How my tattoos helped me take back control of my life
It was a cold and wet January day when I got my first tattoo. I was 18, and I held the hand of a girl from the dorm across the hall as the needle pricked words into my back. I thought placing the quote off center would spare me some pain, and I was wrong. It hit my shoulder blade and my spine, the pain immense but fleeting. In the 18 months that followed, I got five more.
Each of my tattoos is important to me, whether it’s the Kerouac quote on my wrist or the tree I got inked onto my side because I thought it was pretty. But two of them are by far my favorites, and both hold particular meaning both in the context in which I got them and in my life more broadly. One is a quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s film A Woman is A Woman, and the other is a four-line verse from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding.
The Godard quote came first. In the film, which is an homage of sorts to the technicolor musicals of the 1960s and has a New Wave dream cast, the line is delivered by Jean-Claude Brialy. He pauses and looks directly into the camera to say, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it is a masterpiece.” Now, in the original French, those words corkscrew around my upper arm.
It’s by far the one people ask me about the most, probably because it’s the most visible. The line spoke to me when I was 19, living with my mom, struggling to figure out what to do with my life. I had recently transferred to a local community college from a university in Chicago, grappling with depression and trying hard to get back on track. I found the line a little funny, just tongue-in-cheek enough to not take itself too seriously. And while it certainly applied to the film itself, it perfectly sums up life. At the time life felt more like a tragedy than a comedy, but that was secondary. It was a masterpiece either way.
The Eliot quote is a little more complicated. The four verse line that lives on my rib cage reads, “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” I’d always considered myself an explorer, whether it was working my way through the shelves of the local library or traveling to other countries. It was something I valued about myself a great deal, and something I didn’t want to lose touch with while trying to figure my life out. The line also spoke to one of my greatest passions, which is comparative politics. The idea that we could explore other cultures and histories in order to find our own place in the world was at the heart of what inspired me.
It seems cliche to say I got tattoos to feel in charge at a time when I didn’t feel in control of my life, but I think it was part of the allure. I was struggling with depression and couldn’t seem to get a grip on my own life. My self-esteem was low, and I felt like an incomplete version of myself. But I liked myself getting tattoos, liked being strong enough to withstand the sting. The pieces I chose represented parts of myself I cherished—films, books, and music I kept close to my heart. When I got my tattoos, I wasn’t just a barista going to community college. I was a barista with Godard on her arm, or a student with Eliot on her ribs. My ink reminded me that I was more than I was at my lowest. They made me feel really, deeply beautiful.
I’ve changed so much since I was a scared 18 year old, unaware that my life was going to flip upside down multiple times in the coming years. But never once have I wished away the tattoos that were paid for with tip money I squirreled away for months. There’s a level of intimacy that’s hard to explain between a person and their tattoos, the art that’s simultaneously alien to and part of yourself. They are little windows back in time, threads that keep you connected to a very specific moment in your history. When I look back at those moments of happiness and pride in an otherwise dark two year stretch of time, I’m glad those are the memories that are most clear.
[Image via author]