Photos by William Camargo
How could I have let it happen? I had been so careful for months and now all that effort had gone to waste. My mom stood before me, the clean laundry she was bringing to my room was now a crumbled tower at her feet.
She screamed, and her face turned wet and red. Her shrill cries pierced my ears. My bedroom walls were closing in, and I felt hot and dizzy. Looking back, I wish I had fainted; at least my mom would have had something else to freak out about.
My tattoos had crushed all the hope that had lingered in her heart for me.
After many months of hiding them, my mom walked in on me changing my clothes and for the first time saw my tattoos. They seem small in comparison to what covers my body today, but the thick, bold Japanese Kanji letters on my abdomen, along with the single rose that covered my right rib from armpit to hip with the word “Fate” etched inside, were the only things my mom’s red eyes saw. My panic in that moment tempted me to jump through the window, even if we were on the second story. I needed to run away and pretend that this moment never happened.
In a mixture of English and Farsi, along with sound pitches that I would have thought humanly impossible, my mom kept screaming: “How could you do this to me? What did I do to you? I did everything for you! How could you do this to me?”
The tattoos were not about her, but she saw them as being a direct link to my love and respect for her. I didn’t realize this during that dreadful scene.
As her cries and sobs drilled into my throbbing head and aching heart, I wanted to scream “SHUT UP!” but that was the last thing I could do to my suffering mom.
In my room, my mom was clearly mourning. I’m her only daughter and, unlike many of my cousins in Iran, I was lucky enough to be born in America. My parents seem eternally frustrated that I never seized the opportunity to become a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, I incessantly found hobbies and interests that unknowingly slapped my parents in the face. My attitude and disrespectful behavior didn’t help either.
I recognized their disappointment in me for at least six months, but who knows how long the feelings actually plagued them. Six months prior, thanks to idiotic female jealousy and too much Captain Morgan rum, I got into a fight at a house party. By virtue of older brothers who made me physically tough and a quick temper that I inherited from my father, the police visited my house the following day. The shame I felt was nothing compared to the disgust my parents, especially my dad, voiced regarding my behavior.
Thankfully, I was let off the hook and never pressed with assault charges. My forced public apology to the poor girl’s family, with a police officer present, guaranteed that fight would be my last.
Their disappointment surfaced at that moment, but there was no telling exactly when it began. I stopped enrolling in honors classes after junior high. It could have started there. I stopped playing softball during my sophomore year. It could have started there. I skipped school, came home drunk, got my stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning and once even dared coming home with a shiny silver hoop through my eyebrow. Their disappointment could have started during any one of the teenage shenanigans.
But those were nothing. Those mistakes, those shenanigans, were temporary; like my eyebrow piercing, they could be removed from my permanent record.
These tattoos were not temporary. Upon discovering them, my mom’s realization of their permanence caused her to scream bloody murder to Allah.
The spot on the carpet that I steadfastly stared at for the last 15 minutes or last hour — I honestly don’t know how much time had passed — was just a wave of color, fading in and out. I looked up, red in the face and embarrassed for the exposed skin my mother cursed at. I wasn’t sure whether to cover my chest or my tattooed side. Unfortunately, my arms were not big enough to cover both.
I strained to swallow, but my throat proved too dry and tight. I could barely speak; my voice came out raspy and almost inaudible. All I managed to mumble was, “It’s not a big deal.”
I had rehearsed my argument and explanation several times in preparation for this ill-fated day, practicing a calm, clear speech explaining the feeling of freedom and the meaning behind my body art. At that moment though, no argument, no reasoning and no explanation materialized. I couldn’t think about anything except my mother’s disappointment.
I longed to say something to make her understand that a few tattoos were not the end of my life, but my legs felt like they were made of the heaviest lead known to man, and my eyes remained super-glued to the smallest fleck of fiber in the carpet.
Little by little, day by day, things began to warm in my mom’s outlook as well as in her heart.
Knowing how distraught my mom was about my tattoos gave me chills. I was very nervous for the reaction my dad would have when she would tell him. For days I walked with the fear that at any moment my dad would burst into my room and throw me out of the house. His temper and his strict parenting style was the complete opposite of my mom.
When I came home with my eyebrow pierced, he told me that no daughter of his would do such a thing and asked me to get out of the house. I spent that weekend at a friend’s house, but eventually my mom calmed him down enough for me to come home. Luckily for me, my mom knew that his reaction to my tattoos would be far worse than hers, so she decided not to tell him what I did. It became our secret.
The days after my mom walked in on me changing my clothes reminded me of an abandoned desert town that lingered without the trace of human warmth and life. The kitchen, hallways and common areas, loomed empty of my mom’s usual silly happiness and joking nature. Her warmth and love departed. Cold stares and silent tears secured their place.
More than once I heard her crying from her bedroom. In my bones, I knew that this time was different. My mom would not let this one go. I had let her down.
In my mom’s eyes, I wasted a life that many others could only dream of — I spent my time and my money going to concerts instead of going to school, I failed classes because I was too distracted and wanted to have fun, and now I had “ruined my body.”
I didn’t view my actions as destructive or damaging. My eyes found the bright colors, small lines and intricate shading, all created with such small needles, fascinating. I was in awe of my art, and the pain I went through for them only made me love them more. They were my personal art collection. The single red rose on my side with the bold black letters reading “Fate” spoke of ideals of life and love. Couldn’t my mom understand the meaning in my art?
No matter how hard I tried to speak to my mom in those first few days, I simply couldn’t. She didn’t understand. She was born in Iran, and her upbringing and her ideals were conservative. What I had done went against everything feminine or ladylike that I was supposed to do. She lost hope in my future with what she perceived as the self-destruction of my body.
My traditional Persian parents had always compared my accomplishments with a world of people I didn’t even know. If my cousins in Iran, who grew up with nothing, could make something out of their lives, how could I waste mine with such empty hobbies and disregard for everything important?
My dad and mom always thought I was going to grow up to become a lawyer; at the age of 5, I could argue until blue in the face. I was hot-tempered like my father, but I also got my mother’s soft side and a personality to balance it out.
In the days that followed the unveiling of my tattoos, I felt that I had no place in my mom’s world or in her life. She had given up and turned her back on me. For weeks my mom gave me the cold shoulder and was grieving over the choices I had made. It was almost unbearable.
My tattoos had crushed all the hopes that had lingered in her heart for me. It didn’t matter if they represented any positive ideals; they were trash, and so was I.
Little by little, day by day, things began to warm in my mom’s outlook as well as in her heart. When it became obvious that my tattoos were not a link to some sort of street gang, as she originally thought, she was relieved. Slowly, the hate and fear that had taken over her eyes melted away.
She saw that I was still the same: I was still working full-time in a hotel, I still managed to pay my bills without the help of her or my dad, and after several unwarranted searches of my room, she found that I was not on drugs after all.
She gradually and carefully began questioning me, and eventually the questions came without tears. She even helped me hide my tattoos from my conservative dad, who’s more traditional in his Persian ways. My dad, lost in his work, remained oblivious to my mother’s prior over-emotional state.
In August of 2010, I arrived home with a pile of books in my hands and a few leaflets. My mom was at the kitchen table, drinking her glass of tea and paying bills. She looked up at my shuffled, loud entry, and the look she gave me will stay with me forever.
“I’m going back to school,” I said.
Her smile said it all as she responded, “I’m so proud of you, it’s about time.” She looked back down at the mess of papers in front of her, but I could swear I felt her eyes on me as I carried my stack of books upstairs.
We survived our biggest clash of “Old World” vs. “New World” and emerged as better friends. Today, it is often a topic of conversation and amusement between us when she helps me hide my tattoos from my dad; she frequently leaves pants for me in the mailbox if I forget to pack properly and leave the house in shorts or a dress.
My mom forgave me, though she still gets irritated when I surprise her with new tattoos. She attempts to hide her anger, but my trained eye can always see the flicker of irritation in her face which even showed when I came home with a tattoo of an anchor that read “Mom.”
It no longer makes me sick to my stomach when her eyes widen at my newest body art, because they are not meant to hurt her. They never were.
My collection of tattoos has only grown — I consider them my private art collection. They mark my adolescent feats and some of the biggest influences on my life. My mom looks at me now and instead of seeing a disgrace or a troublemaker, her eyes glow with the warmth I once thought was lost.
Almost daily, as I’m going to work, school or running a simple errand, my mom tells me she’s proud of me.