When I was eighteen, and she was sixteen, I took my sister with me to get what would be my first tattoo—her name.
I hadn’t known to research tattoo artists; like interviewing for a job, it was the artist’s responsibility to impress me with their portfolio work. It was my job to choose a person I would trust with a needle in his hand. Instead, I’d asked a girl I worked with where she went for all her ink. Skinny Boy. Across the state line. He was the best, she said.
So a few days after my eighteenth birthday, I entered Skinny Boy’s parlor, my sister trailing behind me. I’d asked her to come because I imagined that should she ever get her first tattoo, I would be there for that. Like a ritual we supported one another through, it would be a moment of intense and powerful bonding.
When I told Skinny Boy, aptly named, what I wanted—my sister’s name on the top of my left foot—he said he couldn’t do it.
“Feet,” he said, “shed skin the fastest. Tattoos don’t last there.”
He suggested a different area, but I couldn’t think of one I wanted. How about my ankle? I’d seen older woman with faded butterflies and tribal rings around their sun spotted legs.
“Ok,” I said.
“Are you sure?” he asked. I ignored my hesitations while we picked out chunky awkward lettering that was much bigger than I’d anticipated. My sister’s name looked fragile beneath his large hands. He placed a thin sheet of paper with the outline onto my leg. It was inches above my ankle. “How is that?”
I hated it.
“Good,” I said.
“Are you sure?” I wasn’t, but I signed the paperwork and then sat stiff in a leather chair, leg extended. My sister watched from a few feet away, her face blank, while he began breaking through the thin layers of my skin.
I thought I’d chosen my sister’s name because I loved her. What I didn’t realize then, was that the tattoo was a testament to our childhood—a self-inflicted inky wound, chosen as a way of making something broken, stitched together again.
The word tattoo is derived from the Polynesian word tatau. In Samoan, Tā means to strike. Tau: to reach an end; to war or battle. The tatau was a symbol of courage, a rite of passage, reserved specially for men. It took three months of intense pain as an ink made of soot was pounded into the skin. From mid-waist to knees, young boys’ skin grew inflamed and festered. I imagine the fleshiest bits—backs of thighs, butt, the tender meat of the hips—reverberating beneath the blows of the needle and mallet. A boy willing himself to lie still, not to cry, while a sister or mother watched.
Each day boys returned to the tufuga ta tatau, to lie face down on a mat, breathing in the sand and salt of the island, letting his masterful hands pierce their angry flesh. Family members stood nearby, singing the Pese o le Tatau. Failing to finish the process, skin only half-scarred, made you Pe’a mutu: a mark of shame.
Our stepfather was subtle. Even now, a decade after my mother’s divorce to him, I still run into people who knew us back then. When, through conversation, I reveal his true behavior towards us, people are shocked and often incredulous: “But he was so nice and smart.” He was a military vet who believed in corporal punishment, cruel and unusual punishment, and military-style tactics to subdue an opponent.
I can never remember the crimes I committed, only the swift and ruthless judgment that followed. His hands quick on mine, his finger and thumb pressing hard into the soft spot in the fleshy part of my hand until my knees buckled and I sank to the ground before him. The choke-hold he put his son in. On a road trip he forced one of us, I can’t remember who, to use their hands to lift their body from their seat, a bottle cap in between their lips to prevent them from talking. Another time, after an accusation of theft among the children, he forced all of us to go outside and dig through the trash bags so that we might retrieve the stolen item. We dug through the trash for an hour, arguing with each other that the unknown guilty party should just give up the heist and take the punishment. Cars slowed down to analyze the scene: five mangy kids yelling at each other, trash spread about the driveway, levying up at their feet.
His rage was always palpable; we crept and darted around him. Most days he sat in the basement, lights off, icy Big K Cola in hand—he had read in an article that caffeine cured headaches—while the TV flashed loud images across his pale face. He suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I liked to think of it as Post Traumatic Soldier Decay. At thirty-five he’d already developed arthritis in his knees from years of flight jumps. He suffered from migraines and back pain that once left him immobile in a car parking lot—he sat inches away from his phone, unable to reach it because of severe back spasms, for hours. His body, trained to be an elite fighting machine, had betrayed him. We were merely the recipients of his misplaced wrath.
My sister, the youngest of five—three were his—received the worst of the treatment. She was the weaker target, easier to punish, and she had a long history of defiance. She devoured books as refuge; we both did. I internalized the stories I read and let myself daydream about them when I wasn’t reading. My sister though, absorbed their lessons and made them her own. She used arguments she’d read in her books and could cite her constitutional rights by the time she was eleven.
I am not Polynesian. I cannot inject my history into their own and pretend to draw conclusions from the deepest part of myself. Yet I am drawn to imagine the sound of feet on sand, a body in contradiction as it walks towards the hut where it will lie down and bleed again. A boy giving his body up for surrender. Blood mixed with sand.
The moving box had the cardboard smell of dust and old wood. We crammed it full of stuffed animals and blankets. We drew pictures on the side and called it a rocket ship. My sister was three—I was five, and we were still four years away from knowing what C.P.S. was. I wanted to blast off in the rocket ship, but I needed someone to shake the box back and forth with me inside it to achieve lift off. Mommy slept in her room, unable to help me leave the planet. Could sister push the box for me, I cajoled. I’ll give you a turn if you give me a turn, I bribed. She nodded enthusiastically and got out while I strapped myself in and waited gleefully. I heard scratches on the box, mild grunting when it shifted a fraction of an inch. I clambered out. She smiled and tried to push on the box. Do you want a turn, I sighed. She crawled inside while I shut the rocket doors. I would barely shake the box and then walk away. I thought to myself: leave her to drift in space. In three, two, one, I called, blast off! I began shaking the box and she screamed with glee. I forgot my cruel intentions and threw myself into the task of taking my sister to the moon or beyond. The box rocked and shook back and forth and forward and backward and she laughed and laughed. I laughed too, unaccustomed to the surge of something warm in my gut and my chest and the feeling that I could not leave my sister inside the box to wonder where I’d gone.
The tattoo was more than a mistake I regretted instantly. It became a reminder. I berated myself for not being assertive with the artist. For giving in so easily instead of walking away from a situation I wasn’t comfortable in. It was my fault. He’d given me the opportunity for an out when he’d questioned my choices, repeatedly asking, Was I sure? But I had allowed myself to be intimated by him. I hadn’t wanted to make him feel like he was wasting his time on a girl who was too stupid to research her tattoo artist. Later people asked about my sister’s name: why that tattoo? How could I explain our torrid history against the world, how we had suffocated beneath the weight of a “you’re really starting to piss me off,” father? How could I explain that the tattoo was a dismal apology to the sister I hadn’t been able to save.
Christian theology has its own pe’a mulu, mark of shame: After Cain spilled his brother’s blood, I imagine his nostrils-flaring-chest-rising-hands-tightening, while the scene at his feet came into focus. I see him standing over his brother, blood mixed with dirt. God punished Cain, then placed a mark upon him: a symbol of warning so that others would not commit the same crime. A tattoo of remembrance.
I practice erasure of my history as a form of self-protection. What memories are left rise without prompting, a wound I think has healed that splits open again with the slightest pressure of fingertips on skin.
One morning my mother went to work. Our stepfather said we’d have a family gardening day. Everyone would help dig the beds, lay the fabric down as a barrier between weed and burgeoning flower, and plant the perennials. My sister hid in her bedroom reading. When he finally marched her outside she refused to pick up a spade or shovel. You can’t make me, she told him simply, I have constitutional rights. He began to yell. He would call the juvenile police on her—his oldest son had had several encounters with them already. She would be grounded, he said, though this was less effective because it was her punishment of choice. She stood there, ten years old, seventy pounds, half his size and refused.
My stomach began burning as I stared at her. The sun was warm on my back. He took the shovel, grabbed her from behind and forced her to take the handle and dig. She began screaming. Our step-siblings laughed. Daisies in plastic pots shivered against a slow breeze. His back was to me, so I didn’t see what happened, but I later heard she elbowed him in the groin and tried to escape. He hunched suddenly over, and my sister darted for the door. He was half crouched chasing after her. Then they were in the living room and he had her pinned to the floor and she was screaming for help and he was holding her down, his face red, his eyes bloodshot and big.
I don’t remember moving from outside into the living room, but suddenly I was there watching from above while she writhed and screamed at him to let her go. When he finally did, she ran to her room. He chased her again. His bellows ricocheted up the stairs. She was to move everything from her room in the basement upstairs to the living room. Whatever was left in her room within the hour would be thrown away.
I don’t remember if she cried or not. I only remember my mother’s confused face when she came home and saw my sister’s belongings scattered around the living room.
Later my sister told our mother that he had pushed her down the stairs. I think my sister hoped our mother would believe that story enough to permanently remove us from the situation. The opposite was true. My sister eventually confessed to the lie and then couldn’t convince my mother that the rest had actually happened. Our step-siblings reduced the incident until it was a watered-down version of my sister throwing a tantrum, while our stepfather restrained her.
My mother must have asked me what happened, but I can’t remember what I would have said. Did I convey the terror I’d felt watching him sit on her youngest child’s chest while she writhed beneath his shaking form? I could have used that moment to tell her how much he scared me. I didn’t.
When my mother did finally leave our stepfather, the damage was done. My sister, then a sophomore in high school, had had severe night terrors for years. I shared a room with her in the dark two-bedroom apartment that was our new home and woke nightly to her screams. Other times she threw objects against the wall, she shattered a glass horse, broke a radio. My response was always the same. I flipped on the light and repeated her name until she quieted, like calling to her from across a great ocean, pulling her closer to me with my voice. Then I would lay awake in bed for a long time after, wondering what demons chased her. Was it always the same stubble-faced monster that she yelled at to “get your fucking hands off me?” Was I there in her dreams, too? I worried that I was the vague and silent figure in the background, unwilling or unable to move.
Excerpt from Pese o le Tatau:
Pity the youth now lying
/ While the tufuga starts
/ alas he is loudly crying
/ as the tattooing tool cuts all over
/ young fellow young fellow be brave
/ this is the sport of male heirs
/ despite the enormous pain
/ afterwards you will swell with pride.
I have never been proud of how I’ve treated my sister. How, instead of saving her, I attempted to absolve our history with a piece of stained skin.
It took ten years for me to make the conscious decision to change the tattoo. I’d chosen it as a reminder that I hadn’t saved my sister; that, like Cain, I could never repeat the same crime. But the reminder grew until it encompassed my calf, the fleshy bits of my thigh, and traveled up to my waist. I felt that I’d become God and Cain, tufuga and the young boy. I was doling out my own punishment while my sister stood by to watch, and waited for me to finish, so that she might receive me in love.
I spent the better part of two years thinking about what I might cover up my sister’s name with. I found the best tattoo parlor in the city, scheduled a consultation, put a down payment on a session, and then continued to cancel it for a year. I didn’t know what my hesitations were. I lost the deposit but kept my peace of mind.
Then, at a bar one night with a group of friends, our waitress showed off a beautiful tattoo: a delicate yet bold depiction of the skull of a hippopotamus. The lines were clean and thin, the attention to detail was exact. It was colorless, which I found even more mesmerizing, because it didn’t appear smudged or blurred. I decided it was defined. I asked her about her artist. She gave me his name and location, praised his skills, and said that she’d become a living billboard for his work.
A few days later I stepped into his heavily incensed parlor. It was small, located up a flight of narrow century-old steps, and well lit. A Pit Bull rushed me with wet kisses and begged for ear scratches. He followed behind his dog and apologized for her behavior. I showed him my tattoo. I wasn’t sure what he’d be able to do for me, but I was confident in the work I’d seen and told him so. His voice was warm and matched his eyes. His smoky laugh seemed trapped in his throat. We set a date and I put down a small deposit.
In Polynesian history, twin sisters Tilafaiga and Taema, swam from Fiji to Samoa with a basket of tattoo tools. Like many things, there are multiple versions to this story. Some say that as they swam they sang that only women would get tattoos. I imagine their voices rising and falling over the chop of the waves. The push and pull as they surged ahead of each other, muscles aching, voices tiring. At some point they both spot a clam underwater. They dive for it, hands reaching, small bubbles escaping clenched lips. When they broke the surface again, their song changed. Now, they sang, only men would get tattooed.
I think about the sisters. Had they decided together to change the song and rewrite their history? Or had one sister forgotten the lyrics, perhaps becoming confused after the pressure of the deep dark? When they decided that only the men would get the honor of being tattooed was it because they’d known that women were already courageous enough, they should not have to prove themselves to the tufuga, the tribe, to each other? Women would be tattooed in their own ways: invisible scars that might bond them together as they raced for distant shores.
My sister and I are grown now. Displaced from that childhood by a decade. We are healing. Recently she sat at my kitchen table, the past ten years a long script of therapy visits, medication trials, bad decisions. We’d grown apart as we both reached adulthood, choosing to handle the post-divorce years differently. I tried to forget everything. She moved in with her boyfriend and his friend; they bred snakes in plastic Tupperware containers and became a flophouse. I got pregnant at nineteen and struggled to put myself through school. I selfishly worried that I would never have a normal sister, and she probably worried the same. It wasn’t until the birth of my second child, eight years after the first, that I noticed a change in our relationship. She wanted to be around more. She was an auntie, she said, and she wanted to be a good one. We were present for each other, talking more often on the phone and making necessary time for each other. We went on sister dates and laughed over memories of old boyfriends.
The years of abuse are written only in her eyes. She is cautious and wary. She told me that the other day at work she’d had a flashback when a father yelled at his son and called him stupid. She told me she remembers everything and is triggered all the time. I told her I can’t remember anything. She wished it was that way for her.
“I feel bad,” she said at my table. “I know Mom carries around this huge amount of guilt for what happened to us. I’ve told her before that I don’t blame her. She made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t blame her.”
Did she know that I carried the heavy weight of her pain, like our mother did? I wanted to believe she said she absolved our mother’s culpability for my benefit too, that she knew I carried with me, the sticky build-up of guilt. There were invisible lines slashed across our bodies, the indents of fingers in skin, and hateful words burned across our faces. I want them gone. Not faded into scars, I desire for us both a canvas of unmarked skin. The best we can do, though, is fill in the pale furrows with a life of our own choosing.
When the day finally came I was prepared to leave the smoky-voiced artist’s parlor without a tattoo. He had said he would draw something over the old tattoo, and if I liked it he would permanently place it there. He sketched in pink marker while I watched. He asked me about the tattoo’s history. I gave him the condensed version. He hmm’ed as he worked.
“Whaddya think?” he asked of his marker mark-up. It was beautiful. I beamed at myself in his full-length mirror. I laid on his table reading a book while he covered up a part of my history. The needle sent vibrations up my leg until it felt numb. I imagined the needle moving up and down in slow motion, puncturing a piece of the past and breaking it up, injecting it with new life. My blood pounded in protest under his hands. We didn’t speak until the end.
“And,” he sang, “Shelby is gone forever,” he declared triumphantly. The blocky tattoo was replaced with a mountain range and a forest of evergreens. Not gone, I thought, but changed. Renewed with time, like a forest after a fire, made more plentiful after loss. Later, I showed it to my sister. She nodded her approval. Maybe she saw the tattoo as I did: a peaceful scene. A balm spread over wounds that are still healing.
© Briana Loveall
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Briana’s interview]