Tat Two by Alice Lowe

You’ve written from the heart about your first tattoo, memorialized it as a rite of passage.

You kept a chronological record of the event from the dawning of the idea to the etching of the image nine months later (a fitting gestation period).You pretty much covered it all, so what’s there to say about your second tattoo?  

A dragonfly—Odonata Anisoptera—on my sternum, about halfway between my neck and right shoulder. I look at images online and find one I like, a simple line drawing with a little filigree in the wings and tail. It will be the perfect accent to my wardrobe of modestly scooped and v-necked shirts, delicate and almost demure while at the same time striking, spirited.

I’ve been thinking about another tattoo on and off in the four years since my first, a quill pen on my ankle that commemorates my seventieth birthday and my homage to Virginia Woolf. A second one hasn’t been a priority, but now I’m by myself for ten days in Seattle—groovy grungy Seattle—and it strikes me like a sharp projectile: Yes. Here. Now.


I research a few shops in nearby neighborhoods, look for a woman tattoo artist like Meg, who did my first one in San Diego. A solo woman-owned shop is booked six months ahead. At another, the only woman is too busy to take me within the week. The guys there and at other shops I check out are too bikerish: burly, hairy, rough-looking. Photos on the walls—samples of their work—display big-breasted women, chains and spikes, skulls and daggers.


A shop in Capitol Hill is billed as the oldest in Seattle, started in 1941. The Yelp reviews are good, and a friend knows people who’ve gone there. They take walk-ins—that seals it. The bus drops me off near Elliott Bay Books, always a Seattle destination. After an hour in the shelves and a bite in the café, I head down the hill to my destination.


A red-headed, red-bearded guy, his lavishly inked arms a persuasive advertisement for his trade, sits just inside the entrance at a fold-up massage table. I ask if they have any women artists. He balks, shows mock indignation: is it a crime to be a straight white guy? But he can refer me if that’s what I want. He’s pleasant, funny, chatty; photos show skillful and creative work. I’m here and the time is right.


I show him the image I’ve chosen. He studies it, nods, and says, “I’m going to talk to you as if we we’re good friends,” then presents a few caveats, the main one being my thin and aging skin. The image has too much detail, he explains. It might bleed together given the size and location I want. I’m impressed by his frankness. We come up with an alternative—keep the fine lines in the wings but make the tail straight and solid instead of ornamented. His sketch looks great, and I approve it; he creates the stencil.


Everything is fine so far. Then:

– I position the stencil where I want it.

– He suggests moving it further toward my shoulder.

– I say no, I want it more visible.

– He brings it in closer, splits the difference: “Now it complements the body’s lines.”

– I say OK.

– But it’s not OK.

I look in the mirror after he transfers the image from the stencil. I can see it’s still going to be hidden. So why am I momentarily rendered mute, comatose, brain dead? It’s not too late; he can take it off and move it; his feelings won’t be hurt. But I say, “Let’s do it.”

I’ve become—in my later years; it wasn’t always so—a relatively assertive person. I state my preferences, don’t cave easily, hold my own in social and business dealings. Why not now?

He cleans the massage table with alcohol, and I settle onto it, my upper body aslant. He offers me a breath mint, takes one himself, leans in and goes to work. The buzzing is close to the jugular, I notice, having recently read that the needle punctures the skin up to 3,000 times a minute. It doesn’t hurt, just prickles and stings a bit. I relax. The image is small and simple; he’s done in half an hour. I get up and look in the mirror. Gorgeous. Stunning. That’s all I think at the time. He tapes a bandage onto it and gives me care instructions; I pay—adding a moderate tip—thank him and leave. I lope giddily down Pike Street into downtown Seattle, have a cappuccino, buy wood-smoked salmon and fresh cherries at Pike Place Market, then catch the bus home, all the time cherishing my secret.

That evening, per instructions, I remove the bandage. My first thought: perfect. I love it. Second thought: shit—it’s in the wrong place. As if the revelation is a surprise. I try on every top I have with me, and the best I achieve is a peek-a-boo view, one side of the gossamer wings, fleeting hints of more if I move artfully.

I know what’s happened, and I know why. For a flash—that’s all it takes—I falter. I’m too agreeable, suggestible, submissive, diffident: too damnably female. It’s a congenital, regressive trait. If I were one to chastise myself or to seek life lessons in self-inflicted mishaps, this would offer a treasure-trove of admonitions. Happily I spare myself such reproaches.

My ornamentation grows on me. There’s something shyly, slyly deliberate about it, a stylish irony that pleases me. But I’m not done. Back in San Diego Meg and I discuss amendments: a mate for my impish insect, a little smaller, slight variations, and exactly where I want it.

Alice Lowe
Alice Lowe

Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Stonecoast Review, 1966, The Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.