Ali’s First Time: A Gun, A Smiley Face, and Multi-Generational Naivete

ali's first time smiley face
Credit: Courtesy of the Author

The story of my first tattoo began before I was born. The story of my first tattoo, actually, begins with a gun shoved in my mother’s mouth during a criminal heist when she was just a fresh-faced young professional. And while it sounds pretty much as horrific as it was, it’s important to also understand that its evolution into a family joke—and ultimately, a shared tattoo—is a crystalline window into our collective sense of humor, and how us women stick together and support each other.

Let me explain. One night, my mom was working late at the Chamber of Commerce for a decently-sized city just north of San Francisco, and found herself in the above-mentioned situation. Although the robber was originally focused on my mother, he ended up attacking her colleague while she escaped to get help. Was it traumatic for her? 100 percent. But her bravery during the robbery exemplifies her ability to think clearly during high-stress emergency situations—a valuable skill in her role as a political consultant and campaign manager.

Despite being able to contact the authorities, the whole situation was quite intense. “The scene later at the office was gruesome,” my grandmother told me recently. “I tried to take [your mom’s] mind off of it, so we spent the next day together. We wondered who cleaned up crime scenes like those, and it was then that our strange senses of humor kicked in.”

The strangely funny-meets-morbid conversation led to them thinking about those who work with aspects of death on a regular basis. Specifically coroners, and whether they ever get to laugh. Maybe, my mother jokingly surmised, if everyone had smiley face tattoos on the bottom of their big toes, coroners would chuckle each time they tagged a body. The two of them thought this was hilarious—laughter is an interesting, important thing in a time of tragedy—and thus the running joke was born. One day, they insisted, they would get those tattoos to help their future coroners get in a good laugh, too.   

Once my sister and I were around and old enough to comprehend the dark humor of this idea—figure when I was 18 or so—the joke somehow morphed into a specific scene in which we all somehow died at the same time, with the specific coroner identifying us due to the matching shared smiley face tattoos on all our big toes. (I told you we had a weird sense of humor, right?!)

Then one Mother’s Day, my grandmother, mother, sister, and I were spending time together and laughing over our shared joke. Although I don’t remember who, someone asked us why we didn’t actually go for the tattoos. We all agreed that we didn’t have a good answer, so we decided to go for it, piling into a car and driving to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

Not surprisingly considering the area’s counter-culture roots, the tattoo artist we found immediately laughed at our multi-generational naiveté. To him, there was no way a family of entirely tattoo-free ladies could sit all still enough for him to ink perfect circles on the bottom of our feet. But at this point, the reason the four of us getting matching ) tattoos had long since abandoned the idea making coroners laugh. So instead of going for such a sensitive area of our bodies, we picked the back of our necks for our smiley face tattoos.

Because at this point, the tattoo experience became about the women in my family linking ourselves together through intentional, visible body modification. No matter what we had been through, and no matter what was yet to come, these matching smiley face tattoos would be a reminder that we were never alone. 

Getting tattooed was a joyful Mother’s Day experience, but the pain of the needle allowed my mom to close the book on what she endured twenty years prior. And in going through this process with the woman who gave her life, and the women she gave life to, we shared with her in the purging of her traumatic experience as a younger person. Moments like the robbery are forever a part of her story; a permanent carving in her memory. But these matching tattoos are also carved into her, into us, a reflection of the solidarity the women of our family share. 

If you liked our story My First Time: Inking Family Solidarity, make sure to check out My First Time: Peace Does Endure.

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