The Mother-Daughter Tattoo

Going under the needle was the last thing on her mind. But when her teen daughter proposed they both try it, she glimpsed a new purpose for ink everlasting

by Lynn Schnurnberger
bird tattoo image
Photograph: Illustrated by Susan Burghart

For her high school graduation, my daughter, Alliana, didn’t ask for a MacBook or even—though we lived in the New York suburbs, where everyone drives at 16—a car. Alliana wanted us to get mommy-daughter tattoos.

Alliana wasn’t the kind of girl you’d imagine getting a tattoo. She hardly wore any makeup, and she hadn’t yet had her first drink. But she had the gift of keeping me current. She bought me my first bottle of Chanel “Vamp” nail polish, clued me in to YouTube and walked me, arm in arm, down the Champs-Elysées at 2 am as we ate chocolate croissants. But now that she wanted to let some stranger drill five-inch ink-filled oscillating needles under two layers of my skin, I had to demur.

“Mom, you already get Botox,” said this child to whom I’d obviously disclosed too much information. “How much more could this hurt?”

A lot, since I’d read that tattoo artists don’t use numbing cream because it can smudge the ink. An Orthodox friend argued that if I went through with it, I couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (A nonissue, since I plan to be cremated. Still, you hate to close any doors.) Alliana’s uncle warned that, like a taste of heroin, the first tattoo is a gateway and that my daughter’s lithe, lovely body would end up covered in jagged lightning bolts and God-knows-what else, like Robert De Niro’s in Cape Fear.

Alliana’s tattoo campaign started just about the same time as what my family called “all of the business” with my mother—the macular degeneration, the diminishing weight (she was down to 82 pounds) and what the doctors called her failure to thrive. Having fired all of her home health aides, she had to be moved to a nursing home. “I’m 87. I should be dead already. Why aren’t I dead?” she wailed plaintively. I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t make my mother feel better. But because of her, I did know I had to make the most of being alive. And to that, Alliana was my ticket.

Clutching a Milky Way that I hoped would give me a sugar boost if I felt like fainting, I followed Alliana into a Manhattan storefront decorated with dozens of red-horned dolls in homage to its name, Daredevil Tattoo. Punk rock blared. Spotting me, a tattoo artist looked up from a client and hoisted his drill in the air. “Man, I was doing my own foot last week, and it was twitching so bad, it took me three sessions to finish my toes,” he said with a wink as we were ushered into the back room.

Eleanor Lambert, the indomitable fashion publicist who founded the International Best-Dressed List, once told me about a drunken evening she’d spent with a couple of beaus and the writer Dorothy Parker. “Someone suggested we get tattoos,” Eleanor, then in her nineties, had said, pointing to a petite flower on the inside of her ankle. “It would have been impolite to refuse.”

I felt the same way. If your teenager wants you to do just about anything with her, you do it. Even if it involves burning flesh. Still, like Eleanor, I went for something small.

“Just the teeniest, tiniest heart,” I told Daredevil’s co-owner, Michelle. The needles pinched my shoulder blade, the location I’d chosen, but Alliana held my hand, and by the time I felt really uncomfortable, I was done. We switched places, and Alliana straightened her spine. Convivial customers roamed over to check the work in progress. Alliana’s tat took almost 30 minutes, but she bore up well.

Afterward we went to lunch, flushed and giddy with excitement. I checked my cell phone and saw that there were two messages from the nursing home, reminding me of what a luxurious—and temporary—respite our afternoon adventure had been. I put off returning the staff member’s call.

“You know, when Grandma was exactly your age, she had to turn down a college art scholarship so she could go to work to help support her family,” I said. “But instead of handing over her first paycheck, she spent all the money on an expensive pale-pink slip. And she told me she had it monogrammed, because once her initials were on it, no one could take it away.”

First Published October 26, 2011

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