Volume 14 • Number 2 • Fall-Winter 2022-2023

Alice Lowe

Three Tattoos

Permanently Cool - 2013

I want to do something tangible, something out of character to mark the milestone of my 70th birthday. I know what it will be as soon as the idea erupts in my head: a tattoo. Once it would have been thought outré or renegade—foolish and futile for an old-timer like me—but now tattoos are body art, fashion statements across gender, class, and age. They’re subtle or showy ornamentation, permanent bling, or they make a statement: women asserting control over their bodies.

tattoo of quill pen on author's forearm

Buju Tattoo is a new addition to my San Diego neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from home. It’s woman-owned and unlike my take on stereotypical tattoo parlors (seedy, bikerish, photos of popular tats on the wall: skulls, snarling beasts, big-breasted women). Potted succulents line the front window, Victorian parlor furniture graces the reception area, and the turquoise walls display eclectic bric-a-brac. I walk past it frequently and finally introduce myself to Meg, one of the tattoo artists. We schedule a date in September, three months out and three weeks before my birthday.

What will it be: Cat, flower, book? And where? Shoulder, hip, forearm, ankle? A protracted process of elimination narrows the field. No new-age slogans or pithy proverbs, no quotes (not even Virginia Woolf). No images representing love, yin/yang, or Elvis. No hummingbirds or lotus blossoms—tempting but too common. As a reader and a writer, I decide on a quill pen, a graceful image from a line in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: “For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”

Meg makes a stencil to my specifications, three inches long to sit just above my ankle bone. On that Saturday in September, my daughter, Jenn—twice-inked and excited on my behalf—accompanies me for moral support. I feel pinpricks, like buzzing insects, as Meg starts. “Doing OK?” she asks more than once, and after about 20 minutes that seem like five, she says “All done.” I admire her handiwork, and Jenn takes photos: a perfect plume with a squiggle of ink trailing its nib, black with soft shadings to give it a feathery look. Elegant and understated. As we leave the shop, one of the other tattoo artists asks if this is my first. At my beaming nod, he says, “Permanently cool!”

Gossamer Wings - 2017

Remember the Lay’s potato chip challenge: “Bet you can’t eat just one”? It’s the same with tattoos—I rarely see people with just one, even those like me who have no intention of getting another.

author's tattoo of two dragonflies

I’m delighted with my attractive adornment and enjoy appreciative feedback from friends and strangers. Three years later, the idea for another slips in unbidden but gets sidelined in the shuffle of dailyness until I’m on vacation in Seattle that summer. Groovy, grungy Seattle. Yes. Here. Now.

The image already hovers in my mind—a dragonfly, Odonata Anisoptera, on my sternum, about halfway between my neck and right shoulder. I find a line drawing with a little filigree in the wings and tail. I locate a shop with good Yelp reviews; it’s close to the bus line and takes walk-ins—spontaneity is everything this time. The tattoo artist studies my image, then scrutinizes me. “I’m going to talk to you as if we we’re good friends,” he says. He tells me what I want would be tricky because of the thin, aging skin in the spot I’d chosen. And there’s too much detail in the design. I insist on the position but agree to move it a little and accept his suggestions on the image.

When I remove the bandage that evening, I’m thrilled until I try on a couple of scoop and V-necked tops. Just one side of the gossamer wings is visible, a peek-a-boo view of my new inking. I’m annoyed with myself for compromising on the location. But it grows on me—shyly elusive, slyly deliberate, a stylish irony. Back home in San Diego I revert to my initial displeasure and pay another visit to Meg, who creates a mate for my introverted insect, smaller but more noticeable. It’s not another tattoo, just a modification—2.5. Now I’m done. Or am I?

Thrice is Nice – 2018

I won’t imply or employ the language of addiction; it’s nothing to take lightly. But there’s something beguiling about these chic and cheery adornments, about seeing yourself a little hipper than acquaintances (and you yourself) might have thought.

tattoo of flowers and leaves on author's shoulder

I didn’t plan a third tattoo. Until, a year later, looking at photos from my husband’s trip to Germany, I’m struck by an image on a stairway: small flowers with trailing foliage, drawn in simple outlines, not busy or blowsy. I picture it in a circle motif on the back of my shoulder, in full view when I’m running in racer-back tank tops. I ask Meg to design it with the circle as the feminist symbol, a spray of leaves as the cross piece, touches of red in a few of the flowers.

I’m thrice inked, and that’s it. Really. I can’t justify squandering more of my retirement nest egg on costly embellishments. And while Covid remains in the picture, I’m not inclined to let anyone except my dentist and my dermatologist get that close. I’m satisfied with what I have. But next year I’ll be 80. Picture this: a figure eight, an infinity symbol on my calf or my arm….

Alice Lowe is proud to be a four-time contributor to Sleet. She writes about life and language, food and family in San Diego, California. Her essays have been widely published in literary journals, including this year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eclectica, Pine Cone Review, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. She won an essay contest at Eat, Darling, Eat, and her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays. Alice has authored essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work and is a regular contributor at Blogging Woolf. Her published work can be read at