The first time I prepared to have a tattoo done, I sat for hours on the Internet.
I would permanently ink something on my body. I needed it to mean something — something deep, unique, important.
I searched on Google. I searched on Tumblr. I examined art styles on Pinterest until my fingers grew sore. Eventually, I combined a few ideas into one solid piece and sketched it out on paper.
After being inked, anyone who saw the new, weird tattoo on my leg always said, “Oh, that’s cool. But, uh, what does it mean?”
I have to explain. This part means this. That part means that. Usually, they’ll give a wise nod. They offer up an “oh, cool,” before moving on: tattoo forgotten.
I began to almost detest the work. I’ve grown tired of explaining what it is and what it means. There have even been times I’ve forgotten the overly intricate, complicated meanings of each symbol.
It made me wonder, why do my tattoos always have to “mean” something? What happens if they don’t? What tattoo god am I trying to impress?
Tattoos are art. I love art. I love art that means nothing and art that means everything. The art on my body shouldn’t need to be any different.
Having a meaning behind your ink is great. I plan to get two memorial tattoos — one in honor of my late dad and another for my late brother.
Jon drove trains for a living. Dad built airplanes. I’ll probably get a tattoo of both. In honor of my mother, while she’s still alive, I’ll have her classic Firebird inked on my body. Planes, trains, and automobiles, oh my!
But we can get tattoos for any number of reasons — and owe no one an explanation for why. You don’t need a heavily-researched symbol or a memorial of a lost loved one.
You want a butterfly on your shoulder because you like butterflies? So be it. Want a grim reaper on your back because you think it’s cool looking? Hell yeah!
Tattoos are not all about meaning. A tattoo can be like any other cosmetic procedure. You dye your hair a certain color because you like it. You pierce a piece of your skin because it’s what you want and you enjoy how it looks or feels. A tattoo is no different.
Tattoos are beautiful things. We cover scars. We tattoo on pieces of our body that may be missing. You can find on the Internet plenty of videos of cancer patients receiving tattoos to mimic things they’ve lost, like nipples, fingernails, or eyebrows.
But everyone has a right to inking their body. We do not need to be covering something or replacing something else. Just as there does not need to be a meaning in the art of the tattoo, we need not meaning as to why we’re inking ourselves in the first place.
Tattoo gatekeeping isn’t worth anyone’s time. It’s too often you see others’ tattoos dismissed or mocked because of their lack of “deep meaning” — or, on the contrary, mocked because of their meaning.
I don’t mean culturally-appropriated tattoos, which are problematic.
I’m talking women mocked because of a butterfly on her back. The rolling of eyes when someone gets a cliche quote or symbol or gets ink that “everyone gets.”
The popularity of a piece doesn’t devalue its worth. We do not dismiss Vincent van Gogh’s work, despite how widely adored his starry nights and sunflower fields have become. We still love the works of da Vinci, Picasso, Dali, Kahlo, and Vermeer.
Get that profound quote, birdcage, or semicolon. Have your feathers, roses, anchors, and music notes.
Let people enjoy things. If the tattoo isn’t culturally insensitive or hate speech, let the tattooed person enjoy their art.
If I want to get a tattoo of my cat because I love my cat, so be it. If I like cars or cake or ceilings fans, and I want to tattoo it on my body, then I’ll tattoo it on my body.
Our skin is like any other canvas, albeit a canvas that moves and breathes and will, someday, die. We are a canvas that hones the ability to choose its own art. How incredible is that?
Enjoy your tattoos. Enjoy your art. Deep meaning or no meaning, it’s yours to have and keep. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It isn’t their canvas to paint. It’s yours.
What will you paint next?
Cassius Corbin is a transgender poet, fiction writer, photographer, and blogger from rural Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @cassiuscorbin, Instagram @sixfeetrooted or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Buy his photography on Redbubble. He is currently seeking a literary agent to represent his poetic, fiction, and photography work.
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