June 15, 2009
Monday, 7:00 p.m.
Letter #86: My First Tat
Greetings! The news in this letter was delayed in its telling until the secret contained in it had been told. (Wow, that sentence sounds so much better than the story involved—it’s not that exciting.)
It started with my idea to “surprise” Mommy by getting a tattoo, as everyone else in prison does. Well, not everyone does, but it has to be above 98% that do. Back in February, I came up with the idea to somehow acquire a fake tattoo—just how to be determined later—and bring it, freshly inked, into the visiting room on Mother’s Day weekend. I figured that my sweet mother just might believe I’d actually gotten a tattoo after doing a year of prison time and, if I got lucky, tears might be involved.
I know I’m getting dirty looks here, but c’mon, people! Don’t tell me you’ve never fluttered the gas pedal to make your passengers think you’re running out of gas? You’ve never answered a hang-up phone call yet continued the conversation with the dial tone and pretended the person on the other end was calling for someone else nearby? You mean to tell me, you haven’t knocked on a door and hid? Blamed your loud flatulence on the youngest person in the room? Used a laser pointer on your dog? Or your grandma?
See! I thought so! I have too; so relax already. The formulation of a plan was the easy part. But, as in Old Yeller, the execution of it was quite difficult.
My next-door neighbor, “Boo-Boo,” was a great artist, and I’d asked him in February if he’d be willing to write out the name “Mommy” for me in the classic prison-tattoo font. He was willing, it turns out, to also sell me his used TV for $40, and then, when he got into deep debt from buying medications from other inmates, he “rolled it up” (packed up his belongings and transferred to another prison for safety reasons), taking the TV I’d bought with him—nice, huh? Well, so much for my tattoo artist.
Meanwhile, I asked the regular staff of correctional officers at visiting if they would mind if I did the fake tattoo thingy. Mind? They loved the idea, saying they’d like to see my mom’s face when she first saw it.
Then the prison transferred those officers to other positions and rotated in new ones in March. Not deterred, I got to work getting another round of approvals, and when those cops moved on in May, approval from the next group.
On top of all this, I got the approval, verbally, of no less than five of my regular building cops. Of course, two of those transferred to other responsibilities before Mother’s Day. Then, along came this little piggy with a case of the flu, and all visiting privileges were suspended. For an indefinite period. Great.
Well, all annoying things must come to an end eventually (I know this because I had orthodontics for twelve years), so when visits opened up after Mother’s Day, I was ready! My new tattoo artist was prepared to “ink” me up in his cell,* which was okayed by my Saturday morning tower cop and one floor officer, but the other floor cop said no.
I was so disappointed I actually asked God to intervene, which He did by sending a guy to my cell door with a scripty “Mommy” pattern and instructions on how to make it stick, which involved liberal use of a Speed Stick deodorant. The tattoo was 1½” high by 4” long. I applied it to the side of my neck, held it tight, then gently removed the pattern, leaving behind the carbon ink he’d written with. (This is the standard process, I’m told, for how prison tattoos are started—this pattern is then traced over with homemade tattoo guns. If caught with a fresh tattoo, you get restrictions placed on you for a few months. If caught with a tattoo gun, time is added to your sentence.)
I admired my reflection in my cell’s tiny mirror, waiting expectantly for my name to be called over the building’s loudspeaker, announcing my mother’s visit! As I walked to the visiting room, several guys called out to me, noticing my “tat.” I yelled back, “Yeah, it’s fake—I’m surprising my mom with it today!”
The officer ushering me into the visiting room laughed when I showed it to him, remembering my plan. All was perfect! All was going according to plan! Except … my dad visited me.
Daddy had a great reaction, looking sideways at it while he pulled me in for a hug, but no tears, of course. After visiting time was over, I didn’t think much of the tattoo until after dinner, when an officer pulled me aside and grilled me about it: “What do you think you’re doing with that?” he asked.
I thought he was referring to the cake I was bringing back in a plastic bag in my sock, so I stayed quiet, having learned the hard way not to talk to the cops without my lawyer present. 🙂
“You can’t just get tattoos here and think you can get away with it, you know,” he looked at me and spoke gruffly.
I was relieved about the cake and told him the tattoo wasn’t real—that it was for my mom and that the visiting cops and my building cops were letting me do it. “Well, I don’t appreciate it,” he snarled. “It makes me look like an idiot if my sergeant walks up and sees this walking around on my watch, you know?”
I said that I did, and I apologized, that idiot-making was clearly not my goal. He asked if my mom had seen it yet, and when I told him no, he looked around, as if to check if his sergeant was within earshot, and told me, “Well, just put it under your sleeve next time, where I don’t have to see it.” I assured him I would.
I realized I had a bit of a problem on my hands when the tattoo didn’t wash off in my shower that night, nor had it worn off overnight. I wore a collared shirt to the church service, though it didn’t do much to hide a very authentic-looking Mommy on my neck.
God had prompted me to take my Bible and my sermon notes from a message I’d prepared to give on the yard but hadn’t been able to because of a facility lockdown that day. I took my place at the keyboard, playing along with the hymns. The chaplain told us to do more music than usual, since he was expecting one of our volunteer chaplains to show up, but he’d be arriving at 10:00.
At 10:10, with the other chaplain still absent, God began kicking me in the rear end, trying to get me to go tell the chaplain I was ready to speak. I hesitated, not wanting to “push my own program.” God assured me that this was His program, so I’d better get with it.
I did, telling the chaplain I was ready, if he needed me. He looked relieved and thanked me. Someone was giving a testimony, and when he finished, the chaplain pointed at me.
In season and out of season, right? Be ready, and I was excited and ready. Back in early October, I think, the chaplain had asked me to prepare a message, so I had, but when the big day arrived, Trinity had just received his transfer papers, so I volunteered to let him take my spot as his last opportunity to speak before transferring. I haven’t heard about a reschedule date since, now eight months later. (Inmates give only two or three Sunday morning messages a year here.)
As I launched into my message, the Holy Spirit used me to say some necessary things that ministered to the guys. Ten minutes into my message, I remembered the tattoo. They’d all seen it, of course, and were relieved/amused/shocked (in reverse order). I preached on.
Michael and Katie came the following Saturday, so I knew my mom would visit the next Saturday. I had a special tattoo created—Mommy with a heart around it. Tons of anticipation and preparation for the big reveal—and I was blessed with a visit from my sweet father. Again.
We laughed about it, and he promised—again—not to tip off Mommy. He promised me she’d come the following Saturday.
This tattoo lasted all week, so I became known on the yard as “Mommy’s Boy.” I had a fresh one made and stuck it on Saturday morning.
In the visiting room, an hour into a fun visit with my mom, I had a buddy of mine call out to me: “Hey, Christopher! Did you show your mom the tattoo yet?”
She shot me a worried look and said, “What tattoo?”
I told her I’d been waiting to show her, that it still needed some touching-up work, and then I rolled my sleeve up—and got the tears I wanted! Finally!
Turns out, she was touched it was her name I’d chosen … I love my mom! And, it was so worth the months of planning. 🙂 Thank you for praying!
*requiring full cooperation and knowledge of all officers, of course