Friday, September 9, 2011

An Indelible Commitment

I started writing this while I was still officially taking a break from blogging, so it's a little out of order. But still relevant.

9 Aug
I’m getting more artwork done on my right arm today. The plan is to finish out my lower arm so I’ll have a full sleeve. Jimmy McMahon at Jimmy Mack Designs in Haleiwa started the sleeve the summer of 2009, a few weeks after I got back home from Bahrain. I gave him a general idea of what I wanted…something with magnolia blossoms, irises and snap dragons. He filled in the rest, and I’ve gotten endless compliments on how beautiful the tattoo is.

So now I’m going back in and he’s gonna draw down to my wrist. This time I asked him to use the same design concept as the upper arm, but instead of wind lines, I want waves, with some fish and birds peeking out. I have no doubt that it’s going to be gorgeous. (9 Sep update: it's about 80 percent done. I tapped out after four hours on the day I left (fourth sitting). Still have a large stripe of teal/turquoise water to fill in; probably another four or five hours, including touch-ups. Jimmy left it so that it doesn't look totally weird, and you can get a sense of how it will look completed. I'll get it finished when I head back to Hawaii in December after graduation. Pictures to follow upon completion.)

I got my first tattoo when I was 21, a cute little chain of daisies around my upper left arm. Bodean, a big-bellied, bearded biker in Richmond, KY gave it to me. I thought I was pretty bad ass. I think I got it right around the time I graduated from college. It took me two years before my mother saw it. She didn’t approve. After that, I got the thistle on my right foot (quote from the guy in Raleigh, NC who drew it, “that’s the weirdest f'king tattoo I’ve ever given.” I think he might have been exaggerating a little). I got that one after attending a strategic planning conference at my alma mater, Berea College…the small stipend they paid me as a guest speaker covered the cost of the tattoo. And then I got the weird black lines around my daisies just before going to OCS at some random shop in Cherry Point, NC. There’s something about doing something responsible that makes me get tattoos, I guess.

After that I went on about a six year hiatus from getting tattoos…and was able to give blood again on a regular basis.

But then I found myself in another position of responsibility and not a little bit of stress, and I went back to my tattooing ways. One of the warrant officers onboard HAMILTON found an artist in Vasco de Nunez, Panama that we all ended up going to. Jimmy (don’t know what it is about tattoo artists named Jimmy) had been tattooing since he was 14 years old, and by the time we all met him, he had over 40 years’ experience. I started with the slightly absurd skull and trident on the back of my upper right arm, just before going to two months of Tactical Action Officer (TAO) school in Newport, RI. Then I got the first two swallows on my belly, and the last tattoo I got from Panama Jimmy was the Leo sign on my right wrist…figured it was fair warning to anyone who met me.

Being in Bahrain didn’t stop the tattoo plans. MAUI had a tattoo party. We kept three tattoo artists busy for more than eight hours, giving eleven crewmembers tattoos. I got my third swallow…in desert camo colors this time. I’ve got a master plan for all those swallows, but can’t really go forward with it until I’m done with getting underway.

When I got back to the states, KISKA was in drydock…I've told that story here before. But it was a hard time for me, coming home, but not having a home; dealing with the ship and the shipyard; readjusting to stateside operations. I wanted something good going on. And that’s when I met Jimmy Mack. I wanted magnolia blossoms, irises and sweet peas because my grandparents had them in their yard when I was a kid. My grandfather had a *huge* garden, and did some hobby-breeding of roses and irises. And in their front yard was a big, beautiful magnolia tree that I always loved. Being a half-sleeve, that one took quite a while and got me through a good part of my 14-month tour on KISKA, what with healing time and touch ups and such.

Right before my change of command I got another swallow, this time from Jess at Habitat Tattoo in Hilo. A couple of the guys on the boat had gotten work from her that I liked. And I knew I wanted a swallow from the Big Island. Her bird is cheeky and flirty and colorful…right over my heart (so very, very cheesy, I know). But it was tough leaving Hilo. And KISKA.

Now, this summer, I’m back in Waialua, taking care of my terminally ill mom. I love Hawaii, and one of the hardest parts of this whole experience for me is wishing I wasn’t here, having to deal with my mom’s cancer…her incremental decline, the narrowing of her world, her discomfort and inability to do much physically for herself.  Let’s just say it sucks, and leave it at that for now. But looking back over my history of tattoos, I realize that I get them when I need something good and quintessentially *me* in my life. I think the thought actually crossed my mind recently, if I get my full sleeve this summer, at least something good will have come out of the time…which is a little more grim and grumpy that my usual attitude. I must have been having a bad day.

Somehow I find myself a little nervous about getting this one done though. It’s kinda a huge commitment and a very visible statement of individuality. The commitment part doesn’t bother me so much. I’ve pretty much gotten used to having tattoos to the point that I don’t even really notice them on my skin anymore. Most people I’ve talked to that have extensive bodywork recognize that level of commitment I’m talking about. It’s a little different than the decision to get that nice, but small piece of artwork that can be easily covered by a t-shirt or long pants…you know, the one on the shoulder, or the tramp stamp, or the ankle tattoo. There’s a time commitment to getting it done, a definite financial commitment, but also, I think a commitment to knowing yourself well enough to go through the process and then live with that decision.

But I’ve also gotten used to being judged by other people because of them. I think the worst experience was at the airport in Bahrain one evening. I had gone to pick up someone probably coming back from Kuwait. But as I was standing there at the gathering spot, an older gentleman in a traditional headscarf took notice of me. He would look at my foot, look at my face, look at my foot and then stare daggers off into the distance. In retrospect, I appreciate his restraint for not being more aggressive or vocal with his denunciation of me. I kinda got the point regardless.

Maybe the commitment I’m nervous about making is the commitment to long-sleeved uniforms. Every day. Year round. Even in summer. I’ve done some preliminary math. I’m good from November 1 to March 31 with the Winter Dress Blue uniform. So it’s really only seven months of the year I have to worry about. And of that seven months, I should be able to wear ODUs (with the sleeves rolled down, of course) about 90 percent of the time, depending on what HQ office I go to. And for that other ten percent, SDBs might be appropriate about five out of ten occasions. If I’m in a meeting in the HQ building where trops are required, there’s always the woolly-pully. In the end, there might be two times a year that I have to wear plain ol’ trops. Umm, personnel inspections, in trops—yeah, kinda nervous about those. Maybe I'll just take leave those days...and make sure I ask for feedback from my supervisor on my professional appearance to ensure s/he is satisfied with my uniform presentation.

Now, all of my tattoos are well within the written Coast Guard regulations on what is allowable…nothing below the wrist, nothing explicit or offensive. I did my homework. I looked at COMDTINST M1020.6F (Uniform Regulations Manual) which says in section 2.A.1, “Appearance in uniform is a key element for how the public perceives the men and women of the Coast Guard, and how the Coast Guard men and women honor their country and the service. Coast Guard personnel are responsible for maintaining their personal appearance and their uniforms to reflect the long and proud history and traditions of the Coast Guard.” If there’s anything that positively influences my decision, it’s that little quote, “long and proud history and traditions of the Coast Guard.” I mean, really, what’s more traditional than sailors getting tattoos?!? 

I looked at COMDTINST 1000.1B (Tattoo, Body Marking, Body Piercing and Mutilation Policy), which says in paragraph 4,  The ultimate goal of this instruction is to ensure our workforce presents a sharp, professional military appearance to the public we serve while also allowing individual expression through authorized body art that is consistent with the Coast Guard’s core values.” Check. 

And I even reread the Commandant’s Guidance to PY12 Officer Selection Boards and Panels, you know, just to be sure that I wasn’t doing anything to blatantly disregard a focus on professional appearance for officers. It really doesn’t go into appearance much at all; it’s much more focused on performance.

So, am I safe? Do I really think there will be no professional repercussions for having a tattoo that is visible in trops? How much do I care? I guess I care only as much as the tattoo impacts one thing: my ability to be effective at my job. Now in my mind, I’ll do the same job if I’ve got my entire face covered with tattoos or nary a speck of ink on me. I'll give my best effort at any job because that's what I believe in. It's not like the tattoo ink physiologically interacts with my body chemistry to negatively impact my brain capacity. Jimmy and I joked about this...he said, oh wait, I'm using this new ink, it's called Moron Ink (and then we went on to talk about how he mixes his own inks, using a natural preservative as a base so that the inks will last longer if he doesn't use that particular color for a while).

The one thing about tattoos that may impact my ability to do my job is how other people react to them. Hence the long-sleeved uniforms, long-sleeved shirts to and from the office, and long-sleeved shirts during unit-sponsored events including workouts. I don't think that will completely make the tattoo invisible and totally keep coworkers, supervisors and other professional acquaintances from seeing it, but it is a recognition of how tattoos can distract from whatever might be the actual task-at-hand. 

Life is...a daring adventure or nothing.

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