The Friendship Tattoo That My Friends Bailed On

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Photo: iStockphoto

Every summer, I get ready to make my first beach trip. And then I remember it. My tattoo.

I have a tattoo, which is no big deal — plenty of people have tattoos, and often those tattoos are meaningful works of art with their own provenance stories. My tattoo is not that. My tattoo is embarrassing for a couple of reasons. It’s in a place kept hidden most of the year (my “upper butt” — not lower back, not full cheek, but somewhere between the two, on the right side). With my first bikini-wearing of the year, however, at least a portion is revealed for the world to see. When people view it for the first time, their reaction tends to be not “Nice tattoo” or “Where did you get that?” in impressed, reverential tones, but something more like “YOU have a TATTOO?” followed by suppressed giggles and, “It’s on your butt!” Friends who’ve known for years I had the tattoo will recoil in horror upon sight of it again and whisper, “I always forget you have that.”

My tattoo has impressed no one; therefore, neither have I.

The other thing about my tattoo is the story of how I got it.

It all began freshman year in college, when I became friends with a girl who had a sunburst tattoo. Was it a great tattoo? Probably not, but she seemed to like it, and we were in college, and I thought she was the coolest; therefore her tattoo was, too. She’d gotten it with her mom, who sported a matching sunburst. As the story went, she’d confessed to her mother one day that she wanted this tattoo, and her mom said, in a ripped-from-the-textbooks attempt at reverse psychology, “You can get it if I go with you and get one, too.” So they did. Somewhere along the way this became a lovely mother-daughter bonding experience as opposed to a “Holy shit, my mom and I both have lower-abdomen tats, and I will never be seen with her in public again” moment.

In this friend’s account, tattoos were wonderful. They brought people together. They were symbols of love you wore on the skin. And so formed an idea. I had a spring break trip to Florida planned with two of my best high-school friends, who were attending their respective universities in different states. College could too easily mean the end of high-school friendships, we’d heard. Why not cement ours with a grand together-forever gesture on our vacation?

“You guys, I have a great idea,” I told them on a three-way phone call before the trip, in between talk of how many hot guys we’d surely meet in this part of Florida known as the “Redneck Riveria.”

“Oh, interesting,” said one of them. “Hmmm,” said the other. “I’ve always thought maybe I wanted a nose ring.”

“We’ll never forget our trip this way!” I said. “Imagine, in 60 years, we can show each other our tattoos at the nursing home.”

At Navarre Beach, Florida, we sunned ourselves on the hot, white, softer-than-baby-powder sand. We frequented ramshackle tiki bars with the help of fake I.D.'s acquired so recently they still had that new-car smell. We flirted haltingly with older, beer-swilling men. We ate as many Pop-Ices as our stomachs could hold.

One late afternoon, my skin a too-warm patchy pink, we went for our tattoos. A burn wasn’t going to stop me; I had already planned what I would get: a crescent moon and a little star at the lower tip of that. I’d picked out the place, too, for no reason other than that it was in the phone book and only about a 30-minute drive away, in nearby Fort Walton. The tattoo prices there fit my college-student budget. Mine would cost a mere $50, plus tip. (Did you tip a tattoo artist? I presumed so but had no idea.)

“We don’t all have to get the same thing,” I assured my friends in the car, where they were noticeably quiet. Nervous, probably. I was nervous, too, and chugged a beer I’d brought along for the ride. “The point is that we all get something.”

The tattoo parlor was in a strip mall, unnoticeable but for its giant, air-brushed sign proclaiming, “Tattoos Here!”

“Can I help you?” asked a guy in a baggy tank top revealing arms full of art. “I’m here for a tattoo!” I announced proudly, waiting for my friends to offer up the same. One of them coughed. “We’re … just looking,” she said. “We’re just here for support,” said the other. “Didn’t you say you wanted your nose pierced, at least?” I asked her. She shrugged and feigned interest in a binder of designs.

Maybe if I went ahead with it, they would, too. “I want a moon and a star,” I told the guy, and he quickly drew a picture, which I approved. “I want the moon to be purple and the star to be yellow,” I added. “That’ll be extra,” he told me and ushered me into a little room where I leaned over a table and pulled my shorts down. The needle buzzed, I gritted my teeth, and my “friends” came to check in on me. “How are you doing?” they asked. “It doesn’t hurt at all!” I lied. “What are you getting?” It was as the purple pigment was being injected, they confessed: They’d never planned to get tattoos at all, and no, not nose rings either. “You were so excited,” they said. “We didn’t have the heart to tell you the truth.”

“So you let me just go through with this?”

They had no answer, but there it was, right on my butt.

When I walked out of the tattoo parlor, I had a bloody, gauze-covered, purplish-and-yellowish moon and star on my ass; a sheet of paper titled “How to Clean and Care for Your New Tattoo” in my hand; and a headache. My sunburn felt worse, and I was dizzy and nauseous. We got back in the car, me sitting gingerly. “You’re both wimps,” I said, and they laughed. I tried to laugh, too, but I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten my friendship tattoo … alone. Where had my mission gone wrong? And how was I going to live this one down? Too late, I felt a wave of regret.

The next night, a guy I knew from college called. He and two friends were vacationing nearby. Should they come over? Sure! My tattoo shame had subsided, and I was eager to show off my new ink. Boys liked tattoos, right? Tattoos were sexy, especially on butts? I figured at least one of these men — all of them conservative business-school types from Atlanta, but so what? — would be impressed by my daring. They brought over a case of beer and we drank it, then moved on to mixed drinks. It was determined that they would spend the night, and we paired off. “Want to see my new tattoo?” I asked my companion, and he nodded. The shorts came down, and there it was: a slightly scabby crescent moon and tiny star. I looked at him expectantly.

“Er, isn’t that, like, the flag of Turkey?” he asked. "That’s going to make travel in any Muslim countries sort of awkward.”

Oh crap. I had inadvertently not only gotten a friendship tattoo that wasn’t a friendship tattoo at all, I was also now a possible enemy to an entire world religion. “Well, I’m not going to show them my butt!” I snapped.

These days, I hardly think about my “friendship tattoo” at all — A+ on placement, D- on vexillology — until beach season comes around again. Shortly after I got it, my mom saw mine and told me it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m pretty sure she’s wrong: I’ve done stupider things (biking under the influence, for one). The truth is, even though the tattoo itself is not particularly artful or  shared by good friends as a symbol of our undying bond, I am fond of it. It reminds me of those women, that time in life, and how empowering it can feel to say you’ll do something and, regardless of how impulsive and ill-conceived it may be, just going ahead with it. Or maybe that’s just tattoo-rationalizing. It’s not in my interest to hate something that’s on my butt forever. We’re in it together, my tattoo and me.