Eithne McMenamin is a friend-of-a-friend who has always been a delight to talk to at parties, so it was fun to get an email from her saying that she had seen two different links to this site from Facebook friends who live out of the city. And that she had, herself, a Chicago flag tattoo (combined with the fleur de lis of New Orleans).
CFT: So yes, it’s been a lot of strangers, but also friends saying, “oh didn’t you know that so-and-so has a Chicago flag tattoo?” And so I did not know that you had a Chicago flag tattoo.
Eithne: Yes. I have had it for a relatively short period of time. I got it about a year ago. Well, a year ago April. So it was April of 2012. And I actually had it done in New Orleans. So it’s a combo kind of thing. I feel like one or two others on your site were combo kind of tattoos.
CFT: Yeah, actually I’ve interviewed two people with Chicago-New Orleans combo tattoos and then I saw a guy where I swim who had the whole flag with fleur-de-lis instead of stars. Just as he was leaving the pool I was like, “I don’t have any cards on me, but I run this site and I’d like to interview you.” I haven’t seen him at the pool since, so I guess I scared him away from the whole place.
Eithne: He’s found someplace else to swim.
When I was trying to figure out what I was going to get, or how it was going to be designed—because I thought about getting a tattoo probably a year and a half before I actually got it. But I didn’t know what I wanted, and I was like, that’s silly, I’m not going to get something just to get something. That’d be ridiculous—it’s permanent! I’d always in the past been scared, because I didn’t want a tattoo that much, that it would hurt. And then around about the end of 2010 I was like, there’s not anything that can hurt that much, I think I’m going to be OK. It’s been a shitty year and I think that I can handle this. Even though it’s a different kind of pain, psychic pain versus physical pain.
I had gone to New Orleans for Jazz Fest in 2011 with a girlfriend of mine who has five tattoos representing all the different cities she’s lived in. And she was like, “Yeah! Let’s go get one for you right now!” I was like, “No, no, we’re just going to get one to get one.” I pondered it for another six months and towards the end of 2011 I was finally settled on the Chicago-New Orleans combo thing. But I couldn’t figure out what I wanted exactly and I went through a couple iterations and asked some people what they thought. One thing I came up with was entirely too complicated. The tattoo artist said, “No, that’s too much. Like, get a whole other tattoo if you want all that, you can’t put too much in one.” He helped me come up with it. I like the Chicago flag with the fleur-de-lis instead of the stars. I can’t remember if I thought of that one or not. That’s an obvious kind of mixing of the two, I think. The tattoo artist helped me design it. Or, he designed it and I said, “Yeah, that looks good, that’s what I had in mind.”
CFT: That was down in New Orleans? Did you just walk in somewhere off the street?
Eithne: It was a place that some friends had recommended who had fleur-de-lis tattoos, because fleur-de-lis tattoos are a big thing in New Orleans. They had gotten them post-Katrina and they symbolized the water rising. It’s a couple and they both have them on their forearms. So they recommended this place. And it’s actually a place that opened after Katrina. So it’s called Hell or High Water.
I went down for the French Quarter Festival last year and stayed with a friend. She knew I was thinking about it and that I was still on the fence. We had taken a tour of the Garden District and we were getting ready to go home and her friend’s daughter who was with us was whining about having to go home. So my friend Amy was like, “We could always go get Eithne’s tattoo.” And the girl was like [eyes-wide] “What? Oh yeah!” She was twelve going on twenty-five and she was totally delighted at the prospect. “When I turn eighteen, I’m gonna get a tattoo and it’s gonna be right here and it’s gonna be a flower and…” You know, she’s twelve!
So we went and she’s giving me all kinds of advice about what to do if it hurts. A twelve year old! Very helpful. And then my friend bought me a large margarita to go from the Mexican place next door. We had already designed it by that point and then I had to go across the street to get cash. I took literally the last $140 out of the ATM. I tried to get $160 out to have a little cash on hand and the machine said “sorry, I only have $140”. Which is exactly how much I needed. So it was fated. We went back to the tattoo shop and I really liked the tattoo artist, Eric Huffman. I can sort of see people falling in love with their tattoo artist. I wonder how often that happens. Because you’re doing this intimate thing—someone is permanently altering your body. And he was kind of cute, so that didn’t hurt. And he let me put my own music on the stereo, because they were playing some death metal or something and I was like “no no no”. So we compromised on The Pixies. Later I was complaining about something and he said, “hey, I never let people put their own music on, so just settle down”. He was funny, I liked him.
He started working on the tattoo, which is on my shoulder, and my friend and the twleve-year-old said, “oh, we’re going to go across the street and get something to eat, we’ll be back in a while.” It turned out the twelve year-old was getting ready to throw up. She couldn’t handle the blood. And this is the “tough” twelve-year-old who is telling me what to do if it hurts too much. So it basically was a Scared Straight video. You have a twelve-year-old who thinks they want to get a tattoo? Just send them to me and I’ll show ‘em. She was sick for the rest of the day and when she got home she told her mom she wasn’t sure she still wanted a tattoo. Teaching the youth!
New Orleans has sort of become my spiritual home. In 2011 I’d gone down for Jazz Fest but I was down there four or five times throughout the year. Totally fell in love with the city, as people do. New Orleans is many people’s mistress, I think.
I had gone at the end of 2010, at the end of that shitty year, at the insistence of a friend who wanted me to come down and volunteer. He was bringing a group from his church in Chicago down to volunteer. We had a really great experience and then I wanted to come back and spend as much time as possible in New Orleans in 2011. And that’s what I did. After you’ve been at my work for 5 years you get a one month sabbatical in addition to your vacation. I wanted to go back to do a more long-term volunteering gig with the place we had volunteered with in the fall. And I met someone and fell in love, and so I fell in love in and in love with New Orleans. And so that made it a lot more fun to be there. In addition to just being an awesome city. So yeah, I spent a lot of 2011 there.
So, yeah, New Orleans is my spiritual home and Chicago is my adopted home. We moved here when I was in high school and I came back a few years after college. I had gone back to the East Coast, briefly, after college, and then came back here for graduate school.
And it was funny, when I told my friend I was getting this tattoo—she doesn’t consider me a civic booster—she said, “I find it so odd that you’re getting a city symbol, you were the one getting arrested in high school for protesting the US policy in El Salvador. You’re a rabble-rouser.” And I work in Chicago politics, so it is a little weird. But oddly I do love this city, even though I’ve seen the nastiest parts of the city, and the politics of how awful it is and I work in it. And yet somehow I still love it. And I get tired of it somedays, and I get tired of the bullshit from the administration and this mayor and this city council. I don’t know if my love of Chicago is greater than all that, or if that contributes to my love of Chicago. I don’t know what’s playing on what. Can I just set all that aside and still say there are so many great things about Chicago, or is it that somehow our totally fucked-up politics somehow contribute to my love of the city.
CFT: Well, it is your profession to get in there and fight. If this was a utopian city, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be somewhere else fighting there. So it is a love-hate-love.
Eithne: It’s true, I’d be out of work if we were a perfectly run city that had no homeless people and where everybody was housed and closed and fed. Right, so I have to engage with the system. So, yeah, it’s a thing that complicated and I can’t quite tease out all the pieces of it. It’s a friendly city, and its got the culture and the restaurants and the beautiful lakefront. Which is huge and awesome and unique in this country, I think—it’s the largest publicly accessible lakefront in the country. So there’s just so many good things about it. But every couple years I’m like, “I’m leaving”. And then I don’t. And then I re-fall in love with Chicago and recommit myself to staying here.