My Tattoo is Not for You…

Nobody warned me that getting a tattoo would invite strangers to touch it or prompt them to inquire about it.

I had no inkling that as I stood poised to place my order at a restaurant, the waitress would approach and extend her hand to gently brush my arm while introducing herself. Nor was I prepared for each new colleague I encountered to pose the question, “What’s the story behind your tattoo?”

And who could have foreseen that while queuing for dinner at a friend’s wedding reception, an unfamiliar woman would challenge my rehearsed response of, “I simply liked the design,” with a patient smile and the words, “Surely there’s a deeper significance?” Similarly unexpected was the comment from an older gentleman behind me at a conference who confided, once inside the elevator, that my tattoo intrigued him to the point where he almost reached out to touch it.

  • I also never anticipated hearing the query, “Is that, like, Cherokee?” so frequently that it ceased to astonish me. (For the record, my tattoo is a red band encircling my lower left bicep. Just to clarify, Disney’s Pocahontas wasn’t Cherokee, and her red arm band likely emerged from a white illustrator’s interpretation of designs from other tribes. Mine is unrelated.)

For many, having a tattoo represents a profoundly meaningful choice. For others, it’s simply an aesthetic one. Both perspectives are valid. My tattoo falls into the former category, visible unless concealed by long sleeves. However, wearing long sleeves is a rarity for me – being consistently warm-blooded, I’ll sweat like the portly kid in dodgeball if I don anything longer than short sleeves. Moreover, my face flushes red, and I appear on the verge of collapse. Besides, enduring physical discomfort merely to prevent strangers from touching me strikes me as utterly senseless. No one possesses the privilege to touch or comment on any part of my body merely due to its visibility. Sadly, societal norms, particularly in the United States, suggest otherwise, reinforcing the notion that women exist to be objectified and visually consumed.

The automatic response of “I just liked it!” to inquiries has a palpably disappointing effect on those asking; their expressions give them away. They doubt the authenticity of my words, yet I continue onward, either walking away or steering the conversation elsewhere to evade further probing. Explaining the “meaning” of my red arm band within the context of shallow subjects or during the fleeting moments between greeting a waiter and placing an order seems distasteful to me. Personally.

  • What fascinates me is our (and here, I’m primarily referring to Americans, as that’s my context, and predominantly white Americans, given my background) casual relationship with meaning. I’d venture to say – and I consider this a fairly solid assumption – that deep, life-altering meaning doesn’t particularly feature prominently in American culture. Consequently, respect for such meaning is scarce, and discussions about it are handled with a certain disregard. This isn’t to suggest deliberate disrespect; it’s more that our society fosters a “see it, like it, take it” ethos, which encompasses “seeing” meaning, appreciating it, and appropriating it, often from other cultures, despite the inherent complexity of meaning.
  • We’re a society of meaning poachers. Our inability to earnestly reflect on our own beliefs versus those imposed upon us (or those trending at the moment) leads us to seize whatever feels good. It matters little whether the tradition has evolved over millennia, or whether it’s deeply tied to a specific environment, or whether it holds more context than a few words adjacent to a design sketched at a tattoo parlor.
  • We’re starving for meaning. America’s history is one where colonizers snatched indigenous children from their families and forced them into boarding schools where they suffered physical abuse, neglect, and cultural suppression for using their native languages and customs. This nation then handed feathered headbands to white children and encouraged games of “cowboys and Indians,” all while having white individuals teach native ways to other white folks since the 1960s. Contemporary white entrepreneurs have amassed fortunes in the lucrative yoga industry, exploiting a deeply spiritual Asian practice intended to include those of limited means.

We’re meaning scavengers. Our inability to introspectively examine our beliefs apart from externally imposed notions (which involves recognizing those notions in the first place) prompts us to snatch whatever suits our fancy. We pilfer traditions regardless of their centuries-old evolution, cultural ties, or nuanced significance.

We’re ravenous for meaning. In a way, America became a place where white individuals could take whatever they pleased from whomever they pleased, without restraint. We’ve become accustomed to not cultivating our own meaning. The government declares us the best, churches pronounce us a Christian nation, handing us a guidebook for the faith. Three centuries of colonization have convinced us that if those options don’t resonate, a quick Google search will yield a culture more fitting to our desires. Clicking on Google images allows us to select and permanently etch onto our bodies visual representations of cultures and beliefs, in a misguided attempt to convey the profound significance of our lives.

Here’s the unspoken truth: we’re bereft of meaning. America transformed into a realm where whites could extract whatever they desired from anyone, unchecked. Our own sense of identity is often superficial, influenced by what we’ve been taught to believe, and we grab onto whatever feels good. We can’t gauge the depth of meaning, nor can we respect it fully, as our society operates on a “see it, love it, take it” ethos. This includes appropriating “meaning,” embracing it, and adopting it – especially from cultures that didn’t conceive it in the same manner.

America is a place where the legacy of our colonizing forebears involves forcibly removing indigenous children from their families, sending them to schools where they were subjected to physical abuse and cultural erasure for using their native languages and traditions. Then, we handed our white children feathered headdresses and encouraged games of “cowboys and Indians,” while also having white individuals instruct their peers in native customs since the 1960s. Contemporary white women have amassed wealth in the commercialized yoga industry, all while exploiting an age-old spiritual Asian practice meant to be accessible to everyone.

We’re thieves of meaning. We’re so incapable of introspectively delving into our authentic beliefs versus those we’ve been conditioned to accept (or those currently in vogue) that we snatch whatever resonates. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition with centuries of heritage or a connection to a specific landscape. Our culture fixates on appearance and convenience rather than genuine meaning.

We’re famished for meaning. America evolved into a domain where whites could appropriate whatever they fancied from anyone they pleased. We’re disinclined to construct our own meaning. The government touts our exceptionalism, churches label us a Christian nation, and 300 years of colonization have ingrained in us the notion that if these constructs aren’t satisfying, a brief Google search will yield an alternative culture to latch onto. Clicking through Google images permits us to adopt visual symbols of cultures or beliefs, etching them into our skin as permanent indicators of our profound lives.

Let me be clear: I don’t mention these points in a condescending manner; I’m guilty of this behavior too. Realizing that we must strip away the layers of societal conditioning to uncover our genuine beliefs (beginning with recognizing that conditioning) is a lengthy and arduous process. And for descendants

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top