Recently a fashion magazine asked me to tell them the stories behind my tattoos, in a few lines. I declined, because of the impossibility of the task, but attempted for the first time to address my own ink. Here, in more than a few lines.
There is no way to share on the slippery impermanent pages of a monthly magazine that pimps out cerise and silk as life altering options, the reason for choosing to make something stay. I answered them at first, said the one on my ankle represented the sign under which I was born and the guitar on my forearm because I “love music”. Expectedly, like any client seeking ink, they asked for more detail. There is no way to share though that as an 18 year old the desperation to change myself juxtaposed with the ironic need to find what was a permanent enough part of me, led to the first inking of a scorpion on my ankle. And how very quickly after I bought my first butterfly as part of a promotion for the city’s first tattoo parlour. We were in the middle of a nightclub, I remember an overpriced beer in my right hand. I felt so cool (probably looked so stupid), eighteen and inked, drinking away the pain, beer thinning blood, blood dripping down wrist…and a few years after in a mall in Malaysia I got a second butterfly to match. (Because girls who drag their feet need wings by their heels.) These winged things shouldn’t define you, but when you print them out on the canvas of your skin they begin to, and the boys who share your bed say things like, “Oh you’re just like one.” And you wonder if it’s because you always fly away. There was a time I wanted petits papillons all over my body…but no one needs to fly that high.
I have poetry and words printed on me here and there, and there is no way to explain that some are for dead people and some are for life as we know it. That “ferrous” is for my father’s spirit and not just his profession and though he cannot understand my obsession with mutilation, he has so much respect for freedom that he cannot and will not say, “But I liked you better that way”. He thinks ink is for punks and pirates and that I curse like both put together, but he’d rather I am myself than anyone else. He taught me through example that no one is allowed to judge me for what even he won’t.
There is no way to say without a heavy heart that I share ink with people I will never see again. That somewhere there’s a boy who reads the same line of the same poem every single day in the shower, perhaps. That my best friend and I both have tiny, matching odes to a shared God, upon us. That my sister and I share odes in ink too but maybe I can never share what they mean. Certainly not with the world in two lines, and possibly not even with you. But I’ll tell you this…there’s an anchor that becomes a treble clef just floating on my arm and I had it placed there for a boy whose life was cut too short to place it on himself. I’ll tell you this too that my wedding finger has an aeroplane on it and my ribcage has a reminder to be true, always, to what those bony bars on most days just about manage to cage in.
My arm. My left arm. I never planned for those tendrils and mandalas, the feathers and fine mesh all happened somewhat by mistake, somewhat by chance. They just fell into place, gracefully, one session after another, thanks to Senthil and Madan, two gentlemen with more vision than I could ever imagine. I remember walking into Skindeep, Bangalore and holding out my arm like a peace offering. “May I?” Senthil said, and lifted the sleeve like removing the blanket off a sleeping baby. And the next day our dreams collided and became skulls and roses.
(Photo by Nayantara Parikh)
There’s a deer there somewhere because a girl I love calls me one. There’s a flower that’s in constant bloom. There’s a bride’s worth of henna tumbling down that arm in black and everyone asks what it means and maybe it means nothing except this that I didn’t grow up comfortable in the skin I was in, and the day I “modified” it and painted it over it became, finally, something I recognized as my own. That I didn’t feel beautiful until I laid these custom clothes upon my body…and that they are woven not just of skulls and symbols but of invisible Band-Aids and silent lullabies. That maybe pain is to me what painkillers are to you. That as a woman I reclaim my body each time I make it more my own through the act of recreating my physical being as art. When you tattoo you, you become your own canvas. And the right tattoo artist is the paintbrush in sync with your soul. Madan is the only man who has been allowed to touch me for eight hours straight. Who has looked into my eyes just to gauge pain, and understood wordlessly when to start and stop. My body is sexless for Tenzin, who out of respect for my baring it and offering it up to his needles, will never view it as more than a page.
I remember, respect and love people by their tattoos. The girl with fairy wings. The girl with the key to her heart on her wrist. (Good luck locating the keyhole.) The boy who tells time by the clock on his heart alone. The one with the fish flipping on his shoulder. The one with the microphone and the one with the two secret bars on his wrist. The girl with musical notes on her ankle and a bow that unties her, somewhere you’ll never find it. The one with the exquisite dragonfly at her waist. The one with the perfect Disney reference beneath her underwear. The boy with his grandfather’s favourite quote on his ribs (and how much it hurt him that day). The boy who reminds me every time I see him that “upon us all a little rain must fall”, and the one with a sleeve in progress. Somewhere on an island there’s a lad with a line I gave him down his arm, and he won’t talk to me because I didn’t stay but the line will. I recognize my best friend by his smell and his laughter but also if you showed me isolated pictures of his star or bird or plane or unborn daughter’s name…I would know, a thousand years from now, that it’s him. There’s a woman I know with a phoenix because she is one. And another one with a galaxy full of children’s names…our names.
There are the tattoos that haven’t been got yet, like the perfect shell the-girl-from-the-sea needs, or the husky for the husky. Like the tiny map, the cosmic lotus, the tango sierra and the rhyme at my spine, all pieces I’ll place over time. Delicate pieces that will complete some jigsaw deep beneath the surface as well. I try to view my body holistically, like some lengthy piece of modern art. When people ask – won’t you get bored, I want to ask back, “And you? Will you one day tire of your skin? And when you do…will you come seeking ink, to change it?” To grow bored of my tattoos, I would have to grow bored of my past, and the sum of my parts. My stories, my journeys. Would you grow bored of a house you have built with your own hands, filling it over decades with objects from travels to the strangest places in the world? My soul cannot tire of a home it has laden and made unique with the riches it has collected as it wandered across unmapped lands. Thus, my skin has become a map to my heart, drawn in indelible ink, because the paths I have already walked are unchanging. And now they aren’t simply the paths that brought me here, but road signs to the paths I should take. As much as they became me when I first got them, I also became my tattoos over time.
There is no judgement you can lay on my skin that I haven’t already. There is no regret you can envision that I haven’t calculated before you. Here is the simplest way I can explain my enthusiasm for what may seem like the extreme, to you: I did not forget that life is long, while choosing my tattoos. I remembered that life is short. My tattoos for the most part aren’t the hasty rash desperate coolness of youth, but a continued sense of self paired with the acceptance of mortality. So there you go. Regret is a redundant concept when you are only becoming more yourself, with a conviction that is a promise to your spirit. And that goes for everything, with ink and without.