I got my first and only tattoo for my 20th birthday. In London. In a fairly sketchy basement in Camden. In 1999, the year when hundreds of thousands of girls everywhere where getting inked with what were essentially characters from Chinese take-out menus and claiming that the signs they could not themselves decipher meant "serenity" and "inner strength" and "hot sexy mama". The year that the word "tribal" took on a whole new meaning. The year "tramp stamps" were still the epitome of cool. So I could have done a lot worse for myself than I did. A lot, a lot.
Not that this is some sort of paean to my own impeccable taste. Far, far from it. You should see some of the s*** I was wearing in those days (if I can find some photo evidence, maybe I'll share it some day). But I did get lucky on the tattoo department, if only because I'd been planning it for at least three years.
My one and only tattoo is an equal mix of snowflake, nordic compass, medicine wheel and pictogram and I had designed it myself with a shaky hand on the margins of my notebooks over hours and hours of high school boredom. It held then, and now, multiple layers of symbolism for me, ideas that I'm happy to carry around for the rest of my days. Like I said, this was mostly luck, a little bit of good taste and good sense buried in layers of black hair and nose ring and next-to-non-existant eyebrows.
As my twenties drew to a close, I had grand ideas for a tattoo to mark my third decade: two birds of a particular kind (not swallows!) on my shoulders where anatomically speaking one's wings might be, over my scapulas, the wing-bones so to speak.
I wanted my husband to draw these spirit birds for me, but we could never quite materialize the design and I took that as a sign that I should keep looking.
Around then, I also thought of getting a single owl feather, in white and brown and other natural tones on my forearm, but a balked as feather tattoos suddenly became the trendy thing to have and I felt as though I couldn't be absolutely sure of my own motives. Did I really want this thing for its symbolic value, or was I being influenced by those demon-headed hipsters of popular culture? I suppose if you have to ask such questions, it's best to leave the ever-lasting jewellery to others.
Drawing on human skin holds a lot of power in my mind.
Judging from how wide-spread tattoos are in all cultures, it is fair to speculate that skin art has been a part of humanity's adornment since the dawn of man. Their meanings certainly have varied from culture to culture, ranging from signifying rank, to being part coming-of-age ritual, to simple vanity.
As we entered the 21st century the tattoo had risen from relative obscurity and secrecy to a very common place adornment. They are now perhaps more prevalent in mainstream, Western society, than they have ever been and like so many things co-opted by us, the masses, their original connotations have been greatly diluted.
Inking your skin has left behind its former outlaw status, as a preoccupation of criminals, sailors and fancy ladies and tattoos now adorn the arms and chests of investment bankers, teeny-bobbers and well, your mom.
Any cultural significance the tattoo has, is now simply held in the eye of its beholder, the person who chooses what they wear on their skin.
For the reasons stated above I don't consider getting inked lightly. As you may know by now, I'm kind of hellbent on making sure that my decisions are thoroughly meditated. However, I also don't subscribe to the popular notion that you will inevitably live to regret your ink when you're a grandmother of 12, embarrassed by the wrinkled Sea Shepherd-logo on your bicep. Hecks no you won't if you're a person of any integrity to begin with! You'll be proud to tell them all about the time you stink-bombed a Japanese whaling ship and saved a pod of minke whales in the process. A tattoo can be a reminder of how one sees oneself, who you are, or who you aspire to be, or who you once were.
It is true that we constantly change and grow and sometimes wish we could shed our entire skin in the process, but I feel that the person that you were is what you build the person you become on.
So when I gave up on my previous ideas for a tattoo, as too vague and perhaps too superficial, I simply kept on looking for others. For a long time I've been intrigued by the idea of tattooing a special word, perhaps a whole sentence, a quote from a favorite poem, or a few meaningful syllables on myself.
It's surprising how hard it seems to find the word(s) that I would want to carry with me always.
Words have come and poems have gone and thought I still wonder if I'll ever find the right
one(s), I now see that it hardly matters whether the word I chose were just a passing fancy.
The right words will come, or perhaps, in hindsight, the wrong ones.
In the meantime, I've finally settled on the images I want.
I now know that I want a particular plant of significance, personal meaning, to grow on my forearm, as well as a representation of the celestial world, some small moon I can always carry with me. Perhaps even just a circle representing a moon. A tangible rendition of some small piece of the whole universe, loaded with multiple meanings.
Sometimes I feel like almost any beautiful image could serve as a reminder of all the glory that one can experience at any moment.
We carry tattoos like we carry all our choices, good and bad, with us forever, and then suddenly, we cease to exists, and so do they. There are no mistakes, only choices.
Whatever they may have been : A moon, a yew tree, a perfect circle...
Got it? Want it? Abhor it? Why?