I had a tattoo once. It was of Popeye with anvil biceps, and at the time it made me feel -- well, as strong as Popeye. This, of course, occurred light years ago, and more than a few before I reached puberty. It was one of them bubble gum wrapper tattoos that, after rubbing your saliva on your skin, you slap and press the dyed tattoo and whoop, you had a “real” tattoo.
Actually, I don’t have a real tattoo, even though I qualify for one, being the proud owner of a leather jacket. Nor do I own a Harley motorcycle (even though I have the urge periodically to get on one and take off) which, stereotypically, I suppose is, or was, another qualifier for tattoo ownership.
Tattoos were once, as we all now know, only within the purview of those on the fringe, the disenfranchised and rebel-rousers, save for sailors. But no longer. We all know that doctors, lawyers, plumbers and dog catchers have them. In fact, three of my four children (they’d probably kill me if they knew I was writing this) each have distinctive tattoos, acquired as they each entered their
twenties. I gently tease and remind them, when the occasion arises to see one on display, that they must’ve been harboring an identity crisis when they got it. Of course they laugh. I remember when I was shown the first one that at first I was initially dismayed, then immediately reassured that there were no dragons, skulls, or leaping tigers elsewhere or pending. Their tattoos are all more or less hidden unless they show up in swimwear. So yes, even the respectable and mainstream folks are wearing tattoos. Even church ladies.
In fact, one such church lady, apparently respectable, well dressed and in her mid-30s, happened to be walking directly ahead of me and my wife as we were slowly exiting the sanctuary after Mass last Sunday. While I’ve seen more than a few tattoos over the years, this was a first for me. Her dress was designed such that it was easily visible. There, on her upper back, behind her right
shoulder, were eight lines of Arabic script inscribed on her olive complexion. It was actually very artsy-looking in spite of the fact that it was indeed writing. The sweeping, sloping lines, and gentle undulating strokes characteristic of Arabic script, appeared picture-like instead of writing-like. I suppose Arabic script has this visual effect. The script was perfectly lined, not slanted, as if written on lined notebook paper but without the lines. The area covered might have been perhaps three by four inches. The margins were even. It was flawless. It was neat.
I wondered what it said and what it meant to her, and for her. It was much too long to be a proverb, a greeting or saying. My first impression was that it might be a scriptural excerpt from the Koran. But this was unlikely since she was obviously of the Catholic faith having just attended Mass. But on the other
hand, she very well could’ve gotten the tattoo inked as a Muslim only later to convert to Catholicism, perhaps even by her presumed airman husband who might now be stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, and whom she met and married in Istanbul, Turkey, a month after they’d met at a sidewalk café.
I guess what intrigued me about this particular tattoo was the apparent incongruity it held for the moment. I mean how many churchgoers in South Mississippi do you see with an Arabic scripted (also called Islamic scripted) tattoo? Something Islamic in a Christian house of worship? Anyway, as she turned slightly, her facial features betrayed her apparent Mediterranean or
Middle Eastern descent. Perhaps Lebanese. Maybe Greek. Maybe Egyptian or even Saudi. Her friend with her had a much darker complexion, more like Cuban or Caribbean. At the time, it presented a cosmopolitan moment. I began to think she could very well have qualified to chair the organizing committee for the
annual International Festival the church holds every May in which the ethnic foods of about 20 different countries are celebrated.
As we meandered out into the church foyer, milling around in conversation, I happened to hear her speak to others and was surprised she had no accent. I wasn’t really surprised, of course, that she spoke English, but, and although I’m not sure why, I was expecting her to have something of an accent. But she spoke fluent English. I also surmised that she was probably bilingual. I mean, really, how likely is it that a Middle Eastern-looking woman with an Arabic scripted tattoo, a Caribbean friend, in South Mississippi, in a Catholic church, would only speak one language?
We made our way out to our car and as we stepped in, we saw the lady with the Arabic tattoo, and her friend, walking to their car, which turned out to be a German-made Audi. (Maybe her second or third language was German).
After we pulled out I asked my wife what she thought the Arabic scripted tattoo said. She thought it was probably an Arabic saying of some kind. I then asked her what kind of tattoo, if she herself had to, might she put on her back. She said a butterfly. She asked me the same thing. I thought about it for a minute, thinking about my roots and the fact we were riding in a Chevrolet, and
said that I might get one that read: “Made in the U.S.A.”