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After a Regretful Permanent Tattoo, I Turned to These Realistic Temporary Ones

The author test-drives anime and Medusa tattoos on her upper arm, while an acquaintance tries out a “Sad Life” version. Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos:

Whenever my non–New Yorker friends visited me after I moved to Brooklyn, inevitably at one point we’d be walking around and they’d wonder, “Should I get a tattoo?”

When I first moved to Crown Heights in 2017, I, too, was one of those starry-eyed flaneurs awestruck upon seeing the too-cool-for-school kids with Feiyues sneakers, balloon-shaped overalls in cutting-edge variations of indigo, and ink — ink all over. I obsessively followed tattoo artists on Instagram and paid visits to parlors in three different boroughs (including getting one mind-bogglingly expensive quote at Bang Bang) before finally settling on my first — a lion — which would be done on my back shoulder in a funky single-line style and signal boldness, nonchalance, a flawless sense of taste at once minimalist and unique, with a nod to my emotional interiority, as the lion was a reference to an Auden poem I truly loved, which ends:

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

I found an artist. I went to the appointment. I got the tattoo. I hated it.

The saga of that tattoo, the tears it wrought and the tour of laser-removal medical spas and dermatologists’ offices it led me to embark on over the next four years, is not for these pages. I was a cautionary tale. All my untattooed friends looked at me askance and were secretly glad they weren’t me. After the tattoo, I stopped wearing sleeveless shirts, even though my shoulders were one of my favorite things about my body.

When I got that tattoo, I didn’t really know what I wanted — who, in their early 20s, really does? — or how to ask for it. I certainly didn’t know how to commit to anything: Over the next four years, I moved five more times, to another apartment in Crown Heights, then Murray Hill, then Fort Greene, then Chinatown, then East Harlem. I cut my hair short, grew it long, dyed it, permed it, cut it short again.

Two years ago, I started experimenting with Inkbox tattoos. A cut above the fragile temporary tattoos of youth, Inkbox tattoos look like real black-and-white tattoos and last a few weeks before fading. You can try on anime and animals, images by Basquiat and designs from contemporary tattoo artists like Noil Culture. The catalogue has thousands of tattoos in different styles, from ignorant to blackwork to typography. I amused myself with funny tattoos that said “Sad Life” and “Tired Every Day,” knowing that they were probably phrases I’d identify with for a season — but not for a lifetime. I played with the placement of moody frame tattoos and creepy Medusas, testing how things looked on different parts of my body and how they made me feel. Aspirational? Intimidating? Or just like myself and no more?

Tattoos are interesting. They are, in some sense, a permanent end point to consumer identity. Getting a tattoo involves a degree of certainty that what you like will not change — or not change too much. It involves a degree of knowing who you are. But they’re also signifiers of identity often obtained by young people at a time when their values are being tested and rapidly changing.

In one of the short stories in my forthcoming collection, Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, a high-school girl gets double eyelid surgery and starts seeing tattoos on the people around her — a crow, an eye, a tongue — which are only visible to her. She obsesses over what they might signify about the hidden secrets of the people around her, even as she herself is changing and her relationships with the people around her evolve as well. By the end of the story, after a series of disappointments and disillusionments, she’s grown to understand the things she thought were fixed in her life — friends, values, priorities, family — are transient, and adult life is full of problems that never go away and people who never stay the same. But she also understands herself a little bit better, which opens a window into her future.

After four years of trying to remove my bad tattoo, I felt confident enough to try again and get a permanent cover-up, one that I actually liked. Summer is coming and I’m wearing sleeveless shirts again. And when I feel curious about other parts of me I haven’t yet explored or discovered, I know I can try on a new self like a new tattoo, and when the time comes, let it fade and go.

[Editor’s note: We’ve written about Inkbox temporary tattoos before. Here’s another contributor’s perspective.]

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After a Regretful Tattoo, I Turned to Realistic Fake Ones