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So you and your kid want to get matching tattoos
"This is you wanting this for you, and me wanting this for me."
When my neighbor S. told me that she and her 19-year-old daughter L. had plans to get matching koi tattoos, I immediately asked her if I could interview her about the process. Stories of parents having fun, loving relationships with their young adult children give me hope for the future. Plus, I like hearing tales of people’s well-chosen tattoos. So here’s the mom’s perspective of getting inked with your young adult child, along with some do’s and dont’s.
How did you come up with the image?
L. came up with this idea a year ago. She had all kinds of ridiculous ideas of what she wanted to tattoo on herself. Then about six months ago, she glommed onto the idea of the koi, I think when I was in the hospital with an illness. She wanted something very permanent, and she wanted it with me. Do you remember that American Tail movie, with Fievel? “Somewhere Out There.” I mean, it’s so hokey, but “looking at the same stars” was L.’s thing. I used to sing that to her when she was little, about her adoption and the fact that even when I didn’t have her, I had her.
Somewhere along the way, we landed on koi. They were a gift from the Emperor of China to the Emperor of Japan, thousands of years ago. We did tons of research on different designs we liked, on different artists. We settled on an artist in [Chicago’s] Chinatown named Hori Fong. Then we sent him several images of other tattoos that we sort of liked. We did not see his design until right before our appointment. We were delighted. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece.
Did you ask for those geometric lines? Or are those all him?
One of the designs that we sent him had some geometrics in it. He said it didn’t have the proper Feng Shui, so he redid it. He put in some and asked us if we liked it. The koi is overcoming adversity and perseverance, so it just fit L. and me perfectly, all the symbolism of it. The koi have to swim up. It can’t swim down; it’s bad luck. For L.’s, because it’s on her scapula, it’s just going up and it has that slight curve. Originally, I was planning on putting it in the other direction. But that was out of the question once we did our own homework. When I was sitting with Hori Fong and he was like, “What’s your placement?” I said, “Well, it has to be swimming towards my heart.”
How long did it take?
I thought that was quick. Two hours on L., then about a half an hour break when he got something to eat and he was shaking off his hands. And then not even quite two hours on me because he had just done it. I asked him, “Is this boring because you’re doing it again?” And he’s like, “No, I’m in the zone.”
Where he shaded on L. he shaded on me. It was exact. And he’s like, “I made hers slightly darker because her skin tone is slightly darker, and I wanted to make it appropriate for your actual skin tones and not just stick a design on you.” Which was so thoughtful.
This wasn’t your first tattoo—was L. nervous about her first?
Not really. I think she was calmer than I was. All of my anxiety about it was having it in a place that I could see because the others I merged together are on my back. I’ll catch it in the mirror sometimes. I’m like, “Oh I have that tattoo. It’s cool.” But no one sees it. I have to be wearing a racerback tank top to show it, but I’m 52 years old, so I don’t do very much. Plus, visible tattoos were not permitted where I used to work: it was a very taboo thing for me. And then also me being Jewish. But L. seemed to have no anxiety.
It’s her generation, probably.
Generationally, she was so on board with “I need a tattoo.” I did get her around to picking a good artist, to spend the money. Don’t do something stupid. A friend of hers got two before she left for college. And one is just downright awful. She walked in and had them do it and it’s just absolutely horrible.
L. can hide hers easily with her clothes if she has to look a certain way. But then as soon it was on me, I have done a complete flip where I could not be happier that it’s on there because it is this constant reminder of my relationship with my daughter.
How painful was it?
It didn’t hurt. It looked like the artist was using a Mont Blanc ink pen and the whole thing was portable. My last two were with a compressor and it just felt very different. It was just this really gentle touch. Zero blood. For my last tattoo, I remember the artist wiping off blood. This time there was no blood, no pain, no annoying buzzing noise; he and I just had a conversation.
That shop looks really cool, too. I find traditional tattoo shops to be aggro and intimidating and I have a hard time speaking up because I feel like a wimp.
I think there isn’t that hyper-masculinity feel to the shop. It’s very hip, urban, and more of a skateboard theme with an Asian bend. Having the business end run by Hori Fong’s wife, Helen, a very strong Asian woman, felt empowering to me that I was able to speak up. I talked to her for quite a bit of the time that L. was being tattooed when Helen wasn’t piercing or handling other customers.
We were there for five hours, watching people come in. That was fascinating. These 19-year-old idiots, and getting the stuff they were getting was hilarious. One girl comes in who had an appointment with one of the apprentices and she’s asking her drunk friends, “What word should I get?” And she chose “Muse.” I’m like, “But who’s the muse? Do you know what the word means?” This one girl got the infinity symbol from some TV show. I’m like, “What’s the meaning to you?” But I think that is generational, which is why I really relished doing this with L. She didn’t get something just thoughtless.
What were some of the other designs that L. thought about?
There was never anything else I entertained, but L. wanted to do a panda bear with bamboo, and her date of adoption. A lot of this was happening by text because she doesn’t call home that often. I was like, “…Okay…” because for me it’s a really loaded date. We don’t do the term “gotcha day,” and I don’t even really like the term “family day.” To me, it’s the day that L. gained a family and that we gained this incredible daughter, but it’s also the day that she was taken away from her culture, her birthplace, and the country where she belongs.
I asked L., without putting my feelings into it, “What is your attachment to this date?” She said almost exactly what I just said. She was like, “Well, I have these mixed feelings about it, but mostly it’s this really positive date that my life changed. I went from this orphanage in China to this new place.” It’s a date that has all this meaning for her, which I thought was super awesome. But I was not going to put that on me. I think we talked about maybe the coordinates of Fenyi City, Jiangxi Province-
—That’s very Angelina Jolie…
…It’s been done. And it’s also a big thing in the international adoption community. There aren’t a lot of adoptive parents internationally who are tattoo people, because they’re super religious Christians for the most part. But if they’re going to get a tattoo, it’s going to be the coordinates.
Did you pay for her tattoo?
I did not. I paid the deposits, which were like $150 each. And I told her from the get-go that she would be paying for her own tattoo. They were $880 apiece.
So L., who is in ROTC, used her hard-earned money from the Army. I told her that I think that it’s such a personal choice to get a tattoo that I felt that she should pay for it. I would have been happy to shell it out, but it was completely about the meaning of “you own this.” This is not me wanting this for you. This is you wanting this for you, and me wanting this for me.
What did your husband and teen son think?
I think my son was probably a little jealous, but you’ll never get that out of him. And my husband was more of like, “It’s not my thing, but I’m glad you like it.” It comes off weird, but then when I sat with it, I was like, okay, the response is fine, because I don’t want him to say, “Oh my God, I love it so much,” when he doesn’t. I think my husband loves that L. has it and I have it.
Has your son expressed interest in getting one with you as well?
He’s expressed zero interest in tattoos period. He’s a huge wimp. All of his questions were like, “Did it hurt? Did it hurt? Did it hurt? Did it hurt? How about now? Does it hurt now?” So I don’t think he could do it, even though no, it didn’t hurt. It’s ever so slightly itchy. That is it. Tomorrow’s a week out.
What advice would you have for other mothers who have contemplated this with their kids about doing it in a way where everyone feels good about it?
Do your homework. We have a shared photo album that says “tattoo” that has all these different variations of koi from all different artists around the country. We even contemplated going to New York city to Bang Bang, but they start at five grand. We were like, “Hmmm, no.”
Everything was together, even though it was done via text. Do homework about what you want, and why. Have some underlying meaning to what you’re getting, and then make all of the decisions together.
For us, it was never a question of who was going first, because it was her first tattoo. I got my back tattoo at a shop where other people were walking in all around. Because Tattoo Union was such a great shop, they put a privacy screen all around her, which I thought was really cool. I went and peeked a couple of times and then Helen, Hori Fong’s wife went and peeked a couple of times and then came back and told me L. was doing great.
No one person can drive the train. If you’re going to do this as a together thing, make all the decisions together. And let your young adult pay for their tattoo because it’s there forever. I want her to know that it wasn’t a gift from me. You own it. I also had L. be part of the setting it up process. That it wasn’t like, “Mommy’s going to do this for you.” She had to be involved in the coordination of everything.
I am just so freaking pleased with the whole process from start to finish. It’s so rare that when you have something in your head that goes a certain way, it just goes that way. These are the victories in life.
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