by Rhian Sasseen on June 29, 2012
Permanence, impermanence. Every other person in the café where I am sitting has a visible tattoo.
This is not unusual. The first spate, I noticed, occurred when I was eighteen, when seemingly every other friend or acquaintance of mine decided, upon legality, to mark their flesh forever. Tattoos seemed to divide the adults from the children; those that were oldest, with the earliest birthdays, were made obvious by the designs that dotted their inner wrists. Photo albums documenting the process filled my Facebook feed; “It wasn’t that bad,” my fellow children boasted. “It didn’t hurt that much.”
Come college, their ranks increased. During my first year I thought briefly about one of my own, a semi-colon on the back of my arm, stark and black. I didn’t get it. Something about this idea of permanence, of paying someone to leave their literal imprint on my body, disturbed me, and I abandoned the idea and considered a nose piercing instead. (This also didn’t happen.)
Tattoos are now ubiquitous amongst my age group, and this makes sense for two reasons: first, they bring to mind a certain kind of rebellion, a living outside of the lines reflective of an inner wilderness that perhaps belonged to the sailors that once were their rare progenitor but now exists no more. Or, put this way: if one of the first members of my peer group that I knew to get a tattoo was a devout Christian who got something along the lines of “peace” in loopy cursive on her arm, rock ‘n’ roll is dead.
Fine by me. There is a second reason that bothers me more, because it is tied into a larger worry of mine concerning my generation’s ties to corporate identity. The tattoo, in a sense, turns our bodies into decorative objects, easily reducible, consumed, and understood. Categories, essentially: buzzwords. It is again a bought rebellion; what is the base price of your average tattoo, after all? – Sixty, seventy dollars, roughly? Labor, yes, and artistry go into the final product – but what is the product, now? The body itself, as easily purchased as the factory-produced cup or shoe.
Why must the particulars of identity always be made visible? The minute we make all our interests and interactions reliant on the emptiness of fashion we have fooled ourselves. The chest piece does not indicate any sort of inner deepness, the sleeves do not represent any kind of moral or political well-being. The tattoo is, perhaps, the ultimate in meaningless symbols, and unconsciously we all know this: witness the insistence in which everyone attempts to ascribe meaning and reason to the most obviously surface level of images.
Permanence, for me, also cancels out the quality of mutability that I am after in my production of art. I think of the act of writing as a question, the writer’s presence as the answer; in the exchange of identity ideally shared between the writer and reader, the writer’s presence – the writer’s body – must be canceled out in favor of a different “I” – the “I” of the novel, the poem, the story. Too much of any kind of permanence, literal or metaphoric, might ruin the writing’s “I.” Words are my mark upon the world – not my body, or any tattoo thereof.
Myself, I prefer to remain blank.
Title taken from the Anne Sexton poem “For My Lover, Returning To His Wife.”