Content note: this post contains direct references to needles and blood (in the context of tattooing).
It is the day before I leave for Amsterdam and my newest little tattoo has healed very well. There was no need to wrap it in plastic; no need to sop up the inky fluids that drip from my wound. I simply moisturized the raised letters and tried hopelessly to extricate meaning from them. The tattoo is small enough that it will likely be hidden by a sock for the majority of my time in Amsterdam. Even when it isn’t hidden, an ankle is a very inconspicuous placement for a tattoo, hard to see unless you’re looking for it. My initial plan for this tattoo had been to spice up the word homebody by accompanying it with a small doodle. I had even asked Spencer, who tattooed me, to draw up a few ideas, of which I struggled to choose just one favorite. Fortunately, that turned out to be a non-issue when I ultimately decided (with the help of Spencer’s own advice) to forgo an accompanying image altogether.
The word homebody is etched into my ankle, sitting just above bone. It is the first stick & poke tattoo I have ever gotten; my first ever tattoo done by a non-professional; the first tattoo whose meaning I remained unsure of until almost a week after its completion. On its surface, the word homebody itself applies to me in a simple way: Arriving home after a day of work or class and being swallowed whole by my bed with a book in my hands is a quiet joy I look forward to. Arriving home after weeks or months elsewhere is a pleasure even greater than that. But inevitably I remember the too-familiar tightness of my own room, my own double bed, my towering bookcase, the mustard-yellow kitchen with its red drapes; the drafty, cavernous sunroom with three bookcases (two large, one small) inside of it; the front garden whose wild contents we are unsure of until they bloom –– and I feel I am choking on a wad of comfort food too big to swallow, too hot to really taste. This tattoo might be a compromise, then: a piece of home stuck (and poked) into my skin, something to carry with me on an airplane even as I leave my loved ones behind. I could be simultaneously home and not-home. I quickly realized I could make its meaning even more cheesy if I acted as though it was a play on words to reference my recent mastectomy; I could riff on the way my body had since become a home. Everyone would love it. It would make sense to both my close friends and loved ones and to compassionate strangers. It would be a handy response to the what does it mean questions I am so frequently faced with. Homebody is an identity one could pull out of me upon looking at that ankle, one that that handy reply would confirm.
There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer.
I realize that those cheesy, simple meanings are fictional when I place myself back in the position of the tattooed object. It is only when I again become that object that I remember why I’m in the chair and paying for pain in the first place. There is a certain grammar to tattooing that I have come to love and anticipate, albeit not always consciously. To be tattooed is to be acted upon in a very distinct and predictable manner: there is the small talk, the stenciling, the cleaning, the opening, the laying, the opening, the pain, the opening, the wiping, (the opening), the cleanup. There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer. Getting a stick & poke in someone’s room feels even more like a prayer because it is quiet: there is no buzzing needle, no metal music blaring and no consultations going on outside. The particular and repetitive stings of the stick & poke come silently and only a question, “you good?” reminds me that I am a person. There are moments under the needle when I wish more than anything for the process to be complete and the moment it is done I am hit with a craving to continue. Afterward I always feel a sense of lightness. The pain I hate has been done to me and I have confronted it out of necessity. I can see that it has marked me although my memory can’t properly replicate the experience.
It was last night, alone with my racing thoughts, that I realized that my tattoo itself had little meaning, and that that was okay. The true significance of that tattoo was bound up in the ritual release of anxiety I hadn’t fully known I was holding and not in the aesthetics left in its wake. I had previously found it difficult to fully acknowledge the reality of my trip and the length of time for which I’d be abroad: that, after all, would make it too real. I bottled the feeling until I finally attached it to the outside of my body, visible to myself and to whoever bothered to look. Permanently. I matched my pain and fear with its physical counterpart, finding a kind of synthesis in their acquaintance.
Some people write to redirect their pain. For me that is not the case: writing simply narrows and amplifies it (I’m feeling a great amount of residual fear as I write this). Tattooing, a mindless, effortless, excruciating exercise, one in which I have no choice but to passively face a wave of physical pain, is a true act of sublimation. My body is already vulnerable in a way I rarely allow my mind to be. It will sting and I feel terror inside me for the half-second before the needle first hits my skin. Those weaknesses inside me that I need to face are brought to the surface like leaking blood and cast into the garbage with reddish cotton pads, damp with blood and astringent. My body does what it is intended to do: it becomes a surrogate for the things inside my mind.
The meaning of my tattooed ankle isn’t located in the lines and shapes that form its letters. There is no drawn symbol there that I can pass off as some precious decoration. The tattoo’s meaning is made of and resides in pain itself. It isn’t a symbol of home or body, nor is it a symbol of identity and nostalgia. Its significance lies in the process that made it. Tattoos are physically and psychically transformative: they are fresh bodily adornments that alter one’s skin forever, but they also turn emotional energy, concentration, hurt, creativity, terror, pain, and pleasure into something tangible. I did not know last Sunday that I so desperately needed to hold and rub my anxieties with the moisturizer on my desk. I didn’t know how much I needed to feel them burning tenderly into me in the hours following the stick & poke session. I needed a ritual through which I could assimilate these soon-to-be-realized fears into my life without being governed entirely by them. In and on my ankle sit the outlines of fears that have been realized in their fullness.