I was eighteen years old when I walked into the sketchy tattoo parlor squeezed between a dive bar and marine supply store on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was 1987, and I was a freshman in college with forty dollars burning a hole in my pocket. I’m not quite sure why I was so determined to get a tattoo back then. Today, everyone from soccer moms to chefs to CEOs is covered with ink. But back in the late ’80s, tattoos were a rarity, something you only saw on the hairy arms of aging Harley riders, Vietnam vets, and heavy metal singers.
The owner of the parlor was named Tatts Taylor, and he looked like someone my aunt Janie would describe as having been “rode hard and put up wet.” He was covered in tattoos, most of them dull and faded from years of baking in the south Florida sun. The walls of the parlor were papered in tattoo designs that ranged from small, winking devils and flaming skulls to winged dragons and fantasy landscapes large enough to cover the hood of a small car. I limited myself to what I considered the “introductory” section, an area of tiny designs consisting mostly of kanji symbols and cartoon characters. These seemed to fit both my budget and pain tolerance. I finally settled on an image of a small island with a single palm tree silhouetted by a setting sun. It was $35 and about the size of a fifty-cent piece.
I showed Tatts the design, and he asked me where I wanted it placed. When I pointed to my left hip, one of his furry eyebrows rose, but after a moment he shrugged his shoulders and started prepping his equipment. The tattoo chair was located behind a waist high counter in the back of the parlor and visible to anyone inside the shop. As Tatts began outlining the island on my hip, several large, bearded bikers in leather vests stared at me from the other side of the counter. Look at that tough kid getting that awesome tattoo, I imagined them thinking. He must be a real badass. In retrospect, I think their stares may have been ones of bewilderment rather than awe. They were, after all, watching an eighteen-year-old kid in white shorts and a pink tank top getting a tiny island tattooed where his mom wouldn’t be able to see it.
When I was eighteen, it didn’t occur to me that one day I would be forty-eight. And it’s only just now dawning on me that I will eventually be sixty-eight and one day maybe even eighty-eight. I wonder what the tiny island on my hip will look like then? I wonder what it will mean to me? Will I see it and remember my carefree college days in south Florida? Or will I think of how dramatically things change over the years? Hopefully it will make me recall a dingy tattoo parlor full of grizzled bikers, and how one day, long before tattoos were cool, I strolled inside looking like an extra from Miami Vice without caring what anyone thought of me. Maybe it will remind me that I was once a badass, after all.