1. a mark left by a healed wound, sore, or burn.
2. a lasting after effect of trouble, especially a lasting psychological injury resulting from suffering or trauma.
3. any blemish remaining as a trace of or resulting from injury or use.
By 16 years old I had 10 tattoos. This was long before celebrities and Super Models took to the ink; piercing was still an underground anomaly and “body modification”with the exception of some really hard-core characters downtown, could still only be found on the pages of National Geographic.
I got my first one when I was 14 years old; GASP! I looked very mature. Yes, my runaway friend and I heard about this amazing tattoo artist in Bensonhurst named Mike Migliorati.* I will never forget the place. He worked out of the basement in his mother’s house and had a sign on the door that read “Tattoo: the Art of Turning White People Colored.” He was a good Italian guy, kind of goofy, but very sweet. We showed up long before dark (and long before tattooing was legal once again in New York). We were sitting outside on his mother’s stoop and he came out after a half hour or so and told us he wasn’t opening for a little while. We were pretty cute and smart and joked with him for a minute. He let us in early, which was great because we had the place to ourselves.
The entire basement, clean as can be, covered from floor to ceiling in old school, fine line and custom tattoos. It was mesmerizing for the visually obsessive like me. My friend went first. We decided to get the same tattoo … you know, like a friendship bracelet, but permanent. Because that is what 14-year-old girls do.
I did look a bit younger than her but it wasn’t until I was sitting in the chair and he had already inked half of the image on the back of my left shoulder when he twisted his head around to the right, smiled and half-laughing said “how old are you again?” I couldn’t lie; we were becoming so chummy after all those hours of chatting. “14.” The hypnotic buzz of the needle stopped. This time it was me wrenching my neck to turn around to see him. I smiled. He was not smiling. Not only was tattooing illegal in NYC at the time, but I was so painfully under age the poor thing looked like he had just killed a dog.
That said, we became good friends and I introduced many of my friends to Mike and he made a lot of money plying his trade on the hard-core youth of the day. In fact he did at least 6 more of the 10 I ended up with. Yes, all before I was 16.
I brought all those tattoos, and numerous holes in my ears home to the Upper East Side every night, well hidden under long sleeves. In fact I took them with me on vacation, to Bermuda in a bathing suit with a cut-off long sleeve shirt on! My father did not ask any questions I suppose because I dressed like such a freak to him anyway, he probably was just happy my legs were getting some sunlight.
My mother however, was getting ever more curious and since I had a pretty good relationship with her all the way along, one day doing something in tandem on the Upper West Side I spilled the beans. She was less horrified than you might imagine; the way I looked at the time, the words “mom, I have something to tell you,” take on a particularly grim hue. 10 tattoos probably sounded manageable. At the time I had turned the corner on 16 and was really ready to move back into more normal life if it would have me. We spoke about it at length and she set out to find a dermatologist.
As luck would have it, by the time I was 16, tattoo removal had already taken some giant leaps forward. And through my father (who still did not know I had any) and his amazing medical roster I went to see Dr. Roy G. Geronemus. Geronemus, today of Laser Surgery fame, then of NYU Medical Center running one of the first Ruby Laser of its kind; and pioneering the latest technology in tattoo removal.
I lived in his office. I went there every week for 2 years. My mother spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on this endless process. Later I learned that I was one of his first great successes. He asked my permission to take before and after shots and apparently I was quite the hit at all the medical conferences! In fact it was on my arm that he discovered that if red ink (which is the hardest for the laser to remove) is tattooed over with black ink, it can be removed! YES, MY ARM TAUGHT HIM THIS! My decision to have a stupid red tattoo covered with a stupid black tattoo advanced medical science! You CAN’T Make this shit up!
Then one day, well on my path back to Upper East Side “normalcy” while leaving Dr. Geronemus’ office I bumped into a friend’s mother in the hospital hallway. She and her husband were major hospital benefactors and her daughter was one of my oldest friends who I had been very close to. Her daughter was deeply a part of the life that seemed so distant from that vantage point. I hadn’t seen her mother in several years.
She smiled warmly when she saw me and reached over to give me a kiss. It was obvious she had not seen me in the past few years because there was no fear in her eyes; just kindness. She asked why I was there and I told her I just left an appointment with Dr. Geronemus. “Oh, he’s a wonderful dermatologist.” She smiled. “Yes, he certainly is” I nodded.
By the time they were done with all they could do, I felt sad to leave really. I had become so fond of him and his wonderful nurse whose name now escapes me. Debbie maybe? But I had nothing else to remove.
I have scars. I wear proof that I lived differently for a time in my childhood. I am ok with that. Certainly prone to romanticizing, I am not being proud of the decisions I made or the evidence they left behind; but I do think scars say something and at this point in my life they are saying something I don’t at all mind hearing.
*name has been changed