Body Language: What Tattoos Can Say About Us

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Photo: Wiki Commons
Photo: Wiki Commons

You need only flip through a fashion magazine or greet your mustached techie-neighbor during Movember to be reminded that the body is a vehicle for art. Personal taste depending, the handlebar mustache or ruffled couture gown is either gorgeous or gauche. But both types of fashion are temporary. We can quickly change clothes, cut or grow out bad hair and say something different about ourselves. It’s a kind of body art and language that doesn’t stick.

Not so for tattoos. This is part of why we get them -- to say something enduring, to memorialize an event or laud a loved one, to affiliate with a group, to wax philosophical in a foreign language, to ensure the constant companionship of mermaids or pinups or spirit animals, or our musical or political idols, living or dead.

For many, the desire to be tattooed comes first. The image to be inked comes next. There might be some planning. After an hour or so in the tattoo chair, it’s a done deal.

Jen's tatoo
Jen's tattoo

San Francisco resident Jen’s (a fictional name) recent inking experience was anything but in and out. Her first and only tattoo, a scapula-to-elbow white dogwood tree in seasonal shift was completed over the course of 18 months and took 40 hours in the chair. That’s an entire work week!

Oakland-based artist Marie Brennan of Diving Swallow Tattoo specializes in flora and fauna and designed and inked Jen’s tattoo, which represents Jen’s family roots in the Southeast and “the beautiful, absurd, and tragic cycle of life.”


When I first met Jen a few years ago, she was shy; I couldn’t have pictured her with a 26-inch-long tattoo on her thin arm. Red roots extend down below the elbow. “Some people have asked if they’re supposed to be veins,” she said. “Imagine getting your insides tattooed on your outsides.” This didn’t appeal to either of us.

Having met Jen’s family, I had to ask her about their reaction. She said that when she told her mother the plan, her mother didn’t want anything to do with the tattoo, however meaningful the art was to Jen. This is evidence that we take other peoples’ tattoos personally and we shouldn’t.

Or let me just say that I shouldn’t. Lately, I’ve been reading peoples’ tattoos and judging the person. “Would you date someone with a huge crow tattooed on their back? What about a winged bat on the bicep? That crown of thorns around the upper arm? That’s so ten years ago.”

While I love the way tattoos look on some people, with other tattoos, I ask myself if I could stand to look at it for the rest of my life. Usually, the answer is no before I’ve even gotten to know the person, often just a passerby on the street who probably could care less what I think.

But I care. I care about that teen in juvenile hall whose gang-tattoo a potential employer -- and, well, everyone -- will judge. I care about that baggage clerk with a tattoo on the back of his shaved head. I even care about Jen’s boyfriend who doesn’t like tattoos in general. But he loves her, her individuality; they’ve been together for over ten solid years. In effect, when Jen said “I do” to the body art, so did her boyfriend.

I said “I do” to ink on my body ten years ago, and I find myself ambivalent about it. After passing up every sketch in the tattoo parlor’s notebook, I finally selected a fleur-de-lys design with Celtic knots. I’m of French and Irish descent -- and a native of New Orleans -- so this made sense.

It’s on my shoulder and, though it’s not that big, people comment on it all the time. They assume it’s the Boy Scouts emblem or a nod to the New Orleans Saints football team. And after Hurricane Katrina, the tattoo must have come off as part of a trend. I don’t enjoy these questions from people; I’d rather hear praise or nothing.

my Tattoo after
Fleur-de-lis 2.0

Last summer, though, after years of thinking my tattoo looked like a mere stamp on my body, I had it filled in with different colors to make it look more like a flower. But I’m still not happy with it all the time. I finally realize why. I see my tattoo more as text and less as image. To be happy with it, I need to appreciate the shading of the petals, the tiny piston and stamen embellishment, the steadfastness of the color over the years.

As text, what my tattoo says to me is that I’m never happy with anything (being a writer, of course this is true). As image, my tattoo says to admire the flower on my own body. A flower that can be made bigger and better or even taken away, an image with an evolving narrative.

Most of us agree that any permanent fashion on the body should be meaningful. Some of us tweak the narrative as we go.