Tattoos and I have had a long, tumultuous relationship. It all started back in elementary school when I was utterly obsessed with Jack Sparrow. One day, while watching a rerun of “Inside the Actors Studio,” I heard Johnny Depp recount the tale of his infamous tattoo. If you haven’t heard the story, it goes as such: during his bad-boy years of long, greased hair and wool beanies, paparazzi temper tantrums, and 3:00 am appearances at LA nightclub The Viper Room, the actor dedicated his beautifully sculpted deltoid to his then-girlfriend, Winona Ryder, getting “Winona Forever” engraved in capital letters. To my preteen self, it was a bold and foreign move, romantic and cool. It was also utterly stupid. Like many young Hollywood lovers, the two stars eventually split, and Depp had no choice but to rescind his mark of affection. He went and got the “na” removed, revising the words to “Wino Forever.” So began my tattoo dilemma.
For many of us, college is a period of experimentation, self-exploration, and risk-taking. Our bodies are no exception to this. Just yesterday, a friend of mine began winter hibernation early by growing unprecedented facial hair. I have learned more about the anatomy of the ear from listening to my peers choose between daith and tragus piercings than from my high school biology classes. Yet, throughout my time at Harvard, I have found that most individuals fall into one of several categories when it comes to the issue of tattoos: there are those who staunchly claim stretch marks, professional advancement, and cursive ink do not mix well and that regret is inevitable; there are those who don’t see what the big deal is—a tat is a tat, the more the better; and then, there’s me.
As a painter and artist, I have always found the visual aspect of the tattoo provocative. The notion that through text, image, and color the body can become a canvas is extremely powerful. Even more profound is the idea that one can self-impose an aesthetic statement, overtly displaying an act of self-transformation through physical skin mutation. The tattoo is a personal badge, a narrative, a history, a particular declaration of individual and perhaps collective identity.
Nonetheless, while it is true that we are constantly expressing ourselves— whether through our government papers or Facebook status updates, our clothing or haircuts—there is something unsettling about carrying one single moment of this very expression on one’s body forever. Just as Depp fell out of love with Winona, what if I fall out of love with my tattoo? Does this mean I have somehow betrayed my younger, former self ? Will I have to prepare some explanation when people ask what it means?
The ability to play and be adventurous in my self-expression while simultaneously being conscious about the lasting consequences of these acts is at the heart of my thoughts on both tattoos and creative freedom. Ironically, most artists long for permanence, trusting and hoping that their work and message will persist long after their careers and lives end. The weight of this permanence inevitably calls for long contemplation, the toil of creation, and careful modes of display. But if you ask any artist, the impulse to create a lasting mark is also instinctive and reckless, inevitably opening up the very act of art-making to the fault and foolishness of something like “Wino Forever.”
Looking back, I’ll admit to having entertained a few embarrassing tattoo ideas: the rose-chained anklet, which I would never have to remove when showering; the “profound” Oscar Wilde quote, whose brevity and aphoristic punch began to feel too easy and disingenuous over time; the traditional Chinese seal of my surname, which I abandoned after realizing I should probably learn to read and write Mandarin first.
Last year I finally thought I could break through the unhealthy cycle of infatuation, fallout, make-up, and total abdication when I came across the idea of getting the Egyptian symbol, Ka, tattooed on my upper-back. The Ka was said to be the soul’s vital essence, that which distinguished life from death. It was a beautiful concept, and I was ready to commit.
Yes! I was ready to commit…that is, until I showed my friend a Google image of the hieroglyph, which is represented by two upraised arms. Her reaction: “It looks like a football touchdown sign.” The visual similarities were undeniable. Even as someone who had only watched the Super Bowl for the commercials and halftime show, I felt like an idiot for not having noticed.
For the time being, I remain tattoo-free, continuing to search for the perfect mark. Perhaps a time will come when I will finally settle down on one mode of self-expression. I can only hope that that moment will not only contain meaningful history and retrospective insight, but also set into motion a series of shifting perceptions and new emotional experiences that might include pleasure, fondness, nostalgia, or even regret.
—Columnist Jennifer T. Soong can be reached at email@example.com.