I have a tattoo appointment tonight, after putting it off for about two years. This is pretty much how I operate with ink; I get an idea in my head, I sit on it forever, and then I suddenly get a bug up my butt to get it done RIGHT RIGHT NOW. (“Right right now” in this case has taken over a week because I actually know who I want the artist to be and I’m working around his schedule.)
I realized recently, when thinking about how remiss I usually am in scrupulously researching tattoo artists, that tattoos for me have never been about art per se. In fact I’d go so far as to say that most people fall into one of two groups in terms of their relationship to ink: it’s about art, or it’s about marking. Art people’s tattoos may be heavily invested with meaning and symbolism, but aesthetics are the primary concern; a piece that’s not beautiful is an inferior piece, even if the meaning is the same. For marking people, like me, it’s the tattoo’s symbolic meaning that’s important — the ink is almost like a hobo sign, there to convey encoded information but not necessarily to be beautiful. An imperfect piece is acceptable in this case; it still serves the purpose. Like any “two kinds of people” theory this one breaks down almost instantly, as most people have elements of both. But I feel like it’s a productive or at least interesting way of thinking about it.
As a “marking” person, whose tattoos have primarily semiotic value, it’s appropriate that my new piece will be a word. I’m taking part in a living story that’s being published as tattoos, and I am insanely excited. And in a sense my word (“away,”) ties together all my other tattoos, which I realized recently are essentially all “back off” symbols, like a poisonous frog’s bright colors. One is an alchemical symbol for vitriol (on my writing hand, of course). Two have to do with Britomart, the chaste and therefore unapproachable heroine of Book 3 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene; one’s a portrait, and the other one comes from a passage describing her as “a vermeill rose / To which sharpe thornes and breres the way forestall.” (Yeah, it’s a fucking tramp stamp with a rose and thorns, but it’s the marking that’s important, the symbol, remember?) My ink is about keeping people at arm’s length, and possibly punishing them if they don’t get the message. The story of my word, the story of “away,” starts there — as part of a collection of warning signs.
It also starts as a musing about body image. I thought from the beginning that I would get my word on my ankle, but I wavered, because my ankles aren’t particularly “nice.” You know how a lot of fat girls have beautiful shapely lower legs? Yeah, I’m not one of them. I’ve got big thick shtetl ankles, like a lot of the women on both sides of my family, and I retain water like nobody’s business. If I believed in such things I would say that my ankles were ugly. But of course once I realized that I was thinking this way, it was over — I had to get the ink on my ankle, there was no other choice. I had to mark the parts of me I didn’t like, in order to bring them in as part of the whole. (Shaminey at No Breakable Thing has more thoughts on tattoos, women’s bodies, and adorning the parts of you that you find unacceptable — it’s well worth a read.)
Do you have tattoos? Why or why not? If you do, are you more about art or marking? How did you choose where to place them, and how did it affect or stem from your body image? Do your tattoos tell a story about you — maybe even one you didn’t notice for a long time, like mine? If you don’t have tattoos, do you want one? Where would you put it? What would you want?