I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 23—well after many of my too-cool-for-liberal-arts-school friends were “over” their ink, regretting their freshman year choices with what limited hindsight they’d developed. Living in fear of their regret becoming my own, I labored over what to get, crossing items off of my list as friends got similar E.E. Cummings poems or tarot card symbolism permanently etched into their skin. Everything felt too cliché, too pretentious, too easily seen as a token of someone else’s life.
Despite their warnings, I continued my hunt for the perfect tat: Something that would immediately show the world that I am original and special and the type of person who thinks things that have never been thought before. I was dripping with insecurity, desperate to overcome feeling like an outsider, challenging myself to find the symbol that would effortlessly flaunt my individuality. And I found it… by getting a clichéd tattoo that thousands of people already had.
Yep, I got a Harry Potter tattoo. And I don’t regret it for a minute.
My deathly hallows tattoo, tucked delicately behind my right ankle, is not novel. It isn’t unique or inspired or impressive. In fact, if you Google “Harry Potter Tattoo,” you will probably find hundreds of Pinterest boards and BuzzFeed roundups featuring the exact same artwork on strangers around the world.
Who are these hundreds (maybe even thousands?) of fellow Potterheads, whom I am permanently bound to through ink and skin for the rest of my life? Who knows? Some are probably jerks. Some of them could be my future best friends or boyfriends or mortal enemies. There are probably some convicted murderers with my tattoo, some celebrities with conflicting morals, and some vegans. And that’s okay. I’m happy to be connected to all of them.
Even though my specific tattoo may be buried under a pile of worldwide lookalikes, it still shows the world who I am—but by revealing the communities I align with, rather than the ideas I’ve had or feelings I’ve felt alone.
After years of running into strangers with the same history written on their arms and legs, I’ve realized I don’t need to have every single thing in common with them. We can equally believe in magic, or friendship, or just kinda like Harry Potter—it doesn’t mean we’re the same person. I can share a piece of my life with them and connect with them, without dissolving into them. Being a part of the crowd doesn’t mean I have to get lost in it.
The piece of the puzzle I was missing those long nights contemplating what tattoo to get, was that having the same tattoo as other people didn’t need to be a bad thing. Having an instant connection to people around the world, one that transcends ages, languages, or locations, is the most powerful piece of magic I’ve seen, and one that I didn’t know I was looking for.
Every time I’ve been in an airport since I got “inked,” I’ve either started a conversation with someone who has the same tattoo, or someone has asked me about mine. When someone grabs their bag from security and I see their deathly hallows flash on the inside of their wrist or the back of their neck, I’ll tug at the ankle of my jeans to show them we’re a part of the same team.
The reaction is almost always the same: you can see the frigid stranger-danger melt away into a friendly laugh or an introduction. Even people from halfway around the world, who barely speak a word of English, will offer a thumbs up or a smile if they recognize the symbol. It doesn’t matter what language they read the books in or where they saw the movies or which theme parks they’ve been to—they get it. Harry Potter has brought them some small joy, even if just by recognizing a stranger’s tattoo in an airport. Without realizing it, I’d permanently adorned myself with a secret ticket into an underground network of Harry Potter fans around the world. I can just flash the password and they know I’m a friend.
Though deciding to get the tattoo was difficult (a friend, getting the same deathly hallows, had to physically drag me into the shop), the decision became easier once I decided to become a part of something, rather than set myself apart from it. No matter what tattoo I get, I can’t control the entire world. I can’t police the tattoos that other people will choose, or how pop culture will transform whatever “special” ideas I’ve had. Every tattoo has probably been thought of, designed, and permanently etched into someone’s skin already. And so what if it has? If I couldn’t escape the community I’d be joining, then I could at least dive into it. People get tattoos so that they can tell the world who they are, what they value, and what makes them happy. Why should we feel shame bout sharing those joys and values with other people?
Ultimately, I believe that my simple, geometric marking shows the world who I am as an individual: I am the type of person who loves to be a part of a community and embracing something greater than myself. I don’t bemoan sharing a commonality with strangers, I don’t dream of coming up with something that will set me apart from the pack. I embrace the strangers I’m tied to for life. I want to know them, and in a small way, I do: They also believe in magic. They’ve loved and lost the same characters I’ve met and mourned again and again. We’ve shared stories, we’ve shared our past, we’ve shared an entire world created just for us. Of course I’m connected to these people. I always was, even without the tattoo to prove it.
[Photo via author]