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Why I sent my underage son to Las Vegas to get a giant tattoo

Trading tattoos for grades? Yup, guilty.

Damn. There goes my Mother-of-the-Year Award.

Last month, I sent my 16-year-old son to Las Vegas overnight to get a giant black tattoo in a place where he'll see it every day for maybe 70 years. And I didn't just let him go; I arranged rides, booked flights, got a hotel, and even pleaded with a reputed Sin City ink slinger to defy his own no-minors policy and scar this child's otherwise flawless forearm forever.

But I had good reasons. I think.

For as long as anyone can remember, the boy has wanted this tattoo: an old-timey compass rose like you'd see on an ancient map. Ever since he first saw it in a pirate book, he'd ask, "When can I get my compass tattoo?"

Other phases came and went: Army crazy, football obsessed, bound for rock stardom. But this never wavered: "When, Mom? When can I get my compass tattoo?"

Parenting is a long process of handing over your children's lives to them and saying, "Good luck, kid." At each stage, letting go can sting and grate like a tattoo needle — only it's the opposite of getting a tattoo. It's having something meaningful permanently removed from yourself.

Exactly a year ago, I discovered I was ready to let our son decide what his skin looks like — but not what his school transcript looks like. Desperate to motivate him during that college-crucial junior year of high school, I blurted: "You want your tattoo? Get straight A's and it's yours."

Next thing you know, I'm staring down a report card with more A's than Alabama, and a teenager with big, compassy plans for the tender patch of flesh just south of his elbow and north of his wrist.

"It's a nod to my love for history and old things," the child said of his dream tat. "And it's a symbol of home: Every time I leave the house, I want to find my way back here."

Aww, he loves us! Our family nest is a haven for his soul!

"…Not because I want to be with you guys or anything. Just 'cause I'm lazy like that."

Oh.

Turns out, though, it's illegal in California to tattoo anyone under 18 even if his mother is standing there with a fistful of cash screaming, "Ink the bastard, already!" It's also illegal in every state that borders California. Except Nevada, where it's illegal to make anything illegal.

But a deal's a deal. And if I rank academic achievement above a clean-cut, wholesome appearance, then I rank personal integrity above 'em all. So, being a mom of my word, I reserved him and his dad the last two seats in a friend's Vegas-bound minivan. (Wait, you didn't think I was gonna go, did you? The tattoo parlor's instructions said, "Wear something you don't mind getting blood on.")

The night before they left, I panicked. Would he hate it? Would he hate me for letting him make such a huge decision before he even knew who or what he wanted to be in life?

But the kid was calm. This, he said, is the age in life when you decide which direction to head in — and he's still deciding. But we both liked that as of tomorrow, he would always have a souvenir of this auspicious moment. And a visual nudge toward true north.

At the studio, I'm told a tatted-up rocker with a butt-shaped coffee mug dug into my baby's flesh for two hours while the speakers warbled "Hurts So Good" and "Another One Bites the Dust."

When my boy had navigated his way back home the next day, I asked him to be honest: Had he had any pangs of regret yet?

"Oh, god, yes, are you kidding me?" he said. "Like at least five times already."

I see. Well, good luck, kid.

At least he'll have something to write his college essay about.

This article originally appeared in The Santa Barbara Independent. It is reprinted with permission.

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