I was 22 years old when I got my first tattoo. It was the night before my first date with the man who’d become my second husband, and I did it largely to impress him, as he was 13 years older than I (and had two tattoos of his own). But this isn’t the unusual part. No, that comes when you learn that the person who was with me was my former lover, with whom I’d broken things off the week before in order to date my soon-to-be-husband. And that the said former lover was Jimmy Wales, who’d go on to found Wikipedia, but not before I’d introduce him to my friend Christine, who would become the maid of honor at my wedding (in November 1996) as well as Jimmy’s first wife (in the spring of 1997).
But in the spring of 1996, all of that was yet to come. My second husband was still just someone I’d had a crush on for a long time (he was my uncle’s best friend), Jimmy was someone I’d dated/slept with/a little of both, and tattoos were a completely foreign concept. And even though it’s been nearly 20 years since that first piece of ink, I remember (most of) the evening so clearly it defies understanding.
What I don’t remember is how I convinced Jimmy to go along with what would end up being an all-night search for the perfect tattoo parlor, other than I’ve always had an uncanny knack for convincing people to come along on silly adventures. But that’s what happened: we went to Chicago Tattoo first, in its original location on Belmont (where there’s now a Jamba Juice, I think), then took the Belmont bus down to Jade Dragon, where I was too skeeved out by the guys there to want to stay. We took the bus back down Belmont to Chicago Tattoo, where I got my first tattoo – two skulls, because I didn’t want a “girly tattoo” like a butterfly or a flower – and then headed over to The Alley (the real Alley, like it was back in the day, not like it is now), where Jimmy bought me a skull necklace and bracelet, dubbing that day Skull Day 1996. I still have that necklace and bracelet, though I haven’t worn them for years.
Within a year Jimmy and I would both be married to other people; within two I’d be a mother; within four, divorced and a single mom; within five, he and Christine would be parents themselves; several years later they’d get divorced, too. The last time we saw each other was at my wedding; the last time we “spoke” was in 2013, via email, purely for business purposes, briefly and without sentiment. I doubt he remembers dubbing that evening Skull Day 1996 or buying that necklace and bracelet, especially given all of the amazing things that have happened in his life since then, but perhaps he does. He’s one of the more intelligent people I’ve met in my life, albeit also one of the more frustrating ones. (And I think he’d acknowledge I’m not saying anything here I wouldn’t say to him myself.)
I’m fortunate in my life to have met a great number of interesting people, some whose names people would recognize (like Jimmy), others whose names are known to a more erudite crowd, and still others whose eclecticity and charm have been their own reward. Each of my tattoos has its own story – several of them involve men being with me when I’ve gotten them, sometimes friends, more often lovers – but none have the same sort of nostalgia surrounding them as does this first one: the memory of being on an adventure with a lover turned friend as we were both on the precipice of something else in our lives. Yes, he’d go on to something much more remarkable and notable than I; what I was about to set out to do was simply create a bit more chaos and confusion, whip up another hurricane to drive through someone’s life (and my own, as well). But that moment in time – Skull Day 1996, as it were – had its innocent charms. We were friends riding the Belmont bus, being ridiculous and young and slightly feckless in a way that loses its sparkle when you reach a certain age (like, say, the one I am today).
My first tattoo isn’t one of my favorites. It’s faded and has grown mushy and blurry with age. It’s the only tattoo I have that doesn’t have some deeper meaning – other than wanting to impress a man, and I suppose that does say something – but that’s okay. What it does have is a season full of memories with a man who would one day go on to do something that would change the world, in the days before his name became nearly universally known. But it’s not just about him; actually, it’s not about Jimmy at all. It’s about me, the me that knew him and had fun with him and convinced him to let me drag him all over the place while I got my first tattoo. I just can’t believe it’s been 18 years already. Some days it feels as though it happened just a springtime or three ago.