I used to think I would never get a tattoo. I never thought I would love something so much that I would want to permanently ink it on my body. I had also seen plenty of episodes of Bad Ink and would witness and observe all of the nightmarish tattoos etched onto people when they were drunk, in love, or, perhaps, both at the same time. While my own heart wept for their poor decision making skills, I didn’t want to end up regretting something that would be a hell of a lot of time and money to efface from my own skin. I always felt that I would be more beautiful if my skin was unblemished and untainted. I always used to think that’s what true beauty is. But in my young, adolescent mind, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life and I plan on meeting many more during my lifetime. In my various exchanges with people, I have met some of the most narcissistic, immature, and unattractive individuals who don’t have a trace of ink on them. I have also met some of the most honest, compassionate, and attractive people who are wrapped up in tattoos (like my best friend, Abby). Sure, we all have that innate attraction to people. We all have our preferences about what our perfect woman or perfect man would look like. When I was in high school, my preferences went from a tan, blue eyed and blonde haired surfer dude to a pale, green eyed, and black haired mysterious gentlemen. My preferences shift all of the time because, the more I get to know people, the more I realize how superficial and unrealistic basing a friendship or relationship off of looks is.
Lasting beauty and attraction is skin deep and it will always be skin deep. And as cliché as it is, beauty isn’t about how pure and unaltered you are. Beauty is about who you are as a person and your body being a reflection of that. So when you hear those people (typically the older generations) make the same unimpressed and disapproving statements like, “You know that isn’t going to look good when you are my age” or, “It’s a shame how you are ruining your natural beauty,” that’s when you just need to smile and give them some variated response of, “I’m sorry you feel that way” (just as I did when I worked at a grocery store). People can have their own opinion about what you do with your body (people have been practicing that annoying habit since the dawn of time), but true beauty comes from the ability to modestly recognize your own beauty, and to understand that your opinion is truly what matters most. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you should be the ultimate eye of your own beauty.
Although tattoos have been increasingly more accepted in our society, our ideas of beauty have undergone many changes and transformations since the world first came to be and when people began to populate it. One of the first ideas to define true beauty derived from the Greeks mathematical model for perfection: the Golden Ratio. The Greeks treated beauty as if it was a carefully calculated math problem that determined whether someone was attractive or not. And the answer to each individual face boiled down to one thing: symmetry. This makes a lot of sense if you look at a lot of ancient Greek architecture. The Greeks built their world and their culture with the concept of symmetry in mind. The last time I got a new pair of glasses, I was informed that my eyes were symmetrical after the optometrist took a few simple measurements. I guess it is good to know that my eyes would have been considered an attractive quality to the Greeks.
If you think about it, our standards for beauty have changed drastically throughout the course of history. If you look at any aristocratic paintings from the early centuries, the majority of the women are plump and fair skinned. Yes, they were forced to wear corsets and a myriad of other feminine contraptions that made their waists look as thin as a candlestick and their hips look as wide as a candelabra. But their faces and busts usually carried the weight of a few extra pounds due to the fact that rich people had the money to indulge in decadent sweets that caused them to gain weight. Aristocrats also didn’t have to work outside in the hot sun, like the lower class citizens, which resulted in their pure white, china-doll skin. Being overweight and pale was the standard of beauty for many countries during the early centuries (though certainly not all of them). And for men, well just having money back then was enough. Being handsome was sort of an added bonus for the women who were being auctioned off by their families to men like pigs waiting to be slaughtered at the butcher shop and sold for their good parts.
However, if we look at today’s society, our standard for beauty seems to have taken a drastic turn. If you flip through magazines in America today, most of the models are thin and extremely tan (maybe some women more than others). While the men, also tan, have raging biceps and abs that seem capable of picking up the model on the previous page as if they were as light as a feather. And another thing: their skin is usually absent of ink. Today, we are presented with this very controlled image of beauty that we try to achieve, but we always fall short of. Often because the media and magazines use enhancements to make people look more “put together” than they really are and likely never will be. Our standards for beauty have become unattainable dreams of perfection. We believe that if we buy into the ideas of the media about how we should look, then people will accept us and that our lives will instantly become easier. While I do think people who are generally regarded as “attractive” are sometimes presented with more opportunities and advantages in life, I think that even the most sought after men and women are unhappy with themselves in some regard. We are all humans and no matter how flawless someone else may seem to us, we will always be the first one to pick apart our own flaws and to criticize ourselves. We are our own worst critic when it comes to our work, our passions, and our own beauty. But we have to find some way to work through our own criticism in order to truly accept ourselves and to possess the beauty we have the potential to possess. Understanding our own flaws (and our own strengths) is the first step toward self-acceptance. For many people, including myself, tattoos are reminders of our own flaws and our struggles as well as how we have and still work to overcome them.
I currently have two tattoos. The first one I got the summer of my senior year of college. It really stemmed from my sophomore year of college, which was a difficult time in my life. I was lost, anxious, and depressed about several aspects of my existence. I was socially, emotionally, and even physically tormented with the world I lived in. Getting out of bed was difficult every day, just as it is for anyone who has suffered a bout of depression. I still went to all of my classes, but there was really only one class I was enjoying that semester: American Literature. We read pieces by many of the great American writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. When reading Walden, it was as if Thoreau himself was helping me rearrange the puzzle in my head, as if saying, “Hey, don’t worry. In time, you will find yourself. Don’t rush it.” I saw his adventure to go off into the woods to really find himself and what mattered to him as a metaphor for my own life. But what he really said to me on the page contained within my my slightly tattered and crumpled textbook was, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” I have a variation of this quote tattooed in cursive on my back: “Not until we are lost, do we begin to find ourselves.” And since the summer of my senior year, it has served as reminder to me that life is an adventure and it is okay to feel lost. In fact, it is a good thing to feel lost. It means you may learn to enjoy the ride, the hike, or the search without the obsession of a destination. And sometimes we unexpectedly find other wonderful things when we are in deep search for something else. And maybe, those unexpected things we find along the way are ultimately what we need and what we were truly looking for in finding the best version of ourselves. I now carry this idea with me everywhere I go.
I got my second tattoo the summer after my first year of teaching. I stumbled across the Greek word μεράκι (meraki) when I was scrolling through an addictive page for word lovers that updates each day with unique words from around the world. μεράκι means that you put the essence of yourself into your work, and, interestingly enough, there is no direct English translation for the Greek word. As a meticulous artist and as an extremely passionate person, I truly put my all into a painting, a piece of writing, or a lesson that I teach to my students. No matter how frustrated I may be with something I love, I employ μεράκι in every aspect of my life because I always let myself run away with my passions. And I know that I love each separate passion of mine even in the miserable moments of it. It is tattooed in Greek on the inside of my right forearm to serve as a reminder of how beautiful and important it is to love something so much that you can see past all of the aching and burning that it may cause your soul at times. It is a reminder to love both the good and the bad that comes with that particular passion and that your efforts are valued and appreciated by you and by others, even if it isn’t always obvious.
Tattoos can be simple, tasteful, silly, or outrageous. I can’t speak to all of the reasons why people decide to decorate their skin with a bit of ink, but I think these reasons ultimately derive from the idea that we want to wear our hearts on our sleeves in the form of images and words. We want people to see that we are comfortable in our own skin and that we aren’t afraid to show it. And when a person ridicules someone for a choice they made about their own body, they are not respecting and appreciating the courage that it took for that person to share a part of themselves with the world through the word or image they identify with (yes, I’m even talking about the people who get their boyfriend or girlfriend of three months tattooed on their neck). Some people think that tattoos camouflage a person’s true self, while I believe that tattoos serve the opposite purpose: they reveal one’s true self. The skin is a soft and marvelous canvas for self-expression. And for people who have trouble creating things on their own, tattoos allow them to express themselves without feeling the intense burden of an artist trying to communicate their feelings to paper with less developed and refined skills (I may be somewhat skillful at applying acrylic paint to a white canvas, but I could never do the type of art that my own tattoo artist engages in every day).
Tattoos can hurt, but we tattoo enthusiasts know that tattoos are like small stories stored on the surface of our skin that people are open to look at and explore the depths of (and it’s really cool and empowering when people ask you about the stories behind your tattoos). Just as we tell people not to judge a book by it’s cover, we shouldn’t judge a person by their tattoo. And the pain and discomfort we endure in the application of each tattoo is worth it to us.