I love tattoos -- yours, mine, lots of other ones. As most of you probably know, we are a heavily-tattooed generation. Often times when I'm with a group of friends, the ones without ink are the minority. I remember when I was younger, I felt a general consensus that you couldn't get a tattoo unless it meant something. This, of course, was to ensure that you would like the tattoo "forever" because if it didn't mean something, then you were more likely to hate it later, and also to lose street cred with your peers who would, inevitably, ask you what your tattoo meant.
Now that I'm in my 30s and I have a couple beloved tattoos of my own, I've been reflecting on this practice that still sometimes circulates: "oh nice tattoo," someone will say. "what does it mean?"
Lately I've been feeling like this can often be a completely inappropriate question, especially from people we don't know that well. Tattoos, though inked on our outer skin, are deeply personal. Many of them were obtained in time of transition -- either joyful or sad. Some tattoos are literally memorials to loved ones passed away -- many people mix ashes with tattoo ink as part of this powerful ritual. Some tattoos were drawn by our mothers or long-lost friends; some tattoos are for our babies, our boyfriends, our grandmothers. Some symbolism has been heavily researched, is close to our hearts, and represents the very philosophy by which we live. And above all, every tattoo has a story: the story of its conception, its creation, who was there, who wasn't. Many tattoos have stories of love in them. Every tattoo holds an unfinished story, as well. They are the markers of time, we make them permanent and then we continue to change. The lines soften as the years go by; sometimes, we outgrow them -- and there they stay. The way we feel now about our tattoos from then is all part of the tale unfolding. So then, must we really share this with anyone who asks?
Naturally, not every tattoo is so profound. We all know about that first tattoo when we turn 18 (wink, wink).
But my point is this: our tattoos belong to us, and just as the great poets did not provide roadmaps to the inner meaning of their poetry, neither should we have to provide a deeply symbolic translation of our body art to those who ask. Above all, tattoos are art. We get them to adorn ourselves, to complement the parts of us we love, or to remind us of what is important to us. What it means is only relevant to each of us....the meaning belongs only to the one who wears the art. We are the temples, and we may decorate as we feel compelled. And! Let it also be said that if the story of your tattoo is one to share, then tell it often, and let the telling of that story be a ritual for you and all who hear it. There are many stories that do need to be shared, and those stories can be healing for so many of us.
Remember this, as you move forward. Claim your tattoos however you'd like -- share them, or don't. Tell the secrets, or keep them. You decide. Either way, it's beautiful. Either way, it's art.
All the Love,
(photo: Matt Sharkey)