickly turned to interest as I realized that tattoos were cool.

Decidedly cool, with a hint of scandalous. My kind of middle age.

Fear intervened. Fear of the physical pain involved as well as a healthy dose of panic about what other people would make of such an sailor-esque and un-Jewish choice. After all, Leviticus is clear: “You are not to make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise marks on yourself.”

In other words… don’t be a pagan, a slave, or stupid. Your body is not to be your canvas.

Then there was the whole you-can’t-be-buried-in-a-Jewish-cemetery thing. Which turns out to be patently untrue… but still. To take a needle to your skin might risk separation from one’s family and people for all eternity.

Add post-Holocaust sensibilities and I was no longer dealing with simple proscription.

Damn. From the beginning of my tattoo fantisies, I knew that I wanted something tribal and unmistakably Jewish. It all came together the year I turned 50, during an otherwise unmemorable worship service, as the congregation sang the Sh’ma, a prayer I have always loved.

Hey, I thought, what if I got a tattoo as a way of embodying the command to bind these words on your arm? I could become my own mezuzah, placing the letter shin – a stand-in for God’s presence – on my upper arm as well as on my doorpost.

And that’s where it stood, a great idea and my continuing wimpiness, until a month before my 54th birthday. I was at my desk, struggling over a poem, mildly wretched and daydreaming when it came to me – as these things tend to do: truth.

I could pen the word truth – “emet” – on my arm (my writing arm) instead of a shin. I could become a mezuzah of the truth! (Admittedly, this was overblown and overly dramatic, but you take my point.)

At 2 on a Friday afternoon, I indulged in my annual pampering pedicure. At 4 I sat in the car, carefully copied Hebrew calligraphy burning a hole in my pocket.

I called Bruce, my dear spouse, and made sure this wasn’t totally insane. Green light.

Moments later I handed the letters to a total stranger. She had seen Hebrew, but never worked with it. No biggie. She shaved and disinfected my arm, transferred the letters from paper to skin, picked up her vibrating needle, and started to work. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was a 6 in the burn and sting category.  Nothing terrible, but certainly enough to get my attention.

Thirty minutes later I was done. Forty-eight hours later I removed the bandages. Eleven months later, I am still occasionally surprised that I have a word on my arm, and such a bold word at that.

In retrospect, what ultimately drew me to tattoo was its simple summary of what I believe. The word on my skin has come to mark the corners of my universe, delineate what I am willing to live – and die – with. More on that in the postings to come.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Vicki B permalink
    10/12/2009 10:30 pm

    Beautiful. I love that strong statement of “what I am willing to live–and die–with.” I so get it.

  2. Angela permalink
    10/14/2009 7:04 am

    Thank you for writing this and your previous post on the Torah. My judaism has often been ambiguous and difficult to justify in my own mind. Your writings have helped me feel if not less conflicted at least more at peace with the conflict. I look forward to reading more.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/15/2009 9:02 pm

      Hey thanks Angela. Glad to be of service. Conflicted would sum up my religious & existential experience, too.

  3. Christie permalink
    10/18/2009 3:09 pm

    I always wondered what the story was behind that tattoo. I’m glad I know! I am also tattooed, though in a far less conspicuous place. I’ve had mine for more than 10 years now, and I really can’t imagine what my stomach would look like otherwise. But I respect you so for daring to put your tattoo out there for the world to see. I wish I were so gutsy.

  4. 11/10/2009 4:26 pm

    I’ve considered getting a tattoo, at various points over the years. (Yes, I know what Jewish tradition has to say about that.) The truth is that I’m far too afraid of needles and pain to be likely to ever get one… but if I were to get one, I suspect it would involve letters somehow, because language is so much at the center of who I’ve chosen to be. My best guess is that I would opt for a simple Torah-script א — the first letter in the alef-bet, the one pregnant with all of the other letters (and all of our tangles of words and teachings and texts) hidden ineffably within it.

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