Not-great tattoos remind you that you are a constantly evolving human—that your definitions of beauty and happiness may change form.
I rolled the waistband of my jeans down a bit, and Aaron placed the stencil of the spider adjacent to my hip bone. I approved almost immediately. Who was I to be picky about placement? I wanted to make it clear that I was confident leaving the logistics in his hands. I hopped onto the table and lay down, and the buzz of the needle commenced—the buzz I’d soon grow addicted to hearing. “Ready for this?” he asked.
The sting of the needle was far less painful than I had expected, but I still did my best to disassociate from the experience and didn’t look down until the outline was complete. It was neither too rudimentary nor too detailed a design, measuring approximately an inch across by two inches long, if you stretched the skin enough. Filling it in with teal ink and some white shading took perhaps ten minutes tops. It was all so fast, so easy. I walked out the door with my spider in tow and immediately knew I wanted more.
In the early 2000s, it wasn’t difficult to expose one’s hips, since low-rise jeans were pretty much the only jeans available, and I was quick to show the new addition on my body to friends (whether or not they’d asked). Just one other person in my graduating class had also been tattooed—a dolphin on her shoulder, decidedly not the “alternative” aesthetic I had set out to achieve—so I enjoyed my newfound status as the girl with the cool tattoo, even if that status was mostly in my own head.
I kept the spider a secret from my mother (and all of my family, really; word spreads fast in an Italian-American household) because I was certain she’d flip. I was an only child and, as a rule, my mother has always approached new situations with fear. She’s never even pierced her ears, nor did she allow me to pierce mine until I was fourteen, years after being worn down by my pleading. Though we were perhaps as close as a mother and daughter could be at the height of my teen angst, I regularly felt stifled by her attempts to rein in my independence. I was less scared of what her reaction might be and more put off by the idea of having to waste time discussing why a tattoo wasn’t a big deal.
Of course, I was wrong to think I could hide it forever, and, a few months after getting the spider, my mother learned about the new addition to my body. She reacted about as I’d imagined she would, going so far as to threaten the tattoo shop owner with a lawsuit, me with laser tattoo removal. (Neither threat, thankfully, was executed.)
By the time I turned eighteen and was no longer beholden to the demands of a legal guardian, I felt a sigh of relief. Although as a commuter student at NYU I would live under my parents’ roof until I was twenty-two, I was still emboldened by a new sense of freedom. Between school and work and a social life, I was rarely at home during the day and, as one does during their college years, steadily gained more confidence in asserting my agency. So, of course, I continued to amass ill-advised designs on my flesh. My parents continued to shake their heads in displeasure with the discovery of each.
As a younger person without much expendable income, my approach was less artful curation and more “whatever I can get with a hundred bucks.” This resulted in a Disney-character tramp stamp (I promise, I really do, that tramp stamps were considered cool at the time; I also realize that this term may carry with it an anti-feminist connotation, but that's how lower-back tattoos were widely referred to during their peak, and I’d counter that there’s nothing wrong with being overtly sexual), a hybrid cat-fairy with blonde pixie cut, and a stained-glass illustration of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, that looks, these days, less stained glass and more multicolored swamp creature—all housed within inches of one another.
With age, many realizations about life’s simple truths suddenly become incredibly lucid: The 6 a.m. flight is never, ever worth the pennies saved. When a snowstorm hits New York, you’d better keep wearing those snow boots for at least another two weeks as curbside puddle-jumping becomes your de facto fitness routine. And getting a pretty stupid tattoo as a teenager is, ultimately, something to celebrate rather than be mortified about.
Itchy pink bumps dotted the undersides of my upper arms from childhood through early adulthood, the result of chronic eczema flare-ups, some instances worse than others. I was certain that the whole world was fixated on them whenever my arms were exposed. This was—poof!—no longer a concern after I’d finished up two half sleeves. The ability to steer the way the world viewed my body, even if that just meant obscuring my prickly arms, lended nothing short of the ultimate high. And that in itself somehow made me feel more confident in taking other risks: going on solo vacations, applying for that job that felt just out of reach, making the first move with a crush. The more I got tattooed, the stronger I felt that enlivening sensation of control over my future.
All that to say, tattoos allow you to establish agency over your own body—a concept of particular importance for us as women in a world that so often depicts women’s bodies as things that men, above all else, are supposed to have said agency over. It’s a reminder that, no matter what age you are, your body is yours and yours only, and that you are in charge of whatever you want to do with it or add to it or remove from it (ideally with the assistance of a licensed professional). Will it make you feel more confident to show skin that you were otherwise self-conscious about once it’s been drawn upon in whatever way suits you? Fire up those needles, baby.
Not-great tattoos remind you that you are a constantly evolving human—that your definitions of beauty and happiness may change form. And what’s more beautiful and inspiring than that?
It is the ultimate proof that you can face your fears, that you can be a person who embodies the mantra “I’m in the business of getting things done.” The high of that gleaming first tattoo, for me, was one equally attributed to overcoming fear of the unknown and surviving unscathed—the unknown being What does several tiny needles jabbing my hip for twenty minutes straight feel like?—as it was to feeling officially “alt.” (The Bush and Tool posters on my wall simply weren’t cutting it.)
A bad tattoo makes for a good story. It may not be the classiest move to emblazon one’s flesh with the mascot for Sparks, the caffeinated malt liquor beverage du jour circa 2005—the beverage that some may classify as the (frankly, far superior) precursor to the now-illegal Four Loko—but when you and your best friend get matching tattoos of the little blue lightning-bolt man? Class takes a back seat to the memories made in cramped first apartments and sweaty Williamsburg bars until last call.
You’ll form special bonds commiserating with other grown adults who’ve made some awful tattoo decisions in decades of yore. Your barbed-wire armband around that 311 band logo? His weird snail in glasses wearing a top hat? Who’s to say they’re better or worse than my fairy with cat ears, or my purple crescent moon engulfed by sad blue clouds (I . . . think they’re clouds)?
It humbles you. In fact, I’d argue, there are very few things in this life as humbling as being reminded every single time you’re naked in a dressing room, or naked with a new romantic partner, or almost naked in a bikini and innocent bystanders catch a glimpse of you from behind that it appears as though someone has scooped up a handful of unrelated shapes and objects and thrown them haphazardly at your back, and you’ve decided to make this a permanent part of your person. You’ll be more discerning as you grow older, if and when you decide to collect more tattoos, and also your frontal lobe will now be completely developed. The stakes will be much lower. Your world will recalibrate; everything will be okay.
Most importantly, not-great tattoos remind you that you are a constantly evolving human—that your likes and dislikes and definitions of beauty and happiness may change form, that they may shift from one month or one year or one decade to the next. And what’s more beautiful and inspiring than that? (Not my Dumbo lower back tattoo surrounded by odd little squiggles, that’s what.)
With every glance at those poor decisions, I’m transported back in time: to college, or postcollege, or just that general sense of, Wow, I was really too old to come home with a Sanrio character tattooed on my torso, but here we are. And holy moly, am I a completely different human, but also in many ways I’m still the same human I was at nineteen, with marginally better eyebrows. *
For me, the desire to get a tattoo typically comes first, the concept second. Very often, I’ve gravitated to a tattooist’s style before being set on a specific tattoo. Sometimes, I’ve selected designs that mean nothing to me in and of themselves; my arms swirl with lilies and birds and gingko leaves because I like lilies and birds and gingko leaves, with no greater significance. I’ve also gotten tattoos for charity, like a flash-design pit bull whose proceeds were donated to the city animal shelter.
Other times, my ideas for tattoos are loosely associated with something personally meaningful: for instance, the large portrait of a 1920s flapper on my right thigh, a rebellious breed widely considered to be the first generation of truly independent, boundary-pushing young American women.
And sometimes they do hold a truly special meaning for me, like one of my favorites, a portrait of my Maine coon cat wearing a crown like the royalty he unquestionably is. Or pigeons that carry a banner on either side of a sacred heart in the middle of my chest that reads “home sweet home,” a black-and-gray design adorned with roses that spans from shoulder to shoulder, an homage to the city that raised me.
I’m currently planning a full back piece to eclipse those bits and pieces of who I was, fifteen and twenty years ago: a Japanese-style design incorporating koi and flowers and splashing waves, spanning from my shoulders all the way down to my lower back (see you never, Dumbo tramp stamp!). A cohesive design that will live on my body forever—or, at least, until I perhaps decide to cover that up decades from now too. I’d been considering a cover-up for the greater part of the last decade; I’m finally in a place where I’m financially secure enough to take the plunge, with an artist I trust, whose work I admire. And I’ve chosen to keep two existing tattoos on either side of my rib cage: two koi, one black and one orange, flanked by cherry blossoms. They were both done way back when by Aaron.
They don’t mean anything other than the fact that I think koi are beautiful and, done well, translate into beautiful tattoos.
There’s also something special about what we choose not to change, but to keep, in such a time of chaos.
It feels especially poignant in a year like 2021, after so many of us have been faced with realigning priorities and acting on decisions we may have not made otherwise. Still, for all that the pandemic destroyed and took away, it also opened up space for other things for so many—like moving to a new city, devoting more time to creative pursuits, or finally adopting a dog. In a way, this transformative back piece also serves to remind me that I continue to be in control of my body, particularly as it continues to move about in an especially tumultuous, still-very-much-uncertain world. And while this world may be in an unnerving flux, I still have some power over my body, and that feels sacred to me.
With my wedding date pushed ahead a year thanks to the pandemic, I’ve been able to use some of those savings for the event that should have happened in early 2021 toward my new tattoo instead. Ever the planner, I bought my outfit for it a while ago—a long satin off-white skirt and lace crop top that my updated back piece will peek out from at the shoulders. As someone who has never particularly aspired to have a wedding, nor bought into the idea of institutionalized marriage and all the fanfare that comes alongside it, it also seems apt that I’d enter into a new, unexpected chapter with this transformative piece in tow.
There’s also something special about what we choose not to change, but to keep, in such a time of chaos. And so maybe those old tattoos I’ve chosen to retain are still there to remind me that some decisions I’ve made weren’t so poor after all, and others were, and to build upon both, understanding what to carry forward and what to leave behind, is to be human.
Emmy Favilla is a New York–based writer and editor whose work has been published in BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, Shondaland, Tenderly, Pigeon Pages, and other publications. An NYU grad, she is the author of a book about language and the internet called "A World Without 'Whom'" (Bloomsbury, 2017) . She lives with her partner, two cats, a goofy pit bull, and a rotating cast of foster animals.