Invisible Ink

I have plenty of tattoos. You just can’t see them.

December 2022

Reading time min

Illustration of a woman with long flowing blonde hair opening a door with a crying heart inside and a banner that says -1/12

Illustration: Julia Breckenreid

I didn’t mean to stare, but when she bent down to retrieve her wallet, Together Forever written across the soft flesh of her lower back, I couldn’t look away. Who is together forever? I wish I had asked her, but it seemed odd. As if seeing her art wasn’t intimate but asking her about it was. When she stood up again, the waistband of her jeans eclipsing the words, I turned my head, scared that my face might betray my fascination.

I’ve never had a tattoo. When friends in college were getting dolphins on their ankles, I supported them but never felt the pang of joining in. What word or symbol do I love enough that I could place it on my body for eternity? I’m not sure. Some people know what they’d want: names of children, partners, pets. A hummingbird, for those who identify with its inability to commit to one place for too long. And words like listen and imagine, to remind them what they need to do. Years ago, a friend told me she wanted to get the word kumquat tattooed on her wrist because it made her laugh. She thought it’d be a kick to glance at it and giggle, for the rest of her life.

And as mysterious as tattoos themselves are, the sentiment—the motivation—is as familiar to me as any other. For I think many of us wear those birds and those words, but we wear them on the inside.

What word or symbol do I love enough that I could place it on my body for eternity?

I have this image in my mind of a machine, like a scanner at the airport, that reveals not our pocket change and other metal objects but our invisible tattoos—an X-ray for the hurt and love and all the things we carry around but aren’t courageous enough to share. I have plenty, just below the surface of my skin. It’s as if you could read them through touch.

I have tears for the loss of my grandmother and my father. So many that I’ve often thought they’re starting to show, and I wonder why no one stops me on the street to ask, “Why do you have those tears on your face?” I’d tell them I wear them to remember and to forget, all at the same time.

Not all of my invisible tattoos are sad. I have the number –1/12 for my younger son, because we learned from a science program that if you add up all the whole numbers to infinity, it miraculously adds up to −1/12, and that is how much I love him. To infinity and then just around the corner.

If I were to ink my invisible tattoos across my skin, there wouldn’t be enough room left to make a mark with the tip of a pencil. I’d be swirling with words and pictures, and keep adding to them, through each moment of grief and hilarity, until I was a walking picture book, and you would see me and read me and know where I’ve been. But I’m not brave enough for that. Some I will always keep secret, lying just under the surface, away from strangers’ eyes until I feel ready. Others I will share, taking someone’s hand and pressing their fingers against my skin, as if to say, “Can you read that?”

Katie Mauro Zeigler, ’95, MA ’96, is a writer in Walnut Creek, Calif. Email her at

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