Monday, February 6, 2012

In Defense of Ink

Last week, some poor unsuspecting student writer for a college paper posted a fairly nasty attack on women with tattoos. Which promptly went viral and said writer received a barrage of savage personal attacks in return. And on one hand I do feel badly for her - I can only imagine some of the vitriol she attracted - but on the other hand, when you write a condescending, ill-informed, sexist, and insulting essay where you state that women with tattoos are classless, inelegant, amoral, standardless idiots who are ruining their beauty in the eyes of men, you probably shouldn't be surprised if you get a little blowback.

Yep, women with tattoos are all the same...

After all, at least 15% of Americans have tattoos, rising to about 40% for people ages 18-29. 15% of men and 13% of women have tattoos (source), and I imagine that statistic is higher for people my age, though I couldn't find a source to support that supposition. We are the tattoo generation. And you know what? 84% of people with tattoos do not regret getting them.

Our tattoos are shallow...

I have four tattoos. All are relatively small and can be hidden with a three-quarter sleeve shirt. Based on the responses I've gotten from the general public, it's not hard for me to believe that of people without tattoos, 27% think that compared to someone without a tattoo, I'm less intelligent, 39% think I'm less sexy, 25% think I'm less spiritual, 47% think I'm less attractive, and 25% think I'm less healthy (same source as above).


Those statistics get a resounding "meh" from me. Especially the ones regarding my attractive/sexy quotient. Because as much as this may surprise certain student writers, everything I do to and with my body is not geared toward the goal of increasing my appeal for men. Or women. My body is about so much more than my sexuality. I have pride in my body not because I look sexy in high heels, get manicures, wear trendy clothes, change my hairstyle, or go to the mall with girlfriends (all of which said writer posited as a satisfying and meaningful alternative to tattooing), but because it is MY BODY.


My tattoos are visual reminders of impactful moments in my life, meaningful and deeply personal transformations that I have chosen to permanently engrave into my skin so that I can never forget those lessons, those moments, that person I was. Some of them have more meaning than others, but all of them have come to essentialize and symbolize ME. This is why I don't really like getting asked what my tattoos "mean". That's a whole conversation, and most folks just aren't that invested.

And representative of failing modern morals

I hated my appearance in high school. You come up with any synonym for fat or ugly, and you can bet I've hurled it at myself. I internalized those hateful epithets so deeply that I still get confused when people compliment me. This annoys Leland to no end. "Do you think I'm blind, stupid, or lying?" he said once after I rejected a compliment from him.

My first tattoo

When I was 19, I chose to tattoo myself with the Egyptian symbol nefer, which has many meanings but always has the meaning of beauty. It was the first time I'd ever dared to think of myself as beautiful, much less to express that belief so openly as to have it marked permanently on my body. I still expected some cosmic force to deny me the tattoo, or at least to laugh at me for it, for the ridiculous belief that I was worthy of the label beautiful. The tattoo was an important part of my ongoing journey for self-acceptance. I had dared to believe that I had beauty. And the more I told people what the tattoo meant, the more I embraced it.

I am not beautiful because of this tattoo, but it
allowed me to celebrate my beauty after years of self-hatred

When I was 20, a friend and I each chose a warrior figure from a Spanish cave painting and had it tattooed on our upper backs, just below the nape of the neck. Skye was my dig partner on the first real archaeological investigation I was ever a part of, and the tattoos were chosen to commemorate that. Everything about the dig was exciting for me, the opening of a door into a new professional life.

It's hard to take a picture of your own back

My little warrior still represents my connection to the archaeological past, and he has also come to symbolize the strength of my body. Though this is the tattoo I spend the least amount of time thinking about (I can't see it, after all), it feels like a challenge and a promise that I've made to myself. I will honor my body by making it healthy and strong. Because my body is worthy of my time and energy - and not just a project to define my self-worth by my sex appeal.

My little warrior's got my back

When I was 21, I found myself in emotional chaos, heartsick, depressed, lonely, and without purpose. I had no energy, no spark. I was in a valley that I couldn't climb out of and I knew it, so I did something impetuous. Without telling anyone beforehand, I got another tattoo. This one combined the Triple Goddess Symbol with the Adinkra Hye Won Hye. The Triple Goddess symbolizes the powers of the feminine, representing the three stages of womanhood - maiden, matron, crone - as the waxing, full, and waning moon. The Hye Won Hye is an Asante symbol (a people from Ghana) that was used on hand-stamped cloth. At the time I got the tattoo, I understood the meaning of the Hye Won Hye as "that which cannot be burnt". To me, this meant strength in the face of difficulty, walking through fire without injury.

My problem child tattoo

Of all my tattoos, this one is not one that I would choose to get again, largely because it is appropriative. I am not a Pagan, nor am I even Black, let alone Asante. In fact, I once had a guy at the gym ask me if I was a Pagan after he saw the tattoo. When he learned that I wasn't, he gave me an earful. (Years later, a female Pagan friend told me that she thought the tattoo was fine, and that the idea of feminine energy and strength shouldn't be a symbol exclusive to Pagans.)

A symbol of my life, not a regret

But do I regret this tattoo? Not at all. It didn't magically pull me out of my depression and it reminds me of a low point in my life. But you know what? Those are things that happened to me. This tattoo, perhaps more than any other, is a perfect encapsulation of who I was at the time that it was made. Years later, I learned that the Hye Won Hye has another meaning as well. It means forgiveness. And so that tattoo has gained another layer of meaning as I healed - forgiveness for the person who broke my heart. Forgiveness for myself.

When I was 22, I fell in love again. My new boyfriend offered to buy me a tattoo as a graduation present. After only five weeks of dating, we ended up getting the same tattoo - SPQR. This is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase, "Senatus Populusque Romanus" - The Senate and People of Rome. The phrase was used exhaustively throughout the Roman Republic and into the present Italian state. It turns out that my boyfriend and I had each, individually, always wanted that tattoo. We spent hours (in that way of new couples) talking about the symbol of Rome as the crux of humanity. All roads lead to Rome. For me Rome represents the totality of human experience.

All roads lead to Rome

And because of the circumstances in which I got the tattoo, it will always remind me of the spring when I was young and newly in love with the man who would become my husband. It reminds me of the giddy richness of love's chemical intoxication, and of the impetuous, wonderful, foolish things we do under its spell. Even if someday we are no longer together, that time will always be unimaginably precious to me. Regardless of the circumstance, I want to remember my past, not pretend it didn't happen.

Leland graciously allowed me to take this
picture while he was playing video games.
Can't you feel the romance?

Like most tattooed people, I have dozens of anecdotes about others' reactions to my tattoos. The middle-aged woman who frowned at me and said, "you're such a baby to have all those!" (I was 27). The sales associate at David's Bridal who assured me, "those can be covered up with makeup." The numerous men who used my tattoos as a pickup line. But really, I don't care what you think of my tattoos. I always like to hear compliments, of course, but I didn't get them for someone else's approval. I got them for myself.

Whatever, haters

Humans have been tattooing themselves for at least 5000 years and this practice has had meaning all over the world, in the past and the present. And if you have the gall to openly stereotype me and 40% of your peers because of our tattoos, then I admire your cajones but I also feel very sorry for you, because that attitude is incredibly shortsighted. When you give in to those prejudices, you're setting yourself up for a very narrow life and you will miss out on some truly incredible people. You're entitled to your opinion, and I hope you enjoy the tiny little box that it will keep you in.

Eww, tattoos. Let's stereotype people!

Of all the issues in the article that kicked this whole thing off, I was primarily disturbed by the internalized sexism on display. I was secondarily annoyed by the arrogant suggestion that someone without any tattoos can promise that practically any other activity will be a more rewarding experience than getting one. Maybe that's true - but how the hell would you know? But finally, I was caught by the student writer's foolish and almost plaintive question:

"But at the end of the day, are you really a happier person? Has this tattoo, for instance, caused you to learn something new about yourself? Has it challenged you? Has it led you to self-growth?"

That's probably a question you should have asked of some tattooed folks, instead of assuming that you already knew the answer.


  1. Wonderful post - thanks for sharing the meaning behind all of your tattoos. Even though I was around when you got it, I didn't realize the deeper significance of your first one. For what it's worth, I've always thought you were incredibly beautiful - I had a massive crush when we first met in college!

    I've often wondered if I'll regret my tattoo, but so far I don't. It makes me think of being young and independent and facing scary things all by myself, and I never want to forget what that felt like.

  2. You need to read Science Ink! It's all about nerdy science tattoos! It makes me want to write up the story of my spider monkey tattoo...
    Also check out the following:
    It's a great anthropological look at tattoos :)

  3. I linked to you from CDAN where you made a similar comment about tattoos.

    I also have a couple of tats. They're for the most part hidden but can easily be shown off if I choose to do so. I want to get 2 more.

    I'm a college student and last semester, I did a speech for one of my classes about the meanings behind tats. My anthro professor is covered in them so I interviewed him about them. He told me he hadn't experienced very much discrimination against them in the US but that he had in Guyana when he was there for work. The people there hadn't seen them before and didn't know what to make of them.

    I mentioned this to a classmate who immediately said, "I call BS on that statement!" She then went on to tell me that any woman with a tat is automatically considered a slut. I don't know how or why she came up with this.

    One of my tats is a butterfly on my back. My father told me that when I was 80, I would regret getting it. I told him by then, I probably wouldn't even remember I have it!

    Recently, while having dinner with friends, they were surprised when I said I didn't regret mine. Why should I? One of them I put zero thought into, the other one I put much thought into. I like them both very much.

    There's a girl in one of my classes who has blue, green and purple streaked hair, piercings and several visible tattoos. When I mentioned it to my mom one day, she said that it's too bad this girl didn't have better self-esteem or she wouldn't have done that to herself.

    I told her that maybe the girl felt very confident in her skin and this was her way of expressing it! My mom didn't agree. She doesn't have to though.

  4. Hi Sprinkles! I love CDAN, though I'm usually just a lurker.