The whir of a tattoo machine is a homecoming.
I lie face down on the bench and slow my breathing. I can see the artists around me packing up their stations for the night, and mine reassures me that we can get the tattoo done before the convention closes for the day. I’m indifferent, lulled by the familiarity of the buzzing in my left ear. As she sets the needles into my skin, I focus on my heartbeat. In just over an hour, it’s done — what was once bare skin above my elbow is now a network of curved lines and dots, an intricate mandala.
My cousin lies down on the bench first, worried that if she watches me go first, she won’t get her tattoo done after all. I watch as the tattoo artist sinks the needle into her skin. I cringe. She winces as the needle gets close to her ribcage, and keeps quiet as he traces the numbers and letters onto her side — the coordinates of the hospital where she was born.
I’ve never gotten a tattoo before. My mind races with all of the anecdotes I’ve heard from others. “It’s like a cat scratch.” “It’s like a prickle bush.” But, as I watch the artist finish my cousin’s tattoo, I’m still fascinated. She sits up and goes to take a look at her piece and after a few minutes of clean up and switch over, I’m now lying on the bench, arm out to my side, lifelessly awaiting the first prick.
The buzzing starts and I clench my fist. The artist tells me to relax, and I attempt to as best I can. The needle sinks in — it is like a cat scratch — and within 15 minutes, it’s done. I stand up and take a look at what was once bare skin, now covered in linework. A geometric fox head, to represent my family and our last name. It’s small, but seems to engulf my whole forearm.
A permanent reminder of my dad’s side of the family. Creative and strong.
I’m back at the tattoo shop with my cousin. Round two. This time, we know what to expect — seasoned veterans. She goes first again, and this time I watch as our artist traces a small Daschund on her bicep.
I lie down next and watch as he traces out the lettering I sent him several weeks prior. I imagine my sister sitting down to write it out for me, her unique cursive writing flowing across the page. “Do you want me to clean up the writing a little or leave it as is?” the artists asks. “Leave it,” I say. It’s the imperfections that make it — that make her — unique. Intense but soft.
Again, within 15 minutes, it’s done. I stand up, and take a look in the mirror. On my right arm, between my two distinct freckles, is her writing. “Chummy.” It’s what we’ve called each other for years, but perhaps more so since we both went away for school and our parents separated.
It’s a comfort and a reminder that she — my twin sister — is a rarity.
I arrive in Houston a few months after my mandala has healed. My mother is about to see it for the first time. I successfully avoided showing her my upper arms on our trip to England several weeks before, but in the summer heat of Texas in June, it’s inevitable.
We are heading out for dinner, and my arms are bare. She sees it, her eyes widen and she comes to take a closer look. “When did you get this?” she asks. “A few months ago,” I say. She twists my arm to see the full piece, purses her lips and gives a small nod, then moves onto another topic.
I let out an internal sigh of relief and then wonder why her opinion matters so much.
Because it is her tattoo.
It was spontaneous just like my mother is. It is both harsh and decisive, wild and expansive, just like my mother.
Five years ago, my parents separated. My mother moved to Texas permanently and my father sold our family home. My sister and my mother disconnected. My parents, inevitably, stopped speaking to one another. What I thought was home fell apart.
But, as the tattoos collected and healed, my family healed too. The house we grew up in was no longer my home. The people I love became home, no matter where in the world they were.
The whir of a tattoo machine is a homecoming, now — and each tattoo is a pillar of what makes me, me.
I am home.