Of Tattoos and Hair Color

by Alyssa Colton  <abcolton@juno.com>

Over the last 13 years, I have permed, cut, and colored my hair almost every shade offered by Clairol. I wouldn't be surprised if, when I'm 50, it all decides to fall out. I will wake up one morning and find the last remains of my hair in thin wispy strands all over my pillow, then go out to a wig store and buy five different kinds of hair, enough for each mood.

It all started in middle school, when I began experimenting with perms to add body to my straight blond locks. In high-school I left those behind in favor of the sleek, androgynous cuts of the '80s. In senior year, my hair was pretty conventional--slightly wavy, medium-length, dirty blond. But as graduation loomed ahead, I took a razor and shaved a small section off the side of my head. I also had my ears pierced, hardly radical when people commonly had earrings all the way up to the tops of their lobes (but still not, generally, in their noses, eyebrows, lips, and belly buttons, as is common now). The act of shaving off that small clump of hair and piercing three holes in each ear was just what I felt I needed to announce my identification with my skateboard-punk boyfriend, an identification that was being threatened by his impending move across the country.

In college, a perfect time to experiment with new identities, I ventured into something new: coloring my hair. Perhaps it was the subtle messages of years of commercials and magazines that intimated that coloring one's hair would make you attractive, renewed, and irresistible. Perhaps it was finding out about my suite mate's explorations with her own hair. She had an extension that she fooled me with for months before she revealed that her hair was actually shorter than her neckline.

One night, within an hour, I became a redhead. Not long after that, a strawberry blonde. I always loved it when people didn't notice I colored my hair. It gave me an inexplicable sense of power that they couldn't guess the real me. Even if I didn't feel very different from my high-school self, at least I could look like somebody else.

In my sophomore year, I transferred to a new university and became a brunette, though on me the dark brown looked black, especially in contrast to my fair skin. At that point I was listening to alternative music and favored black clothing and silver jewelry. Again I was the image of someone I wanted to be: cool, jaded, and intense. I rounded out the look when I went for a semester abroad in London, where I bleached my hair almost white and purchased a black leather motorcycle jacket in Camden Town market. When I met my parents at the airport at the end of my semester, I imagined they saw a new, hip, city-smart me.

Up until the age of 23, I avoided doing anything more permanent to my body than coloring my hair or piercing my ears. Change, and the ability to change, were the hallmarks of my youth. Then, on my 23rd birthday I decided it was time for a commitment. I got a tattoo.

At the time, I was living in the East Village of New York City. Every evening on my way home from work, I would walk down St. Mark's Place, dazzled by the array of tattoos, piercings, and ripped and leather clothing, as if some punk movie set had taken over the neighborhood since I had gone to work that morning, when the streets were quiet and still. As this picture became a normal scene in my life, the idea of a tattoo on my back seemed innocent and unobtrusive, even if my family and neighbors in upstate New York would think I had joined a biker gang.

My boyfriend Mike and I decided to go for it together. We thought long and hard about designs and finally chose mythological animals--he, a dragon and I, a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth. A phoenix tattoo would be a visible marker of something deeply and uniquely me, instead of an attempt to become someone else.

A friend brought us to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and showed us the semi-secret studio of the tattoo artist called Huggy-Bear. I still have his card hanging over my desk, with a sketch of his profile, complete with bald head and shaggy beard. Huggy-Bear had years of experience and was a nationally respected consultant of tattoos and tattoo removal. Meticulous with sanitation, using gloves and changing needles, he was a jovial man with a grandpa-gray beard and a body covered in whimsical butterfly tattoos, he was the kind of man you could trust your skin to.

I have never regretted getting my tattoo, but I still wrestle with my hair. A few years ago, when I went through a period of intense indecisiveness about the future of my relationship with Mike, I ran to the store to get my fix of bottled elixir. After dying my hair a new deep auburn, I stared in the mirror, scrutinizing how the new color complemented my face. And that's when I knew that it was over with Mike, a truth I had tried to deny for months. I figured that as I'd had the courage to change my hair color, I could take on the frightening prospect of living alone, of starting over.

My phoenix tattoo was a magical part of meeting Dan. He, too, had made the phoenix part of the mythology of his inner life. Sometime after his first wife left him, he adopted a kitten and named her Phoenix to symbolize the start of a new life. Shortly after we met, he was given a ring with a phoenix on it. Of course, these coincidences weren't the only reasons for our growing relationship, but the phoenix came to represent the link between us, a link we wanted to solidify. We decided to make the leap and get married.

I wore an off-the-shoulder gown, and the phoenix tattoo was there for all to see. And my hair color? Well, it was blond, the hair color of my childhood, though I must confess it was helped along with chemicals. 

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