Across the room, the man had his back to me, making his little machine buzz and purr like an angry cat. If there were a stereotype of a tattoo artist, this guy was it. Cut-off shirt, bushy beard, tattoos covering everything — even his face. He blinked during our brief consultation. There was another eyeball tattooed on his left eyelid.
After making ready his inks and gun, Three-Eyes (whose real name was Bob) turned around and smiled broadly. His teeth were oddly perfect. He plopped himself down on a little throne stool, placing his gun and a few small vats of ink on a blue piece of paper towel.
Within moments I was removing my left tit from my shirt and bra. Bob would be imprinting a bold, black heart on my left breast, carefully placed to hide a blobby scar.
With more tenderness than I had expected, Bob applied the pale purple stencil and a hearty glob of greenish goo. After pressing on the stencil paper for a moment, he peeled the backing away.
“That where you want it, doll?” gesturing at my exposed breast. I bristled at his use of the cutesy pet name, but held my tongue. I looked down; if the outline stayed true, the ink would hide the scar.
“Yep.” I try to smile, but I was barely keeping it together. I knew the questions would start soon. It would be small talk to Bob. But to me, it would be reliving my abuse.
Bob dips his tattoo gun in the small vat of black ink and gives it a couple of sharp bursts. It chirps, shedding off droplets of pitch-black fluid.
“Ready?” he asks, machine poised over my chest. I take a deep, slightly ragged breath and nod. Bob lays the tip against my breast and pulls the skin taut with his other hand. This makes the scar even more pronounced. I look away. Bob probably thought the needles bothered me. Or maybe the blood.
But no. It was the scar. I hated that scar. It reminded me of a woman I once was. And I hated her. Weak, scared, oblivious. I never looked at my scar on purpose. It disgusted me. She disgusted me.
The plastic tip is warm as the vibrating pinching begins. A few strokes in, there it was.
“I don’t want to be nosy. But I gotta ask. How’d you get this here war wound?” His choice of moniker caught me off-guard a bit.
My scar had been a war wound, though I’d never thought of it that way. Mine had been a war of attrition at first. It began subtly, as many wars do. Tiny jabs at the things I liked. Sideways glances and eye rolls when I suggested something so obviously stupid.
It evolved though, as wars do. The jabs became punches of outright distaste; he openly mocked my hobbies and interests. The sidelong glances and eye-rolls became dismissive waves and name-calling.
I almost didn’t notice when the physical abuse begins.
He slaps my hands away from the table. I’d deserved that. I was useless, trying to play that board game. He hadn’t meant to hit me in the stomach. He underestimated his reach is all. I just made him so angry.
I didn’t see it as abuse when he shattered a plate against the wall, narrowly missing my head. It didn’t register as abuse when later, he shoved me against that same wall. I still didn’t believe it was abuse when he clamped his hand around my throat while pinning me to that very same wall.
It wasn’t abuse because he apologized. Abusers don’t apologize. He always apologized once he calmed down. I had just made him so angry.
The scenes pass by behind my eyes and I snap back to the here and now.
“Oh, the scar?” I say as evenly as I can. “An ex-boyfriend of mine put a cigarette out on me.” I realize as I’m speaking, that I’m unsure how much time has passed since Bob asked me what happened. I might have made an already awkward moment just a little worse.
Bob’s machine dies in his hand. He releases his pull on my skin. His gaze works its way up my chest and neck. He locks eyes with me.
I’d expected some choked-out version of “I’m so sorry.” It was the standard response when I shared my abuse. The apologies were meant well, but the sympathy still made me uneasy. It had been six years since the relationship ended, but I still struggled with self-blame.
Most abuse victims do. But Bob, once again, defied my expectations.
“Well, that’s a dick move. Fucking asshole.” And back to work he went. The needles brushed over the edges of my war-wound as Bob had dubbed it.
I started to smile. I usually avoided looking at my chest, but I wanted to watch this. I wanted to watch the ink darken and bury the round border. I needed to see the blackness seep into the little pink divet the cigarette cherry had left.
I was tattooing over this scar to take back my body, the way I’d taken back my life, my sanity. My soul.
My ex-boyfriend wouldn’t get to leave his autograph on my flesh. I would take his handiwork and make it my own. This was my reclamation. This tattoo was the new mark, one of a woman who had, by fire and by blood, grown.
The man who had used me as an ashtray had been my first abusive partner. We were only together for six months. I was 18 and a freshman in college. He was 25 and a veteran of the US Marines, taking advantage of his GI bill to attend university as well. After the cigarette incident, I did what any rational human would do. I waited for him to break up with me.
Looking back, I’m unsure why he broke up with me. Most abusers don’t cast aside the people who are willing to endure their rage. Luckily my Marlboro Man grew bored with me.
The break-up surprised no one but me. One day he was all over me, reminding me how lucky I was to be graced by his attentions. The next I was no longer worth his time. There was no confrontation at the end at what I believed was a relationship. He called and said, “It’s just not working for me,” and hung up. I’d see him from time to time on campus, arm draped over a different girl every few weeks, smiling and easy.
It didn’t really hurt when he left. It didn’t feel like anything at all. An unsure relief wanted to settle in but, in the heat of it all, a band-aid still over my breast, I couldn’t find comfort in the freedom from abuse.
I still didn’t see myself as an abuse victim. Perhaps I’d numbed myself, a measure of self-protection. Feeling nothing was preferable demons he’d introduced me to.
If I felt like anything at all, it was the sensation that his departure was my fault, another hallmark of the abused. I might have been just an ashtray but at least I was someone’s ashtray. When he dumped me, I was abandoned and hollow. The humaness seeped out of the hole he left in me.
Hoping to fill all those ash-edged wounds gave me the chance to run right into the arms of another abuser, this next one doing his damage emotionally. I’d eventually marry my second abuser. But that’s a different story for a different time.
I watched as the scar dissolved into the darkness. Bob worked quickly. The tattoo wasn’t very big. It took twenty minutes to finish. He sprayed down my chest and wiped away the grey-tinged globs of vaseline he’d been working through. Gingerly he applied a fresh layer of grease to protect my new tattoo.
“All done, darlin’.” He had a slight Southern twang to his voice, as do so many folks here in Oklahoma.
“From ashtray to art,” I said, calmer then. I smiled again, still staring at my chest. I was no longer the scarred, scared victim of abuse. I was a recovered woman, learning to love herself and own her body.
This tattoo was my proof of a massive evolution.
“Stay here for a sec,” Bob said. There was an edge to his voice. He walked out of the little studio and returned moments later, a few twenties in his hand. “This one is on me,” he offered, splaying the cash out toward me, “We do free cover-ups for hate and gang tattoos here. You didn’t have a tattoo to cover, but it was still a mark of hate. You don’t have to pay for this.”
My smile broadened. Bob’s offer was kind. But I was going to reject it.
“Bob, thanks. But I need to pay for this. This isn’t a cover-up. Not to me.” I pushed his hand back to him. “If you feel weird about keeping the money, donate it.” I gave him the name and number of a local Women’s Crisis charity. I don’t know if he donated it or not.
I shook his hand and walked out. Underneath I was still scarred, but the healing was well underway.
It’s been years since I got that tattoo. I’ve continued to grow. I later had that tattoo changed, expanded. A heart over my heart, I turned it into a hot air balloon, a symbol of humanity’s pursuit of the ultimate freedom. I’m in the process of having that re-touched. But you can still see the original tattoo underneath the evolution.
This article was originally published in PULP Magazine.