On Tattoos.

I spent the summer after my first year at Furman in a little apartment on the northern, as yet not fully “developed,” half of Hilton Head Island. I had four roommates, three from my freshman hall at Furman, and one friend from Virginia.  We had a blast. At some point during that summer I felt my first inklings of desire for a tattoo. A small one on my ankle or hip. Maybe a flower or a charm of some sort.  The desire was strong, but at that time in my life my fear of needles and need for parental approval was stronger.

Fast forward a few years to my second year of medical school. There is this phenomenon that happens during that year called “sophomore syndrome.”  While studying pathology and psychopathology and pharmacology and immunology and embryology and . . .many students believe they are pretty much diagnosable with or have had almost every disease studied.  Students learn the truth of the absolute miracle that is every healthy pregnancy, child, and adult.  During a series of lectures on psychopathology, axis II or personality disorders, we were told that the presence of two or more tattoos on a person should be considered a warning sign for some significant psychiatric problem such as antisocial personality disorder or bipolar disorder.  As much as I still wanted a tattoo, I was terrified of being diagnosable “axis II.”  I put the whole idea to bed until. . .


A few years, heartbreaks, and other life events later, I found myself standing outside a tattoo parlor in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband . . .should we? Could we? Will we get into trouble? (With whom? We were now the bosses at home and at work.) Well, no.  We would not get into trouble with anyone EXCEPT our daughter. Our sweet, wise Emma was so uncomfortable with tattoos she refused even cute strawberry shortcake or Wonder Woman images on her friends’ arms.  You don’t even want to know her response when her two older sisters and nanny came home one afternoon with coordinating machine printed stamps on their lower backs.  Emma would need lots of time to get used to the idea.


The main reason I had for waiting was not fear of someone else’s opinion; I got over that (for the most part).  It was that I could never decide on an image with which I wanted to be marked for the rest of my life.  About a year after meeting our Haitian daughter it finally came to me.  I had long believed I wanted a beautiful Celtic or Gaelic cross inside my right (and writing) wrist, but I could not find the one.  Once I knew Lenia was truly ours, the words came.  “Bondye Bon tout tan,” “God is good all the time,” in my handwriting, inside my right wrist.  AND a map of Haiti on my left shoulder, hearts over Lenia’s birthplace and my clinic’s location.  A month or so later, they were done- lines of love etched permanently in my skin.


Then, Greg decided it was time.  He started researching and reading about tattoo styles, history, and design.  He scheduled a Thursday night session with Doc Cooper of Saint Tattoo, and emerged marked with a beautiful cross, five roses, and a small symbol in tribute to us, all on his right upper arm. Coop designed a more feminine version for me, and what an experience that was.  Profound in so many ways, not the least of which was that symbol for us.

There have been a few comments and stares at church and at my office. Emma and my parents were prepared in advance and, while not thrilled, they were at least tolerant; in fact, they were gracious.

I am no longer a second year med student, nor am I a “baby” doctor.  Experience and plenty of excellent therapy has shown me that I don’t have every disease in the book, and I am thankfully not diagnosable “axis II.”  Tattoos are no longer only for the marginalized in our society.  They are now a part of our culture as much as Starbucks or fish tacos.

I love my tattoos for lots of reasons.  They are great conversation starters, especially in Haiti.  Someone will smile at me, point to shoulder, and say, “Ou renmen Ayiti?” ( you love Haiti?) And I will say, “Wi! m’ renmen Ayiti anpil anpil!” ( I love Haiti very very much). People both in country and here ask me what my arm says, not expecting a girl like me to have Kreyol words etched in her skin.  The surprised expressions have generated more than one great conversation about my love for God, Haiti, and my work there.  Mostly though, I love my tattoos because they serve as visual reminders to love and accept myself and my body and my soul, just exactly as I am, today.

6 thoughts on “On Tattoos.

  1. Really needed to read this after a conversation I had last night with one of my children about tattoos. Thanks, Abby!

  2. Great thoughts. I’ve always felt I would never make up my mind, and I do think there is a line about location and amount. I’m just not sure where that line should be drawn! Maybe it’s different for each person.

    Many tattoos are beautiful and meaningful. I love the idea of important words in your own handwriting. I think I’ll noodle on that one awhile. What words would define me for always?

    Thank you for sharing these parts of your lives with your patients. Praying things continue to go well with your newest daughter.

  3. I love this! A few years ago I was in Florida with Holly & Kathleen. I wanted to get a tattoo. Holly would not hear of it so I didn’t. Don’t want one now but neither do I judge those who were brave and have them!

  4. I’ve wanted a tattoo of my son’s perfectly imperfect heart on my wrist since he was born, but I haven’t had the guts. You’d think that the fact that he has scars covering his body I wouldn’t think twice about a small beautiful tattoo, but I’ve been afraid. The way you’ve described your tattoos have given me more courage… It may be happening soon!

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