Emer McLysaght: I already had seven tattoos but I knew this one would be different

I got my first in Canada thinking I was the wisest nomad that ever lived, with thousands of miles between my parents in Ireland and the tattoo parlour in British Columbia

“The idea of getting this tattoo is genuinely improving my mental health.”

I wasn’t trying to emotionally blackmail my friend with this statement. I really meant it. We had decided to get matching tattoos, four of us friends had. It was an idea borne out of a well-oiled night sitting around a table sharing wine and bowls of giant Wotsits.

We have our best times sitting around tables and that’s what inspired the matching design of a simple kitchen table adorned with a single slice of lime. A homage to the years we’ve spent together and the years to come. For two of the gang it was their first tattoo and some feet were getting chilly. In my head, though, it was already a done deal.

I had found the prospect of the outing and the artwork and the commitment to a permanent marking of my skin a new and welcome boost to my mental health. It brought a sense of hope and renewed belief in the concept that the point of life is just to live it. Previous tattoos – I have seven in total – had been hounded by doubts about ageing skin and changing trends and future me hating past me’s decisions. The communal table tattoo was different.


The boost of serotonin and the realisation that it’s just skin and ink and we’re only here for a blink of an eye was truly serving to bring me out of an existential funk. It also brought some new clarity to some of the tattoo decisions past me had embarked on since I first committed to three little stars on my right bicep at the age of 18 with thousands of miles between my parents in Ireland and the tattoo parlour in British Columbia as I bopped around Canada for six weeks thinking I was the wisest and bravest nomad that ever lived.

I didn’t think I’d be going into my 40s with this renewed zest for getting tatted

Many of my tattoos are souvenirs of sorts. There’s a terrible tribal-style design on the back of my neck that I picked out of a book in a tattoo parlour on Long Island. We were working in a country club for the summer on J1 visas and getting tattoos to celebrate one of our party turning 21. She was the only one to be 21 for any part of that summer, which limited us to one bar called The Caddyshack where they didn’t care about IDs and had unlimited Billy Joel on the jukebox. Those tattoos were still healing a week or so later on 9/11. The parents of one of our workmates took us in for the day so we could glue ourselves to the television and raise our voices over the sound of fighter jets from a nearby military base.

The table isn’t even my first matching tattoo experience. More than a decade ago I committed the ultimate tattoo sin and committed to the same permanent ink as my then boyfriend. We didn’t get each other’s names, thanks be to the holy God himself. We got the next most cheesiest thing: a song lyric. When we broke up I remember trying to stick the knife in by threatening to book the next possible parlour appointment to get it covered up. I still have it, faded to half obscurity with age but not faded enough to hide the fact that the font is basically comic sans.

I’ve never covered it and probably never will because it represents a very particular time in my life, teeming with happy memories. It also tells a cautionary tale about the wisdom of getting matching tattoos if you’re fighting on the way to the tattoo shop.

I didn’t think I’d be going into my 40s with this renewed zest for getting tatted. However, the table is one of three tattoos I’ve gone under the needle for in the past six months, including a detailed and painful six-hour session to immortalise my cat on my lower leg. She’s ungrateful and indifferent to my sacrifice but I love carrying such a piece of art around with me at all times. My most recent tattoo covers up those three British Columbia stars, not because I regret them but because they were truly too ancient and sad looking. In another 20 years I might be making changes to the table or the bloody cat, but I’ll be grateful for the stories they tell.