Love is patient. So I wait my turn, looking over the stars and skulls that cover the walls. One of the skulls has a snake nestled in its eye sockets. I don’t want a snake nestled on my body forever. I want χαρις (charis, or grace, for non-Graecophiles).
Love is kind. Troy the tattoo artist kindly tells me that he’s “light-handed,” which apparently means that he’s gentle. Maybe he says that because he can tell I’m terrified. The whole thirty-minute drive down I-64 from Williamsburg to Yorktown, my friend Hannah had sat in the passenger seat, asking how I was doing every five minutes. And every five minutes my answer would switch from excited to nervous and then back to excited. But, now that it’s time to start, I sit on the edge of a black-cushioned stool and stretch my right forearm over a little black-cushioned worktable, as if it’s a piece of art displayed on a museum pedestal. A minimalist piece of art for the last twenty-one years, it’s about to become a calligraphic display.
Pulling up a second, similarly cushioned stool, Hannah sits at my side and holds my left hand.
“You don’t have to hold my hand,” I insist.
“You don’t have to be tough,” she insists.
For however “sick” and “hardcore” a tattoo seems (I was told both of those sentiments), I quickly realize that it takes more humility than it does brute strength. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It hurts; there’s no denying it.
After turning on the tattoo machine, which looks like a large compass and buzzes like an electric razor, Troy etches the first letter into my flesh. Abruptly, he stops, sets the machine down on his tray of apparatus, and says, “Look at your hand.”
I look down. My right hand is shaking, so I breathe a deep breath and tell it to be still.
The artwork resumes, Troy’s needle puncturing my forearm once, twice, a thousand times a minute. Love does not delight in evil, however, but rejoices with the truth – the truth that, although a sting strikes the skin, art strikes the eye. That the place I feel pain is the place I see grace.
Temporary purple stenciling ink runs down my wrist, letting permanent black tattoo ink take its place. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. And, now, it seems, it will always sit indelibly at my side, looking me square in the eye and saying that whatever I do it’s not going to go anywhere. It has no concept of temporality, of existence that is contingent upon my goodness.
The buzzing-needle sound doesn’t remain long. I never once look at my watch, but in ten minutes or so Troy stops, sets his machine down for the last time, glops a small anthill of Vaseline onto a sheet of saran wrap, and bandages the wrap around my arm.
Troy’s light-handed handiwork doesn’t look perfect exactly. The first letter, the X, is slightly crooked. But I’m glad. Because that’s what grace, my little tat, means to me anyways: that love isn’t perfect but love never fails.