I now have three tattoos.
I refer to my tattoo #1 as my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo.”
Yes, I’m one of the hordes of Americans to get foreign-language characters permanently inked on their bodies. In my case, Chinese.
I am not Chinese nor is anyone in my immediately family. I didn’t study Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese. I was not, nor am not emotionally or intellectually attached to Chinese culture. While I asked a Chinese professor at college to write out the phrase I wanted tattooed on me, I couldn’t properly say it and didn’t know why the professor chose the two hanzi he did. Essentially: my 21-year old self treated Chinese characters as exotic symbols there for the ripping off.
Also, the tattoo wasn’t particularly good. The tattoo guy, without asking, didn’t copy the Chinese professor’s writing but instead created a boxy, angular interpretation. (In all seriousness, “Aztec-style” is how he described it. smh) The work was patchy and low quality.
Fairly soon after graduating college, I was first exposed to concepts of anti-racism/anti-oppression. I quickly understood the mistake I made, permanently, on my body.
It took fifteen years to journey from hang-up to hostility. Over that time, my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo” came to represent everything I hated about who I was that I couldn’t change—my Whiteness, my American-ness, my cultural ignorance, my impulsiveness, my desire for recognition (that supposedly wasn’t being met), my imposter syndrome, my lack of feeling smart, competent. I longed to rip the tattoo from my body.
So I decided cover it up. The artist who did tattoo #2 couldn’t be located. I sought recommendations of tattoo artists, but no one suggested was available for a consult (if they even returned my message). When I planning to travel for work, I asked friends and colleagues for away-from-home suggestions; still nothing panned out. After two years, I gave up with tremendous sulking.
People make mistakes. Most mistakes are ephemeral or repairable; they’re forgivable. Over the course of my life I’ve made some bad calls and definitive fuck-ups. None of these instances caused loss of life, limb, job, property, savings, or anything of devastating permanence. Were feelings injured? Were time or resources wasted? Sure. For how long should I, should anyone, be branded as untrustworthy, incompetent, or unworthy of mercy or reprieve? For some people the answer is been: forever. For some people, there is no moving on, even when fault isn’t as clear as a permanent black drawing on your back. My reset button for everyone else has always been accessible. I wish the same could be said of a reset button for myself.
Since 1997, my need to pick up slack, to practice-for-perfect, to make it work, and, in the end, to carry on with my mistakes did me no favors. This attitude, this drive, was practically knitted into my first tattoo. Which of course is why, despite seeming ready to cover up my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo,” I couldn’t get myself together to have it done. I blamed outside circumstances, but let’s be real—it was all me. I hadn’t forgiven myself for the original act.
Like all the things about myself that I can’t change but can control, I needed to genuinely contextualize my first tattoo experience for what it was. Tattoo #1 was part of me, but didn’t need to define me. The practice-for-perfect principle that dominated me didn’t need to; I could calm and manage it. That principle doesn’t allow me to practice-for-practice sake, fail forward, or, say, work to bring down White supremacy, Patriarchy, Cis-sexism, Able-ism, and oppression writ large in this country.
But I digress.
Twenty years after tattoo #1 was inked, I connected with the warm, talented Fernando (BlackMothCollective.com or #BlackMothCollective) and on November 15, 2017 got tattoo #3. I love it. It’s bigger and more intricate that #1 or #2 (which meant time and patience, honesty about discomfort levels, and exercising breath work). Tattoo #3 captures core aspects of my identity in the waning days of my forty-first year. It almost entirely covers up #1—only a microscopic line can be detected, if you know what to look for. Most important and symbolically for me, #3 begins, is rooted, where #1 lies but extends upward; toward what’s next, toward what’s possible, toward the future.