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John Kelly's Washington

A Flowery Tribute Close to Hand

By John Kelly
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page C11

Jennifer Matis is the proud owner of a striking piece of art. It's public. It's portable. And it's particularly well suited for the city she's come to love.

It's an image of cherry blossoms, and it's tattooed to her body, an explosion of delicate pink petals and meticulously shaded branches that cascades over her left shoulder. Jennifer wears her affection for D.C. not on her sleeve, but on her very arm.

Branching out: Jennifer Matis and her blossom tattoo.

_____By John Kelly_____
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The 33-year-old Takoma Park resident said the idea of commemorating her adopted home town started in the summer of 2001 when she and her boyfriend, Travis Miller, were on a two-month journey across the United States. They saw the Grand Canyon and the Pacific coast, the Rockies and the Cascades. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened during the trip, and the journey back to Washington was an anxious one. But when they'd finally made their way home and were driving into the District, Jennifer had a realization: This city was just as beautiful as anything she'd seen on her trip. There was no place else she'd rather be.

"It's rare you have that pivotal moment," she said.

The idea of somehow marking that epiphany percolated in the back of Jennifer's mind. Then she changed jobs, going from being a labor lawyer with a private firm to a position at the National Labor Relations Board, a job more in keeping with her growing sense of who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. She felt doubly inspired to mark her growth.

"It came to me like that," Jennifer told me at lunch recently, snapping her fingers for emphasis. In March, she went to San Francisco with Travis to spend seven hours under the needle of Marie Wadman, a tattoo artist who specializes in what are called botanical designs.

"I was a little afraid of the pain," Jennifer said. "I was not afraid of the permanence."

Before heading west, she e-mailed Marie a photo of her arm with a ruler up against it, so the artist could start becoming familiar with Jennifer's unique canvas. She sent photos of cherry blossoms. "I knew I wanted the pink ones."

The blossoms are a Washington icon. They symbolize more than just tourist-bait near the Tidal Basin. They represent the fleeting nature of beauty, the need to appreciate the moment, the way in which a single well-turned bud can be a tiny piece of perfection in the midst of a big city.

"Happiness is anywhere you can find it," said Jennifer. In the case of the Connecticut native, that's Washington.

"D.C. was the first place that I ever felt that I was a part of a community," she said.

Getting the tattoo made her even more a part of it. "I thought it was private, that I was doing it for myself," she said of her skin decoration. "But people notice it."

She isn't just that woman on the Metro. She's that woman on the Metro with the cherry blossom tattoo.

"At first, it made me uncomfortable to be so noticeable. Now I realize it makes me more a part of the community."

Jennifer is a welcome antidote to the notion that federal employees are colorless drones. She got her navel pierced to celebrate earning her aerobics instructor certificate. And when she applied at the Labor Relations Board, the government agency that keeps an eye on union-employer issues, she already had a pierced tongue.

To tell the truth, she was a little worried about that perforated organ when she went in for the job interview. Pink studs that blend into the tongue, camouflaging the piercing, can be bought (who knew?), and Jennifer fretted over whether she should wear one.

Would she be selling the NLRB a bill of goods if they hired her thinking her tongue was unmolested? "I agonized over it," she said.

In the end, she wore the pink stud, it gave her an infection and she got the job. Months later, she asked her boss if he'd noticed she had a pierced tongue and whether it would have made any difference.

"He was like, 'We wouldn't care.' "

The cherry blossom tattoo wasn't cheap, costing close to $1,000. But as Jennifer said: "That doesn't seem to be a place you skimp. A suit you can take off if you change your mind."

One co-worker did ask Jennifer what she'd do if she ever moved out of the District.

"I said, 'Well, I'll take it with me. It's attached.' "

To see Jennifer's tattoo in living color, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. And if you have an interesting story behind your tattoo, drop me a line: kellyj@washpost.com.


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