the tattoo chronicles, vol. II

DarwinFishThey (whoever “they” are) say tattoos are addictive, and given that I’ve accumulated 19 of them over 18 years, with no plans to stop, I’m hardly a counterexample. In fact, this addiction, if it is to be considered one, surfaced quite soon after my first tattoo: it was my 23rd birthday present from the man who’d become my 2nd husband (remember, the man whom I was trying to impress by getting my first tattoo?).

He and I (by then living together in the suburbs; no one back then ever accused me of moving slowly with relationships) ventured into the city to get tattoos at Chicago Tattoo—he, a large back piece reminiscent of something from a Rob Zombie album cover; me, a Darwin fish (above), as I was still deep in my combative atheist phase, which—sadly—would last much longer than our marriage.

I’ve said before that all of my tattoos (except the first) have stories: this one has one that’s not at all related to the actual getting of the tattoo but its aftermath. (I got it because it was a symbol of something I deeply believed in, and to some extent it still is. And both then and now, when asked what I’d do if I became a fundamentalist Christian horrified by Darwin fish, I have the same answer: I’ll get a tattoo of a Christian fish eating the Darwin fish. So there.)


Three years later, in October of 1999, while I was in the midst of separating from my 2nd husband, my lover, The Fish Guy (not to be confused with the guy I met at the Union Square chess tables last year who gave me a betta fish as an apology for standing me up on a date), invited me to come with him to Michigan to hear Richard Dawkins give a talk about his latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. At the time I was still deeply involved in the skeptics community and jumped at the chance for a respite from the awkward home situation I was in: packing for a move back to Chicago with my young son while my soon-to-be-ex would stay in Wisconsin, a place we’d moved only because I’d gotten a good union newspaper job there.

So The Fish Guy and I went to Michigan. I drove down to Chicago, where he lived, on a Sunday, and then we caravanned to Michigan, where we wandered around Saugatuck’s little shops before spending the night there in a sweet little B&B. The next day, we drove to Grand Valley State University in Allendale to hear Dawkins speak and get our books signed. And that’s when things got interesting.

The Fish Guy thought Dawkins would find my Darwin fish tattoo interesting, so he made it a point to – despite my objections – bring the tattoo to his attention (the tattoo is on my inner left ankle, so The Fish Guy literally grabbed my leg and nearly threw me off-balance to achieve his mission). I was mortified, but Dawkins was enthralled; he immediately took out a blank piece of paper and scrawled his email address, mailing address, and fax number, giving me explicit instructions to send him a copy of a photo of my Darwin fish tattoo (ankle and all) ASAP so he could hang it on his office wall.

Despite the bumpy ride home – I took the ferry across Lake Michigan rather than driving all around again and spent the entire journey curled up in a ball in the bathroom, thoroughly seasick – you better believe the first thing I did when I got back to my awkward townhouse in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, was take a picture of my tattoo, get it developed, and send it to Richard Dawkins, way off in England (quite possibly the first piece of mail I’d ever sent overseas).

Almost fifteen years later, I have no idea whether my mail ever reached Dawkins’ office, nor whether – if it did – he ever hung up a picture of my tattooed ankle on his office wall. But I like to believe that he did. And even if he didn’t, I still have the memory of the look in his eye when he saw the Darwin fish tattoo The Fish Guy had thrust nearly in his face: one of surprise, yes, but also of confusion that someone would have done such a thing. Remember, tattoos then were not what they are today; they were still taboo in many ways, and they were certainly not mainstream by any means.

It’s interesting that my first tattoos have stories featuring famous people; it’s somewhat of a harbinger of things to come (as they aren’t the last tattoos for which this is the case), but I promise you that it will be a long while in the Tattoo Chronicles before this will be the case again. Volume III will be quite tame in comparison (and perhaps a bit sad). So relish the celebrity of Richard Dawkins for now, and imagine (as I do) that 15 years on, against all probability, my ankle still has a place on his office wall.