The biggest curse of being an over-evolved human being is the mind’s unique ability to create pain far beyond anything in the physical realm. The agony of heartbreak and hindsight, regret and indecision, the searing pain of loss, the weight of bad news–these feelings torment us in a way that no branding iron nor jaws of a predator ever could.
Of course, animals mourn, too. It is easy to see. A dog waiting for an owner who will never again come home. A duck circling the ice where its monogamous partner became trapped. Pikas screaming to one another as one of their own is dismembered by a cunning fox. But this pain seems to have a visceral and primal root, a wound which cannot be salted by secondhand news or the concept of betrayal.
We look to all kinds of things to numb the pain, but it never truly works. No bottle or pill or all-day physical effort can truly replace the coursing feeling of what is wrong. No amount of strong blinks can actually relieve us of the weight behind our eyelids, even when we wish we could squeeze our eyes tighter and simply turn out the lights.
There is one thing which people have done for centuries and often ascribe only decorative significance to. Tattoos provide that focal point of pain, take what is buzzing through every fiber of your being and pinpoint it into a small, inky spot. Agitate the nerve endings with a poetic scar.
Like most things, we aspire to tattoos because we see someone else bravely making art with their own flesh and it lights up a certain piece of us. We want our own decor, want to be as fully-realized as that person, want to be liked by them. The mind makes it about choice and participation. But it is about pain and power.
We yearn to sit back and endure the slow poke, to feel a thousand flu shots create something beautiful, something that lasts. A reminder of a moment in time, perhaps even a time we will come to regret. To feel that pain in one, real spot on our body instead of vaguely radiating everywhere. What a relief it is to feel the arm prickle with a real needle, so the eyes can close and not feel the stab of a thousand needles of the mind.
And how unfair it is that tattoos don’t take that long, and that once they are finished, the relief they offer is gone, too. I would like to sit in the chair all day, not to replace all of my skin tone with ink, but to feel the soothing jab of an artful stabbing. We need physicality, need to feel some presence and ownership in the bodies we inhabit. Without it, the mind will run rampant, will run away with itself and constantly try to leave the flesh behind.
My mind runs rampant every day. It is only hot water, the cool endorphins of a long bike ride, the calculated prick of a decorative needle, the soft fur of a good dog, that bring me back into right relationship with my corporeal self. Limited, fragile, needy. Food, water, shelter, the heartbreaking ache to have someone else’s fingers in my hair instead of the nervous habit of my own hands.
Not just any fingers will do. And not just any smattering of ink will provide that short and sweet relief. Our bodies are inhabited by a mind and a soul, which learn from some mix of inspiration and trauma what we think we want. An ideal and an aesthetic, warring with what we can actually have, ramming into the walls of what we’ve been shamed into feeling allowed.
What thought haunts me more when I wake up at night and frustratingly realize I don’t even have to pee? Is it the person who wants to decorate themselves and move somewhere new but doesn’t because of the rigid “rules” they’ve internalized? Is it the outline of a certain tattoo on the body of another, which may as well be emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids? Just like the daytime moments when I wish a certain emotional wound would just make me bleed already, these restless nights call for eyes to be squeezed so tightly that it almost hurts, that it takes the cacophony of ideas and forces them into a bunch of facial muscles.
So many people believe they are simply tolerating the short-term pain for a long-term reward. Far fewer realize that they are striving to take the power back, to sit still and pay for a wound which they can design. Far beneath the surface, the soul is waging a war to be seen. What seems like a funny design is an expression of a thousand unsaid things, the momentary ability to use oneself as a canvas to write your own soul an affirmation.
Tattoos are taboo in society because nobody wants your trauma to be on display. It is all about button-down shirts and the strained smiles of a group photo. Dirty laundry is supposed to be sent to the cleaners in discreet bags, not worn proudly as part of a life fully-lived. The way people talk about future regret as if the future and regret are guaranteed is a poison we choke down until we no longer fully inhabit our own bodies.
We yield ourselves to the will of the other until we can’t even be fully seen or known, we suppress our own desires for the promise of some vague reward that isn’t even rewarding, until one day the pretty shell of ourselves is scraped off the pavement and identified by a scar from a previous accident. Until one day we wind up with someone else who isn’t fully themselves because they haven’t healed or been set free. Then the arguments start, and they are never about what they say they’re about. Because somewhere in the past, we weren’t allowed to let a sterile needle provide a release for a lifetime of pain. Or couldn’t name the pain even as the tattoos piled up.
My mind traces the ink and blood I got all over my hands the last time I nursed a horrific wound that gouged through a tattoo. It was not just flesh, it was their flesh. It was a drawing I’d admired many times before, a piece of art that I knew I would never hear the full story of, that I was grateful to be written into a chapter or two. And now the scar on top of the scar is healed, is being traced by another, who will never know the full story. I look down at the scars and ink on my own body and wonder if they will ever be traced with that tender curiosity of a person who wants to know every inch of you, if they will be able to handle the whole truth. We spend an awful lot of energy telling pretty little lies and worrying about tomorrows that may not come.
We come into this world unadorned, neither asking to be born nor asking for our crooked noses or inherited sunken eyes. It is only the glimmer of light in a smile or the heaviness that flashes in the eyes after an innocent laugh that lets the soul show itself. Along the way, we pick up the scars and disfigurations: a collarbone that doesn’t sit right, a gouged bit of flesh on the hip, a chunk above the right eyebrow that will forever be pinkish-white from those bleachers thirty years ago. These aren’t exactly chosen, but they do offer hints at our stories. The genteel world guffaws at dyed hair, piercings, and tattoos because they suggest some form of ownership. We are not merely victims of this physical existence, we do not have to hide our pain.