By Louise Rafkin
Article from: www.nytimes.com
After more than three decades, the green unicorn tattoo on my right buttock has significantly paled. At least parts of it have. The flanks of the animal, formerly outlined, are now a dotted line. The horn droops.
Thirty-six years ago I was a college freshman and away from home for the first time. Whereas in my small Californian beach town nothing seemed possible, I’d landed in a groovy city where everything seemed possible. I could stay out all night, drink and smoke whatever, skip classes or take magic mushrooms — most of my cohort did.
But ditching my high school persona of stellar student and cheerleader was a hurdle. I wanted to run fast and loose but couldn’t bear to skip a class and found the after effects of drinking unbearable. I was naïve and prudish; the boy who took me on a “date” to a hot tub was sadly surprised to find, while groping in the bubbles, my one-piece bathing suit.
Yet I deeply wanted to be edgy and artistic. I read Henry Miller and Anais Nin and Jack Kerouac with the focus of a pirate reading a treasure map.
One night, munching popcorn in my dorm, I hatched the idea of a tattoo. It was the mid-1970s and a tattoo was not what it is today. Tattoos were for sailors, bikers and Janis Joplin. It would be 20 years before they were reinvented as fake tribal indicators of urban cool.
With coaxing, three of my dorm mates signed on. We shared ideas of what we wanted: one chose a fish on her hip with fins that moved when she walked. Another went for a bluebird on the shoulder, another for a rose at the bikini line. That was essentially the entire lexicon of women’s tattoos at the time.
I decided on a hand-drawn unicorn, in jade green. “Mythical, a symbol of hope,” I wrote in my journal. “Like the Emerald City because what I seek is in myself!”
“Plus,” I wrote, “when I’m 50 it will remind me to stay crazy!”
I was hardly crazy; I was a book-crazy English major.
A friend whose name I can no longer remember traced a horse from a kids’ book and slapped a horn on it. It was (then) a little over the size of a quarter. No rippling flanks or meaty muscles — it was more like a cousin to “My Little Pony,” nothing sophisticated or sexy. But I didn’t know that then.
The next day we visited a tattoo parlor in the sketchy part of town. The walls were covered in dragons and hearts. We were not drunk.
I can still remember the buzz of the needle; face down on the table, I smelled smoke from the tattoo artist’s cigarette. The girls watched, grimacing, as I did when they took their turns. After, when we stepped into the darkening night, I felt a rush. We rode the bus back to campus in near hysterics. We’d turned into those girls.
Later, back at my dorm room, my high was replaced by rising panic. That night, I dreamed that my tattoo grew to a monstrous size, covering my whole body like Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man.” I woke up crying, wanting it gone.
In the morning, with blood dotting my pajamas, I called my parents in tears and confessed my mistake. Like any fledgling, I hoped they could fix things. They cried, too. I had never heard my father cry before. I wondered if it had something to do with his Jewish upbringing — the concentration camp tattoos. I was such a mess there was no point in their getting mad. A call was made to our family physician, as if a doctor could fix such things.
Over the next few weeks, my anxiety lessened; within the next few years I had occasion to be naked with several paramours who were impressed with the unicorn, or professed to be. I grew into being the girl with the unicorn tattoo.
I hitched around Europe, running out of money while camping on a nude beach in Greece (where the unicorn was a hit). I sold my blood at a clinic where a monkey roamed the waiting room — luckily I got away with money to move on but no disease. I moved to an island to live with a man I met on a beach. I worked at becoming a writer and went to graduate school. I dyed my hair geranium red.
So for a decade, the tattoo was a good fit, but at about 30, the unicorn began to feel like a stamp in my passport: somewhere exotic I had been but was no longer. I had grown into a quirky adult — not edgy, but not the cheerleader I had been.
So now I’m middle-aged with a misshapen cartoon animal on my rear. I’ve researched having it removed (painful and expensive) or revamped, but with what? At this point I know anything fresh would end up as much of a relic as the unicorn.
Beyond my self-appointed mission to thwart young people from joining the tribes of the inked, my tattoo underscores a lesson I’ve had to learn time and again: some things in life are hard to undo.
And for those who glibly claim that youthful indiscretions fade with time, I say this: sometimes not enough.
Louise Rafkin is a Bay Area based journalist. Her work can be found at www.louiserafkin.com.