My tattoo doesn’t have to mean anything

Just over a month ago, I got my first tattoo: the outline of a small cloud on the back of my right shoulder. I still haven’t quite got used to having it there. Every now and then, when I turn my head or walk past a mirror, I catch it in the corner of my eye and smile. It’s amazing to remember that I really, actually did that.

I had wanted a tattoo for a while, but had been waiting for inspiration to strike, not to mention for me to muster up the courage to get it done in the first place. I cry at needles and bruise like a peach, so the idea of enduring any kind of non-medical pain—not only voluntarily, but for a charge—seemed beyond me.

But of course, as long as I didn’t know what I wanted, that was all immaterial. Until, suddenly, I did know. One day, my tattoo was an amorphous and uncertain possibility. The next, I knew exactly what it should be—a cloud, floating away on my shoulder.

As much as I was hoping to feel a twinge of doubt, allowing me to put it off further, I knew this was it, and so I booked an appointment. I chose where I put it carefully: a shoulder can be easily displayed or covered, depending on the occasion. In that spot, the chances of wrinkling are low, and I decided that a cloud was unlikely to be co-opted as an emblem for right-wing extremists any time soon.

Once I was in the chair, the whole thing took no longer than three minutes. It hurt, but the pain wasn’t unbearable. My sister helpfully chronicled the entire process with photo and video.

The end result of all this is that I have a tattoo on my shoulder which makes me smile every time I see it. But not everyone’s immediate reaction is so positive. Some can’t quite work out what it’s “supposed to be” (I’ve heard everything from “a sheep with no legs” to “a sideways running gummy bear,” which probably says more about my friends than it does about the tattoo). I’m no meteorologist, but I feel like it’s pretty clear.

Of course, the next question is always, “what does it mean?” And this is a fair thing to ask, I guess. There could well be a deep meaning behind this tiny patch of ink on my skin. But there isn’t.

The truth is that I just really like the symbol of a cloud. I don’t know why; I just do. I use it on my blog, in my Twitter bio, and now on my shoulder. If you pushed me, I might say that it reminded me of creativity and imagination, and that, as someone looking to make a career out of writing, it represented that ambition. But really, I just like clouds. I think they’re cute—particularly in cartoon form—and I wanted to decorate my body with a picture of one.

Just because it doesn’t have a “story” doesn’t mean my little cloud doesn’t mean anything to me. On the contrary, it means a lot. It means that I actually managed to make a permanent, irreversible decision (not easy). It means that I finally worked up the courage to do something which I had wanted to do for ages.

Lots of people get tattoos for deeper reasons than that—to remind them of a loved one or a moment or even just a quality they aspire to. That’s fantastic. Your tattoo may have a deep meaning behind it. You may have to fight back the tears when you talk about it. Good for you!

But it’s also totally OK to get a tattoo just because it appeals to you. Your body is your own, and how you wish to decorate it is your business. It’s OK to have fun with your appearance, even if it’s permanent – because it’s your body. That’s the point. Guests in your house don’t get to ask, “but why that color?!” about your newly painted walls. (Or, if they do, then they’re rude, and you reserve the right to save the good china for someone else.) Similarly, you get to make decisions about your body. Others can question it in their heads, but when it comes down to it, it isn’t up to them.

So when people ask me what my tattoo means, here’s what I do: look them deep in the eye, ask with confidence, “what do you think it means?”, raise an eyebrow and then simply walk away, exuding a satisfying air of mystery as you go. Works every time.

Millie Brierley is a language student at the University of Cambridge, UK. She enjoys watching Netflix, eating guacamole and attempting to change the world via the written word (often at the same time). Her favorite things to write about are feminism, politics and Taylor Swift.


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