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It's been five days and the skin on my lower leg is now shedding. Black pieces of epidermis are curling up and flaking off as my body heals itself from the assault of a tattoo machine. My leg hair is growing back and it's bad, it's ugly and it's itchy.

I clench my fingers and perform breathing exercises to refrain from letting loose on my new piece with a scrub brush or cheese grater. A good scratching will provide me with relief, but I hold back because pulling off the scabs can lift the ink and lead to fading. Fading is to be avoided, but in my experience tattoos naturally fade over time, accompanied by a blurring, a thickening of the lines after years of living, either clean or rough.

A little premature fading of my new piece may be acceptable because it is a gypsy-like portrait of my mother and she died eight years ago at 61 after an extended battle with cancer. She led a tough life.

She wasn't supposed to be a piece of art on my body anyway. Originally, I consulted the tattoo artist for a gypsy head piece to be done in a traditional style - thick lines, heavy colour. It was her suggestion that I give the tattoo characteristics of my mother. My initial response was, "Never - no way is my mother going on my leg." Not after all the grief, dysfunction and denial we shared as a family.

Then a funny thing happened. An acceptance of life, a realization that the years have also faded the hurt, the harm. I was still sorting it all out when I e-mailed the artist a black-and-white photo of my mom. It didn't take much effort for her to give my mother a sexier, gypsy-like look. Remove the double chin, give her large hoop earrings and lengthen her eyelashes.

I got my first tattoo in 1978 in Ottawa. The Rideau Street I knew then was in its infancy. There was only a whisper, a hint of its potential. Today a person can find and feed most vices while shopping. Back then, it took me a week of walking the street to find someone who tattooed. He was a nice, older guy who practised his trade in an apartment he shared with his wife. His selection of artwork was basic and traditional, mostly sailor stuff. I chose a small green dove and he put it above my right breast. It took less than half an hour and it wasn't as painful as I thought it was going to be.

Later in the eighties, I got tattoos in Montreal and Toronto, where the shops and artists were more visible. I now have bands on my forearms, my upper arms are covered and a pair of wings flanking a heart span my chest, bandaged and torn to represent my personal struggles.

I was proud of my first piece, but at the time most of the reactions I got were disbelief. A friend's girlfriend ran into their apartment and came back with a wet rag to try rubbing it off because she could not, would not, believe it was real.

Inevitably I was asked why I would get tattooed. The early answer was simple: "I wanted to ... is it a problem?" The later-in-life answers often depended upon the timing of the question and to whom I was responding. I have met some inquiries with silence, others with, "It's really none of your business." When I feel the question is asked with a well-intentioned, genuine and respectful spirit, I share my feelings.

Being tattooed is not about anyone else but me. On some days it's me being anti-establishment. Other days it's me mourning losses and celebrating life. My tattoos have spoken for me when I could not. They protect me and make me feel strong. They have given me pain and relief from pain. Having tattoos has also placed me a little closer to the fringe than to the centre of society. Should it matter to others that I have chosen to illustrate parts of my life journey permanently on my body, with a medium that evokes images of toughness, violence and criminality? It shouldn't, but it does. Should it matter to me? It shouldn't, but it does.

I have worked in some tough places, blue collar to white. I spent time toiling in machine shops, welding shops and garages finishing my apprenticeship. I taught my trade, auto-body repair and refinishing, for 11 years at a postsecondary level and currently teach special education at a secondary school.

The harshest criticism I faced about my tattoos came in the white-collar world. Another teacher, seeing the tattoo on my arm, said, "I hope you were drunk when you did that." Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting with this same peer. He described a woman as being on welfare and a drunk covered in tattoos. I wanted to pull up my sleeves, show him my tattoos and yell at him that I had to collect assistance once to get through school. I wanted to yell there was a time when people thought I was a drunk too. I wanted to yell, but I didn't. Today I wear short sleeves at those meetings in a silent challenge.

I look down at the unfinished piece on my leg. It will take another assault and a few more hours to finish the colour and shading. My mom would have loved the likeness of herself. I do. I love the rendering because it doesn't quite look like her. While I'm not sure, I want to believe she would be flattered and proud to have her image indelibly inked on my leg.

Regardless, I know my mother would be pleased that her daughter now has a great excuse to keep her legs shaved, like all good girls should, at least for the summer.

Lorrie Jorgensen lives in Godfrey, Ont.


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