From the outside, I may not look like someone who’d be littered with permanent skulls and bats under her conventional exterior. But my body art is an expression of who I once was and who I still am.
Once upon a time, as I found myself maneuvering through an especially thorny patch of my adolescence, during which I was watching too many John Hughes movies and breathing in the fumes of too many fruity-smelling erasers, I decided to become a Goth. Already on my third teenage year, I decided I had enough angst under my belt to proclaim to the world what a melancholic and morose young person I was.
Not a REAL Goth, mind you—the kind that listens to the Cure and the Smiths and acts a bit deviant by smoking cigarettes and wearing black lipstick, but rather a Pseudo Goth Lite—the kind that watches Beetlejuice too often and routinely wears a sweater with a small embroidered unicorn over the left breast pocket, because it happens to be the only black article of clothing in one’s closet.
In order to truly be a Goth, I needed to have the right accessories. The list included black eyeliner, a heavy ornate cross, and some sort of shirt made out of black netting. And maybe a heavy dark veil, for when the weather was cool. I imagined myself a forlorn Winona Ryder, misunderstood, dark, brooding, and in a constant state of sorrow, all while looking extremely avant garde and fashionable.
Without any money of my own, I was unable to buy most of the accessories I needed, so I compromised. Instead of smearing black eyeliner around my lids, I rummaged through my mother’s throw-away cosmetics only to find the most intimidating color to be an odd rust-colored eye shadow, which when applied, prompted most relatives and friends to ask whether I had an eye infection.
Being Jewish, I felt like a hypocrite wearing a cross, and worried about being randomly struck by lightning for impersonating a Christian, so I substituted a silver-coated plastic Ankh. (Apparently masquerading as an Egyptian didn’t seem to bother me.)
I attempted to expand my wardrobe of black garb, but the selection in the Junior Miss department of Macy’s—the only place my mother would take me to shop for clothes —was far from ideal for my misanthropic aspirations. Anything black usually came with sparkles or sequins. I started a heavy rotation of black cardigans and shirts with shimmering abstract shapes of silver. “Very jazzy,” my grandmother once commented on one Gothic failure of an ensemble, “But, you’re really an Autumn.”
Over the next few years, I kicked my Goth mode into high gear by reading Anne Rice novels and buying T-shirts with spider web designs on them. I also sighed a lot and tried not to smile. After I moved out of my mother’s house, I began to collect gargoyles and because I was a less than stellar housekeeper, the resulting dust and cobwebs that began to naturally form across most of my furniture and knick-knacks suited my gloomy attitude quite nicely.
Despite my desire to go full-on Goth, I found myself in the predicament of acquiring an office job at the age of 19. The idea of dressing up in mourning garb to file mail in the backroom and answer phones while the receptionist was at lunch seemed a bit silly. I searched for another way to express my inner darkness, even while wearing oxfords and polos from the Gap.
It was then that I discovered the art of the tattoo.
To be fair, I already had one tattoo. One half of an arm-band of thorned roses around my right upper arm. My intent was to go all the way around but I couldn’t afford it. The inspiration for that somewhat generic artwork was a photograph in a fashion magazine of a model with the same tattoo, proving that even the most deviant of acts can be inspired by the very cultural influences we long to rebel against. I brought the magazine clipping into the parlor as I would a photo of a stylish hairstyle I fancied.
It’s not surprising that the idea of inking myself permanently was something I took more lightly than most. When my mother was in her mid-30s, already a homemaker and parent to three children, she found herself at the beginning of what would become a decades-long effort to find and/or transform herself. A spoke of that wheel of self-discovery was the decision to tattoo herself—an act of latent rebellion against the traditional path her life with my father had taken and maybe the world.
So, one afternoon, my younger sisters and I found ourselves in the surprisingly clean and quiet lobby of a local tattoo shop. The other clientele, far more atmosphere-appropriate, consisted of several bikers and one slightly nervous-looking young man with a nose ring. I’m not sure what anyone thought of the three young girls rifling through the stacks of tattoo magazines in search of a possible Highlights, but we were undisturbed for the duration of time it took for my mother to have a bird of paradise etched across her chest.
Since, at that point, getting a tattoo myself offered none of the usual thrills of revolt or deviance that one usually associates with such an act, I was free to focus on the art of it all. And, eventually, it was through my body art that I finally achieved the Gothic embellishments I had been searching for during my youth.
I started off small. I finished the half arm band of roses with a flock of tiny bats. Only if you were close enough to grab my arm and turn it over would you be able to notice a difference in the flow of the artwork.
Soon after, I added two fairly large bat wings on the top of my back. Worried about being labeled some kind of bat freak (that’s really what I was worried about?), I added a large winged skull on my lower back. It’s a huge piece of work drawn in such a way as to create the optical illusion of growing any time I leaned forward. Whether I thought this would scare off sneak attacks at the beach, the only time anyone might be able to see it, I can’t remember.
As I added to my collection of body art, I learned more about tattooing in general and became an odd Gothic poster child for getting inked. I took multiple friends for their “first” and felt a certain satisfaction in having evolved into an authority on something, even if that something was being able to offer sage advice on the importance of using Aquaphor.
The more tattoos I had, the less I felt the need to express my Goth-iness with clothes and makeup. Or maybe I was just getting older and the idea of pancake makeup and eternal funeral garb sounded increasingly uncomfortable. From the outside, I didn’t look like someone who was littered with permanent skulls and bats under her conventional exterior, and eventually, as my lifestyle became more traditional, I began to cling to my artwork as the last frontier between my adventurous youth and my future PTA-joining, cookie-baking, errand-running, mini-van-driving self.
My tattoos were not without their trials. On our first date, my future husband asked whether I regretted getting them, in a tone that implied that he sure would have. I could not help but develop a reputation among the other mommies on the playground—a cool, rock star status that I had no chance of living up to.
Eventually the rate at which I acquired more tattoos slowed and finally stopped. As my 40th birthday approaches, I think wistfully about adding to one or covering up another, but don’t have any definite plans to do so. To be honest, I forget I have them most of the time. My husband, who initially thought they made me look wild and dangerous, forgets they are there, as well. They have become as much a part of me as an interestingly placed birthmark or scar.
Recently, I found myself caught in a mundane errand at the UPS store; my back toward the young clerk, as I filled out some paperwork. As I turned to pay for my packing supplies, he smiled hesitantly and said, “Are those angel wings on your back?”
“Bat wings, actually,” I returned with a slight edge in my voice as I waited for the inevitable quizzical look that usually follows my clarification. “I used to be a bit of a Goth,” I added, feeling the need to explain myself further.
He chuckled. “And now you’re stuck with them, I guess.”
“Stuck?” I slowly grinned. “No, I don’t feel that way. I still love every one I have.”
And with that, I drew down my black veil, clicked my Doc Martens, slumped my shoulders, and slowly dragged myself out the door.
Photo courtesy of the author
Rachael Koenig is a writer and humorist deriving most of her inspiration from her two sons, aged 9 and 4, and step-daughter, aged 12. Her site Maxisms contains personal stories and a collection of precocious, snarky, and hilarious conversations between herself and her children.