I have an overwhelming urge to tattoo myself, basically at all times.
I have exactly zero tattoos.
I have threatened to get any number of tattoos over the years, a fact of which no one is quite so acutely aware as my dear friend Brad, who has drawn for me–at my request and even once combined with cash as a wedding gift–no fewer than four different tattoos.
Each time I ask for a tattoo, he happily agrees. We talk about what I want, he draws it, it looks awesome, we go sit by the river to drink coffee, and I never actually get the tattoo.
My friend Brad and me shortly before I ask him for the fourth time to draw me a tattoo I’ll never get.
Brad is a Virgo. My polar opposite, allegedly, astrologically. He is covered in tattoos. He is the singer in a very heavy metal band and likely among the kindest, gentlest people walking planet earth.
I will probably get yelled at for saying that. Being found out for a sweetheart seems like it could be bad for one’s metal cred.
Almost anyone I really love or respect outside of my family has at least one tattoo. This puts a great deal of strain on my occasional abstract intellectual theory that despite what the tattooed may say–as with plastic surgery and any other body modification–tattoos are representative of some deep personal or existential insecurity that is not finding its expression elsewhere.
Or that they are minimally individualized advertisements for a personality, intellect, emotionality, or opinion that is not much deeper than the tattoo itself, if it is related to the individual’s “true” self at all.
(Or maybe it shouldn’t strain my theory. It could just mean that I have a special place in my heart and high regard for somewhat damaged or otherwise slightly off individuals, a badge that most of these people would wear proudly.)
Beauty lies within the heart, but just in case, I paid some guy $100 to write this on the outside of my shoulder.
Before the tattooed readers of TNB jump down my throat, please understand that this is strictly an intellectualization. I’m not sure I believe it. It’s a theory from which (I think) my own personal feelings and opinions are pretty well divorced. It may be right or wrong regardless of what I think of it.
And the question of course, ultimately, is so what if it is all those things? My ears are pierced. I put makeup on my face every day. I didn’t pop out of my mother’s womb in a pair of round-toed heels. I do these things to my body because I like how they look. I like to have earrings and rosy cheeks. I want to make my feet look small and my legs look long.
Sue me. Sue us all. We are all vain and petty and insecure.
But tattooed people often say that their tattoos are markers or reminders of where they’ve been that help to ground them in who they are.
Who they are. Full stop.
Not who they were that one day or month or that juncture in their lives. A commitment. I AM this person with these tattoos and experiences.
I fear the tattoos I don’t yet have for the same reasons I am filled with trepidation about writing from a place of emotion. The trepidation stems from having come across old writings and having been downright ashamed.
The shame that I was ever “that” way, whatever that way was. The knowledge of how the various situations I wrote about turned out or what they actually were compared to how I thought they would turn out or what I thought they were. Looking at them and seeing just how wrong I was. I hate that. Embarrassed for myself in front of no one but myself.
The lack of temperance, the sentimentality and melodrama, the delusions, the whatever-tends-to-manifest when writers let rip a heart fart.
The terrible sin of trying to write broadly in a singular state of mind. The paper lain to waste in a wash of limbic diarrhea.
Of having sincerely believed the apparently ridiculous.
But. Above all…
The intellectual, emotional, and philosophical fumble of mistaking the way it is now for The Way It Is.
And unlike a piece of writing that one can burn or cast off or otherwise make to go away from one’s sight forever, tattoos are there forever. It seems it would be like being locked in a prison cell with every thing you’ve ever thought, for a year, was awesome or significant.
MC Hammer. Jeggings.
There is just nothing to be done.
Not really. Not for less than thousands of dollars.
You have to look, every day, at those other yous who got those tattoos and continually concoct new narratives you can accept about what they were thinking when they had Papa Smurf tattooed below their panty lines, bacon tattooed on their asses, “Winona Forever” scrawled across their biceps.
Some will say that they got the tattoos to commemorate events with the intention of never, ever allowing themselves to forget a moment or a feeling.
I’m not sure I’d want to ever guarantee I couldn’t forget something.
To really live peaceably with tattoos, you have to be a person who believes (or wants to believe?) in a certain unity of identity. That those past yous are not, in fact, other people but rather necessary steps in a progressive, coherent narrative of self that moves forward linearly through time.
I don’t think I have that kind of conviction.
And it’s tough to slip into a new self when your old self’s uniform is tattooed on.
For this reason, virtually any tattoo I’d get would probably be a terrible mistake. But here are a few of the more glaring mistakes in that vein that I have considered making, including one I may still make, but probably not, but maybe, but not if I were smart or knew myself at all.
1. Yin and Yang
It’s an idea of which I’m very fond, but I wanted this tattoo before I understood what duality really was, what it meant for balance and existence itself, what it meant for countless religions and spiritualities in the world, both contemporary and ancient, how much everything I seem to do or think depends on it.
I was not aware of how the concept is responsible in large part for my non-committal nature and as such would make a perfect tattoo for me, if tattoos weren’t so committal, making it, in fact, an awful or at least ironic-to-the-point-of-hypocrisy tattoo.
I wanted it because it was 1992, I was 14, and it was dangling off of every cheap necklace in Claire’s Boutique.
The bottom line is that this thing is Played. The fuck. OUT.
2. Any variation upon symbols for my astrological sign and/or ruling planet(s).
Or the pictogram. On my feet. Someone (or a bazillion people) already beat me to this bright idea, though.
A LOT of people have their astrological symbols on their bodies. Such tattoos have come to make me uneasy. They tell rather than show. Or maybe it’s that they’re bossy, demanding to others that the wearer be thought of in a very specific way. Or maybe they betray the wearer’s own insecurities about who s/he actually is. Insecurities severe enough that s/he would want to demand to be thought of in an astrologically prefabricated way.
I dodged a major bullet on this one, for exactly these reasons. Pisces is not the strongest astrological influence in my chart. Even if I were willing to define myself in such simple terms, I would have picked the wrong ones.
Pluto, the right one.
I’ll admit, this still looks pretty badass to me.
This idea came to me during a goth phase, at a time when there weren’t so many people already with this tattoo.
But, like any good idea, it was bound to pop up and spread, so eventually it, too, became a cliche. And oddly enough, I can’t remember why I wanted it. I’m not sure it actually meant anything to me beyond being a cool idea and one that I thought was mine.
Probably best not to go around getting tattoos that don’t mean anything to you. And in the case of this particular tattoo, it’s a bold proclamation that you intend to remain thin and wasp-waisted forever. If I (or the person above) were ever to gain large amounts of weight, this tattoo would become a terrible, sad piece of irony (something something about physics and air speed velocity or “Maybe those should be Buffalo wings! Har har har!”)–never mind that they would likely become grotesquely misshapen.
But nothing–I mean nothing–is as concerning as getting wings on your back that are way too fucking small.
Folks, when it comes having your Icarus wings tattooed on, go big or go home. Ain’t nobody flying anywhere on wings that small unless his name is Ken and he’s ascending to heaven from the scene of a horrific Barbie car accident.
4. The tramp stamp
There’s really only so much to say about why this would have been a terrible mistake. At the time I first thought I might like one of these tattoos, I was a bartender and a barfly and therefore perfectly qualified to wear one, however, they weren’t called tramp stamps yet. They were still kind of different and cool. Mostly worn by people who didn’t fake tan or shop at the mall.
This is the second pitfall of tattoos. Even if you don’t change–no matter how seamless your narrative of self–opinions and culture and the people around you change. One day you’re at the fore of 90s alternative and body modification culture, next thing you know, you’re just another 30-something ex-hipster with a tramp stamp and a nipple piercing and no tattoo to tell the world that you had both before they were ridiculous.
Tribal-type tramp stamps are what I was always having Brad draw for me. I think the last couple of times I asked him to draw me one of these, tramp stamps were acquiring their more dubious reputation. I asked him to draw me something that could just as easily go up at the top of my shoulders.
I did not have Brad draw me anything like this.
In Ancient Egypt, Thoth was the Ibis-headed God of writing and wisdom, one of the oldest deities in ancient Nile culture. In pre-literate Egypt, he was likely a much more central figure, perhaps even the creator God himself. Later, he retained a prominent role as the scribe, the creator of writing, the inventor of science and math, and the voice of the Sun in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Think Alan Rickman’s Metatron in Dogma, but with a PhD in theoretical mathematics, the philosophical power of Socrates, and T.S. Eliot’s broad command of languages and ideas. Some kind of primordial mega-professor.
Here we see Thoth with the sun disk on his head, possibly receiving solar wisdom, presumably taking notes.
I was even going to get him tattooed on my left shoulder blade. Because I’m left-handed. Because that’s the hand I write with. Then it would be like he was shooting all his super-ancient Ibis-headed wisdom down my left arm and into every word I penned.
The problem with having a big tattoo of Thoth on your shoulder so he can shoot God’s divine wisdom through you into the internet and poetry rags of the world is that it’s hokey and totally self-aggrandizing and potentially belongs more at the Stargate booth at ComicCon than in the world of actual tattooed people.
It also reeks of affected writerly bullshit.
It being the case that I think having Thoth on my left shoulder would be self-aggrandizing, it’s curious that I don’t even think twice about putting another Egyptian God there.
This time it’s Set, though.
The Egyptian God of the desert–of chaos and darkness and all things hostile to life. The nasty brother who killed Osiris, chopped him into tiny bits and flung him to the corners of the earth.
He is the God tasked with the protection of the sun during its overnight journey through the underworld.
Apep wants to swallow Ra and end the world! Thank goodness Set is there to stab him in the maw. Thanks, Set.
Unlike virtually all other Gods in the Egyptian pantheon, Set’s animal representation is not clearly one type of animal or another. It is ambiguous. It begins to look like whatever someone suggests to you that it is. An anteater. A jackal. A donkey. A greyhound. It is very much a creature that looks like it could live on earth, but it’s no particular earthly creature–past or present–that anyone seems to recognize.
Among most scholars, it is simply the “Set Animal.”
To the people of Ancient Egypt, Set has served equally as well (at different times) as both a Satan-type figure and as the primary God, above Horus and Osiris and all others. His function and identity changed constantly. Dramatically.
To say Set is evil is wrong. To say he is good is wrong. To say he is necessary is right.
The message, philosophically, is profoundly appealing to me.
Dichotomies erase themselves to become dualities. It is never some thing OR another. It is always some thing AND another.
Existence is comprised of various arrangements of opposites and and antagonisms. Without all things contrary to life, life ceases to be. Without Set, the sun everyone worships would not even manage to rise in the sky.
Seth offers no hope and no condemnations. He is elemental and amoral–a force of nature that exists outside of time.
and related to
kind of, via an underworld river like
and potentially even more powerful and cool than
but having nothing much to do with
which is probably just as well, all things considered.
Set might be the one.
I bet Brad could draw a badass Set.