My Turn: My Son's Tattoos and Me

My 21-year-old son, Alec, has beautiful blue eyes, but the first thing people notice about him is his right arm. That's because waterfalls, big cats, Buddha and a host of Zen symbols cover the entire limb. No unmarked skin shows from his wrist to his shoulder.

It started with the left wrist when he was 19—a tattoo of Tibetan Sanskrit wrapped around his lower, inner arm and finally peeking out just below his pinkie. By Christmas, three months later, his right shoulder was encircled with a large golden sun that hovers over a symphony of blues, reds and greens. Now Alec is known in our small New Jersey town as the guy with the tats.

And I'm unhinged. While I pride myself on being a rocker, baby-boomer mom (open-minded and astute like no other mom before me), I'm confounded by the rash, youth-driven choice that Alec has made—not just once, but repeatedly—and the permanency of it all.

At first, I cried. I yelled at him. I alternated between threats ("If you get one more tattoo, Dad and I will take away your car and your cell phone!") and bribes ("We'll give you $100 if you hold off on any more tattoos until you're 30").

Futile. He has defined himself indelibly with his tattoos. He will be pegged at first glance, no matter what else he accomplishes down the road.

Alec has a habit of thrusting himself into each new interest with blind fervor and dogged determination: when he was 14 he decided to get in shape, so he ran and ran and ran, gave up all his favorite foods and lost 70 of his 200 pounds. So it is not lost on me that his whole body could be totally inked by Labor Day.

I stay up at night and worry. My son will have no choice but to join the circus. What else can he do when he's 40, his bald head in the grips of inked-on spikes? Will there be naked women etched on his back? How about a purple MOM flowing across his chest?

Was I wrong to have drilled into him the importance of being true to himself, relentlessly nudging him to be who he is, to rise above his inhibitions and face the world with aplomb?

Yes, I understand that tattoos have come a long way. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 36 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 have a tattoo, and the number is rising. No longer sported by only the alienated and the degenerate, tattoos provide Alec's generation lifelong membership in the counterculture.

But, oh, the agony of hindsight; the woe of the "if I only knew then what I know now." What breaks my heart is the inevitability that Alec will suffer for this. Whether it's the pain of tattoo removal or, worse yet, the anguish of regret, he will suffer.

But I love my son. And I am proud of his individualism. So, therefore, I've decided to stop asking, "Don't you need a coat?" every time he leaves the house. I've started making a point to no longer stare at the pavement whenever we walk together. I dare any passerby to look at my son and judge him.

I've even taken to smiling when he tells me about how people compliment his arm, and how the local art gallery wants to exhibit him like a painted landscape.

And there seems to be an upside to all this. Where I used to see a child who was always a bit self-conscious, I now see a young man who is infused with genuine self-assuredness because he has more tattoos than anyone else he knows.

He struts through town with his head high as he greets our neighbors, his right sleeve rolled up as high as that day's shirt will allow, his arm a swaying canvas and his smile ear to ear.

He's an independent thinker, a hard worker; full of kindness and, for the most part, good judgment. So it's right that he stands by his tats, in spite of all my prophecies of future remorse, of the potential for hepatitis C from an infected tattoo needle, not to mention the inevitability that all those colors and the Buddha and the big cats and the waterfalls will one day meld into a wrinkled mass.

While I will most likely worry forever about his having to hide his arm (and, as of last week, his left shin) from future bosses or potential fathers-in-law, Alec has come into his own—a young man comfortable in his own skin, ink and all.

And who knows—maybe he'll reconsider adding any more tattoos to his motif. After all, the pierced lip lasted only one day.