“So what does it mean?”
The question that every person with a tattoo hears, time and time again.
I was recently asked this in the middle of gospel choir rehearsal. Not wanting to disturb rehearsal with talking to explain it, I half-shrugged and murmured, “Nothing much.” The girl looked at me incredulously and started laughing. She shook her head, still laughing and said “It doesn’t mean anything? You’re… funny!”
But I could tell that what she was thinking was something along the lines of “You’re crazy/stupid!”
While my tattoo does happen to be quite significant and meaningful to me, I know a lot of people who have tattoos which don’t have a deep meaning behind them. And when they are asked that question, I see the exasperation in their faces—and I see the judgement in the faces of those who ask, only to be informed that there is no particular meaning to it.
Getting a tattoo nowadays is a fairly commonplace and mainstream thing to do—everyone from punks to hippies to college girls to businessmen to grandmas are getting inked. Nevertheless, there still seems to be a level of unspoken expectation that there has to be a “meaning” behind a tattoo.
We have to justify our choices to alter our own bodies. And if there is no justification other than “I just really liked the art” or “It was $80 Flash Day at the tattoo parlor”, some people are quite clear in their disapproval and judgement of this choice.
Obvious mini-rant moment: People are allowed to do whatever they like to their bodies. If they just happened to love a piece of art they saw, or they just woke up one morning and decided they wanted to get tattooed that day, that’s their choice, and doesn’t make them stupid.
“But tattoos are permanent! It’ll be with you for the rest of your life! What about when you get old?”
What! What do you mean tattoos are permanent? I had no idea! Said no one who got a tattoo, ever. (I hope.) And for the record, when I get old, I’ll be an awesomely tattooed old person with great memories of my life and the choices I made when I was young.
Something perhaps less obvious I would like to point out to curious tattoo-observers is that yes, maybe the tattoo on that person they’re questioning does have a meaning. Maybe it’s a deep personal significance—emphasis on the word personal. I know people who have gotten tattoos to cover up self-harm scars. Or as a memorial for a friend who passed away. Or as a symbol of their survival through tough times.
The girl who asked me about the meaning of my tattoo is someone I consider a friend, but not a very close one. I’ve also had strangers or people I have only just met ask the same question. While I don’t really mind telling people about the meaning behind my tattoo, it does seem a bit awkward to discuss my symbol of personal growth and confidence with someone I hardly know. I hate to think about having to try to explain it or come up with a fake story, if my tattoo’s meaning was a lot more personal than that.
So we should consider, before we ask someone what their tattoo means, that the answer may be more personal than they are willing to share with us. Then ask ourselves if we plan to judge them if they say “Not much, really.”
If they are a close friend or they bounce up, roll up their sleeve, and say “Check out my new ink!” then it might be appropriate to ask about it. But take a moment to reconsider before asking an acquaintance or total stranger about theirs.
As for my tattoo? Well, the dots down the back of my neck are representative of a line of dots which has shown up in many significant places throughout my life—plus I just like the look of them. But the main significance for me was the act itself of getting tattooed.
I have spent my entire life second-guessing myself, not being confident in my own decisions, back-pedaling and caring way too much about the opinions other people held about the decisions I made.
So I decided, on my three-month trip alone through America, that it was time I made a decision that was completely my own—a decision that I knew some people would disapprove of—and a decision which was permanent.
And now, when I get out of the shower in the morning, if I’m feeling unsure and insecure and small and anxious, I turn my back to the mirror, look over my shoulder and see the lower half of the dots running down from my neck. And suddenly I feel calmer, I can breathe easier and I am reminded that I am capable of making decisions—even big, permanent ones—and it turning out just fine. It reminds me that I am a different person to who I was six months ago. And that I am the one in charge of the person who I become.
So yes, my tattoo is meaningful to me. But maybe one day I’ll just decide I want a huge rainbow unicorn on my back, because hey—unicorns are awesome! And that’s my choice.
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Assistant Editor: Holly Horne/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: nameless faceless, Flickr