DON'T OVERTHINK IT
June 13th, 2020
Words & Scans by Lohi Wean
Whether you know it or not, getting a tattoo forces you to grapple with the idea of your own mortality.
The first tattoo I ever got was when I was fifteen, sitting in a dorm room at art camp in Georgia with the person I had become infatuated with within three days of arriving. They were cooler than anyone I’d ever met, even if, looking back now, their patched-up denim vest look was never really in vogue. They were queer, in a way I’d never come into contact with before -- rebellious and uncaring, at least in my teenage eyes. They were my age but seemed to have so much more power than I did. Hair cropped short, with a stud in their nose, and it looked like they hadn’t ever picked up a razor. I felt inexperienced and frumpy and overwhelmingly female in my Forever21 dress, donning a scab on my shin from where I’d cut myself shaving in the shower.
I followed them around, enraptured. I couldn’t help myself when they offered up an opportunity to hold their hand for an hour, to sit in their personal space and pretend like my heart wasn’t fluttering in my chest every time they caught my eye. A little ink seemed like a fair trade-off for that closeness. It faded in barely a week, peeled off in my sleep one night. I spent the next day with my own needle, re-poking the lines, so I wouldn’t forget.
I’ve thought about going over the little planet again since then, to make it look a little more professional, but there’s something endearing about the scattered black dots. It’s amateur, sure, and clearly done by an angsty teenager lamenting a summer fling that never came to fruition. Though I never had the guts to confront them about the way I felt, I could at least remember it. Tie a string around my finger and never forget that feeling. I could see the importance of that moment, of that person and that place, even if I didn’t know why yet.
I found them recently on Instagram. I spent some time scrolling through their feed, trying to get myself up to date with who they had become, what they were doing now, how we had both changed. I wondered if they remembered that night as vividly as I still do, even though I know the answer is no. They don’t have the same reminder, the little pang of nostalgia every time they look at their own hand, the time sprawled out between then and now captured in the tiny, shitty planet on the side of my middle finger.
Maybe I was always the type of kid who would get a tattoo as soon as they were out of their parents’ earshot. I’d already been cutting my own hair since before I was allowed to own real scissors, sawing chunks off with safety shears, only to be driven to the salon to fix my fucked up diagonal lines.
My mom told me when I was a kid that I should never bring home someone with tattoos. We were at the zoo standing in front of the sea lion tank. I remember the disdain in her voice, the way she looked at a man nearby with designs down his arms, the implicit threat that my family wouldn’t accept the person I brought home if they had tainted their body in the way that he had. That it was somehow deplorable to allow someone to mark you so permanently. And she still doesn’t like tattoos. I know she doesn’t. She lets me know as much with the look she gives me every time I come home with another one, the skepticism in her voice when she asks if it means anything, why I got it, how much I spent on it.
I know that it’s not really about whatever stupid drawing I paid to have stabbed into my skin because to her this body is hers, at least partially. She made it, and feels she gets to have opinions about what I do with it. Our conflict lies in the fact that I’m making decisions without her consent, I’m marking what she sees as her creation, defiling the pristine surface, coloring over her craftsmanship. My autonomy is her loss of control. There’s a world of difference between the attitudes she grew up with and the ones I did, and I know it’s just what she needs to do as my parent. We agree to disagree; I accept the sideways glances as fair trade for my freedom.
Since that first tattoo, I’ve collected fifteen more. Six of those since quarantine began. It seems kind of crazy when I write it out like that. Six tattoos. That’s more than most people get in their lifetime, and I’ve given all of them to myself over the course of a month and a half. But here I am, slowly covering myself with imagery, filling in the empty spots on my body until there’s nothing left. I don’t know if I’d be able to give you a straight answer if you asked me why. I’ve always gotten tattoos in times of anxiety or change. I think many people have a similar response to that kind of pressure; a change in appearance is often our first instinct in trying to get out of a rut. The way we look is something we have control over in life. What we put on to leave the house in the morning and which direction we part our hair.
There’s a constant conflict between the supposed permanence of tattoos and the impermanence of our own skin. What I’ve put on me will be carried through my life. It’ll last until my heart gives out, or I’m hit by a bus, or I fall from a plane while skydiving, or get murdered in a dark alley. By whatever means, someday this image will be removed from the world just as I will. It cannot go on without me.
Tattooing as an art form exists somewhere in limbo, in a space between traditional medium and performance. A painting, if cared for correctly, can last seemingly forever, certainly much longer than the person who painted it, or the original audience. A piece hanging on the wall of a museum has a life that spans decades, existing as an immortal reflection of a moment in history. My body won’t be so lucky. No matter how well I care for it, there’s an expiration date approaching. Whether you know it or not, getting a tattoo forces you to grapple with the idea of your own mortality.
We are being forced to think of impermanence now, too, and without an outlet for that feeling. I had a lot of tattoos before this, but I had other ways to deal with the restlessness before we were locked inside. Now, left alone with my thoughts, I can’t help that my fingers itch to create something that feels bigger than this. I feel crazy all the time. I feel anxious and manic and depressed and out of control. I feel helpless, being away from the familiarity of my home. I’m lonely and I’m restless and just like everybody else, I’m not sure how I’ll come out of this, if I’ll be different.
It’s the uncertainty that really gets to me, I think. We don’t know, really, when this is gonna end, if it’s ever gonna end. Right now, it’s hard to imagine a world beyond this, to imagine a future that isn’t somehow dystopian. I can wear a mask and gloves to the store, I can drive away until it’s safe enough to go home, but I can’t decide when that will be. I can’t cure this disease or even help with relief, because I’m broke and jobless, sitting in my final semester at school with no prospects in a rapidly tanking economy, totally at the will of the world around me.
I’m chasing adrenaline, something to remind me that my body is still living and breathing even if it feels like the world is ending. The action of stabbing myself again and again, of gritting my teeth through the pain to make sure I get the lines just right is an escape. It’s cathartic. For an hour or two I’m not thinking of anything but where the next mark goes, wiping ink and blood and plasma away to reveal something that’s now part of me. That will exist beyond this moment.
Before leaving New York, I gave my friend two tattoos, one on each leg. A little goblin and a gas mask to “remember the pandemic.” They only had one before, a little Susan Kare bomb on their ankle. It felt good to be trusted with that, to sit there and know that they believed I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them. My legs fell asleep underneath me, and we had to stop and restart half a dozen times because they’re not as used to the clawing pain of a needle over bone as I am, but it’s probably one of the few times in the last couple months that I felt really calm.
It’s also nice to know that they’re okay with not forgetting me, by association. The design has nothing to do with our relationship to each other, the literal meaning behind it isn’t linked to me, but the memory is. That moment is, and the one after, when they kissed me in the kitchen, and I felt as close to normal as I have in a long time.
Now that we’re in different cities, separated for an indeterminate amount of time, just as we were starting to figure out what we are to one another, I take some comfort in the fact that some part of me is still at home with them, living and breathing the New York air. They told me over the phone the other day that they’re already thinking about what else they want when I get back, even if neither of us have any idea when that will be.
My roommate has also been acting as a living pincushion. I’ve given her five so far, mostly little things filling in spaces between the tattoos she already has, more than any of the rest of us in our little quarantine family. The trust in our relationship is different; I know where we stand with one another, and we already have a matching tattoo.I don’t have to worry about a memory of me being lost. “Even if you fuck it up, we can fix it. It doesn’t matter. I want you to be able to practice.”
It’s kind of incredible, the fact that she has enough faith in our relationship to know she won’t regret even the shittiest tattoo. It’s not about my skill level, or any belief she may or may not have about my ability to make something that looks good. In letting me practice on her instead of some substitute (I ordered fake skin on eBay to keep myself from really losing it), she’s telling me she trust me not to fuck up our relationship. She won’t ever regret what I’ve done to her.
Even if I grow apart from all these people and they get their tattoos removed or covered up, even that is a reminder. The empty space where a tattoo once was may not project to the world what you like or what you believe, but it’s still a marker of something that existed. You’ll always know what was there, even if you layer a hundred other things over the top.
Maybe we shouldn’t mark ourselves with reminders of people and places that might make us sad in the future, that might send a pang of regret instead of nostalgia, but then what’s the point? My blood is pumping, my hands move, my skin can still take ink. I trust the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with and they trust me. The reminders of these things are about as close as I can get to an explanation for my reckless behavior. Maybe I’ll regret it, maybe I’ll have them all removed and covered by this time next year, but for now, it’s keeping me afloat.
Lohi Wean is an illustrator and designer living in Brooklyn with three rats (two are the human kind). They recently finished their BFA in graphic design at Pratt Institute and are currently putting every ounce of their energy into the Black Lives Matter movement. You can reach them through their website at www.kealohiwean.com