The Tattoo Thing

September 5th, 2015

Tattoo thing

Recently, an old friend of mine posted on Facebook:

“Gotta admit… I just don’t get the tattoo thing.”

This attracted a flurry of comments from many of his friends who also didn’t get it, or did, or thought they did, but maybe didn’t. He didn’t really pose it as a question, but people seemed to feel compelled to answer anyway, and I, too, was tempted to comment and try to explain myself. But I didn’t. Mainly because, after I got over my initial “but… but… but…” mental reaction, I realized that I didn’t have anything articulate to say.

I have tattoos, as I mentioned in my last post. And I think of myself as a pretty deliberate person. There must be some reason I got them. But what was that reason? And was it a good one, or was it just an impetuous decision born from the whims of youth? I really had to think about it.

And every time I started to think about it, a quote from the book The English Patient came to mind. Katharine Clifton is dying in the cave, writing one last love note to Almasy:

We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we’ve entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we’ve hidden in—like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.

This is a book I love dearly. It carries a message of universal humanity juxtaposed with the unique intricacies of our individual stories. It’s a book about the tragic mistakes that come about because of reckless passion, about forgiving people even when they have wronged us deeply, and about the rich beauty of life-as-art. Read this book. Even if you didn’t like the movie.

But I digress.

As I said, I have two tattoos, and I love them. One has been with me for about half my life. It’s the Japanese symbol for “strength,” and it’s on my lower back, perilously close to being a tramp stamp (but not quite, I must point out). I got this tattoo when I was 25 and brokenhearted over a boy. I was visiting my friend Ivy in Seattle, and we stopped into a tattoo parlor in Fremont one morning after doing a shot of whiskey at the bar next door. At the time, it seemed like the bravest thing in the world.

Do I love this tattoo, a few decades later? Not particularly. Do I regret getting it? Not at all.

When I think about this tattoo—which is rarely, to be honest—I am filled with pangs of compassion for that young me, who thought some ink on my skin would give me special powers during a particularly difficult breakup. This tattoo is a visible part of my story. It’s about my youth, and the things I did, and the mistakes I made, and the loves I lost. For this, I am grateful to my first tattoo.

I feel the same way about my second tattoo, although it’s not nearly as old. About five years ago, I read the wonderful Salman Rushdie children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, heard Rushdie speak at a local event, and fell in love with his creative mind and the saying “It’s a P2C2E (Process Too Complicated to Explain).” I took this saying very personally. It meant something to me that I did not ever want to forget.

It does not escape me that both of them are words that must be deciphered. I am a writer, after all. But more than that, I believe deeply in storytelling. My tattoos are marks on my body of the tastes I’ve swallowed, the rivers I’ve swum up, and the fears I’ve hidden in.

I like to imagine my mummified body being disinterred by archeologists from a far-future civilization. As they analyze the strange bluish-black streaks on my body, they’ll wonder if they are the markings of my tribe, prison branding, or some deluded form of masochistic cultural expression. And they will be right about all of the above.



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One Response to “The Tattoo Thing”

  1. [...] that they don’t have any tattoos. Well bully for you! I don’t love either of my tattoos, but I love what they mean to me, and I wouldn’t change them for anything. If you’re noticing a tinge of defensiveness, again, I [...]

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