On permanent marks

24 June 2016

Years before I got my first tattoo, one of my favorite books was Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. As a matter of fact, many tattoos and years later, it still is. I still have the yellow-paged paperback I bought at some secondhand bookshop now lost to memory: a cover of red, with the titular Man sitting on a platform, colored ink traced across his back in swirling pictures and shapes. The text itself is a collection of stories that, individually, have nothing to do with the tattooed man, but are held together by a prologue and epilogue that places them all on his body. He is a sideshow worker, encountered by the nameless narrator, who allows, in the right time with the right audience, others to see how his tattoos move and act out stories, his skin the medium, his ink the message. As wonderful as the stories in The Illustrated Man are—which, for the record, is very wonderful—it’s the concept of the Illustrated Man that has remained the most distinct for me, far beyond any one particular story. I love the idea of these presumed permanent marks as a part of an ever-moving and changing whole. I’m inspired by the thought of stories living on skin, visible to all, but understood only by a few, who alone are allowed the secrets.

My least favorite question in the world is: “What does your tattoo mean?” The question itself is innocent enough, but it springs from the societal assumption that tattoos are still the realm of the criminal, crude sailor or sideshow freak, and that in order to justify having one or more, we respectable folk must have profound reasons for them all. Tune into to any tattoo-based reality television show and you’ll hear the constant repetition of emotional justification stories about tattoos. Which is not to say we can’t choose to get, treasure and share our memorial tattoo to dear great aunt Josephine. Chances are, Josie was pretty awesome. And there’s no wrong reason to choose to get a tattoo. What I object to is the automatic default, the immediate link of tattoo to the easiest sort of profundity, and I object to it because it does not honor stories, it actually limits them.

If you ask me what my tattoo of a cat in vintage aviator gear means, be prepared for me to tell you it means I wanted a fucking rad tattoo and that’s it. Because that’s it. (Also, her name is Ameowlia Earhart.)

But if you ask me what the fact of me having tattoos means—well, that’s where it gets interesting, and becomes a story worth telling.

I don’t love all my tattoos. Over the past ten years that I’ve been collecting them, I’ve undergone more upheaval and change in circumstances than any other time in my life, and my collection reflects that. Some are not the same level of quality of the ones I get now, when I have more money and access to better artists. A couple are styles I might not choose now, or I might choose a different representation of the same concept. But I regret none of them. They’re on my skin. They’re me. Together, they tell my story with all the heights and dips intact. They are the choice that I made to own my skin, to control the way I appeared and to define my physical worth in my own way. They are the fact that even if you are dealt certain cards in the beginning, you can play them any way you want. Paradoxically, it’s the permanent marks of my tattoos that remind me I am fluid. They are the foreign country labels stuck all over my steamer trunk, claiming a small space of my travels, and you can trace out a path between them, connecting the dots from where I came from to where I’m going.

It’s not the tattoos’ stories I want you to know about. It’s the story of me, which is larger and more complicated and always in motion.

I am one session away from completing a large tattoo on my back. It’s an astronaut floating in space, tethered to her shuttle, earth and the galaxy in her backdrop. Because of its size, complexity and the demands of daily life that required long periods of time between sessions, the piece has taken almost two years to finish. The degree and length of the process has brought me to consider, despite the facts that I decided to get this tattoo, that I want this tattoo, this last bit as the home stretch, with not a small amount of relief. I had to adjust and learn about the process as I went. I’m reminded that when I first began this tattoo, I was at the end of one job, with an uncertain future. It was right before I took a trip to New York, and another trip to New Zealand, both my first visits to those places. It was when I still getting used to living in Chicago. Soon the tattoo will be complete, here, where I started, but not really where I started at all.

And the Illustrated Man, the magician whose inked stories ripple across his flesh like moving water—he’s not really any different than the rest of us. He’s just the story we tell about something else, something so big we don’t yet have the words to say it.


See all essays