Tattoo Trauma

April 9, 2006

Even as they became the trendy, cool thing to get, I was never much interested in tattoos.

Where I grew up, only gang girls got tattoos, usually in elaborate Old English lettering. Three dots on the wrist, which stands for “Mi Vida Loca,” or a single black teardrop below an eye were not uncommon. So, umm…that just wasn’t for me.

But in 2002, my beloved grandmother died following a fierce battle with cancer. Because she was like a second mother, and I had never before lost anybody close to me, I was devastated. That December, when my husband decided to get a tattoo on his 31st birthday, I was surprised to find myself wanting one, too. I walked out of the tattoo parlor with a very small calla lily on the left side of my lower back, just above my butt, too low for anybody else to see.

Calla lilies were my Abuelita’s favorite flower, and she’s carrying a beautiful bunch of them in her wedding portrait. I cried as the needle pierced my flesh, not because it hurt, but because I missed her with every fiber of my being. The tattoo is a permanent reminder of her, and everything she gave me. It is my way of making sure she will always be with me.

Given the deep, personal meaning of my little old tattoo, I was horrified and yet strangely amused by this story from the New York Times:

Shad Magness wanted to celebrate the love he felt for his young son with a grand gesture.

At a Los Angeles tattoo parlor four years ago, he had two Chinese characters etched in a prominent spot on his left forearm. He assumed that the translation in the sample book the tattoo artist showed him – “one love” – was correct. The first sign of trouble came six months later, when Magness was shopping at a Staples office supply store and the checkout clerk informed him that the characters on his arm meant not “one love” but “love hurts.”

Magness consulted some bilingual co-workers, who confirmed the bad news: His tattoo did indeed trumpet the pain of failed love.

The poor guy is now going through the painful and time-consuming process of tattoo removal. Ouch.

According to the story, Chinese characters are one of the most popular tattoos, and countless people are walking around thinking their tattoo says one thing, when it really means another. The reason:

American tattoo artists – few of whom know Chinese – copy the characters from templates that are often of uncertain provenance and are easily corrupted if a word is unwittingly substituted, or if someone decides to take liberties by altering a few strokes. When two characters are combined to form what is in English a catchy phrase, context can be lost and the result can be hilarious – or worse.

Errors are common enough to be good business for tattoo removal specialists and to fuel a blog,, which posts photographs of botched tattoos accompanied by sardonic commentary from Tian Tang, a Chinese-born engineering student.

The story goes on to say that Britney Spears got a Chinese character that she thought meant “mysterious.” Actual translation: “strange.”

And Dallas Mavericks player Marquis Daniels thought he was getting his initials tattooed into his forearm. But his arm actually says “healthy woman roof.”

Wow. Talk about a forever faux pas.

Now that I’m a mother, I have considered getting another tattoo in honor of my daughter (no Chinese characters, though!). I want something small and simple, preferably near my existing tattoo. So far, I’m drawing a blank.

I thought about getting a “T,” for my husband’s first initial, and an “M,” which is my daughter’s first initial. Then I realized it would look like my ass is trademarked.

Then there’s the matter of our second child, who will hopefully join us in about two years. Our top name choice for a girl is Isabel, so of course I would have to add her initial. And then my ass would read “TMI.”

Oh. My. God.

What’s the personal meaning behind your tattoos, fellow moms? And any suggestions for a small and subtle tattoo in honor of my daughter?