Why I Love My Botched Tattoo

To me, tattoos are about memories, specifically the ones you make while getting them.
Two years and several better tattoos later.
Two years and several better tattoos later.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if that’s the Gatorade logo tattooed above my left elbow, I’d have enough money to get “This is not the Gatorade logo” tattooed right above it.

It’s not.

OK, it kind of is, but that wasn’t the intent. I can explain, I promise.

There’s nothing wrong with getting tattooed on impulse. The notion that every single tattoo you get should hold deep sentimental meaning is exhausting and doesn’t take into consideration that getting tattooed is fun. It took me a while to admit this to myself, leading to a year during which I insisted that my $20 flash of Milhouse wearing a leather jacket and holding a switchblade, um, actually does mean something to me, thank you very much.

It doesn’t. Milhouse is cool, and leather jackets are cool, and — hot take — switchblades are pretty cool. It was $20, and I got it with one of my best friends. I don’t need a cool story for a dope tattoo of my favorite “Simpsons” character.

Although that’s kind of a story itself, isn’t it? When I got the tattoo, I’d been mostly broke and on the verge of getting evicted for a few months. A Friday the 13th rolled around and with it a citywide $20 flash sheet deal. For the first time in ages, I’d paid all my bills and had some extra cash, so after a lunch shift at the restaurant where we worked, my friend Kasey and I found a shop with $20 “Simpsons” flash sheets, waited our turn and got some cheap ink.

Afterward, we hit up a used book store, and I bought my first Anthony Bourdain paperback. We walked to her apartment, made some pasta and just hung out for a few hours. It was a perfect night, one I think of every time I look at Milhouse brandishing a weapon on my ankle.

If you’re getting a tattoo done the right way, the experiences surrounding it can be just as vital as any internal significance the tattoo holds ― hell, those experiences can provide said internal significance.

Milhouse is easy to love, though. For all the general stupidity of the piece itself, it at least looks the way it’s supposed to. It’s a little more difficult to love my pseudo-Gatorade logo, yet I do. It didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, but then again, there’s still a story.

In March of 2016, I was dealing with the aftermath of a breakup. It wasn’t a messy, spectacular firestorm of a split, mind you. We just went our separate ways, as people so often do. But even the most amicable of breakups can wear you down, and I was having trouble finding my footing again. Nothing felt particularly stable, with my long-delayed college graduation finally right around the corner and a restaurant job wearing me into the ground. Times like these often see us try to find any small way to exert control, be it by way of spring cleaning or a drastic haircut. In this particular case, I decided during a particularly busy Saturday night shift that if I cleared $200 in tips, I’d get a tattoo the next day. When I made the tips, the deal was sealed.

I’d already decided on my tattoo: the David Bowie lightning bolt from the cover of “Aladdin Sane.” Bowie had died a few months earlier, and his music had been on constant rotation since then. I thought about it just long enough to know I wouldn’t regret it and then headed to a tattoo shop I’d been to a couple of times.

Here’s something nobody tells you about tattoo shops: Until you’ve had a good experience, you don’t really know what a bad one looks like. I’d never had a total nightmare tattoo experience, but having now had several great ones, I have the perspective to say that I didn’t know what a good tattoo experience was in March of 2016.

For example, it’s probably not a great idea to just ask for the first available artist without checking out some of the person’s work first. You should also see it as something of a red flag when you ask for a pretty widely recognizable piece of iconography — say, the David Bowie lightning bolt — and the artist doesn’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

I was eager, and I wanted to just get the tattoo, and frankly, I didn’t know any better. So the artist Googled it, drew it up on some transfer paper and then placed it on the back of my arm. I glanced at it in the mirror just enough to see that the placement was correct (admittedly my fault ― take a hard look at the stencil before your artist starts tattooing you!), and then he got to work. Just 20 minutes later, it was all wrapped up.

It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed it was backward.

My tribute to an artist who has influenced me for years and kept me afloat during difficult times was ... backward. My immediate thought was to go back and get it fixed, only to remember that tattoos aren’t haircuts. Whoops.

As the tattoo healed, it became evident that because of the placement between my elbow and triceps, it fully resembled the Bowie lightning bolt only when the skin stretched a certain way. What’s more, the seemingly red fresh ink, once healed, skewed toward the orange end of the spectrum. So rather than the distinct scarlet “Aladdin Sane” lightning bolt, I now had a tattoo of ... a red-orange lightning bolt with a little streak of blue on the side.

Within about a week, the Gatorade inquiries started. I still get them two years down the line. I’m at a point where I can laugh it off. It helps that I’ve now got several (good) tattoos on that arm to distract from it. And yeah, I’ve found myself thinking about ways to cover it up ― getting a blast-over seems unlikely because of the bright color, but blacking it out has crossed my mind.

Still, I think I’m gonna keep this ugly, screwed-up ink. Friends ― some of whom are professional tattoo artists ― seem surprised when I tell them that I’m keeping such a lousy piece in such a visible area.

The notion that every single tattoo you get should hold deep sentimental meaning is exhausting.

But to me, tattoos are about memories, specifically the ones you make while getting them. Even the pieces I have that hold a deeper significance remind me far more now of the days I got them than they do the meaning attached to the piece.

When I look at this lousy lightning bolt, I don’t think of all the nights I belted “Modern Love” at karaoke. Instead, I consider that spiraling feeling I’ve felt so many times before, times when control over even the most minute details of my life felt fleeting. And then I remember the ways I tried to take it back, even if one of those attempts at agency resulted in giving control over what my skin will look like for the rest of my life to a guy who didn’t have any idea what he was doing. It’s a reminder — one that I find all the more powerful now that I’m in a better place.

When I think about it that way, getting it covered up feels like doing myself a disservice. It’s not pretty, but it’s a mile marker I value. To me, it feels that to hide it would be to cower from the reality that I’m the person I am today only because of the free fall I experienced then. Covering it up may make the canvas that is my left arm feel a bit less imperfect, but a blacked-out lightning bolt would mean nothing to me. A botched David Bowie tribute reminds me that I’ve survived this long — and that I know how to go about getting properly tattooed now.