March 7, 2011

My Firebird

Some of a very large tattoo
I have a very, very large tattoo on my back.  It took about forty hours to finish, during which I went into shock once, spent two hours being tattooed by two artists at once, and created a bit of a scene on a doorstep repeating that i was a pretty pretty princess while chain smoking.

As you might guess, there's a story behind this tattoo.  Actually, there are three of them.  The first is, of course, the story of actually getting the tattoo, and quite the tale of horror and victory it is!  But the other two stories are why I got the tattoo.  Not about why, but the reason itself.  This tattoo was chosen, designed, and painfully attached to my body for the rest of my life because of my connection to a particular set of fairy tales.

In most Western storytelling traditions, there are heroes and villains.  A good guy is always a good guy, the evil magician is always an evil magician.  Eastern fairy tales tend to have a lot more room for interpretation.  Russian folklore, for example, has a collection of characters that tend to defy categorization.  Baba Yaga vacillates between being a terrifying bogey man, and sort of a fairy godmother.  The Firebird- a marvelous and terrible creature- destroys whole villages or brings good fortune to children lost in the woods.

I always sort of associated with that. I never believed in absolute goodness or evil in the world, and these characters spoke to me.  Most of all, the Firebird.  As I dug myself deeper into my studies of children's literature (for a short time it was my ambition to write children's books), I discovered what is believed to be the first story in which the Firebird made an appearance.  In fact, it was an origin story.  And I love origin stories.

My Firebird
It was a tragedy.  But the main character was a girl, about my age at the time, who made her family's living by being an artisan.  Not only an artisan, she wove textiles.  And there I was, an artist and seamstress and burgeoning costumer.  I felt for this girl.

And then there was the Firebird.  Never the main character in its own stories, only moving along plot and supporting the action.  The Firebird was a catalyst for other people's growth and change.  As I got older, that spoke to me as well.  I had begun to feel that it was my place in life to be the catalyst, a constant supporting character.  That my life story was not to be my story, but one in which I played a vital role.  And I was okay with that.

I discovered Stravinsky's Firebird ballet during my teen years.  It was a piece of music, story already close to my heart or not, that moved me to tears.  Still does.  The Firebird ballet became almost my theme song as I moved away from home to start my life as sort of an adult.

As I aged a little more and became more distant from my extended family and religious heritage, I began to feel more strongly for my Slavic heritage.  I know, had I actually been living my life in the former Soviet Republic states, I probably wouldn't feel such love for them.  Being Jewish in Russia isn't a particularly pleasant experience.  But I love history, I love Russian folk art and literature, and despite the fact that the Russian government would never call me a Russian, that's where much of my family came from.  Lithuania, actually, but much of the folklore and folk culture is shared.  Including a lot of those storytelling traditions.

So I decided to get a tattoo of the Firebird, depicted in my favorite of her- or at that point, his- stories.  Not the origin of the Firebird, but a later tale- once the Firebird had become a part of popular legend.

People have a lot of unkind things to say to me about my tattoo.  Doesn't it mean I can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery?  How will I tell my kids 'no' when they want a one?  Aren't I afraid of how bad it's going to look when I'm old?

First, no.  It's a popular myth that Jews can't be buried in cemeteries with tattoos.  That only applies to Cohenim, members of the priestly tribe.  Secondly, easy peasy.  "You wand a tattoo?" (pull out single hair from their head) "Did that hurt?  You can't get one."  And three, no.  I'm not worried about what time will do to my art.  Because part of what makes art beautiful is what happens when it ages.  Do you think that the Mona Lisa never had eyebrows?

Most of a very large tattoo
So I'm a mama covered in tattoos, slightly sad, extremely beautiful tattoos.  I like that, it's become a fundamental part of my identity.  And if when my girls grow up they want to be tattooed women, I'm cool with that.  I'll just offer them the same advice I give anyone who tells me they want a tattoo.

Think about it.  Really, really hard.  In fact, think about it for a year.  If after a year you still think it's a good idea, it very well might be.  And if you think a year is a long time to wait, don't do it at all.  You don't get into something permanent if you can't understand the concept of forever.

...yes- I quit smoking.  I had quit over a year before I got the tattoo.  But being in shock will make you lapse into behaviors like that.

...and yes- of course I'll tell you the Firebird stories.  Just give me a few days to write them out.   

The Stories:
The Origin of the Firebird 
Ivan and the Firebird


  1. I hate "good guys" and "bad guys". I try to show my baby stories like Fraggle Rock, where everybody is good. There's just lots of conflict due to miscommunication, opposing goals, and personal growth.

    I hope to be a catalyst person too. That's a very difficult role; I admire you for aiming for it.

    I do not have the pain tolerance for a tattoo. Yours will look fine as you age.

  2. Becoming super mommy... HA! You already ARE super mommy! You rock!
    I think I am a bit of a wimp in comparison, but my tattoo means something to me. I remember when I got it, 15 years ago, what it meant to me, and what it meant to me when I got it touched up a few months ago. Next week I'm adding to it (and you've inspired me to write about what it means to me), and that means something to me as well. My girls enjoy dropping by the tattoo shop and looking at the artwork there. Sometimes they say they love tattoos. Sometimes they hate them. I think the best thing is that they'll grow up knowing they have a choice and they can voice their choice. :-) Love this post. You rock!!!

  3. Wow, that is pretty amazing. Just Beautiful. 40 hours is definitely hardcore, not for the faint of heart.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog, I really appreciate your comments and the follow. I will come back and check out your blogshare. The sketches is a neat idea. Sounds like a lot of fun. As far as the comment feature on my blog, I just reply to the comments just like everyone else does via the comment box and it shows up like it is on my blog. I really don't have any special features. Lol, not that I know of anyway.

  4. I never get tired of hearing about your tattoo. Or looking at it. It's one of the most gorgeous pieces of art I've seen, and it suits you perfectly. <3

  5. Wow, that is a beautiful story! I love fairy tales because of the journey. Most people look at fairy tales and think "happily ever after," but it's the journey that makes up the story. The same goes for's all about the journey and the choices you make along the way. I love the firebird story. You are an inspiration!

  6. It's beautiful!

    Visiting you from Picket Fence blogs, and enjoying your stories!

    -- Dana

  7. As a tapestry weaver, a recently tattooed mother of 2, and a lover of origin stories...I am SO THERE. Thank you for this!



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