Personal Ink: Tattoos of the Lovebirds Who Almost Didn’t Meet

It’s once again time for Personal Ink—our monthly column where we showcase authors and the tattoos that grace their skin. A tattoo is never just a careless image: whether sentimental or silly, it’s always an expression of the person behind the ink.

This month we’re featuring two writers, Kassi Underwood and Mike Murphy.

Kassi has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic Online, Al Jazeera America, and Guernica. Mike studied nonfiction and is currently teaching high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The fellow authors met at the prestigious Columbia MFA program, where their love of writing helped bring them together. Now they’re getting married at the end of July and their matching tattoos have become part of their story. In their own words, (written by Mike, edited by Kassi), here’s what their pigeon tattoos mean to them:

Two and a half months after my first date with Kassi, I got her name tattooed on the left side of my chest. I asked the artist whether I should get her name in 24-point font, but he said “No, no. You want it small.”

Mike Pigeons
Mike Murphy’s tattoo

Kassi said, “Thanks a lot.” In 8-point font, the name was needled above an image of two pigeons kissing. Kassi got the birds on her left arm. We told ourselves that what we had was super-love, but according to medical studies about the early stages of romance, we were completely insane. We were both trying to be writers, but somehow we didn’t think about the meaning and metaphor of birds until after they were zapped onto our skin. This is what we came up with in retrospect:

1. Once pigeons mate, they mate for life. Kassi hails from Lexington, Kentucky, I’m from Beverly, Massachusetts, and it took me so long to track her down. Thirteen years ago, when we were both 18, we both started college at the University of Vermont. Our dorm rooms were a hundred yards apart. We had the same major, same writing mentor, same English classes (different schedules), and we walked across the same stage during graduation in 2006. Still no sign of the other, even when Kassi visited my hometown randomly and befriended friends of mine. We hadn’t even heard of each other. She moved to New York to study nonfiction writing in Columbia’s MFA program, and I moved to New York to party. I started in the same Columbia program one year later, but we still didn’t meet. After I stopped partying, when I was 27 years old, I boarded a bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I was on my way to an MFA graduation barbecue in New Jersey. Kassi walked onto the bus and sat next to me. We shook hands for the first time. She was going to the same barbecue. I remembered noticing her in the front row of an event where Pulitzer-winner Stacy Schiff was speaking, and I thought, “She’s very together.” We began to talk and trace the million circles we’d flown around each other.

Kassi Pigeon cropped
Kassi Underwood’s tattoo

2. Pigeons are the mascot of New York City. New York! We love New York. Our courtship was all over the city. Dancing to the street musicians in Washington Square Park, riding bikes around Long Island City, body surfing at Long Beach, ordering pounds of Greek food in Astoria, dining with our extended families in Chinatown, picking out her engagement ring in the West Village, arguing one summer night in the Lower East Side because Kassi refused to wear a bra. After a year and a half together, and seven years in New York, we moved to Massachusetts for work and Round Two of graduate school. We live on the ocean. Our apartment is twice the size of any New York spot we ever lived in. We have a dishwasher. Free storage. We don’t lock our doors. Whenever we return to New York—which is often, fortunately—we feel more like ourselves. New York is home. We’ll make it back one day and probably move into an apartment about the size of a birdhouse.

3. Pigeons are a hell of an animal: grimy, impulsive, and driven by basic instincts. They hang out on the ground, consume stuff that makes them sick and sleep next to one or more pigeons on fire escapes. We’re headed to the altar in Vermont three weeks from now, in a long dress and a black tux, but we’re still pigeons.

Cover image: Andrew Piccone

Recommended reading:

coverPen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald and Wendy MacNaughton (Bloomsbury USA; 2014)

This was the book that inspired the column. People tell in their own words the stories behind their personal ink and what it means to them. Authors Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay, rock musicians, librarians, union organizers, salespeople, professors and even a porn star reveal what this personal markings reveal.

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