When my four children became teenagers, I felt unmoored by their changing needs. I struggled with understanding how to transition away from being a person whose primary role, despite my full-time job, was perpetual mothering. I was 40 years old, but I didn’t feel rooted in who I was or where I was going next.
To create a road map back to myself, I got my first tattoo.
My first body ink was a vine curling around my right wrist — three flowers depicted in various stages of blossoming. River, my middle daughter,
went with me to a shop called Six Feet Under and held my hand throughout the process. I had turned in a sketch a couple of months earlier, so the artist had already visualized what he saw growing on my arm. He began by free-hand drawing the vine around my wrist, following the contours of my bone structure. When I saw it on my skin, in ballpoint pen, I felt the vine had always been there, that the artist had simply wiped away the dross that had been hiding what lay beneath.
While he needled my arm, River talked to me about what was going on in her life, and I felt like she became part of the ink, too. When I walked out, the lotus in all its early stages didn’t feel strange. It looked like it belonged on my arm.
Hooked, a few months later, I followed that session up with a lotus in full bloom on the back of my neck, the outline of a pine tree and mountain on my forearm and, eventually, a barren tree on my entire upper arm, wrappingaround my shoulder and up onto my back. It reminds me of the price of knowledge — and my commitment to keep seeking it.
For years, I wore long sleeves to hide these and seven other tattoos from my family of origin because theybelieve the body is a temple of God. (They take this more literally than most.) They raised me on a mountain, preparing for the apocalypse, my body in service to their definition of the Lord. This isn’t a story I can erase, but it’s no longer the only truth I want to hold.
I felt lost when I left their mountain, and for years I struggled to find a place to belong. Like the parents I interview here, nature tattoos have helped me reclaim my body as home.
Epona Rose got her tats to help her reground herself into her body when she was on the precipice of a major life change. She had just been displaced from a beautiful canyon home nestled into the mountainous valleys and foothills of eastern Washington, where she had been living for eight years — a place where she had grown gardens and birthed and raised her son. She had built a community with deep roots — and she had no intentions of leaving. When she was forced to leave, she deeply grieved the loss of home and community, and she struggled to find a place to land.
When Rose found herself living in isolation as a single mother, she was disoriented, rootless, falling without ahandhold to catch herself. It took every tool she had to move through her spiritual darkness, and one of the tools she utilized was the ritualistic magic of tattooing.
“Displacement had changed me,” she explains. “The disruption and dissolution of my community had changedme. Loss and heartbreak had changed me. I needed to mark myself a changed woman.” Over the course of two months, a dear friend came to her home to tattoo her, serving as an ally, witness and guide though the process of her transformation.
Rose says, “I have quite a few other tattoos, yet at 35 I had kept the flesh above my heart space bare.”
She decided she wanted the nettle plant to occupy that space. “Nettle is a beloved plant kin of mine,” she says, “and though I use their medicine year-round in teas and tinctures, my favorite time to be with them is during the spring sting, ingesting their enlivening medicine through the skin, where ascorbic acid raises patterned welts, diving
into the bloodstream, dilating capillaries and inviting us to wake up, open up and get
with the movements of spring.”
During what she calls the darkest winter of her adult life, “I needed that nettle medicine,” Rose says. “But I didn’t just need to steep them in hot water. I needed to steep them in the depths of me, embed them in my skin. I had been changed, largely by external circumstances beyond my desire or control. The real magic was in how I met thoseexternal forces, who I called upon for help, where I directed all that transformative energy. And now, for the rest of my days, I have this incredibly beautiful tattoo over my heart space. Nettle leaves branch up onto my chest and roots reach down into my solar plexus, reminding me not only of the darkest winter of my adult life, but of the light I met that darkness with and the beauty that emerged from their combining.”
Power in the pen
Ryan Falcioni, a philosophy professor and father, has a whole sleeve of botanicals that remind him of the beauty and ephemerality of all life. “Cherry blossoms make me smile, but my favorite flower tattoo is the chrysanthemum on my elbow,” he says. “I do not directly see it that often, but the symmetry and structure of it remind me of the intricate complexities of the natural world. I also have a large black rose in the center of my chest. This one is a reminder of suffering in the world.”
He pauses to contemplate. “I still think about love and beauty when I see it.”
Jeanette Lucero, a microdosing educator and mother of three, has a masterpiece of colorful flowers on her right arm. She’s had tattoos for many years, but it took her a long time to commit to what she truly wanted.
At the end of 2018, she says, her relationship with God deepened and she began to feel more “spirit-led.” Shemet artist Sam Chacon, owner of Sanctum Tattoos in Chino, and decided to explore her larger tattoo dreams. “He and I worked together to carefully place specific flowers that made me feel raised vibrations when I looked at them visually,” Lucero says. “Sam ended up intuitively filling in the background with his artistic eye. The whole thingcame out breathtaking. There are no words for looking down the sleeve on my arm full of beautiful, colorful, high-frequency flowers and feeling deeply connected to Mother Gaia.”
As parents, it can seem impossible to admit when you feel lost. But whether our kids are babies or will soonbe out of the house pursuing their own paths, it’s perfectly fine to want to reconnect to — or discover for the first time — some buried parts of ourselves. Nature can be our mirror. It offers a web of information — from lessons about life and death to beauty and nurturing.
By covering our bodies in flora and fauna, Rose, Falcioni, Lucero and I have reclaimed our landscape. Wedidn’t get tattoos to change our past stories. We’ve just chosen to pen different endings.
My children, now in their late 20s, are living with their partners between Los Angeles and Morro Bay, working in healing professions. And River has a 2-year-old son. In the past five years, my three daughters and I have each gotten the exact same pine tree drawing, inked near the pulse in our wrists or on our ribcages, next to our hearts, symbolizing the everlasting strength we provide for each other. Sharing the nature tattoos on my body has given me the grounding and courage to write my debut memoir, “Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult,” which examines how edible plants can be a source of sustenance, and how they can serve as signposts, leading us toward what will nourish us in our lives.
Michelle Dowd is a journalism professor and author of the memoir “Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult.”
Plant-Loving Tattoo Shops
Looking to plant some botanical tattoos on your skin? Here are a few local shops:
1. Oak and Poppy Tattoo and Piercings – L.A.
2. Earth Altar Studio – L.A.
3. Klockwork Tattoo Club – Covina
4. Black Diamond Tattoo – Venice
5. The Honorable Society Tattoo Parlour & Lounge – West Hollywood